Hillary Clinton stops for a selfie. John Locher / AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.For Edward Snowden, politics is “the art of convincing decent people to forget the lesser of two evils is also evil.” And when it comes to the US election, it’s difficult to disagree. There is no reason to think that a Hillary Clinton administration would put a stop to the extra-judicial killings, mass surveillance programmes, and other anti-democratic practices, which have been enthusiastically pursued by the Obama administration over the last 8 years. However, with Donald Trump’s plans to deport 11 million undocumented immigrants en masse, to ‘build the wall’, and ban Muslims from entering the United States, attention has been focused almost entirely on the disaster that his presidency would be for civil liberties. We are left so horrified by Trumpism that we act out of fear of handing the GOP more ammunition. But make no mistake. Complacency, and a failure to put pressure on Clinton’s administration, will do more damage to the long-term progressive cause than a Trump presidency would.
Trumpism gains its support by peddling snake oil to America’s disaffected and displaced voters, taking advantage of the vacuum left behind by an American left that doesn't speak for them. The Democrats’ attention is focused elsewhere, and their current approach to capturing votes is based on something else entirely, encapsulated by Clinton’s simple – and now legendary – ‘rebuttal’ to Donald Trump: “Delete your account.”
Twitter/@HillaryClinton, 9 June 2016. Fair use.With over 480,000 retweets and 610,000 likes, this is easily Hillary Clinton’s most popular tweet. Searches for the phrase shot up, Wikipedia and Know Your Meme entries were swiftly created, and countless think-pieces were written – documenting the “Twitter beef” as if these were two celebrities fighting, rather than a childish spat between the two prospective ‘leaders of the free world’. Or, rather, another installment in the political sword fight between Clinton’s social media team and The Donald himself. This says something: the Clinton machine is slick, acutely targeted at its socially liberal audience for maximum yield, while Donald Trump’s off-the-cuff musings fuel his supporters’ view of him as an authentic anti-politician. Neither camp offers real political insight, while serving to entrench the political divide between their supporters.
“Facile chatter about mic drops and Twitter burns,” writer Adam Johnson tweeted, “while our government hands over the reigns of labor and environmental tort to a cabal of corporations.” And that’s right, isn’t it? There has been an aggressive “millenial-ification” (I know this term won’t catch on) of politics as news outlets and politicians have adopted elements of internet culture in order to appeal to a generation that largely views authority with disdain. Establishment figures have always had a problem getting progressives on their side, but social media has made it possible for them to go for the ‘love the person, ignore the policies’ approach with more vigour than before.
And this is a problem, even if it isn’t immediately obvious why. These Twitter spats are fun, aren’t they? Who doesn’t get a kick out of the idea of Hillary Clinton ‘burning’ Trump? Millions of working-class voters don’t, and neither do plenty of politically savvy young people. But the Twitter mode of politics – sound-bites, memes, advertising revenue for media outlets – sidelines dissenting views from the left, and continues the trend of attacking, rather than listening to, concerns from those left behind by globalisation and the politicians who claim to present them. It doesn’t matter if Trump vocalises a wider concern about Hillary’s ‘damn emails’, for example: as long as she gets more retweets than he does, she’s won.
Shout them down. Never listen. Like this, the left will dig its own grave.
Without being placed under pressure by progressives, a Clinton administration is unlikely to pursue policies that will benefit voters who have suffered wage stagnation, loss of secure employment, relocation into poorly paid service jobs and declines in living standards under globalisation. Trump’s appeal feeds off of this, and it’s not something that is going to disappear overnight if he loses the election. The Democratic party could easily face a similar fate to the UK’s Labour Party in 2020 if it, and the American left more widely, are seen as out-of-touch, unconcerned with the displacement effects of globalisation.
The UK Labour party has seen its support base collapse entirely in Scotland, and its working-class voters jump ship to the right-wing party, UKIP, after losing power in 2010 – 13 years after it was elected on a ‘Third Way’ platform. Labour had long taken Scottish support for granted while offering left-of-centre Scottish voters very little to preserve it, and were duly punished in the 2015 general election, almost entirely wiped out by the Scottish Nationalist Party.
So when it comes to dealing with the populist anger that fuels Trump’s candidacy, the Democratic establishment should learn from the British left’s failure. With Sanders’ attempted takeover of the Democratic party in ruins, the need for progressives to put pressure on the party to prevent it from moving to the right has only grown stronger – something that may prove difficult if the many Sanders supporters who are vowing never to support Hillary don't change their mind.
A final warning from across the Atlantic: a failure to address the problems of globalisation has torn the UK out of the European Union, a result of a populist Brexit campaign marked by demagoguery, xenophobia, anti-intellectualism and a twisted nostalgia for past glory.
Do not doubt Trump’s ability to succeed by doing the same.