Af­ter the mid-term polls, what now for Amer­ica?

Sunday Times (Sri Lanka) - - COMMENT - By Ian Bu­ruma, exclusive to the Sun­day Times in Sri Lanka

NEW YORK – At least it wasn’t a dis­as­ter. If the Democrats had failed to se­cure a ma­jor­ity in the US House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives, Pres­i­dent Donald Trump would have felt almighty, with all the dire con­se­quences that would en­tail. But the Repub­li­cans still con­trol the Se­nate, and that means that the ju­di­ciary, in­clud­ing the Supreme Court, will be pushed fur­ther to the right. And the elec­tion of Repub­li­can gover­nors in ma­jor states like Ohio and Florida means that elec­toral districts can be fi­nessed to boost Trump’s re­elec­tion chances in 2020.

One of the most com­mon po­lit­i­cal clichés ahead of th­ese midterm elec­tions was that they were a “bat­tle for Amer­ica’s soul.” It is easy to imag­ine Repub­li­cans and Democrats stand­ing for two dif­fer­ent ver­sions of the coun­try: one is over­whelm­ingly white, mod­estly ed­u­cated, not very young, strong in ru­ral ar­eas, of­ten male, and proud to own guns; the other is bet­ter ed­u­cated, younger, ur­ban, racially di­verse, more fe­male, and keen to con­trol guns. Th­ese are car­i­ca­tures, but they ex­press a very recog­nis­able re­al­ity.

Though both sides be­lieve they are pa­tri­otic Amer­i­cans, their idea of pa­tri­o­tism could not be more dif­fer­ent. The writer James Bald­win put the case for “pro­gres­sive” pa­tri­o­tism well: he loved Amer­ica more than any coun­try in the world, and for that rea­son in­sisted on the right to crit­i­cise her per­pet­u­ally. Trumpian pa­tri­ots would have de­nounced Bald­win as a traitor.

The big temp­ta­tion for the Democrats, now that they have won con­trol of the House, is to make the most of what they see as their great­est strengths: racial and gen­der di­ver­sity, and a shared loathing of Trump. This would be a log­i­cal po­si­tion. Trump is in­deed dread­ful, and the Democrats could le­git­i­mately claim that older, ru­ral white men are less rep­re­sen­ta­tive of Amer­ica to­day than the young, the ur­ban, the non­white and newly em­pow­ered women.

And yet, to fo­cus the Demo­cratic agenda on Trump and di­ver­sity would be a mis­take. There will be pressure, es­pe­cially from younger Democrats, fired up by their suc­cess, to im­peach the pres­i­dent. But as long as the Se­nate, which would have to con­vict him, is in Repub­li­can hands, an in­dict­ment by the House would be prac­ti­cally mean­ing­less. Even if im­peached, he would still be pres­i­dent, and Repub­li­cans would be in­clined to de­fend him even more fiercely.

It is cer­tainly a good thing to have more women and non­white, non-Chris­tian rep­re­sen­ta­tives in the leg­is­la­ture. This pro­vides a re­fresh­ing and nec­es­sary con­trast to the Repub­li­can Party, which has re­made it­self in the im­age of its leader: an­gry, white, and of­ten openly racist. But to fight Trump’s iden­tity pol­i­tics with an equally ag­gres­sive form of iden­tity pol­i­tics would make po­lit­i­cal trib­al­ism worse, and could make it harder for the Democrats to win na­tional elec­tions.

There is al­ways a dan­ger that the Democrats will be di­vided, with younger rad­i­cals pit­ting them­selves against the mostly white es­tab­lish­ment. But the Repub­li­cans, who seem ut­terly united be­hind their leader, have a prob­lem, too. The so­cially lib­eral, highly ed­u­cated Repub­li­cans who used to be the back­bone of the party have been pushed so far to the mar­gins that they are al­most in­vis­i­ble. John McCain was per­haps the last of those Mo­hi­cans.

The Democrats should cap­i­talise on that. And the way to do it would be to put less stress on sex­ual, racial, or gen­der iden­tity, and more on the econ­omy. This might seem a naive strat­egy dur­ing an eco­nomic boom, when Repub­li­cans can boast of record-low un­em­ploy­ment. But even many tra­di­tional lais­sez- faire con­ser­va­tives should recog­nise that a yawn­ing di­vide be­tween rich and poor is not good for busi­ness. Henry Ford, who was not a fount of wis­dom on many mat­ters, recog­nised that if you want to sell cars, you have to put enough money into peo­ple’s pock­ets so that they can buy them.

This, too, is an is­sue close to Amer­ica’s con­flicted soul. For some, Amer­i­can iden­tity is based on red-blooded cap­i­tal­ist en­ter­prise and rugged in­di­vid­u­al­ism, un­hin­dered by excessive govern­ment reg­u­la­tion in the pur­suit of ma­te­rial hap­pi­ness. But for oth­ers, Amer­ica stands on an ideal of greater so­cial jus­tice and eco­nomic equal­ity – which nowa­days should in­clude a com­mit­ment to ad­dress cli­mate change (a barely-dis­cussed is­sue in the midterms), given that global warm­ing will harm the poor more than the rich.

There have been boom times for the very wealthy, such as the Gilded Age in the late nine­teenth cen­tury, when 2% of Amer­i­can house­holds owned more than a third of the coun­try’s wealth, or in­deed our own time, when the top 1% owns al­most half the wealth. And there have been pe­ri­ods of re­form, when gov­ern­ments tried to re­dress the bal­ance. The most fa­mous ex­am­ple is Franklin D. Roo­sevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s.

It is clearly time for New Deal II. In­stead of promis­ing more tax breaks for the rich­est cit­i­zens, a more eq­ui­table fiscal pol­icy could pay for nec­es­sary bridges and other pub­lic goods and ser­vices that would im­prove ev­ery­one’s life. Af­ford­able health care for all cit­i­zens is a mark of a civilised so­ci­ety. The US is still a long way from that goal. The same is true of high- quality pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion. It is grotesque that so many peo­ple who stand to ben­e­fit from such “so­cial­ist” poli­cies are still per­suaded to vote against them be­cause they are sup­pos­edly “un-Amer­i­can.”

Con­cen­trat­ing on egal­i­tar­i­an­ism would ap­peal to lib­er­als, of course, but it should not alien­ate mod­er­ate vot­ers ei­ther, be­cause more equal­ity would be good for the econ­omy. And it might even per­suade some an­gry, poor Trump sup­port­ers to recog­nise that his pseudo- pop­ulism is not about help­ing the left-be­hind folks in Rust Belt cities and ru­ral hin­ter­lands. It is about giv­ing even more money to the very few. The Democrats’ core mes­sage for the next two years should be that in a plu­toc­racy, ev­ery­one else loses.

( Ian Bu­ruma is the au­thor, most re­cently, of A Tokyo Ro­mance: A Mem­oir.)

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