What We Do Now

William Bain finds this collection of essays shows many US progressives ignoring the roots of their defeat

Watching Donald Trump take the oath of office as the 45th president of the United States and listening to his dystopian vision of America in his inaugural speech proved the sting of defeat has not lessened for progressives since the November elections. We had persuaded ourselves that the Brexit wave would not cross the Atlantic, and that a third successive Democrat win was on the cards. In the swing states, middle- and white working-class voters thought differently.

 We should always have feared the worst: among key demographic voter groups, the mood against Washington was always a strong indicator that this was a change election. Yet Hillary Clinton outperformed congressional Democrats in the popular vote, winning by nearly three million. At state and national level, Democrats hold fewer elected offices than at any time in three decades. It is clear both a renewal of ideas, and of talent, will be needed.

 A group of 27 prominent progressives have released a collection of speeches and essays on the future of liberal politics and values. Big name contributors include Robert Reich, Paul Krugman, George Lakoff and Gloria Steinem, alongside senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Sanders’ piece revives familiar riffs from his Democratic primary campaign – break up the banks, build a financial system more accountable to ordinary people. Warren says the challenge for Democrats in the Trump era is to have no compromise with bigotry, yet work to improve the economic security of the middle-class. Other essays give rousing calls to fight back on civil liberties, and to combat inequality on grounds of race, religion, gender and sexuality. The common thread running through the collection is the need to re-energise the base with activism and idealism. Yet strikingly absent is any account of why traditional Democrat voters in rural Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin had gone for Trump in November – much less offering any solutions. The strongest case is that made by historian Allan Lichtman who calls for a new deal for the working and middle classes, and is clear there is no future for Democrats in leftwing populism or protectionism.

Trump’s narrative until 2020 is already pretty clear – he is a strong leader among liberal weaklings. He did what he said he would do, and any promises that could not be kept were the fault of the mainstream media or illegal immigrants. For a demagogue of his type, the more anger is directed his way the better he likes it. Democrats will have to get organised, get thinking, get a new narrative, talk to and understand ex-Democrat Trump voters, encourage new candidates and reach out to the lost midwest. The centre-left in Britain will be rooting for Democrats – the struggle they now face against a rejuvenated Republican party is similar to that we face against Theresa May’s more populist Conservatives. We have much to do, and much to learn from each other, in order to be winning and governing forces again.

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William Bain was member of parliament for Glasgow North East. He tweets at @William_Bain

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What we do now: Standing up for your values in Trump’s America edited by Dennis Johnson and Valerie Merians

Melville House books | 211pp | £12.99

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