The End of the US Empire Can Be a New Beginning for Our Democracy

The End of the US Empire Can Be a New Beginning for Our Democracy

The End of the US Empire Can Be a New Beginning for Our Democracy

Only by understanding how Trump fits within our recent history will the left be able to figure out where we go from here.


Donald Trump may be unhinged, erratic, demagogic, and unpredictable, but we cannot afford the luxury of pretending that his election was some kind of historical aberration. It was not. We need only look back at our history to see how we got here. Only then will we be able to move our country in a better direction.

This country was birthed in colonialism, genocide, and slavery, as well as revolution and democracy. To understand the current political moment, though, we need not go that far back. We might start instead on November 22, 1963, three months after the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, when the young president of the United States was shot dead in Dallas, Texas.

A Texas Democrat, Vice President Lyndon Johnson, moved into the White House and pushed through the War on Poverty, and, under pressure from the black freedom struggle, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. These brought monumental changes to the lives of African-Americans in the South and the North, but the struggle for “jobs and freedom” was far from over. Then Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968. The country erupted in racial anger.

Johnson’s short reign also brought us the escalation of the Vietnam War, as the United States took on the increasingly bloody responsibility for maintaining the old European empires in Southeast Asia, Africa, South and Central America, and the Middle East—all in the name of the Cold War. The Vietnam War brought down Johnson and Nixon after him, but apparently the only lesson we learned as a country was to abolish the draft, and thus to ensure that college-educated, middle-class Americans did not have to risk their lives in our wars and therefore would not protest as we continued in our role as a military superpower.

Fast-forward to 1980. White Southern Democrats, economic populists in the New Deal era, found they could no longer abide a Democratic Party that dared to challenge their system of racial apartheid. First they joined George Wallace in the Dixiecrat-style American Independent Party; in 1980 they jumped to Ronald Reagan’s Republican Party, which openly courted them with not-so-subtle dog-whistling.

Reagan didn’t only bring in the white Southern Democrats but also the Northern “Reagan Democrats.” The term referred to a white working-class constituency motivated by opposition to desegregation of schools in Northern cities through forced “busing” and by opposition to feminism and abortion after the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade. That alliance redrew the electoral map in the United States.

The new reality that Reagan brought with him was a dramatic one. The marginal tax rate for the richest Americans went from 70 percent down to 28 percent. The groundwork was laid for the World Trade Organization, whose protections Reagan rightly called a “Corporate Bill of Rights,” insulating global capital from financial, environmental, labor, and public-health regulations. Unions were challenged and battered by rulings of Reagan-stocked courts and the National Labor Relations Board. Wages stagnated. Federal funding, and then state funding, was withdrawn from higher education, leading to the current student-debt crisis. Environmental regulations of the Nixon era—clean air, clean water, even the Environmental Protection Agency itself—were ignored and undermined. Reagan gleefully ripped Jimmy Carter’s solar panels off the White House roof.

The Clinton era did little to change this trajectory. Adopting the “third way” philosophy of the Democratic Leadership Council—which came to be called neoliberalism— Bill Clinton and the Democrats ratified the WTO and its counterpart, the North American Free Trade Agreement, facilitating the movement of capital and hundreds of thousands of well-paid unionized manufacturing jobs out of the United States. Then they began unraveling New Deal regulations on the financial industry. Clinton also passed “welfare reform,” forcing single mothers off welfare and into a precarious and low-wage workforce, and, notoriously, signed into law a crime bill that resulted in the incarceration of hundreds of thousands of young and disproportionately black men for nonviolent offenses.

The Bush administration amped up the unraveling. The impact of these changes took a few decades to fully manifest. As wages fell, more women entered the workforce, bringing supplementary income to many formerly single-wage-earner families. Credit was cheap, with credit cards helping to fill many an income gap. Home values were rising, allowing families to access credit through second and third mortgages. And there were plenty of banks willing to provide endless amounts of student loans guaranteed by the federal government.

Meanwhile, working-class men, and some women as well, were joining the military when no other options presented themselves. It was a paycheck after all, even if it meant heading to one of our seemingly endless wars in Iraq or Afghanistan—now the longest war in US history—from which many of those same young soldiers returned wounded, crippled, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, surviving on pain pills. The GI Bill that had transformed the WWII generation of soldiers was replaced by empty promises from for-profit diploma mills.

And then in 2008 it all collapsed. The global economic shell games were exposed; finance capital shut down, at least temporarily, and working-class America—in fact, the working class around the world—was thrown under the bus, costing people jobs, homes, and whatever shreds of financial security they once had.

Despite the election of Barack Obama, an eloquent statesman for a new era, he did not substantially alter the fundamentals of the economic system that had brought us ever-widening income inequality. The combination of economic anxiety, the insatiable greed of the Koch brothers and their ilk, and a barely sublimated racism against a black man serving our country as president set the stage for Trump and Trumpism. We had heard his message in earlier presidential contests, with Ross Perot excoriating the “giant sucking sound” of NAFTA and Pat Buchanan calling out the “peasants with pitchforks” against not just NAFTA but the UN and immigrants and gays and feminists. But it took the financial collapse of 2008 and the dysfunction of the Tea Party–run Congress to allow a con man like Donald Trump to take power.

