Debating Deplorables: How the Left Can (and Cannot) Win Trump Voters
by Ray Valentine on October 28, 2016
Over at Jacobin, Seth Ackerman has a useful response to political scientists’ and journalists’ attempts to account for the popularity of the Trump phenomenon. He challenges the view that Trump and his ilk are riding a wave of racist, nationalist resentment, noting that despite the international electoral success of right-wing populists, longitudinal studies of public opinion actually show that most people in developed countries are becoming more tolerant over time. Ackerman cites the French sociologist Vincent Tiberj, who notes that “the rightward shift isn’t a demand coming from the electorate, it’s a result of the political supply.” According to this account, a well-organized reactionary force has managed to entrench itself within the political process and uses electoral contests to organize and mobilize support, rather than responding to the will of the public.
This is a compelling story, and Ackerman uses it to caution against a tendency among elite liberal opinion-mongers and certain intellectuals on the left to write off all Trump supporters as irredeemable bigots, and in doing so abandon a wide swath of the white electorate to reactionary demagoguery. This, too, is compelling: after all, many white workers will ultimately vote for Trump, and even if they are not a majority of white workers (in a gesture of their political sophistication, most workers of every color abstain), many of them would probably need to be won over to any majoritarian left-wing project.
Understanding and preempting the appeal of the ethno-nationalist right is clearly an urgent task across the world, and Ackerman makes a valuable contribution. But his argument is marred by a certain lack of clarity about the particular mechanism through which people form their outlook on politics, which in turn clouds our understanding of how white workers can be led away from Trumpism.
Deeper than Discourse
Ackerman emphasizes the importance of discursive factors, of speech and of ideas. He quotes Tiberj: “Generally speaking, political discourse re-shapes the logic of voting . . . Our study tends to demonstrate the primordial importance of ideological combat.” Ackerman himself emphasizes “the terms of the political debate,” “the ideological formations of the visible representatives of the Left and Right,” and “the tenor of the political debate.” However, a politics that prioritizes the terms of debate identifies professional talkers as the decisive actor, even though they usually struggle to react to the movement of the masses. Not only is a politics of discourse elitist, it misunderstands where power truly lies.
Ackerman rightly skewers the methodological individualism of most liberal political science that presupposes that voters have well-defined views on the major issues of the day and choose a candidate aligned with those views. His emphasis on language and ideas, however, implies that people take their views from a marketplace of ideas (a phrase Ackerman mercifully avoids). But even the evidence that Ackerman marshals suggests something quite different, that an individual’s ideological formation is structured by their social context, their location within practical political institutions.
Ackerman notes that the “terms of the political debate” are profoundly shaped by “sensational events like riots, scandals, and terrorist attacks,” a critical observation that seemingly goes underappreciated in his overall argument. The politics of the street creates problems that participants in “the debate” must react to. It’s easy to see examples: we got a public debate about police brutality when kids in Ferguson and Baltimore rioted; we got a debate about pipelines when people started locking down on equipment and occupying construction sites. Rather than supposing that political ideas are produced by a “debate,” we need to look for ideas’ material foundations.
Much social science suggests that the people tend to follow the leader when it comes to formulating positions on the major political questions of the day. So while it is true that opinions are formulated in the context of public debates, people do not appear to adopt the position of the side they believe to have “won” the debate. Rather, people have a sense of which “team” they are on, and then adopt and double down on whatever position belongs to that side.
In the interview Ackerman draws from, Tiberj notes that, 60% of the French public supported voting rights for foreigners in local elections in May of 2012 (up from 24% in 1984). Support for immigrants’ voting rights fell to 40% just three months later in the wake of the internal election within the center-right UMP in which the more vocally xenophobic candidate prevailed. That is to say, measures to expand immigrants’ rights became dramatically less popular when one of the major parties defined itself against them. In a celebrated analysis of public opinion surveys during four election campaigns in the US and UK, the political scientist Gabriel Lenz found that respondents were much more likely to adopt the policy preferences of the candidate or party with which they identified than to choose their candidate on the basis of their established policy preferences. If we are looking to explain how ideologies are disseminated, we should start by examining how people come to pick their team, to identify with a particular political bloc, instead of starting with the terms of the debate.
The Union Effect Reconsidered
Critically, people tend to be organized into a bloc. Their relationship to a political coalition tends to be a concretely social relationship, one that is mediated by institutions that play a practical role in their daily lives. Ackerman provides a powerful example in the form of the “union effect” on voting behavior, which leads white union members to support significantly more left-wing policies (including civil rights) and candidates than non-union white households. White voters with high levels of racial resentment are far less likely to break for Republican candidates when they are union members.
Ackerman says he is somewhat surprised by the union effect; I am not. Union members are exposed to the same “public debate” as everyone else, but their immediate experience of the union provides practical reference points for a profoundly different conception of their relation to one another and to the wider economy and society. In a market society, workers ordinarily experience a fierce, zero-sum competition with other workers for scarce jobs, units of housing, educational opportunities, etc. Even when union membership is the “low-commitment, low intensity affair” Ackerman describes, it brings people into contact with a concrete and coherent collective workers’ interest that can be opposed to the boss’s.
