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Thursday, December 29, 2016

A democrat abroad

A few weeks after the U.S. election, I was with some American voters in a bar in London. There we were, the despised global elite, trying to figure out why our world was in pieces. There was an African-American man who has lived here for seventeen years (married to another man), a young straight couple, and a Mexican-born woman who became a U.S. citizen twenty years ago.

At one point, I wondered aloud the thing I still haven't gotten an answer to: how Donald won white women. A majority of women who look, but clearly do not think, like me voted for a sexual braggart, a misogynist pig--never mind all the piddly details like racism and being completely incompetent. The African-American man speculated that this had to do with their husbands.

"If their husbands have been talking for eight years about how much they hate President Obama," he said, "and how he's the worst thing that ever happened to the country, maybe these women just couldn't stand it. Maybe they voted against Hillary Clinton because they just couldn't stand hearing their husbands bitch about her for the next four years."

I told him this was one of the most disempowering things about women that I have ever heard. I also wondered if he was right. He knows more about husbands than I do.

The Mexican-American woman talked about one of her best friends, a white woman back in the U.S. She couldn't get past how her friend was voting for Don, supposedly because of business reasons. How this woman was so tone-deaf to the anti-Mexican and anti-immigrant things he said and promised to do. "But I'm your friend," the Mexican-American woman said. "You know me."

The young white woman at our table volunteered that she, personally, did not know and had not talked to a single person who had voted or even leaned Don. We agreed that this was part of the problem: that it's possible to live in the United States, and certainly outside, and not know anyone who doesn't think as little of him as we do. That's why so many Democrats were blindsided by his victory. That, and the fact that millions more people did vote for Hillary Clinton, just not in the right cities and states.

But they should not have been blindsided.

Nearly a year ago, Benjamin Studebaker wrote about the Democratic primary in an essay called "Why Bernie vs Hillary Matters More Than People Think." In it, he spelled out the ideology of neoliberalism that has prevailed since the Carter presidency, in contrast to the broadening of economic equality practiced by both Republican and Democratic administrations from the 1930s to the 1970s. He explained that Bernie Sanders, the wild-eyed socialist, actually represented this older tradition, and spoke to the concerns of working people who felt left out by the economic inequality of globalization.

His conclusion was that "if this is the year when the voting public decides that it’s done with neoliberalism, the party that nominates a neoliberal candidate will likely lose. If democrats don’t nominate and support the left egalitarian political movement, if they instead continue to nominate neoliberals who continue to allow incomes to stagnate, they are ensuring that sooner or later (and probably sooner) disaffected poor and working Americans will choose right nationalism as the next dominant economic ideology for potentially decades to come."

And that is exactly what happened. While Hillary Rodham Clinton would have been different in one historic sense--the U.S.A. has never elected and may never elect a female president--we should all be able to agree that Donald is really different. No political experience, no consistent political ideology or party loyalty, and no respect whatever for the norms and bounds of political discourse. Indeed, these were his selling points. The more out of bounds he behaved, the more outrageous things he said and did that had even Republicans recoiling in horror, the more his passionate supporters embraced him.

It would be neither possible nor helpful to know whether the outcome could have been different with a different Democratic candidate. I was told during the primary to go and read history (very condescendingly) and told why a socialist, never mind a secular Jew, could never win in America, and that may very well be true. The African-American voter at my table reminded us that black voters were slow to get on board with Barack Obama at first, and he doubts they'd ever have gone for Bernie Sanders. His own relatives, like many African-Americans, were firmly in Hillary's camp in 2008. They didn't believe an African-American could win the presidency. Many white Americans seem shocked at the intensity of the racist backlash to Obama, but I doubt many black Americans are.

What is helpful is that there is an economic analysis. While many factors conspired in Don's favor to win him the electoral vote, where he won (i.e., where Clinton lost) was by extremely narrow margins in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. You'll remember the pollsters being shocked by Sanders's win in the Michigan primary, but we who watched him debate Clinton there weren't shocked. In fact T. turned to me that night and said, "He's won [in Michigan]." While Clinton said measured, incremental things about fracking and other issues, Sanders simply ruled it out. This is not to her discredit; it's just to say that Sanders knew what was worrying the voters, in those states in particular, for whom economic inequality is a long-term problem.

