You have heard that it has been said, You shall love your neighbor, and hate your enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them who despitefully use you, and persecute you.
Return animosity with virtue.
Laozi – Tao Te Ching 63
Just don’t look.
Disclaimer: This post will probably furrow the brows of my lefty friends, but it is an issue that has been swirling around in my noodle for quite a while, so I just had to lay it out there. Hopefully my liberal bona fides are robust enough to get readers through arguments that stray from the usual footpaths.
All Roads Lead to 2020
So what is the goal for Democrats and liberals in 2020? The answer is probably the most obvious one in the history of progressive politics: remove Trump, by any means necessary.
The laundry list of Trumpian offenses is well-worn territory, and the sheer intensity and audacity of his behavior would seem to render Democratic strategy fairly self-evident. Whoever the Dem nominee is, they will go full scorched-earth on Trump’s vile personality and rhetoric, building on the successes from 2018. Even if the economy stays “good” (not my take, but is the alarming mainstream consensus right now), the divisive nature of Trump himself might spur historic voter turnout, mobilized to kick him to the curb. And if the economy turns “bad,” it’s certainly game over for the creator of The Apprentice.
But what if beating Trump is not enough? What if the type of candidate and the manner of campaigning really does matter, so that victory in 2020 might actually be defeat? What if thumping Trump actually ends up worsening things, at least in the medium and long terms?
What I’m talking about is the theme of Divided America, the massive complex of ideas, structures, and tropes that keeps half of America clawing at the throats of the other half (really a third and a third, with an indifferent third thrown in – but half-and-half is close enough for illustration’s sake). Going scorched-earth on Trump seems like a no-brainer, a perfect recipe for success. But if that ends up driving the wedge deeper between each “side,” victory could be cavernous and cold. Just picture the seething conservative rage that would accompany the massive and cathartic liberal celebration over Trump’s ouster. To be sure, GOP plans for obstruction and attack would begin in the early morning hours of that first Wednesday in November.
But is there a path to victory in 2020 that doesn’t involve super-heated attacks on the President? Are there tactics that will not serve to alienate huge swaths of the electorate, especially those who tentatively supported Trump in 2016? Is there any way at all to beak out of the Divided America logjam, to run on a platform that could actually serve to unify and build towards constructive and cooperative government? In short, is there a way to win the peace?
Conventional wisdom on the Democratic side is that the candidate is key, but there are conflicting ideas on what that means. The older, stock stance is that a moderate is needed, someone who hews to the “common sense middle” and is not a lefty moonbat. What is called for is a steady and calming presence, someone who will work with the other side to craft sensible solutions (think Joe Biden).
But recently, there is a growing sentiment that the opposite is actually the best course of action, and that a committed and true Progressive is the ideal. The reasoning for a more liberal candidate is sound. Polling shows that Americans are increasingly progressive on a whole range of ideas, and are in fact much more ‘extreme’ than mainstream political discourse would indicate (e.g., universal health care, soaking the rich, gender equality, etc.). And many rightfully point out that the “common sense middle” is a bogus metaphor that has nothing to do with reality and electoral success. Donald Trump didn’t win by moving to the middle. The GOP as a whole doesn’t care about moderating their views, so why should the Democrats do it? And finally, demographics are turning the hulking American ideological ship in the direction of liberalism.
That lefty turn is now stirring the currents in the pre-election Democratic sorting process. Bernie, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, and Mayor Pete are all making unabashedly liberal runs at Biden, the safe and familiar name. As Buttigieg points out, Republicans are going to paint any nominee as a Socialist anyway, “so we might as well just do what we think is right.” The candidates who are currently surging are all battlers, people who will definitely mobilize the liberal base and go after Trump with both barrels.
But still, something is off. It just doesn’t feel right. Nominating a liberal battler still plays into the two-party duopoly and its companion cultural apparatus (to read more about the nature and staying power of this system, see here). The Electoral College, voter suppression, gerrymandering, and other structural flaws in our political system demand that liberals discover a novel way to reach out to and into the conservative cultural universe to find common ground; not common ground in a fake ‘middle,’ but something totally different that could actually side-step and short-circuit the Divided America complex and put us on a new path.
The problem with a liberal firebrand is that they will run smack into the most immovable object in America: entrenched power. As I detailed in my last two posts (here and here), unequal societies do not fix themselves through gradual political policy changes. The forces that create the imbalances in the first place are still there, and they are supremely resistant to reform. So while someone like Elizabeth Warren could conceivably take office on a platform of radical wealth redistribution and huge pro-labor programs, the broad array of countervailing individuals, institutions, and long-term impersonal socioeconomic trends will eventually tamp down anything too disruptive. And as I have been arguing for a long time (see here and here), any extended project to resurrect the economic value of labor is doomed to failure, because the nature of the relationships between work, money, morality, and economic production has been irreversibly changed.