The relatively nonconfrontational union activities workers normally participate in today – union elections or card checks, collective bargaining, grievances, meetings with reps in break rooms – is more than sufficient to inculcate a mild labor-liberalism. More militant collective action like strikes, mass pickets, slowdowns, wildcats, sabotage, factory occupations, and direct confrontation with the coercive functions of the state, can raise workers to higher levels of revolutionary consciousness. Politically, the practical experience of material struggle is worth far more than the most compelling narrative that simply describes class cleavages to the masses.
The Bernie Wager
Illuminating the role of activity in shaping consciousness is one of the most important contributions of the Marxism. Indeed, Marx’s conclusion in the “Theses on Feuerbach,” that certain philosophical problems require practical solutions, could be seen as the point of departure for the entire tradition. In “An Introduction to the Study of Philosophy,”an essay on the complex interplay between philosophy, popular “common sense,” political activity, and class consciousness from his prison writings, Antonio Gramsci noted that “one’s conception of the world is a response to certain specific problems posed by reality.” Because people’s worldview cannot depart too far from their practical experience of lived reality “the rational and logically coherent form, the exhaustive reasoning” is “far from decisive.” Rather, “one can conclude that the process of diffusion of new conceptions takes place for political (that is in the last analysis, social) reasons” i.e. through relationships of intellectual leadership that are ultimately organizational.
I raise these ideas from traditional Marxist thinking because the strategic logic of Jacobin’s brand of socialism departs from it, and usually not in productive ways. While Ackerman is fairly vague in his prescriptions for engaging with and winning over Trump supporters, he emphasizes the role of the Democratic Party and participation in the electoral process. Many of Ackerman’s colleagues at Jacobin have bet big on what one might call The Bernie Wager, that white workers can be pried away from the Republican party and welded into a governing left-liberal coalition with appeals based on bread and butter economic issues.
The common diagnosis could be described with a recent coinage in European politics: “pasokification.” In this reading, mainstream left parties have discredited themselves through neoliberal drift, lost their traditional supporters, and abandoned the field of anti-establishment politics to the far-right. The prescription tends to be an anti-establishment populism of the left that can appeal appeal to “common sense” to retain and win back the support of disaffected working class voters and ex-voters.
But this strategy collides with both the theoretical insights of Marxism and available information we have about how voters behave. There is little evidence people change their political affiliations in response to political debate. Gramsci would remind us that class consciousness is inseparable from class organization and class struggle. No appeal to common sense is going to overcome the malign effects of decline of unions and other forms of working-class self-assertion on the mentality of the working class. As such formations disintegrate, it is not surprising that some white workers embrace a politics of defending racial privilege, one reliable advantage in a world of increasing insecurity, even as absolute rates of bigotry decline. We cannot hope to change the discourse unless we first rebuild the organizational structures that could compose the working class as a historical actor.
Social democratic parties surely did discredit themselves with their historic constituencies by embracing austerity, financialization, deindustrialization, and other attacks on the working class, but the neoliberal turn was not a failure of nerve, or a defeat in the battle of ideas. In France, where Tiberj and Ackerman attribute the rightward trend of politics to the structure of debate, the Socialist and Communist parties formed a governing coalition in the early 1980s that tried to impose a series of radical reforms to raise wages, improve union rights, expand welfare, tax high incomes, and nationalize the commanding heights of the French economy.
The result was a disaster: a restive capitalist class plunged the country into economic crisis, and the Socialists responded with a U-turn towards market-friendly policies from which they never returned. In country after country, elected left-wing governments could not overcome the massive resistance of economic elites. Capitalists have significant extra-parliamentary power to disrupt society, a power which cannot be overcome as long as their fundamental property rights are respected. And today, a global financial system and a robust network of supranational economic institutions, national governments have even less power to dictate terms to capital, as Greece learned the hard way.
Even if it were possible to win people over to a left bloc by participating in electoral competition and winning a public debate, this strategy would be sharply limited in the long-term because left-wing parties have not proven able to deliver the goods when they enter government. Ultimate betrayal is baked into the dough of left-wing governments. As Robert Brenner said, “reformism doesn’t reform.” Historically, major transformations of public policy and the political terrain usually occur in response to militant rebellions that confront the state from outside. Though left governments have been constrained in their ability to implement their program after electoral wins, movements in the street and the workplace can extract concessions from totally reactionary regimes.
If Trump supporters and Trump-curious abstainers are going to be won over to some progressive project, it seems highly unlikely that it can be electoral. One might ask why we would even want to draw people into the electoral sphere — people are right to distrust the political process. To change people’s conception of themselves, to replace a politics of the defense of privilege with a politics of solidarity, is a practical matter. To do it, the left needs to demonstrate that solidarity works through day-to day struggles to remake society, and we need to be able to do it in “Trump country” as well as in coastal cities. There’s only one way out of the mess we’re in, and that’s to organize.