The big divide in our country is not Democrats versus Republicans. It isn’t even left versus right. It is those who advocate solidarity versus those who push exclusivity. In fact this has always been the major divide in the United States.
This divide was, in many ways, the essence of what the constitutional convention in Philadelphia was all about. It influenced both the outcomes they etched and the motivations for them to travel to Pennsylvania in the first place. There was a contingent of representatives who showed up to give voice to colonial populism. The little guys were getting screwed. Even more attendees showed up because they believed the little guys weren’t getting screwed enough. Jefferson represented the former, Madison the latter.
In the North, wealthy merchants were worried about debtor’s revolts. Shays rebellion shook the ruling class, who saw that they had no mechanism by which to put down populist farmers demanding debt cancellation. In the South it was a fear of revolt that led to calls for a convention as well, but their feared revolts were from slaves. Thus, a minority of solidarity supporting populists met with a strong majority of the capitalist ruling class to hammer out a deal. It is no wonder our system was set up to maintain free-market capitalism with the rules of the game left intentionally vague so that the ruling class could always justify its position atop society.
And justify it they have. From a complicated tax code and financial regulatory system that allows for effortless offshoring to a two-tiered justice system meant to protect the wealthy from all but the most heinous crimes, the system has been meticulously built for the haves. The working class has become disillusioned by seeing their neighbors do jail time for smoking pot while bankers destroy the economy and launch wars that nobody wants with impunity.
The country has reacted strongly to this in two different ways, one healthy and one extremely destructive. Many turned to Bernie Sanders, who saw himself rise to become today’s most popular politician in Washington. Whatever one thinks of Sanders’ politics, this is a healthy response to a system that we all know is broken. Sanders proposes overturning all of the ills that polls consistently show the American people hate: billionaires escaping taxes, democracy building abroad, the student loan crisis, a healthcare system that bankrupts millions, among other significant problems.
Sanders support comes from solidarity, the rational response to elite corruption. But it doesn’t have to come from the left, though evidence points to the Nordic model creating the most happiness for the most people. There are beliefs across the political spectrum that promote solidarity in a healthy way. Democratic socialism is one. A center-left regulated capitalist democratized society that does not allow campaign contributors to wreck the system is another. A conservative ethic that promotes religious solidarity, the ties of the family, a deep moral ethic, boundaries on immigration, and limited government is a third. Finally, the libertarianism of Jefferson that advocates a hyper-localized politics where we take care of our own without the constant interference of the state is a solidarity-promoting ethos. All of these solutions have their individual shortcomings but they all have the benefit, in their sincere and uncorrupted form, to promote societal values that produce the best outcomes for regular people and cut against grotesque inequality.
The other side of the response to a system that has entirely failed working people is Donald Trump, a completely unhealthy response that promotes exclusivity. This is exactly the kind of response the elite class wants the disaffected masses to have. To be clear, they prefer if the system is not shaken up at all by the angry populous. If it is, however, the ruling class needs revolts to be neighbor against neighbors instead of neighbors against the wealthy.
Aristocrats, and that is what America’s universally million dollar net-worth holding politicians are, learned long ago that the public needed to be pacified in this way. When angry masses turn their animus on the government, we see the French Revolution with King Louis’ head rolling down the street. When they instead turn their animus on one another, it provides opportunities for politicians to take more power. This is especially true when, like in the case of Donald Trump, individual politicians are shameless and skilled enough to use divisions to their advantage. Donald Trump is a product of white people blaming blacks and immigrants for using welfare instead of a system that chooses F-35 fighter planes and bank bailouts over taking care of its people.
The irony of Donald Trump’s rise is that he, perhaps more than anyone else, represents the failings of a perverse system that allowed for his rise. He is the beneficiary of a society that allows the wealthy to wildly speculate, declare bankruptcy with impunity, break all the rules, and win virtually any court case if you can afford the better lawyer. Any small business owner that tried to engage in Trumpian business tactics would have served time in a jail cell. If you do not believe this, go start a business that hires illegal immigrants or start a fake university or explicitly turn away African Americans applicants to your apartment complex. Donald Trump’s personal behavior, too, would disqualify the average person from a job at McDonald’s let alone the highest positions in society. From credible sexual assault allegations to lying in court about his business dealings before he was President to tricking women he cheated on his wife with to sign Nondisclosure Agreements. In Trump’s own infamous words, “when you’re a star, they let you do it.”
