The left will beat Trump in the end

De­mor­al­ized lib­er­als should cheer up. The pres­i­dent can’t undo the tide of progress, writes po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst Ruy Teix­eira.

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Rteix­eira@amer­i­can­

Is Don­ald Trump the end for the left? Is it re­ally pos­si­ble, as a baby boomer averred in an in­ter­view last month with The Wash­ing­ton Post, that “all the things we cared about for the past 40 years could be wiped out in the first 100 days”?

Amer­i­can left­ists are not known for their op­ti­mism, and yet, even for them, the pre­vail­ing sen­ti­ment is that th­ese are es­pe­cially dark days. Nearly twothirds of Democrats say they are “wor­ried or pes­simistic” about the fu­ture of the coun­try in a new Wall Street Jour­nal-NBC News poll.

Historian Jeremi Suri, writ­ing in the At­lantic, as­sessed that “with his bar­rage of ex­ec­u­tive or­ders, Trump is tak­ing Amer­ica back to the his­tor­i­cal night­mares of the world be­fore De­cem­ber 1941: closed bor­ders, lim­ited trade, in­tol­er­ance to di­ver­sity, arms races, and a go-it-alone na­tional race to the bot­tom.” Rep. Luis Gu­tiér­rez (D-Ill.) spoke out against Trump’s at­tor­ney gen­eral pick, say­ing, “If you have nos­tal­gia for the days when blacks kept quiet, gays were in the closet, im­mi­grants were in­vis­i­ble and women stayed in the kitchen, Sen­a­tor Jef­fer­son Beau­re­gard Ses­sions is your man.” Cli­mate sci­en­tists of­fer a sim­i­larly bleak view, fear­ing that Trump will quickly un­ravel Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s legacy and that “the world, then, may have no way to avoid the most dev­as­tat­ing con­se­quences of global warm­ing, in­clud­ing ris­ing sea lev­els, ex­treme droughts and food short­ages, and more pow­er­ful floods and storms,” as the New York Times put it.

But fears that Trump will set back the left’s agenda dan­ger­ously and ir­repara­bly are not well founded. Core ad­vances can’t be un­done. Although Trump could do some real tem­po­rary dam­age, he and his move­ment will fade, and the val­ues and pri­or­i­ties of the left will even­tu­ally tri­umph.

Con­sider so­cial equal­ity and tol­er­ance, where some of to­day’s great­est fears are con­cen­trated. It is true that

Trump has said many egre­gious things, like as­so­ci­at­ing Mex­i­can im­mi­grants with crim­i­nal be­hav­ior, and has tried (though so far failed) to im­ple­ment a ban on im­mi­gra­tion from some Mus­lim coun­tries. But peo­ple should not lose sight of the mas­sive progress in the past half-cen­tury, led by the left. This in­cludes the de­struc­tion of for­mal and many nor­ma­tive bar­ri­ers to racial equal­ity, the rise of the black mid­dle class, the ad­vance­ment of women in higher ed­u­ca­tion and the pro­fes­sions, the dom­i­nance of anti-sex­ist views in pub­lic opin­ion, and the ac­cep­tance of gays, in­clud­ing the in­sti­tu­tion of same-sex mar­riage. We still have far to go in the at­tain­ment of full so­cial equal­ity, but it is also true that we have gone far.

Pub­lic-opin­ion data is quite clear that the United States has be­come more, not less, lib­eral in all th­ese ar­eas over time and that th­ese trends are con­tin­u­ing. Take the stan­dard ques­tion about whether im­mi­gra­tion lev­els should in­crease, de­crease or stay the same. The 38 per­cent of peo­ple who say “de­crease” is about as low as it ever has been since Gallup started track­ing the ques­tion in the 1960s. The cur­rent num­ber rep­re­sents a mas­sive drop, of about 30 points, since the early 1990s, when Pat Buchanan first raised his pitch­fork high at the Repub­li­can Na­tional Con­ven­tion. There has also been a con­sid­er­able change in views about whether im­mi­gra­tion is a good or bad thing for Amer­ica — and it’s pos­i­tive, not neg­a­tive, change, even if one con­fines the data to white Amer­i­cans. Ac­cord­ing to Gallup, the “good thing” re­sponse by whites was as low as 51 per­cent in the early 2000s but has been around 70 per­cent in the past two years.

