Whither Backlash?

To hear some pundits tell it, the story of 2016 is the story of backlash. White backlash, male backlash, working class backlash — all these groups, derided by Democrats, had enough of their rude condescension and struck back. Sick of being told that they had white privilege, male privilege, or any other privilege, they stuck it to those libs by voting for a fat, senile old pervert.

That story is, frankly, bullshit. The politics of academia are arcane and inscrutable. They are not front-page news for the majority of the nation. People who aren’t already watching for this stuff don’t know who Christina Hoff Sommers is, or what happened at Middlebury. Sure, some people are interested in campus politics, and they fall for the oldest human fallacy there is: the assumption that because something matters to you, it matters to anyone else. The people moved by these micro-controversies have already made up their minds. They’re not swing votes who saw one too many White Privilege memes and decided to take their ball and go home.

No, there was a backlash, but it was a much simpler, more primal one: a backlash against the fact that, sometime over the past four decades, you stopped being able to get by. Jobs went away. The ones that stayed paid less. Medical care got more and more expensive. So did education. Roads crumbled. The social safety net frayed. The country was richer than ever, but all of that wealth was going to a tiny fraction, a parasite class that drank itself into a stupor and forgot to leave some for the rest of us. When you’re not getting by, you look for someone to blame. It’s human. The American Myth is that if you work hard and put your best foot forward, the system will treat you fairly. Those left behind didn’t want to believe that this was a lie, so the fact that they had been used up and discarded must be due to some nefarious outside interference. Immigrants? Muslims? African-Americans? Feminism? Doesn’t matter. It was someone Other.

Does this sound like a racist backlash? Somewhat, but there’s a key component you need to understand. In the minds of the Democrats, the backlash was generated by the resentment: you get racial and cultural resentment, then you get mass anger and political mobilization. The reality is the reverse. People have been mad for a long, long time. Network debuted in 1976. At the time, it spoke to people. Since then we’ve been fermenting in late capitalism for decades. First you get the anger, the fear, the desire to do something, anything about this problem: then you get the scapegoating, the targeting of vulnerable communities.

This distinction is important. If the story of Trump was the story of people getting fed-up with being called racist (just because they don’t want their tax dollars going to support Those People!), then there is little the Dems can do to reverse it. Some people really are racist, and most of them don’t want to think about themselves that way. The hardcore Republican base is generally a pack of slavering, insipid mutants, but that’s about 30% of the voting population at best. That’s not much of a coalition. To win, Republicans need the hopeless, the scared, the nostalgic, and people who earnestly want a better life and are willing to trust a notorious con man and swindler. I think a lot of them knew that Trump didn’t give a shit about them and wasn’t going to help, but between him and Clinton, who didn’t even bother to pretend, what kind of choice is there?

These people, the core of the backlash, are still angry and frightened. They’re likely to be more angry and frightened in three and a half years, when their health care has been stripped and the jobs still haven’t come back. We know what the Republicans will offer: the same thing they always do, more fear and more blame. What will the Democrats offer? Will they cluck their tongues at the scapegoating without offering an alternative? Will they understand the suffering, the feeling of loss? “America is already great,” said Hillary Clinton, and that didn’t work because it’s a self-evident lie. America doesn’t feel great. Even those who are getting by can feel it, a slow malaise that has crept over the nation. We don’t win anymore, Trump said, and he was right. Our endless foreign wars consume lives and burn money to no gain. Our wealth no longer comes from manufacture and toil, but from moving money around between ledgers and using it as a lever to pry free even more money. The fact that Trump wants to make every single one of these problems worse is irrelevant. At least he can speak to them.

America is not great and has not been great for a long time. Maybe never. America runs in circles, its sprawling global empire rotting from the inside, as on the home front the accumulation of wealth and power has concentrated into a few tiny centers while everyone else slips down into torpor and early death. Some of this is structural. There is nothing Trump can do to restore the fortunes of small-town America. The cities continue to grow and prosper, everywhere else continues to crumble. Segregation is back, or maybe it never left, a labyrinthine sprawl of rules and unspoken obligations that binds us tighter into our enclaves. Every day our democracy is more of a joke, a fable that hides us from the truth. If you make less than ten million dollars a year, you have no more control over your fate than a fly in a web. Does that frighten you? It should. Does it offend you? It should. It’s not what this country was founded on. No wonder there’s a backlash.

There’s good news, of course. There always is if you know where to look. Socialist policies are more popular now than they’ve been in a century. The idea of universal health care — a basic staple of life in every other first world nation, most of which are more prosperous than America — is no longer unthinkable. It may be on our doorstep. Capitalism is toppling. It cannot serve the will of the people. Those who claim that the Democrats have moved too far left are in for a rude awakening. Eight years of shouting “socialism!” as a center-right-wing technocrat tried modest reform has defanged the word as a slur. What you didn’t realize was that Obama was trying to save you from socialism. As a committed market-friendly New Democrat, he was trying to preserve the fragile, antiquated market structure, to head off socialism at the pass. Liberalism is the process by which power makes strategic concessions to preserve itself. When it stops making those concessions, it dies.

I’m not talking about violent revolution. We don’t need it. Socialist policies are overwhelmingly popular. Universal health care — a true, nationalized takeover of the health care system, where private insurance shrinks to the size of an afterthought, where the state directly manages your care — is coming. It’s due. America’s health care system is garbage: for all the myths about foreigners coming here to use our system, we have more infant mortality, higher rates of death from preventable disease, more diabetes, and we pay more for it than anyone else. In countries with UHC, they pay less for better care. It’s as simple as that. The people want it. Crucially, young people really want it: with every year that passes the pool of people opposed to a government health care program (mostly clutching at their Medicare, oblivious to irony) shrinks. Despite old aphorisms about young people growing more conservative as they age, researchers have consistently found that once people’s voting patterns are set, they tend to remain remarkably steady. Soft-headed young liberals grow up into hard-headed old liberals.

The first step is universal health care. Its opponents will fight back bitterly, but we must be resolute. In time, many of them can be talked around. After all, they benefit — they’re part of everyone, too. Universal health care would be a boon to entrepreneurship in this country. When you depend on your boss for your health coverage, you’re afraid to quit, to start something new — but when you’re assured of coverage regardless? You can spread your wings. If you own a business, how would you like to not have to pay for insurance for your employees? More insurance means more preventative visits, more trips to the doctor — and fewer emergency room visits and costly, time-consuming treatments for diseases only caught after they could no longer be ignored.

This is how you blunt a backlash. You find out what it’s lashing back against and you address the problem at the root. Sure, there will always be people out there who blame feminists for why they can’t get laid, blame immigrants for dirtying up the country, blame everyone but themselves for the permanently fucked state of their lives. Some people you just can’t reach. But you don’t have to. If you bring prosperity to the many, you will assemble a coalition that will support you to the end of time.