(This essay is a continuation of theme reflecting on 2016; the first in this series can be read here)
I spent the evening of November 8th in Spokane, WA, posted up at a bar watching as CNN posted election results. The outcome that night was as unexpected as it was welcome. It’s also worth noting that sharing a night like that with Wolf Blitzer was surreal & visually awkward and made the entire experience exponentially worse. For the record: I remain unconvinced Wolf Blitzer is a real human being. To my eye he looks far too much like an advanced computer’s idea of a real human being. In other words, the revolution may already have begun.
Unlike many liberals, my reaction to Trump’s election was not to get angry at the non-coastal regions of America, take to the streets in protest, or—curiously enough—abruptly cancel my social media participation (WTF…???). Instead, I grew quiet and reflective, performing the Biblical ablution of examining the planks in my own eyes before turning to others’ specks. How how how??? I repeated. Any anger I felt was directed largely at myself, my liberal friends and the liberal media sources I’d been engaging. As time has passed I’ve found some answers while others continue to elude me. Now, as we near the inauguration, it’s time to put some of that out into the ether. And there’s no better place to start than within.
(A quick note on this notion of “within”: I voted for Hillary Clinton, the Democratic Party candidate. I am also a registered Democrat. Both have little-to-nothing to do with any affinity for the Democratic Party and reflect, instead, the sad reality of our politics—we only get two options, and this flavor tastes better than the other.)
The Democratic Party is an obvious shit-show. This isn’t because their emails got hacked and leaked, and it’s not due to faulty polling or purportedly racist white people in Kansas or the financial firepower of the Koch Brothers or any other exculpatory BS. Instead, it has a lot more to do with the fact that in a year when voters were consistently saying they didn’t want more-of-the-same, Democrats ran the most well-known, divisive, 100%-more-of-the-same name they had… Which scratches my head worse than a straw boater.
Going into the election I thought Republicans were going to get slammed. One of my hopes for this was that Trump, by his very presence, would force conservatives to confront the obvious contradictions of the Republican Party’s component pieces, and in the process split Evangelicals from Free-Marketers from Libertarians from Nativists, etc. I wanted this optimistically, for I felt then, and largely continue to feel now, that much of what the right has become is intellectually vapid, a poor counterbalance/check on leftist impulses. With their many victories (plural, across the Senate and House and many governorships, etc) this impossible union looks like it will remain, for now, proving the old adage that power, even if it tastes like shit, is still preferable to chewing loss. Perhaps the splintering I’d hoped for will now happen among Democrats. Which causes the following thoughts to cross my mind.
First, it’s clear that what any reasonable mind would consider liberal/progressive is not what the Democratic Party represents. If you need contrast/context for that statement, look at just about any liberal party in Europe and you’ll quickly see how reactionary the average American Democrats is. Instead, they are a party that appears to me as left-leaning-ish on certain social issues while remaining entrenched in neoliberal economics whose demonstrable outcomes undeniably enrich the rich and displace the rest of us. Yes, Democrats want a little more oversight on the economy and the environment than Republicans do, and as such are more laudable, but at the end of the day the Party is failing to substantively represent and speak to the needs of, to use a term I still hope is relevant, the 99%.
Language is important, and it’s probably time to divorce these two terms from one another: you may be a Democrat, but that doesn’t necessarily make you a liberal. And if you want to be a liberal, it’s likely time to stop being a Democrat.
I think most of us would agree that America needs more than a two-party political system. While it’d be great if both Republicans and Democrats splintered, for now that’s unlikely. However, with this staggering series of defeats, across multiple offices, perhaps Democrats can take the lead, fall apart, and hopefully from the ruins a truly socially active, economically valid, human-concerned, workers-oriented party will arise.