Dave Eggers quoted Rob Mickey, a political scientist in Michigan: "She said, ‘I’m not crazy’ and ‘I’m not a sexist racist pig’, but for working class whites that’s not enough." This is what is really hard for many people like me to understand: Shouldn't being a crazy, racist, sexist pig be enough to disqualify someone from the presidency?  Before the election and especially since, many of us who dreaded this outcome, or were even shocked by it, have been wondering what is wrong with these voters and how they could let us down. I know of an African-American woman who looks at this election and all she sees is racial resentment and how the Republican exploited it. I know white women who see only that a qualified woman lost to an unqualified man. And while both pictures are incomplete, neither is wrong.

But if I may cite Bill Clinton for a moment: It's the economy, stupid. I don't want to in any way minimize the alarming sexism, racism, and anti-Semitism. In her brilliant challenge to journalists, Christiane Amanpour said, "Since when did anti-Semitism stop being a litmus test in this country?"  But for voters who are struggling, it is always the economy. This seems like a strong and reductive statement so let me be clear what I mean.

First of all, I don't believe for a moment that the next administration will do anything but make the economic inequality in the U.S.A. even worse than it already is. If it got worse under every administration, Democratic or Republican, since Carter, why on earth would a House of Representatives led by Paul Ryan do any better? Just as with "Brexit," those voters who most wanted change are likely to do the worst out of it. And if in order to vote for that change they overlooked or accepted all kinds of vile speech and plans, all kinds of violations of democratic convention, then that is indeed deplorable.

But without cutting them any slack for that, I also think we who are "high information" voters, or who aren't feeling the pain of economic inequality as keenly as others, can sometimes be unaware of their real situation. Sure, if you're a white guy blaming Mexicans or African-Americans, or a white woman willing to throw her sisters under the bus because you can't take four more years of your husband being enraged about Obamacare, then that's deplorable. But voters aren't always "low information" because they choose to watch the wrong channel. Researching all your options politically is something a person working two or three minimum-wage jobs, and raising kids on top of that, just doesn't have time for.

I hasten to add that the Don voters in the states maligned as "Rust Belt" were not the poorest. Poor people have poor voter turnout, and it's no wonder, in a country where polls close at 7:00 PM and Election Day is a workday. The interests of the very poorest Americans are almost never mentioned, let alone acted on.

But if you are struggling--if you haven't gotten a real wage increase, as collectively most Americans have not, since the 1960s--then you are going to feel worse off. And it won't help to tell you that I am better off because I could now marry my same-sex partner, when I never could before. It won't help to tell you that global poverty is down by an astonishing amount in the past 25 years, since much of that is due to the explosion of middle-class jobs in China. After all, those are the jobs that were stolen from you. Why do a billion Chinese people continue to tolerate their own lack of democracy and individual freedom? They have the jobs!

Of course, for African-Americans who were fighting just for the right to vote 50 years ago, America really is better (although not as much better as one might have hoped). For LGBT Americans, who were criminalized into invisibility 50 years ago, it is astonishingly better (although now facing serious setbacks, especially with Mike Pence in the vice presidency). But if you are a straight white person worse off than the generation before you, or not better off, I can see how those facts just don't have an impact on your perceptions. Just dismissing you as not being willing to "share the pie" with more different kinds of people is too simplistic. It is not just Don voters who feel that the world economy is not working for them. Most Americans feel that the system is not working for everybody, or working as well as it should.

Even since the election, I am still reading smug publications that say globalization is unstoppable, that nations are helpless in the face of it and there is nothing governments can do to help their people. This is very dangerous. If there is nothing government can do to help people, then people have no stake in their government. Voter turnout will be even lower, and democracy even more vulnerable to takeover by conscienceless populists who play on the absolute worst in people.