Nor has there been any kind of spike in neg­a­tive racial at­ti­tudes in re­cent years. In fact, ac­cord­ing to the Univer­sity of Chicago’s Gen­eral So­cial Sur­vey, such at­ti­tudes were far more preva­lent in the early 1990s than they are to­day, in­clud­ing among white Democrats and Repub­li­cans. This is true even as per­cep­tions of the qual­ity of race re­la­tions have been dim­ming, thanks pri­mar­ily to con­flict around po­lice shoot­ings and to a tiny mi­nor­ity of gen­uine haters whose rhetoric and ac­tions have been widely cov­ered. But the un­der­ly­ing trend to­ward racial lib­er­al­ism con­tin­ues.

So the idea that Trump will some­how suc­cess­fully re­lit­i­gate the role of im­mi­grants, mi­nori­ties, gays and women in Amer­i­can so­ci­ety is scary but ab­surd. He may con­tinue the Repub­li­can cam­paign to re­strict vot­ing rights. He may seek to over­turn Roe v. Wade (sup­ported by 70 per­cent of the Amer­i­can pub­lic). He may pro­mote prej­u­dice against Mus­lim Amer­i­cans. Such ac­tions may in fact be cheered on by his hard-core sup­port­ers. But he will ul­ti­mately fail, be­cause what he wishes to do is both mas­sively un­pop­u­lar and runs against the grain of le­gal prece­dent and in­sti­tu­tional norms.

And he can’t hold back the one true in­evitabil­ity in de­mo­graphic change: the re­place­ment of older gen­er­a­tions by newer ones. Un­der­ap­pre­ci­ated in Novem­ber’s elec­tion was the con­tin­u­ing left­ward lean of young vot­ers, once again sup­port­ing the Demo­cratic can­di­date by around 20 points — and with younger mil­len­ni­als, in­clud­ing both col­lege-ed­u­cated and non­col­lege whites, even more pro-Demo­cratic than older ones. That is huge. And don’t ex­pect th­ese vot­ers to shift right as they age. Po­lit­i­cal science re­search shows that early vot­ing pat­terns tend to stick.

An­other lo­cus of disquiet, if not hys­te­ria, on the left is the en­vi­ron­ment. But con­sider this: In 1969, the Cuya­hoga River in Cleve­land caught fire; in 1979, when Obama was at­tend­ing col­lege in Los An­ge­les and re­mem­bers con­stant smog, there were 234 days when the city ex­ceeded fed­eral ozone stan­dards. Our wa­ter and air are now or­ders of mag­ni­tude cleaner than they were back then.

Trump will not be able to sud­denly wipe out all th­ese gains. Sure, he says he will se­verely cut en­vi­ron­men­tal reg­u­la­tions, es­pe­cially ones put in place by Obama; hol­low out the EPA; some­how bring back the coal in­dus­try; and much more. But say­ing and do­ing are two dif­fer­ent things. Get­ting rid of Obama-era rules such as the Clean Power Plan would take years and be chal­lenged by lit­i­ga­tion. Re­vers­ing the de­cline of the coal in­dus­try is eco­nom­i­cally im­pos­si­ble. Abol­ish­ing the EPA and gut­ting the clean air and wa­ter acts is po­lit­i­cally im­pos­si­ble. When the Ge­orge W. Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion tried to elim­i­nate one Clin­ton­era rule on lev­els of ar­senic in drink­ing wa­ter, it ran into a po­lit­i­cal buz­z­saw and had to re­treat.

