Progressives around the world celebrate the passing of the Trump presidency. Donald Trump introduced a deep poison into the public discourse by legitimating racial hatred and fear. He cynically weaponised the US’s deep historical wounds for political gain, gamely assisted by a Republican Party devoid of any scruple save clinging to power at all costs.
But the narrowness of Joe Biden’s victory has left progressives in no doubt as to the scale of their task. What direction will progressive politics take in America?
The narrowness of the victory means that we need to diagnose the progressives’ malaise. First, the Democratic Party elite has tragically abandoned the predominantly white working class and indeed, treat the latter with contempt. Thus a CNN election anchor derisively refers to working people as “Johnny Lunch Bucket”. This election was won in metropolitan suburbs where white-collar workers, many being racial minorities, turned their back on the racist, misogynist incumbent. These suburbanites, service sector workers with middle-class aspirations, form the bulk of the Democrats base along with working people of colour and young people mobilised by activism.
But unlike the latter, these suburbanites are hardly a stable force and shift between both parties, often on cultural issues. They are no replacement for the solidly Democratic and now-lost union base.
The liberal establishment — in the media, the universities, and the business world dominated by finance — did not conceal its contempt for the white working class whom they see as parochial, locked in an anti-modern racism. Yet many white working people in what Michael Moore called the Brexit States, voted twice for Barack Obama before throwing their anti-establishment anger behind Trump before switching back to Biden. The liberal elite’s stereotyping of the white working class as irretrievably racist (Hillary Clinton’s “a basket of deplorables”) is actually a dodge. It enables them to avoid their own failings in addressing America’s altered economy and shifting class structure. White working-class racism is, of course, a reality, but it is also in large measure a reaction to elite disdain.
And there is a geography to that disdain. Elites, white-collar workers, and minorities reside for the most part in cities within red (Republican) states or along the blue (Democrat) coasts. The expansion of urban areas in the tech/research urban economies of Houston and Dallas (TX), Atlanta (GA), Phoenix (AZ), and Durham (NC) — southern states — outside the coasts, is, along with substantial minority turnout, in large measure responsible for putting Biden in the White House as independents flipped. Yet much of America remains rural, poor, and white, and these voters are given special privilege by the American political system.
With the Electoral College (EC) is composed of representatives from a particular state, and each state is given two senators irrespective of its population, the fact that each state’s average rural population is 35 per cent, well above the national average of 25 per cent, means that these rural voters have disproportionate representation. Wyoming (population 5,80,000) sends has as many Senators as California, (population 39.5 million). This substantial skew lies behind the coastal elite’s scorn for the EC — they see it as disenfranchising them.
This is the second element of the progressive malaise: Their focus on centralised solutions to the country’s problems. No doubt the EC could use updating. Yet progressives miss the message of the EC’s design: There is no America, only the United States. The illusion created by the singularity of the office of the president, fuelled by a national media staffed by cosmopolitan elites, is that there is some political entity called “America”. All nations are imagined communities of course, but some are more imagined than others. There might be a cultural and even an economic entity called America, but no directly elected political unit corresponds to this name. The president is not directly elected by a popular national vote. America is not a political constituency; its component states are. The presidential election is not one but 50 different elections because American is irreducibly a federation.
The EC’s design indicates that the basic political unit is not the individual voter but the individual state, each complete with its own flag, constitution, and state supreme court. Each state can raise its own income tax and sets its own rules for registering corporations. Needless to say, there are substantial national components to the American state formation that have grown over time and been subject to heated debate, including a civil war. But the net result is tremendous potential policy space for individual states.
Rather than leverage this federal space, American progressives unswervingly focus on the presidency and the federal government. As such, they can only read the EC as an archaic institution sullied by the historical calculations of ex-slave-owning states. Yet the outrage that meets the fact that Democratic presidential candidates lose even while winning “the popular vote” misses the point.
It labours under the illusion of a unified, American constituency utterly ignoring the fact that the route to federal power lies through the states. This is why the US Senate is almost more like the General Assembly of the United Nations than the upper house of a unified polity. The Senate has to confirm every appointment the president makes, even her own cabinet. Even though it has grown over the years, federal power is meant to be extremely limited, the checks-and-balances system almost geared for gridlock precisely so that real power defaults back to the most salient political unit, the states.
Part of the progressive’s focus on central power is the legacy of the civil rights movement, where the appropriate tactic was to use the power of the federal government to bring recalcitrant states into line with modern values. But over the years this morphed into a moralisation of what ought to be merely tactical so that progressive equals central and regressive equals devolved powers. What was true only for the cause of civil rights became cemented into the progressive imagination more generally. Tactically limited in this way, progressives lost out to conservatives who played both state and federal politics.
The inverse impulse became true for poor and working-class whites in the states, so that anything coming out of the federal government was read as an imperialist imposition by distant elites even if it was something generally beneficial like healthcare. This, of course, is how the grammar of right-wing populism was formed.
What progressives ought to realise is that in a deeply divided nation, there can be no centralised solutions that do not entail one half of the nation imposing its views on the other. By insisting that all roads lead to DC, progressives participate in their own typecasting as elitist, top-down centralisers. By harping on about the archaic nature of the EC, they miss the opportunity to fully leverage America’s substantial federalism. The solution to national division and diversity is to let people arrive at their own solutions at the state level. With purported liberal states striking down pro-worker resolutions, and so much work to do around police reform, progressives ought to perhaps start by making blue states great again.
This article first appeared in the print edition on November 14, 2020 under the title ‘Talking down to America’. The writer is assistant professor, Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Bombay.
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