Returning home to New York City after a sojourn in London and, latterly, Liverpool (where I helped launch a new book about Jeremy Corbyn) exposed a sharp contrast in prevailing moods. In Britain, for those of us on the left, there is a prospect of meaningful change. However much Corbyn’s electoral ambitions are derided by his critics on the right, mainstream politics holds the potential of a genuine alternative. In the US, no such optimism exists. Faced with the choice of the consummate inside-the-Beltway Hillary Clinton and the splenetic xenophobia of Donald Trump, a better future seems achingly distant. Despair flattens the voices of my New York pals.
Perhaps it’s the residual warm glow from witnessing Corbyn’s brave dismissal of immigration quotas that’s distorting my reality. But I’m not as pessimistic as those I’ve been talking to in New York. The choice between Clinton and Trump is depressing. It reflects a marked weakening of the establishment in American politics, just like Brexit and Corbyn in the UK. It’s not clear what is coming next and there is certainly the possibility that it could be worse. But the old Democratic/Republican duopoly, described by Noam Chomsky as two wings of a single “business party”, has overseen galloping inequality, endless wars and the wrecking of the planet. It is hard to lament the steady detachment of the population from such a governing consensus.
Should Trump win, we are likely to witness widespread resistance to his plans to deport Muslims and Mexicans. The huge pro-immigrant demonstrations led by the Latino community, which prompted 350,000 people to pour out on to the streets of Dallas a decade ago, will have to remobilise. If they are joined by the forces around Black Lives Matter and the Asian community, they will be greatly strengthened. On the other side there will be emboldened racists, angry like their president. They could make matters very ugly. But demographics and the long arc of racial history are not on their side.
What’s more, surprising new unities may be possible under a Trump presidency (however unlikely it now seems). Though the establishment pressure to abandon his opposition to trade deals will be immense, an alliance between Trump supporters and progressives, including the trade unions, could force him to stand firm. And it will be hard to manage the sheer unpredictability of his quest to appear anti-establishment. Who can forget that early primary TV debate when, pointing at the row of grinning contenders alongside him, he told the nation that he had paid off every one of them?
A Clinton administration, on the other hand, would probably be a faint shadow of what has gone before. The euphoria that reached a climax on the evening of Barack Obama’s election in November 2008 is absent. The chances of Clinton having a successful presidency – without the fandom of one of the most charismatic US presidents, and with neither the inclination nor the means to implement a transformative political programme – look slim.
Beyond largely symbolic gestures such as an end to the death penalty and a path to the legalisation of marijuana, Bernie Sanders, Clinton’s challenger from the left in the Democratic primaries, won few concessions in the party’s final programme. Sanders may have spurred a dynamic insurgent campaign but we’ve seen those before. Recent US politics is littered with progressive candidates – Jesse Jackson, Dennis Kucinich, Howard Dean – who promised a movement but ended up only as shills for the establishment. With Bernie now stumping loyally for Hillary, it’s hard not to think that we’ve been at this dance before.
Then again, a Democratic victory would make new and unconventional alliances possible. The demands for which Sanders fought on the campaign trail – single-payer health care, an end to college fees, a $15-an-hour minimum wage – resonated among poorer Americans. That cohort includes a great many Trump supporters. If the Sanders activists who mobilised 13 million Americans to vote for an openly socialist candidate can widen their campaign, an unpopular and ineffective White House will find such demands hard to resist.
Democratic (and, occasionally, independent) candidates are advertising their support for Bernie as a way of establishing their own electoral appeal. His post-primary movement, Our Revolution, is returning the favour with finance and volunteers. As Corbyn has shown in Britain, a coming together of people from protest movements and party politics, combined with communication outside the mainstream media, can create a significant electoral challenge.
The left in Britain argued for a long time that first-past-the-post voting guaranteed the continuing existence of two broadly interchangeable centrist parties, and that only outside it could a genuinely socialist alternative be built. In that, they appear to have been spectacularly wrong. The US operates the same Manichaean system. Progressives do not have a horse in the presidential race. Transforming the Democratic Party is a much more challenging task than making the Labour Party accountable to its members. Democratic politics has always been protean, as today’s rallying around Clinton of sundry Republicans and business leaders once again demonstrates.
But perhaps, beyond November, the forces that worked for Bernie this summer will link up with those outside, in social movements, among Trump supporters, and with the 43 per cent of Americans who last time around didn’t vote. If so, a progressive left could take root in mainstream US politics for the first time since the 1940s. Maybe then, those depressed voices around the coffee tables and bars of Manhattan will perk up.
Colin Robinson is a writer and publisher
This article appears in the 01 Nov 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The closing of the liberal mind