If you’re wondering something like, Why’d you include “workers” on that list? Isn’t that a little outdated, sport? Or, more aggressively, What are you, some sort of Communist?! (a charge that was levied against me approximately 8-years ago by a nasty old white woman inside a retirement home in Arizona, the term, Communist!, to her mind apparently still something worthy not only of 1950’s reprobation, but of rousing good ol’ Joe McCarthy from his grave) , the short simple sweet answer is this: What is one thing all of us do? We labor. We might go about it differently and receive divergent compensations for our efforts, but who can’t relate to what it’s like to be alive as a working person? As a result, what is one thing around which we can all unite? Our work. Focusing upon our identities as workers also allows us to skip out of certain philosophical essentials that the 20th-century should have demonstrated (but clearly did not) were dangerous: Nativism (We Are Germans!/Japanese!), Tribalism/Religious-ism (We Are Catholics!/Hindus!), etc.
We’ve raised the word Identity, which news commentators, who were wrong about so much in regards to this election and yet still insist we tilt our ears their direction, now assure us was one of the main reasons the Democratic Party floundered. I think that’s right but not right enough, by which I mean that to a certain degree identity politics makes sense: we are social animals who move through the world, and thus vote, based upon how we perceive ourselves in a larger social context: i.e., our identities. Where things have gone awry, however, is that with few exceptions liberals have forced/required identity politics to be spelled with a lower-case “i,” an act that has had the insidious and divisive effect of creating nonsense such as we’ve seen over these past several years: this sub-group of post-patriacrhal Wiccan feminists who insist upon spelling “women” as “womYn” are not simply divided-from but outright cannot-communicate with that group of post-racial, queer-but-not-gay men whose mothers were Hispanic and whose fathers served a jail sentence…, etc., you get the point.
Let’s pause and emphasize a couple points: I am a reasonably intelligent and empathetic white man who, despite those two facts, is still largely unaware of all the power, prestige, and finger-snapping advancement that is and has-been available to me as a reasonably intelligent white man. As far as power and representation go, there are a lot of people in this country who are minorities. Everyone not only deserves but needs to have their rights defended and spoken-on-behalf of. It is a sad reality that if you’re gay, or Muslim, or or or.., you often get the shaft, and I don’t want to sound as if I’m overlooking that. At the same time, if we’re all constantly splintering into our lower-case ‘i’>dentity groups, well—the results are pretty obvious: we end up splintered.
(I cannot help but wonder if it’s anything other than a coincidence that this same little “i” is also how the most successful consumer electronics company in the world labels all its products?? Coincidence or no, the emphasis upon my i-dentity as a small-fry tribal voter and my i-dentity as an insatiable consumer achieves the same sad end: it is very easy for i to become a disembodied i-ndividual, an i adrift and afloat in a miasmic, refracting cloud, an i that at best is a member of a very small group of like-minded i’s, and, as such, an i that is completely dis-empowered to question, let alone change, a damned thing, in politics or capital. Full disclosure: i’m writing this on a Mac…)
That last bit might sound like I’m aiming for power—Workers of the world, unite! They got the guns but we got the numbers! Let me assure you that I’m not: I’m an artist, not a politician, though certainly not one opposed to revolutionary acts, which is why I’m suggesting that rather than emphasizing our little tribal “i’s,” we instead focus upon our material, shared and common Humanity. (Yes, spelled with a big old capital H.) How in god’s name is such an assertion a “revolutionary act”? you ask. Because no little “i” is going to change the system for the better, but a united Humanity certainly could.
I don’t know what the hell it feels like to be a gay man with bi-racial, divorced parents who lives in an inner city, but if I begin with the reality that I’m a material human being who labors hard to get through the world, and acknowledge that this gay/bi-racial/inner-city man shares at least this trait with me, then we’ve got something in common. That does not inherently guarantee solutions, because those take time and a lot of work, but undeniably we have the beginning of a relatable-conversation, which, if you’re anything like me, seems far more desirable than an unending scream-fest that’s consumed our political discourse this past year. It’s also an approach that may—just may—help change the world for the better.