The vote against Trump and what it means

November 14, 2017

The orange menace and his fellow bigots suffered a well-deserved drubbing in the 2017 elections--but the anti-Trump resistance won't gain strength by relying on Democrats.

IN THE era of Trump, bracing for bad news has become second nature.

Of course, there's been good news to wake up to in the year since Trump won the White House, if not the election: the largest single day of demonstrations in U.S. history for the Women's Marches; inspiring protests against the Muslim travel ban, cancelation of the DACA program, the Trumpcare disaster and racist police violence; exposés and scandals showing the depth of his administration's corruption and greed; displays of outrage at his repulsive racism and bigotry.

Trump has had bad days and bad weeks, but at the end of all of them was the sickening knowledge that he was still there--in power, with countless ways to inflict more suffering.

Before Election Day last year, most people thought Donald Trump could never win the White House. Now there's a hesitation to believe he can be stopped, no matter how unpopular he gets.

That was certainly the prevailing attitude going into Election Day in 2017--not mostly because Trump and the Republicans were strong, but because the feeble Democratic non-opposition seemed poised to blow another election where the odds were with them.

Clockwise from top left: Virginia House of Delegate member Danica Roem, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, Hoboken Mayor Ravi Bhalla, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy
Clockwise from top left: Virginia House of Delegate member Danica Roem, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, Hoboken Mayor Ravi Bhalla, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy

But Trump did lose on November 7--he along with the rest of the right wing, from the Republican Party establishment to the hardened white nationalists and reactionaries who have thrived under him.

Disgust with Trump and the right was the driving factor in a wave of Democratic victories in state and local elections on November 7.

And among those, there were important success stories for progressive and socialist candidates, some running as independents and most not, whose campaigns defied not only the climate of hate and scaremongering whipped up by Trump, but often the orthodox Democratic strategy of running as far to the right as possible.

That, of course, can't be the end of the analysis. The Democratic Party isn't a party of the working class, and candidates and officeholders who don't declare and maintain their independence will be shaped by that relationship, in ways big and small, even if they are critical of the party apparatus and its neoliberal agenda.

More broadly, the left needs to continue the ongoing discussion about the relationship of elections and the larger project of changing society.

But we need to know the climate in which that debate and our other efforts are taking place.

Though the 2017 "off-off-year" elections were limited in number, their outcome was a more generalized repudiation of Trump and the right wing than most people expected--and a welcome reminder of the many previous expressions of mass opposition to the most unpopular president ever at this point in his term.

The reason we brace for bad news these days is the sinking feeling that Trump and the Republicans can get away with anything. An election that shows the opposite can give greater confidence to those who want to wake up from the Trump nightmare and fight back--and not just by casting a vote one day a year.

THE MAIN battleground last Tuesday was the statewide contests in Virginia, including the governor's race won by Democrat Ralph Northam by a larger-than-expected margin.

The media--remembering both Trump's victory in 2016 and the history of Republican success in low-turnout, off-year elections--expected a surge of support for the Republican, Ed Gillespie, who ran a campaign that Steve Bannon called "Trumpism without Trump," embracing Trump's reactionary themes, but keeping his distance from the president.

Those advantages were swamped by the biggest turnout for a Virginia governor's election in two decades. As usual, African Americans and Latinos voted overwhelmingly for the Democrats, but in large numbers--and six in 10 women cast a ballot for Northam, a higher percentage than Hillary Clinton won.

The turnout of voters under 30 years old surged to 34 percent, doubling from two elections before in 2009. Another telling statistic: Voter turnout in Charlottesville, where the far right held its orgy of violence and hate three months before that ended in a terrorist murder, was up by 31 percent.

Clearly, the Democratic base came out to send a message of opposition to Trump and the right--in spite of lackluster candidates in the main races. Northam ran a campaign straight out of the Hillary Clinton playbook of standing for moderate and downright conservative policies in order to portray himself as the "responsible" choice against Trump-like "extremism."

Thus, Northam responded to Gillespie's scaremongering about undocumented immigrants by...saying he would support a law banning cities from declaring themselves sanctuaries for the undocumented.

The disgust with Trump was enough to overcome a weak and sometimes inept campaign by the Democrats, but this underlines the question that anyone on the left celebrating the defeat of Republican right-wingers in Virginia needs to also face: What about the Democrats who won?

Northam owes his victory to an outpouring of votes from people who are well to his left--and who will inevitably be disappointed in his actions as governor, unless Northam faces pressure from below that exceeds the pressure from Corporate America and the political establishment to enforce the neoliberal status quo.

The effect of the anti-Trump vote may be to boost confidence now, but we can't be blind to the cycle of expectation and disappointment that corrodes confidence over the longer term: The Democrats come into office having said one thing to their base to get elected--and sometimes not even that--only to do another in office to preserve the status quo, disappointing those who voted for them and setting the stage for Republicans to take advantage.