So instead of a progressive battler, we should take a clue from the original appeal of Candidate Trump and nominate a political outsider with an utterly novel approach to our situation. I know it seems like a long time ago, but cast your mind back to Trump torching his way through the Republican establishment in the run-up to 2016. I remember smiling at how easily he took down Jeb, Rubio, Cruz, and a host of other nauseatingly-familiar GOP hacks. Trump’s nomination was a resounding “fuck you” from the conservative base to the conservative establishment. Regular people on the ground were so disgusted with the kabuki theater of both parties that they went with a complete political novice, someone totally unversed in the convenient buck-passing between the two sides of the political duopoly (see here).
I think that popular angst and rage is still out there, ready to be harnessed by another political outsider. Yes, Trump has directed that boiling unrest towards illegal immigration and free trade, two bogus bugbears that Fox News has been panic-painting with for years. But because Trump’s economic strategies haven’t actually created an “economic miracle” for 95% of the American populace, I firmly believe that a skilled outsider could easily portray Trump as being captured by the Establishment itself, and in need of replacement.
The first thing that our Principled Outsider needs is a big idea, one that is different enough to be resistant to the instant “socialist” labeling that comes with the usual liberal platform planks, which are anathema to the gatekeepers of power. As I described it in my previous two posts, what is needed is a kind of Transparent Trojan Horse, something that is completely visible to the Establishment, and is welcomed in as unthreatening and probably good for business-as-usual. But then, once instituted, this tool starts breaking down the system from the inside, allowing for a host of other changes to take root, ultimately facilitating a productive response to some of our most pressing problems (climate change, ecological collapse, inequality, urban sprawl, exurban blight, etc.).
I believe that Big Idea is Universal Basic Income, buttressed by a healthy dose of Modern Money Theory. I won’t rehash my reasoning for that here. Go back and read my other posts to see the arguments.
So we’ve got a political outsider with a Big Idea. How does that candidate approach the contest with President Trump? As mentioned above, I think the best way is to portray President Trump as betraying the reformist instincts of Candidate Trump and selling out to the Establishment. Allow Candidate Trump’s words to discredit President Trump, especially in the realm of the economy. Official unemployment rate? Stock market? Official economic growth stats? Candidate Trump called all of these things fake statistics, having no connection with how horrible things were for regular people. But these mainstream stats are the same ones that President Trump uses to trumpet his “economic miracle.” I would repeatedly call Trump the Manchurian Candidate, captured and brainwashed by the same establishment wonks that he once derided.
And speaking of the economic miracle, that trope has to be busted. Candidate Trump did not hesitate to use bleak, apocalyptic language in describing conditions in the US, and the Democratic candidate should use the same strategy. Continually remind everyone how, in reality, the “miracle” is only for the few at the top, while for everyone else the Economic Nightmare continues. There are enough alarming statistics about workaday life for regular people to make this an easy task.
The Democratic candidate should avoid the GOP staging of issues, especially illegal immigration, which has been declining steadily since 2007. This is how Trump and company continually win: by talking about what they want to talk about, and ignoring other, more pressing concerns. In this respect, our candidate should paint him/herself as the Real Truth Teller, the only one willing to tell the American people just how dire things really are. There is still a lot of rage and anxiety out there, and it should be pointed towards the actual economic conditions that are causing the problems in the first place, not manufactured conservative crises.
As far as confronting Trump himself, in the debates and on the campaign trail, our candidate should, as much as possible, avoid vitriolic and extreme criticism of his personality and behavior. I realize that this is a tough ask, but there are many lukewarm supporters of Trump who identify with him as a person, and character assassination, even if it is deserved, alienates those folks. In fact, I’m convinced that this accounts for about 99% of Trump’s track record of success as a politician. His speeches are filled with endless stream-of-consciousness asides, little folksy vignettes that mirror how regular people talk. In that way, he builds up people’s feelings of bondedness with him. They are then willing to battle on his behalf with whomever he happens to identify as the enemy. So when someone attacks him, they are attacking them.
To break that bond between Trump and some of his on-the-fence supporters (his diehard fans obviously won’t be swayed), our candidate should show deference to Trump in the debates, in the specific form of respect for the Office of the President. This is a bizarre and often-overlooked feature of Trump supporters. They continually talk about how people criticizing Trump are disrespecting the office of the Presidency. Now, yes, I know, of course, that Democratic Presidents are not generally shown much respect from extreme conservatives when they hold the office. But that’s not what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about the potential of an Outsider to break the usual partisan expectations of the system. And showing actual deference to someone with whom you disagree, on the highest stage, could be game-changing, by displaying a genuine willingness to unify the country, even in the midst of the most divisive Presidency in modern history.
