(For a more in depth conversation on this topic, see "Response to 'Resistance to Trump Will Separate Progressives from Neoliberals,'" by Peter Olney & Rand Wilson, Stansbury Forum, February 5, 2017.)
There is a great deal of talk these days about framing the right message to reach Trump voters, progressives finding a voice by criticizing Trump’s program, effectively communicating with white working class people, and similar formulations. The problem is deeper.
There is a large, alienated white working class part of the electorate with whom “progressives” have no relationships. To rebuild those relationships is the pre-condition to turning these voters away from Trump’s politics. As Carey McWilliams, Jr once said, “politics is with whom and for what, and in precisely that order.”
A friend of mine recently wrote that we need to “carry a message of popular and economic democracy to the heartland and explicitly challenge…neo-liberal orthodoxy”. Is that really the language that speaks to people with whom we need to be in a conversation? Doesn’t “carrying a message to them” make them consumers, continuing their status as objects of politics (only in this case, objects of the good guys) rather than participants in, and co-creators of, it?
There’s now a frenzy of “exposing Trump hypocrisy.” He relishes a lot of it: red meat for his constituency. The problem we are now in is deeper than Trump, though he is its most alarming feature. The problem includes his successful appeal to resentment by people who feel ignored because they have been ignored; who are told one thing by candidates before elections only to experience something else after they get elected; who are the object of polling, focus groups, direct mail and door-to-door solicitation—none of which engages them directly to act in their own interests and on their own values by doing anything more than voting, clicking a computer key or occasionally being part of a “demo”.
“[E]xposing and discrediting” Democrat “neoliberals,” as my friend wrote, is necessary but not sufficient. “Going forward” requires far more than “labor and the left [adopting] a convincing program to truly advance working class interests”. It begins with listening and developing relationships, an orientation that has been missing now for some time. Progressive isolation from constituencies crucial to its success has deep roots. The seeds that led to that isolation were planted in the 1960s. It will take a while to dig them up.
Mike Miller has had almost 60 years experience as a community organizer. Before founding the ORGANIZE! Training Center in San Francisco in 1972, he was a founding member of SLATE and an SNCC field secretary. In 1967, he directed one of Saul Alinksy's community organizing projects.
(The quote at the top of the
page is by Desmond Tutu.)