A LOT of the attention last week rightly focused on election winners who are a direct and personal repudiation of the Trump regime's hate and scapegoating.

In Virginia, Danica Roem became the first openly transgender candidate to win an election and be seated in a state legislature--and she did it by beating a 13-term incumbent who bragged about being the state's "chief homophobe" and wrote a failed "bathroom bill" to bar trans people from using the bathroom that corresponds to their gender identity.

Wilmot Collins, a former Liberian refugee, is the new mayor of Helena, Montana, having beat a four-term incumbent in a city where less than 1 percent of the population is Black. Minnesota also elected its first Black mayor, and Andrea Jenkins became the first transgender woman of color elected to public office.

And in Hoboken, New Jersey, Ravi Bhalla is the city's first Sikh mayor despite a campaign filled with racism and Islamophobia, including an anonymous mailing to the entire town that called Bhalla a "terrorist" and urged that immigrant candidates be deported to "Make Edison great again."

It's true that candidates like Roem hold mainstream Democratic political positions, but their victories are nevertheless a "a stunning rebuke to those insisting Democrats are 'mired too often in political correctness' and 'bathroom issues,'" Branko Marcetic wrote at Jacobin.

In a number of local elections for city council and other positions, left-wing candidates--including open socialists, many of them members of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA)--won.

There were also high-profile victories for radical lawyer Larry Krasner running for Philadelphia district attorney and independent Nikuyah Walker, now a member of the city council in Charlottesville, Virginia--while Socialist Alternative's Ginger Jentzen fell just short in a city council race in Minneapolis, and DSA member and Green Party candidate Jabari Brisport won an impressive 30 percent of the vote running as an independent for New York City Council.

These advances for open left-wing candidates especially highlight another aspect of the anti-Trump opposition seen again on Election Day: For at least a significant minority, the resistance goes beyond just a rejection of Trump and the right, extending to a desire for a political alternative to the status quo.

But once again, there's another side of this that shouldn't be ignored.

MOST OF the candidates that left-wing organizations and publications celebrated as their own ran on either Democratic Party ballot lines outright, or in nonpartisan races, without making any declaration of independence from the Democrats. And that raises long-standing questions for the left about its relationship to a party committed to maintaining the status quo, rather than transforming it.

The Democrats' lack of tolerance for independence, even at the local level, was illustrated this year in Charlottesville, when social justice activist Nikuyah Walker--who ran as an independent for the Democrat-dominated city council to protest the inaction of local officials during the far-right's terrorism this summer--faced a pre-election smear campaign, including a hatchet job in a local paper, for which the main source was apparently Democratic Mayor Mike Signer.

That ought to raise questions for DSA members who ran as candidates of a party that attacked a fellow activist they endorsed.

The problem for radicals trying to use the Democratic Party as a vehicle for change is that the party's structure is designed to prevent anything beyond cosmetic changes--while putting pressure on the radicals to be the ones who bend.

The party apparatus is flexible enough to allow some room for progressives to operate, especially locally, in return for energizing the base. But there are limits, as Paul Fleckenstein explained last year in an analysis of Bernie Sanders' Our Revolution organization and its focus on "down-ballot elections":

The party hierarchy doesn't have the ability--nor the interest--in keeping all progressives from winning down the ballot. But it does have the ability to enforce accommodation to the party's general objectives and priorities for candidates who want to advance their political careers.

Add to that the fact that the power of individual local officials to make change on their own is limited. Especially in an era of austerity, they have little to no control over declining tax revenues and budget constraints imposed by state and federal governments. And when they are a small minority on a city council, they can be marginalized.

Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant of Socialist Alternative has shown how to use her position to raise awareness of important issues, but likewise faces the challenges of being a minority of one on a council dominated by Democrats. But her ability to be a part of winning important reforms like an increase in the minimum wage has depended not on compromising with Democrats, but refusing to get pulled into quid pro quo deals.

Someone like Larry Krasner--the criminal justice activist and lawyer elected as district attorney in Philadelphia--faces even more contradictions as a prominent cog in a justice system designed to produce systematic injustice. Everyone around him in his new position will fight tooth and nail against the least measures for reform he tries to introduce.

Without broader struggles that develop outside "official channels," local officeholders, whatever their intentions, will find themselves marginalized and undermined by the power business interests are able to bring to bear. The pressure is enormous to compromise and concede, just to accomplish a fraction of their aims--which leads over time to the aims themselves changing.

The dilemmas of trying to make change from "inside the system"--and even more so trying to use or change the Democratic Party as part of that project--are the subject of a long debate in the radical and socialist traditions in the U.S. that will certainly go on.

In the meanwhile, everyone on the left can celebrate the downfall of some hateful bigots in Virginia and elsewhere, and a setback for the Trump juggernaut.

This election reconfirmed the depths of opposition to Trump and Trumpism. If that gives more people confidence that they aren't alone, it will open up greater possibilities for action that go beyond casting a vote.

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