It may very well be that technology and not just trade agreements inevitably eliminated a lot of jobs; but it is also clear, and widely acknowledged, that governments have done a poor job of planning for those outcomes and helping communities that were disproportionately devastated by them. Is the answer Sanders and Warren-style left egalitarianism, or is it Donald and the Tea Party? Because it clearly isn't Clinton centrism anymore. That worked for Bill in the 1990s, and why wouldn't it? The economy was booming then.

It's the economy, stupid. If people are worried about their jobs, their incomes, being able to take care of their kids, then to put it bluntly nothing else matters. They are not going to care about Russia, at least not in 2016. They are not going to care about racism or sexism or homophobia. They are certainly not going to care about immigrants who, in the absence of "high information," they think about lumped all together, from someone illegally taking work away from them to an Islamist terrorist.

And who thought "Islamophobia" as a label was going to work in this election? Most Americans probably don't know anyone Muslim. To them, "Muslims" are the ones who crashed into the World Trade Center. If there isn't anything wrong with Islam, then why was it such a slur to call President Obama a Muslim (something easily disproved which, nevertheless, 40% of all Republicans chose to continue believing)? For the record, I don't think this is a fair characterization at all; I know from my own experience that Christians behave in all kinds of ways and it's unfair to generalize about us only from the worst examples. But as a society, we are nowhere near accepting this, any more than we are "post-racial" or okay with transgender people.

Look at what happened in North Carolina. Pat McCrory, the Republican governor who inexplicably tied himself to an anti-trans "bathroom law," lost, even though the state went heavily for Don. Who was splitting their tickets? Did North Carolinians care so much about trans issues that they voted against McCrory despite voting Republican for president? Or was it that all the boycotting, the loss of the NBA All-Star game, etc. cost the state money? We didn't get any gay rights because straight people all of a sudden started honoring same-sex love. Businesses turned towards us because we are customers.

People vote with their pocketbooks. That is human nature and doesn't make them bad. When they feel someone is listening about the "rigged economy," when they feel represented, then they might care about their neighbors of a different sexual orientation or religion or race than themselves. Or they might not. But hardcore bigots are never going to vote for a liberal anyway. We need to concentrate on the large number of people who will vote for progressive interests, if we make the case to them.

The left is pilloried for "political correctness" and "identity politics," but the bread and butter of the left has always been reducing inequality and bettering the lives of working people. Its strength is coalitions. Less well-off white people and people of color are natural allies, which is why it's always been a right-wing strategy to divide them--to devastating effect.

What we are witnessing now is the culmination of Nixon's Southern Strategy, where the G.O.P. is an actual white supremacist party, yet still doing jack squat for those left-behind communities. Where I come from, Reagan is revered; yet when Reagan became president the top tax rate was 70%. Do we really think it needs further reduction from today's levels? How is that supposed to help the people who left the Democratic party in 1980, and have never returned?

Democrats used to be the party of working people, and campaigned against Republicans as the party of the rich. Somehow by this election, Hillary got pilloried for her connections to Goldman Sachs, but it is Donald who is appointing an actual Goldman Sachs banker to be his secretary of the treasury. In other words, for all his bombast and alarming behavior, he promises, in government, to behave like a Reagan-Bush Republican. Indeed, it is the support of most elected Republicans that got him--and them--the government.

Republicans have not changed that much. They are still the party of the rich, and will make every effort to enhance those people's prospects, at the expense of everyone else. When the disaffected people who thought Don was going to help them economically realize that, once again, they've been had, there needs to be a party of working people who can help everyone hurt by economic inequality.

We had better be ready.

Sunday, December 18, 2016


The Discreet Traveler has been traveling a lot and I thought I would write about that, or what's been brewing in my mind for the past month, ever since the latest disaster of populism rocked my international elitist world. I'm sure I'll have more to say about that in the New Year, but it's the fourth and last Sunday of Advent--the church season of preparing for Christ's birth. And I've been struggling to feel "Christmas-y," let alone handle my Christian faith, in the wake of what has been a terrible year for many people.