Thus when people voted for Donald Trump they were voting for exclusivity, the insidious form of right wing populism that offers nothing but societal misery. We do not hear about brash nativists and nationalists succeeding in leadership anywhere in the world, nor will we ever. History shows us zero example of their success. That is because exclusionary reactionism does not work. And here’s the kicker: it’s not meant to. Its very essence is that it is anti-solidarity and thus anti-working people. It comes in two iterations: pull-yourself-up-from-your-bootstraps free market capitalism or subsidization of a chosen subset of society. The latter is Nazi Germany and feudal Japan. The former is currently being enacted in the United States as the most unequal economy in American history just saw $1.2 trillion more in tax cuts go to the richest 5% of the population. We are replacing the racial caste system of our past with an economic one. The results are horrific and only getting worse.
Things will continue to decline until we as a people choose solidarity over exclusivity. Things are slowly looking up on the left as solidarity-promoting social democrats have gained momentum. Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have become the face of a movement that is unambiguously anti-corruption and for working class representation. The right has yet to respond in the same way, instead doubling down on the politics of nativist fear. We on the left must advocate for solidarity with these people where possible, in both winning them over to our side and convincing them to build a solidarity movement of their own. That said, it is likely going to take a charismatic leader on the right just as it did on the left. A populist in the true sense of the word, one that promotes a vision of limited government in which the central role of the state is replaced with community.
There are reasons for optimism. It is not easy to find the political will for change but the internet has allowed movement politics to spread quickly. Leftists in 2015 were completely demoralized and disaffected by a corrupt system and now they have genuine hope to build a movement that is going to become a force in Congress. Medicare-for-All was not even in the lexicon before Bernie Sanders run for President. Now 70 Democrats in the house and 17 in the Senate have cosponsored single-payer legislation. This is a dramatic shift in a very short span, and the momentum continues to move in the direction of solidarity-promoting social democrats and away from the coastal elite, business friendly liberalism of Pelosi and Schumer. Politics are nothing if not surprising, and the vacuum that will presumably be created in the wake of Donald Trump (with projected major losses all the way down the ballot rivalling Obama’s) certainly lends itself to an opportunistic moral conservative or libertarian.
Both sides have to make major changes in order for the country to achieve solidarity.
Democrats have to convince their moderates to support working people, cut ties to ultra-wealthy campaign contributors, and expand voting rights in an unprecedented way such that everyone has a say in the system. All three of these things would be easy for Democrats to do and would increase their political power. On the first measure, people show out to vote for the right kind of populism. This is still going to vary from state to state, but should always advocate expansion of healthcare and economic investment in working people. Joe Manchin can continue to support gun rights and a 20-week cutoff for abortion because that is what people in his state demand. On the other hand, even conservatives will show up and vote for him if he advocates for their right to free healthcare. On the second point, the last few years have made something very clear: Democrats will pour in small donor contributions if you cut ties to industry and ask them for it. Republicans have not shown the same willingness to do so. Advantage Democrats. Finally, Republicans have restricted voting rights all around the country on Democratic constituents. It is not rocket science. Make it easier for ex-felons, students, and minorities to vote and Democrats are going to do better in elections.
Conservatives have a longer way to go to create a solidarity movement, but the moral foundations are there. They must embrace diversity, support the renewable energy industry, and invest in local communities. This sounds like a leftist prescription that just wants conservatives to move left, but it is truly not. What about conservatism would be tarnished by these three measures? The answer is nothing. Embracing diversity does not mean allowing an unlimited number of immigrants to come into the country or refusing assimilation, it means levelling the playing field such that limited government can work. If you create a society in which white Christian men have a clear upper hand, the government is inevitably going to respond to the complaints of disadvantaged minorities and intervene. If, instead, you create a society that promotes equality of opportunity in an activist way, the role of government naturally shrinks over time. On the second initiative, climate change is going to wreak havoc on our country and create government intervention and expansion. Supporting renewable industry, which is a booming market that fits well with a moral market economy, should be a no brainer for conservatives. Stop distorting the market by subsidizing big oil and preserve the planet for future generations. What could be more conservative? Finally, investment in community is the cornerstone of solidarity conservatism. We do not need government encroachment if we take care of each other.