“Why aren’t I 50 points ahead?” Hillary Clinton asked a group of labor organizers in late September, when she and Trump were neck and neck in national polls.
It seemed like a fair question. Throughout his entire campaign, Donald Trump utterly humiliated and disqualiﬁed himself in new ways almost every day. Tapes of him bragging about sexual assault dominated the ﬁnal weeks of the campaign. How, then, could Clinton fail?
The answer is that the majority of people in this country are living in a diﬀerent America than Clinton, an America in decline. For 40 years their wages have been stagnant even as productivity grows. For some groups, even life expectancy is now declining. Many who are living through this have been yearning for some sort of political revolution for years. Failing that, they would take any chance to burn down the establishment that’s been lucratively managing the gradual unwinding of their way of life and means of making a living. Clinton oﬀered more managed decline, going out of her way to warn voters against dreaming of big solutions. A vote for Trump symbolized burning it all down.
Had he been the Democratic nominee, Bernie Sanders would have oﬀered political revolution, and I believe he would have defeated Trump.
It is hard for some to understand the logic of taking a hit to one’s own self-interest to punish an abstract political elite for perceived wrongs. Every time this comes up, I think of a former union steelworker I met while organizing nursing homes in Allentown, Pa.
He made only minimum wage in the nursing home, compared to the upper-middle-class income he’d made as a steelworker. But in the ’80s, a private equity ﬁrm had bought the steel plant. The owners milked it for cash for years without reinvesting in it, then began to demand huge pay cuts every time the contract was up for negotiation, threatening that if the union didn’t concede, they’d close the plant. The union members voted each time to accept the cuts because the alternative was minimum wage in the service sector.
It was humiliating, he said, to cast those ratiﬁcation votes consenting to his own devaluing.
One year, after the union had voted to accept a 30 percent pay cut, the owners came back and demanded another dollar per hour off. The workers ﬁnally said no. And the owners had their excuse to sell off the plant for parts, freed of the few remaining restrictions against surprise plant closures.
“How did you vote?” I asked.
“I voted no,” he said.
But even with the extra dollar cut, he still would have made far above minimum wage. So I asked, “Why did you do it?”
“Because when you get up in the morning, you have to be able to look yourself in the mirror,” he replied.
It was in that spirit that hundreds of thousands of voters — many of whom have lived through some version of the scenario I just described — chose Trump in 2016. It wasn’t about a calculation of self-interest; it was about refusing to give consent to their own undoing. A vote for Trump could mean a number of things, many of them reprehensible, but for signiﬁcant chunks of voters in key states, it symbolized a radical protest against the establishment.
People like the Allentown steel-worker weren’t anywhere on Clinton’s policy radar. Her infrastructure plan was a drop in the bucket compared even to Sanders’ relatively modest proposal. One of her frequent economic talking points was “broad-band internet for every household,” which might have stirred enthusiasm in 1996. Her culpability prevented her from condemning the status quo, and her ideology prevented her from proposing a big ﬁx. Unfortunately, much of the progressive movement also seems to be only vaguely aware of the concerns of, let alone the speciﬁc thoughts of, Americans who are suﬀering in the decline. And because of that, if Trump ﬁgures out how to lead his movement while governing — as Obama inexplicably decided not to do — then we’re in deep, deep trouble because we will be utterly defenseless against it.
One beautiful thing about this country is that we have a democracy that allows radical change, when necessary, to come peacefully — if we would ever use it for that purpose. Trump used it — less for radical change than for a primal xenophobic scream, one that only 1 in 4 eligible voters supported.
That raises the question: Why, over this 40-year decline, haven’t the leaders and movements that represent a much more American vision of a multi-racial, multi-ethnic, just society used our democracy to bring about the radical economic shake-up this country needs? Because, over the past half century, too much of the Left has somehow become part of the decline-management establishment. Our nonproﬁts, foundations, advocacy organizations and labor unions have, in general, bought into the same religion of low expectations and narrow horizons as the Democratic Party establishment they are supposed to challenge. For too long, progressive organizations have mainly asked people only to do very small things: Sign a petition (that is never even delivered), donate a dollar (that is wasted on staﬀ bloat) or consent to union representation (without a movement to ﬁght for real change on the job). And in an election where most Americans were yearning for radical change, just waiting to be asked to do something really big, Clinton mocked Sanders’ call for political revolution.
The future belongs to a movement that demands something huge. Donald Trump promised huge and terrifying programs such as forcibly deporting more than 10 million of our neighbors. But he won partly because of huge and progressive promises like radical trade reform and rebuilding America’s “means of making a living.” How will we organize in response? By merely sending out more petitions and press releases? By asking people to demonstrate their anger at the inauguration for the beneﬁt of CNN and Fox News audiences?
Let’s take a deep breath and start to organize the majority of the American people around a radical vision for a society and economy that works for everyone. Pair that with an uncompromising vision for a diverse, open and tolerant society, and you’ve got a second American revolution that can’t and won’t be stopped.