So I really didn't think I'd be writing about Christmas. I feel as useless as the rest of the world, wringing my hands about Syria, a genocide happening before our eyes. I feel out of my century: outraged about Russia, of all earthly powers. And if you don't connect those two outrages, as Rachel Spangler wrote, "you're doing it wrong." The clich├ęs about the Christmas story as a Middle Eastern family seeking refuge seem so obvious as to be not worth pointing out again this year. To whom would I be preaching? Would anyone get it this Christmas who didn’t care before?

But it was thinking about all this, in fact, that compelled me to write about Christmas. Because it has been brought home to me over the past few weeks how important my “Christian world view,” as my father puts it, is to me. For all the disgust I feel when I hear religion linked to some atrocity—and Lord, 2016 has seen so many—my faith is not so much a part of my life, as the light in which I see life.

The secularization of the Christmas season, acknowledging other faiths, not saying “Merry Christmas” and so forth is seen by many Americans as an attack on, or at least invalidating, Christianity. In my experience this is more true in places where Christmas and Christian imagery are overtly talked about in public. In England, where I currently live, “Christmas” is everywhere—no “Happy Holidays” to be heard—yet dig too deeply into the Christmas story and you are likely to embarrass people, or they to embarrass you. Sure, all the kids are in the nativity pageant, but really believe? That doesn’t matter. I get the impression that Christ is like a lesser Santa Claus, just another pleasant lie to tell children.

I say this not to criticize one country versus another. I say it because, from the Christian to the person most contemptuous of religion, many people are confused about the link between Christianity and those earthly powers we call nations. Put simply, there is none. There is serving Christ and there’s serving our country, and it’s clear which is supposed to be our priority.

This sounds understandably terrifying to many secularists, who fear theocracy. A Christian Taliban, superseding national values with the cross of Christ, would be as bad as an Islamic state imposing sharia.

But it wouldn’t be Christian. As Madeleine L’Engle wrote, “The Church that went along with Hitler was not the church. The Church was in the concentration camps.”[1] Christianity is unique among world religions in claiming that God came down to earth to live a human life. That is the Christmas story that makes people squirm when you press them about it. If our King is God, born in a stable, then that is the leader we are supposed to follow, whether or not it conflicts with our nation’s call. We hope it doesn’t, but when Jesus calls, Christians are supposed to follow him—even if his way leads to the cross.

Whether you are right or left of center politically, that can be uncomfortable. It’s all very well when the leadership in power seems to align with your values, but when you feel it threatens them instead, in what does patriotism lie? The Bible is clear that the kingdoms of the world are not ultimately very important, given that Christ is King. If you are wondering if there are any exceptions, just listen to this from Handel’s Messiah: “I will shake all nations[2]

Boy, is this awkward. We love our countries. Even to many Christians, the idea of serving God instead somehow seems wrong, and of course the whole thing sounds ridiculous if you don’t believe. But our faith is supposed to be folly to the world[3]. Because this is not our world.

Now, if you’ve ever read anything else I’ve written, you know I don’t think we should turn our brains off, or defy science. Faith is “the evidence of things unseen”[4]; it doesn’t replace all other evidence. What I am getting at is the awkwardness of being a Christian in a world that never has been Christian. How should we behave towards one another on earth, when our conviction is that we’re made for eternity?

The Gospel reports Jesus as saying that “the kingdom of God is within you.”[5] We aren’t just in the waiting room for eternal life. “If you take seriously the glorious promise that God created us all to live forever, then what we do here and now matters far more than if this life were all….It may be of ultimate import whether or not we give a thirsty child a cup of cool water, whether or not we feed the hungry stranger who comes to our door.”[6]

So the next time you hear about evangelical Christians, Christian identity, or just Christmas, try imagining what it would look like if Christians put into practice the way Jesus actually taught and behaved on earth. Think about it the next time you sing, or hear, this carol by Charles Wesley about why Christ came:

Born that man no more may die;
Born to raise the sons of earth,
Born to give them second birth.
Hark! the herald angels sing,
‘Glory to the newborn King!’”

[1] L'Engle, The Irrational Season, p. 94. One of my favorite books of all time
[2] Haggai 2
[3] See I Corinthians
[4] Hebrews 11:1
[5] Luke 17:21
[6] L'Engle, op. cit.