Another way to crack the partisan playbook would be to continually use this specific language: “I’m on your side.” Recent studies of political and ideological beliefs show that people generally embrace as true that which enmeshes them deeper into their surrounding social groups. We believe to get by. And as people become more informed on the issues, they become even more entrenched in their ideological camps, and less open to alternative points of view. While this is certainly an alarming trend that needs to be fixed, suffice it to say that in the context of the 2020 election, a Democratic candidate should pound home the message, “I’m on your side.” I would even make it the main poster slogan for the whole campaign. I know it sounds stupid and basic, and maybe even a little disingenuous. But any candidate who can convincingly repeat this mantra will plant a lot of cognitive time bombs in people’s heads, bombs whose explosions will create instinctual bonds that go beyond a bunch of numbers and graphs.
Lastly, our Democratic candidate should go on Fox News all the time, on whatever show is willing to have her/him. As is common knowledge now, liberals and conservatives live in different informational universes, and you must go into the lion’s den to reach millions of potential voters and supporters. There can be no unifying national vision without dragging Fox News personalities onto new pathways of conversation. Will there be universal open-arms from Fox folks? Or course not. But ultimately, Fox is a business that responds to the tastes of its viewers. If the Fox audience becomes accustomed to seeing some bold new ideas from a brave Democratic candidate, there is every chance that conservative people could start demanding these types of approaches from their own pols and pundits. In short, part of trying to break the Divided America gridlock must be actual engagement and conversation on the ‘other side’s turf.’
Those who know me already know what’s coming.
Who would be the ideal candidate for 2020, considering all the stuff laid out above? I believe it is Andrew Yang. Yang is a perfect fit. He’s a political outsider, and he has Universal Basic Income as his big idea (he calls it the “Freedom Dividend”). Basically, Yang’s version of UBI gives $1000 a month to all US citizens over 18, no strings attached, and it is funded by a Value Added Tax. He has a lot of other policy proposals, including Medicare For All (see https://www.yang2020.com for details on all of his ideas), but UBI is his centerpiece.
In addition to all of the advantages covered in my earlier posts, it bears repeating that UBI, while sounding like an unbelievably-radical and difficult thing to implement, is actually the simplest and quickest way to get the economic boot off of people’s necks right now, so that people can start thinking more rationally about a host of other issues and problems. Yang uses this boot imagery all the time, and it’s good campaign messaging. Also, Yang just keeps hammering home that he wants to give you money, and the country owes that money to you, for helping to create the vast wealth we all have in common. This is a perfect way to tap into that widespread feeling of grievance, the sense that someone is ripping you off. Right now, all of that anger is misdirected at poor immigrants, nefarious global bureaucrats, or mustache-twirling fat-cats. But UBI turns that specific-but-ultimately-impotent blame into something more concrete: money that we all helped create, given back to everyone, by everyone. It really is a kind of redistribution, but done in such a different way that it passes the Transparent Trojan Horse test. UBI would allow for a total rethink of work, money, government spending, and economic production. This rethink is long overdue. And UBI could even pave the way for a smaller, leaner, less-intrusive federal government, one that operates in a more-restricted monetary realm, injecting consumption capital directly into the system, instead of through clunky and inefficient social programs.
Oh, and by the way, Andrew Yang appears on Fox all the time, and the hosts generally treat him with respect and good will. He was just on Fox News Sunday today (7/28) for a 10-minute segment with Chris Wallace, and it was great conversation that was very fair and balanced (head nod).
All of the above makes for an unusual blueprint, I know. But I have been agonizing about the 2020 election for a long time, and I really think that this is the best approach for not only winning against Trump, but for laying a foundation of cooperation with those who don’t vote for our candidate.
I have had this unusual mental tic for a while now: even though I am a staunch liberal in virtually all aspects, I have this parallel internal voice that keeps an ear out for how things would sound (I imagine) to a conservative. So I constantly have this nudging from inside my brain, warning me when things seem sketchy from the conservative point of view.
If I wanted to congratulate myself, I would say that this is an example of how amazingly compassionate and empathetic I am to the experiences and viewpoints of others. But more realistically, it’s probably just my bullshit radar, telling me when I’m hearing the score of the concocted Divided America symphony, a masterwork of propaganda that is tearing us asunder. We’ve become too masterful at stage-managing our own virtue and the evil of the other side. I fear the day when that little conservative voice no longer murmurs.