The left’s pri­or­ity of a clean en­vi­ron­ment with clean air and wa­ter is im­mensely pop­u­lar, with deeply en­trenched pro­grams and prac­tices that sus­tain it. Trump will be able to slow down en­vi­ron­men­tal ad­vances, by chip­ping away at rel­a­tively ob­scure reg­u­la­tions and re­duc­ing en­force­ment, but he can­not re­verse them.

Nor will Trump be able to de­rail the re­mark­able progress on an­other cher­ished goal of the left: a green econ­omy that can stave off global warm­ing. The key here is abun­dant, cheap, clean en­ergy, and work to­ward that goal has been go­ing for­ward at a break­neck pace. World in­vest­ments in clean en­ergy, chiefly wind and so­lar, have reached lev­els that are dou­ble those for fos­sil fuel. Re­new­ables now pro­vide half of all new elec­tric ca­pac­ity around the world. The cost of so­lar has fallen to 1/150th of its 1970s level, and the amount of in­stalled so­lar ca­pac­ity has in­creased a stag­ger­ing 115,000 times. In­deed, it is in­creas­ingly com­mon for clean en­ergy in some ar­eas to be fully cost-com­pet­i­tive with fos­sil fu­els. Trump will not and can­not stop this trend.

Or take liv­ing stan­dards and the mid­dle class, where progress has ad­mit­tedly been slow (though not ab­sent) in the re­cent past. Cap­i­tal­ism is cer­tainly ca­pa­ble of per­form­ing much bet­ter — but Trump is not the man to make that hap­pen. All he’s go­ing to suc­ceed in do­ing is blow­ing up one of the main road­blocks to bet­ter eco­nomic per­for­mance: the con­ser­va­tive Repub­li­can anti-gov­ern­ment, quasi-lib­er­tar­ian con­sen­sus around eco­nomic pol­icy. A pro­tec­tion­ist pres­i­dent who pro­poses to spend $1 tril­lion on in­fra­struc­ture, crit­i­cizes cor­po­rate de­ci­sions on job lo­ca­tion, and swears to op­pose any and all So­cial Se­cu­rity and Medi­care cuts is miles away from that con­sen­sus, even if he does sup­port slash­ing taxes for the rich and un­der­min­ing unions. He is on a col­li­sion course with his own Congress that will re­sult in in­co­her­ent eco­nomic pol­icy with lit­tle or no ben­e­fit to the work­ing-class vot­ers who elected him.

Fi­nally, con­sider the tremen­dous pro­gres­sive achieve­ments of the Obama era, from a stim­u­lus bill that saved the econ­omy and poured money into clean-en­ergy in­vest­ments to the Dodd-Frank act reg­u­lat­ing the fi­nan­cial sec­tor to the Af­ford­able Care Act and much more. Th­ese were re­mark­able gains for the left, at­tained de­spite se­vere head­winds in the af­ter­math of the Great Re­ces­sion.

Of course, Trump and the Repub­li­can Congress have de­clared their in­ten­tion to roll back th­ese ad­vances and then some. The pres­i­dent has al­ready signed ex­ec­u­tive or­ders that seek to weaken Dodd-Frank and un­der­mine the ACA. But can Trump and his GOP al­lies re­ally get rid of th­ese pro­grams, as op­posed to nib­bling at their edges? It will not be as easy as they ex­pect and as many on the left fear.

The chaos sur­round­ing Repub­li­can ef­forts to “re­peal and re­place” the Af­ford­able Care Act il­lus­trates just how dif­fi­cult this roll­back would be. The idea of re­peal­ing the ACA first and com­ing up with a re­place­ment later died quickly, forc­ing Repub­li­cans to con­front the fact that they can­not agree on what the new plan should be. Some want to keep the Med­i­caid ex­pan­sion, some balk at re­quir­ing higher de­ductibles, some worry about re­duc­ing sub­si­dies, and many fear po­lit­i­cal dam­age from throw­ing mil­lions of peo­ple off health in­sur­ance. The dis­unity of the re­peal forces is so pal­pa­ble that former House Speaker John Boehner, who once led the charge to re­peal the ACA, now ad­mits that re­peal is “not go­ing to hap­pen” and that “most of the frame­work of the Af­ford­able Care Act” will re­main in place.

