18 December 2016
The future of the left is local
The Democrats’ loss on the eighth of November this year can, and still should, be made into a teachable moment for the American left and left-of-centre. The Democrats thought that they could win an election, under our current electoral rules, on the strength of a coalition of professionals, plutocrats and the traditionally-‘underrepresented’ minorities (blacks and Hispanics). But they lost, in a major way, among their traditional bases in rural areas and among white working-class voters; and this cannot be attributed solely to factors like racism (even though, yes, racism still is a real thing and we need to take real steps to counter it). Nor, it must be noted repeatedly and insistently, did the Russians have anything to do with why the Democrats lost, except indirectly.
No – there are three big reasons that the Democrats lost big in these distressed (but not minority) areas. The first one is the economy, and this is where the Democrats’ rears got handed solidly to them, with Clinton making less than no effort to appeal to working people in ‘old economy jobs’, cosying up to the big banks, and backing the same big corporate-friendly trade policies that hurt American workers throughout the entire election. The second one is foreign policy, where most white voters (and most voters in general) wanted a drawdown from wars that never seem to end and never seem to be winnable. And they particularly took a more doveish view on Syria than Clinton did.
But the third reason that the ‘left’ lost so heavily in these areas, is because they just didn’t bother with them. ‘Flyover country’ got written off. The people who live here got called ‘deplorables’. Those of us who supported Bernie in the primaries (again, most of us coming geographically from the rural North and Rust Belt areas) were accused by Clinton proxies – wrongly – of being ‘privileged’ and ‘entitled’. In short: locality (and in particular locality based in those parts of America which have been traditionally anchored in the ‘old economy’) no longer mattered to a Democratic Party, which now seems to value its jet-setting cocktail-party set, and its control over the commanding heights, over any other considerations.
Rediscovering and reappropriating the politics of the local, the politics of community, the politics of subsidiarity and sobornost’, therefore, has to be a top priority for those of us on the left. Sanders pointed imperfectly, and incompletely, to this direction. Two thinkers who are even now pointing in a similar direction are the high-elder of political communitarianism Amitai Etzioni, and the idiosyncratic American socialist Gar Alperovitz.
Gar Alperovitz has written directly to this effect in The Nation, where various visions of a localist left turn were floated. Alperovitz’s vision is particularly interesting and attractive, in that the development of worker-ownership and local experimentation with providing official support to urban credit and producer cooperatives, can (if it succeeds!) provide an institutional impetus for rural Midwesterners in particular to rediscover for themselves a populist legacy which capitalised on similar ideas.
Amitai Etzioni puts forward a cultural rather than an economic argument for solidarity, and even on economic issues he tends toward a kind of New Deal and postwar-settlement arrangement. But he still points in a similar direction to Alperovitz, arguing that progressives need to focus on strengthening local institutions like schools and post offices, even if they may be less efficient on a macro level than regional ones. He argues for many of the same things the new urbanists want, too – discouragement of sprawl, and better design of public spaces (parks, sports fields, walks and bike paths) to make them more liveable for people. But most of all he argues that progressives need to stop disdaining people who don’t share their globalist priorities. ‘[N]obody can bond with seven billion people,’ Etzioni writes, ‘and almost everyone feels more responsibility toward those closest to them. People have profound needs for lasting social relations, meaning, and shared moral beliefs.’
We need to focus not so much on technocratic tweaking from the commanding heights, but on strengthening local institutions at the grassroots where they already exist (including labour unions, environmental protection groups, clubs, schools, post offices, and – yes – churches, particularly those of the traditional Apostolic faith), and building them where they do not. We need to rekindle old strategies for political organising at the local level. And, yes, we need to be able to articulate economic policies that directly benefit the people who voted for Trump, and as we must on foreign policies that don’t send their sons off to die needlessly. And we may need to organise outside of the established parties to do so. But it is certain: the future of the left is local, if it is to have a future at all.