Are American Progressives Making The Same Mistakes About Trump We Did About Thatcher?

Deriding Trump’s supporters might feel good, but it changes few minds. Credits: DonkeyHotey & MattBuck

Joe Biden’s candidacy makes it 20 Democrats to pick from for the 2020 presidential election. Choosing the right candidate to beat Trump is obviously a massively important decision, but American progressives look like they’re making the same mistakes that we on the left in Britain made in the 1980s in responding to Margaret Thatcher.

At the age of 16 I campaigned in the 1979 general election against Thatcher. Despite my endearing appeals across hundreds of doorsteps, she won, ushering in 18 years of continuous Conservative Party rule.

During the early 1980s I was a local Labour Party activist in Britain, and like many others on the left responded to Thatcher’s win by deriding those who had voted for her. It’s a mistake I see happening in America now.

We thought we would win by making it socially unacceptable to support Thatcher, and we focused on proving how uncool it was to vote Conservative. We called Thatcher supporters much worse things than deplorables, and felt good mocking their narrow nationalism.

We derided and ostracised her supporters. If facebook had been invented we would have unfriended them.

We thought that when hugely popular British satirical TV shows like Spitting Image skewered Thatcher’s government, much as Saturday Night Live attacks Trump now, it meant we were right and on the verge of winning. The more we made Thatcherites looks stupid, the more likely we were to defeat them. But Thatcher won the 1983 election easily, upping the Conservative Party’s parliamentary majority from 43 to 144.

We derided and ostracised her supporters. If facebook had been invented we would have unfriended them. But Thatcher won, and won, and won again. And then her successor John Major won. We were the cool kids who kept losing.

During the 1980s and early 1990s the UK Labour Party tore itself apart as leftish versus centrist infighting took over, much as it’s threatening to undercut the Democrats now. We tried and failed to beat the Conservatives with the relatively hard left leader Michael Foot in 1983, and with the softer socialism of Neil Kinnock in 1987 and 1992 (in 1987 Joe Biden ended his candidacy for president after he was accused of plagiarising one of Kinnock’s speeches). But we failed every time, eventually winning in 1997 with the decidedly centrist Tony Blair.

Her extremism brought out the best of the cultural left… but we couldn’t figure out how to win over her supporter base

Thatcher was more Reagan than Trump, and the Republican Party’s presidential election wins of 1980, 1984 and 1988 closely mirrored Thatcher’s general election victories of 1979, 1983 and 1987, and the two parties shared a similar politics. Both crippled their labor unions, cut welfare and urged extreme individualism over the common good. “There is no such thing as society,” said Thatcher, pushing a polarizing, divisive, and particularly mean right wing politics.

Her extremism brought out the best of the cultural left — new waves of art and comedy appeared, as did the influential music collective Red Wedge, led by leading British rock stars. We had Paul Weller, Elvis Costello, Sade and The Smiths on our side. Anti-Racism and LGBT activists found a new solidarity in having a common enemy. But we couldn’t figure out how to win over her supporter base.

As an exchange student in Washington during the mid-1980s I also saw up close how the American left responded to Reagan. I protested with Rosa Parks outside the South African embassy in Washington, and interned for Senator Ted Kennedy, helping to draft anti-apartheid legislation. I went to a rally for Walter Mondale, the1984 Democrat nominee for President, but hearing him speak reminded me of Labour Party meetings, where we told ourselves how wrong the other side was, without trying to persuade any of them. A few weeks the rally Mondale was crushed in a landslide by Reagan.

It wasn’t all bad. Kennedy’s anti-apartheid legislation was eventually passed despite Reagan’s veto, but only because he engaged with moderate Republicans in Congress and persuaded them to break with the far right ideologists happy enough to support the racist South African government. Kennedy won on this because he figured out how to talk to conservatives without ridiculing them.

I know how therapeutic it is to ridicule those who vote against you, to write them off as stupid and idiotic, but it doesn’t change many minds

Back in the UK in the late 1980s I wrote for New Socialist magazine, reluctantly supporting the modernisers (code for centrists), joining those who said we needed to tone down the socialism to get elected. This push to moderation helped Blair to win, and pushed the Labour Party several steps to the right, something that leaves me queasy now.

The lesson for the left is that while it matters who you choose as your leader, and how you organise with other progressives, what’s really important is how you engage with those who voted against you.

When I ask liberal friends in Washington now what they’re saying to Trump supporters to get them to switch, they usually say that either they don’t know anyone who voted for Trump, or that they can’t bear to talk to them, or that Trump supporters wouldn’t listen anyway.

I know how therapeutic it is to ridicule those who vote against you, to write them off as stupid and idiotic. It feels great, helps energise your base, and bonds you to those who agree with you. But it doesn’t change many minds of those who don’t.

And 18 years was a long time to be smug but miserable. Let’s not do that again.

Brian Dooley is author of Robert Kennedy: The Final Years (Edinburgh University Press)