Trump and the Repub­li­can Congress fail to un­der­stand, and the left would do well to re­mem­ber, one of the most en­dur­ing fea­tures of Amer­i­can pub­lic opin­ion. The dom­i­nant ide­ol­ogy in the United States is one that com­bines “sym­bolic con­ser­vatism” (hon­or­ing tra­di­tion, dis­trust­ing nov­elty, em­brac­ing the con­ser­va­tive la­bel) with “op­er­a­tional lib­er­al­ism” (want­ing gov­ern­ment to take more ac­tion in a wide va­ri­ety of ar­eas). As po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tists Christo­pher El­lis and James Stim­son, the lead­ing aca­demic an­a­lysts of Amer­i­can ide­ol­ogy, note: “Most Amer­i­cans like most gov­ern­ment pro­grams. Most of the time, on av­er­age, we want gov­ern­ment to do more and spend more. It is no ac­ci­dent that we have cre­ated the pro­grams of the wel­fare state. They were cre­ated — and are sus­tained — by mas­sive pub­lic sup­port.”

That’s why, now that the ACA has de­liv­ered con­crete ben­e­fits for many peo­ple, it is so very hard to get rid of. As a con­stituent of Sen. Chuck Grass­ley (R-Iowa) put it: “I’m on Oba­macare. If it wasn’t for Oba­macare, we wouldn’t be able to af­ford in­sur­ance. With all due re­spect, Sir, you’re the man that talked about the death panel. We’re go­ing to cre­ate one great big death panel in this coun­try if peo­ple can’t af­ford to get in­sur­ance.” In the long run, it is far more likely that the ACA will be built upon and im­proved, so that it ex­tends cov­er­age and tamps down ris­ing med­i­cal costs even fur­ther (that will be the “some­thing ter­rific” Trump has talked about), than truly be elim­i­nated.

The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion could still do some real dam­age. There will be lax en­force­ment of fi­nan­cial and en­vi­ron­men­tal reg­u­la­tions. There will prob­a­bly be tax cuts for the rich and un­der­fund­ing of im­por­tant so­cial pro­grams. There will be more ha­rass­ment of im­mi­grants and no progress on com­pre­hen­sive im­mi­gra­tion re­form. But its abil­ity to re­make Amer­ica in the lib­er­tar­ian im­age (pri­va­tize So­cial Se­cu­rity! voucher­ize Medi­care!) en­vi­sioned by Paul Ryan is dis­tinctly lim­ited — even as­sum­ing that Trump backs such moves whole­heart­edly, which he very well might not, given his pub­lic pro­nounce­ments on th­ese pro­grams.

In the end, the Trumpian pop­ulism of the 2010s will prob­a­bly have no more stay­ing power than the agrar­ian pop­ulism of the 1880s and 1890s, which was also driven by de­mo­graphic groups on the de­cline and was sim­i­larly un­der­cut by struc­tural change and the tran­si­tion to a new eco­nomic era. That ear­lier pop­ulist era was fol­lowed by an era of strong so­cial ad­vance­ment in the early 20th cen­tury — the Pro­gres­sive Era.

What will have stay­ing power in the 21st cen­tury is the val­ues and pri­or­i­ties of the left. They will not win ev­ery bat­tle, but they will win the war.

The idea that Trump will suc­cess­fully re­lit­i­gate the role of im­mi­grants, mi­nori­ties, gays and women in Amer­i­can so­ci­ety is scary but ab­surd. Such ac­tions may be cheered on by his hard-core sup­port­ers, but he will ul­ti­mately fail.

Ruy Teix­eira’s new book is “The Op­ti­mistic Left­ist: Why the 21st Cen­tury Will Be Bet­ter Than You Think.”


Cal­i­for­ni­ans watch Pres­i­dent Trump’s tele­vised ad­dress to Congress on Tues­day.

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