Reflections on the US Election from Afar

“California is – and must always be – a refuge of justice and opportunity for people of all walks, talks, ages and aspirations – regardless of how you look, where you live, what language you speak, or who you love.”
Joint Statement from California Legislative Leaders on Result of Presidential Election, November 9, 2016

In 2008, Barack Obama urged his supporters to mobilize for change. He cautioned that he was only one person, and that—thankfully—the US political system was designed so that no single person could define or redefine national policy. I think we Americans have not yet heeded that message. In very important ways, we actually have been changing the US for the better: now you can marry the person you love. Police murders of unarmed black men actually make the news, and most Americans seem to think police brutality is wrong. Women’s rights and transgender rights are at least being discussed again. America is a better country for all this progress.

Even so, reforms to financial regulation and campaign financing have been blocked by the Republican-controlled Congress since 2009. And the conservative-led Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010 has given corporations even more power to protect themselves against regulations and enforcements that would stabilize our financial system. The Affordable Care Act was a half-measure compromise; basic healthcare is still not a right for all Americans. And the restoration of economic opportunity for most Americans will require some profound policy changes. So a lot of progress still needs to be made.

A lot can be done at the local and state level. The recent movement to increase minimum wages in coastal cities is one example. Cities may also need to become part-owners of their own housing stock, as in Britain and the Netherlands, to make housing affordable for workers committed to remaining in their communities. Perhaps state-level capital-gains taxes can be used to fund equal-level education in every school district. A statewide healthcare system could reduce both risk and paperwork for small businesses and their employees. Many working-class people in the US still believe that conservative policies will actually help them. Rather than dispute that paradoxical faith, it will be better to show how effective these socialist policies can be.

I understand a lot of the anger and dismay at the outcome of the election. But as Obama advised, I hope that we can turn that emotion into mobilization for the policy changes we want. Will Trump be our president? Well, yes. But we give any president far too much power if we assume that they will define all of government and all the policies that shape our lives. We should not have done that with Obama; we left him with too little momentum to implement serious healthcare and financial reform.

To resist the phobic mindset of Trump supporters, we need to develop persuasive stories and narratives that make radical reform appealing. Phobia means both hatred and fear. It is an accurate characterization of Trump politics. And the opposite of phobia is love and compassion. That is a huge advantage for creating a compelling way of describing our policy values! Here is one way we might tell our story: ‘In a democracy, we are the government. And we use the government to care for each other, especially in times of sickness and unexpected disaster. We tax ourselves to invest in the education of our children, the protection of our rights, and sustainable wealth earned through work.’

This year I think Republicans were looking forward to being the ‘party-of-opposition’ for another four years. ‘Just saying no’ to legislation is much easier than actually developing new policies. This has been an appealing position for Republicans ever since Reagan declared that ‘government is the problem’ in his 1981 inaugural address. Clinton would have had a miserable four years in office. All of her experience would have made little difference in domestic policy since the Republican Congress was going to continue its policy of refusing to act.

Now Republicans have to lead. They face the unpleasant prospect of being held responsible for their actions. With control of the presidency and both houses in Congress, whatever happens from 2017 to 2021 will be attributed to the Republican party and the conservative movement as a whole. The wealthy white conservatives in Washington are exceedingly unlikely to implement policies that actually help the working-class whites who elected them. Tax cuts only help if you make enough money to pay tax; it does not help unemployed people at all. Without major job growth, tax cuts will only mean even fewer services in poor communities. We need a compelling narrative for socially positive reforms to be well-established as the conservative myth unravels.

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