There was Bernie Sanders as well, taking up the banner of Occupy Wall Street, calling out the 1 percent on behalf of the 99 percent. We could argue endlessly about whether Sanders would have beaten Trump in a head-to-head contest, but we will never know for sure. He probably could have won over many of those swing voters in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania who tipped the Electoral College to Trump. But the Democratic National Committee was not going to let that happen because it did not believe it had to happen. The party establishment believed, as it has for decades, that it could win through identification with earlier civil-rights struggles, with liberal social policies, and with neoliberal economics. But it didn’t have convincing answers for working-class voters of any age or color.

Nor, of course, did Donald Trump, but he appropriated much of Sanders’s rhetoric about Wall Street, bankers and billionaires, and the globalized economy, adding his own Trumpian vitriol against immigrants, Muslims, gangs, drug dealers, and women. By the day of his inaugural rant, however, he had permanently and seamlessly substituted “Washington” for “Wall Street” and “politicians” for “bankers.” Since then, he has talked mostly about himself and his ratings.

As this history shows, just getting rid of Trump will not fix everything that has gone wrong in the United States. Focusing on his obvious personality disorders is entertaining, but it’s not a winning strategy. This is a historical moment of realignments and transformations, here and around the world. Donald Trump is merely a symptom. In order to influence the direction of this realignment, we need to put forward an alternative view of the future. We have to have a credible plan for building a 21st-century economy and civil society, not returning us to a mythological version of the 1950s.

The 21st century economy will continue to include manufacturing and we should not abandon our fight for fair trade rules just because Trump, too, now echoes those demands. We know he does not really understand what it means to “bring back good jobs.” Manufacturing jobs are “good jobs” not because of the work itself but the pay, respect, and benefits that came with unionization. Service jobs, tech jobs, retail jobs, health-care and childcare jobs could also be “good jobs” if workers were able to bargain for decent wages and working conditions.

Unions need to step up and reform themselves for the new era. Too many of them are, like Trump, clinging to fading memories of past glory. They have stopped organizing and focus instead on holding on to perks and benefits for current workers and retirees. The left does itself no good by ignoring contradictions and failings in much of the current union leadership.

We need to put forward our own plan for a massive twenty-first century infrastructure and jobs program, for climate-friendly green infrastructure jobs that pay family wages, and we need to insist that it be funded not by tax giveaways but by taxes on Wall Street transactions and on fossil fuels. And that infrastructure needs to include social infrastructure as well as bridges, water systems, high-speed rail, solar farms, broadband, and electrical grids. It also must make provision for social infrastructure like public schools and colleges, quality child care, and universal health care.

We have to work with both millennials and older workers to hold the Sanders coalition together, while broadening it where his was weak, by addressing the intersectionality of race, class, gender, and immigrant status. Historically, left-populist movements in the United States have failed to address racism and have been fatally weakened by that failure. We have to learn from that history.

Any millennial will tell you that climate change is today’s most urgent global issue. Droughts, floods, access to potable water, food security—those are the pressing issues of the twenty-first century. From Flint to New Orleans, it is clear that poor people of color will be the most impacted, or at least the first impacted, by our failure to address infrastructure and climate issues. These challenges require the kind of investment that could truly “make America great again.”

We also need new global institutions in order to address climate change, to regulate an increasingly global economy and global financial institutions, to control global capital, to de-escalate wars and help build a global civil society. The United Nations and the WTO were both designed by the United States in moments of triumphalism (the end of World War II and of the Cold War); both are faltering. We need new institutions.

The early 21st century is witnessing the end of the United States’ role as the world’s sole superpower. Barack Obama understood that and tried fitfully to fashion the United States as a respected leader among equals in a family of nations. Donald Trump may understand it as well, and is postulating a return to mercantilism, nationalism, and militarism as his preferred response.

Peoples’ movements around the world need to coalesce around their own vision of a new global order, one committed to tackling climate change, regulating multinational corporations, and controlling financial institutions at the global level. But we must also adopt the important principle of “subsidiarity,” explicitly favoring the resolution of other issues on the most local level practicable.

This may be the end of the US empire, but hopefully it is not the end of our nearly 250-year experiment in democracy. Our most difficult challenge is reclaiming or reinventing our democratic institutions. First and foremost, we have to dramatically reduce the power of private money in politics. We have to curb the Super PACs, limit the influence of billionaires and corporations, and make it possible for non-wealthy people to win elections. For this we may be able to make common cause with unlikely allies on the right, but we have to act quickly. We will not survive another decade of this contagion.

Next we have to engage in the dirty business of electoral politics, something that so many on the left have eschewed for far too long, leaving us with the broken political parties we have today. We need not only to protest and harass, but to actually run for office, support those running, and then support our candidates when they are in office.

We are once again at a moment of consequential political realignment. Both major parties are deeply divided. We need to engage in shaping the newly emerging parties. The Working Families Party has been working in more and more states to pull the Democrats toward a more progressive economic populism, an anti-racist, social -democratic agenda. The Democrats may or may not move left; they, like the Republicans, may split. Whatever happens with the Democratic Party, we need to build a national effort, avoid the perennial turf wars on the left, recognize the urgency of the moment, and take responsibility for the future of our democracy and our country.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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