Hundreds of thousands of articles will be written this week trying to explain what happened in the 2016 US presidential election. One of the best explanations was written four years ago by television host and cultural commentator, Chris Hayes.
In his book, Twilight of the Elites, Hayes explains that left/right divisions in the US are no longer as relevant as the tension between institutionalists and insurrectionists. Institutionalists believe the institutions of our society – government, media, education, healthcare, business – are fundamentally sound, but need the ongoing engagement of good, energized people to keep them healthy and functional. Insurrectionists believe that these same institutions have failed us and need to be torn down and replaced.
We just experienced a presidential election between a consumate institutionalist and a radical insurrectionist. Clinton’s notable qualities – her deep understanding of the way Washington works, her experience in the State department, the respect she receives from powerful people domestically and internationally, her ethic of hard work – are the calling cards of the institutionalist. She understands the system and is ready to make it work better.
Trump, on the other hand, doesn’t understand the systems he’s just been given the keys to. That’s okay, since he’s not promising to steer it well, but instead to crash it into a wall. The people who elected Trump did so not because they thought his business expertise would translate into good governance. They did so because the American system wasn’t working for them, and Clinton promised only fine-tuning of a system that’s failing them. Crashing the bus is a stupid move, but when you believe it’s been driven in the wrong direction for the past few decades, it can feel like progress.
Well before Trump announced his unlikely candidacy, institutionalists were starting to feel the earth shift under their feet. For decades, American trust in government has been shrinking. In 1964, 77% of Americans told pollsters that they believed the government in Washington would do the right thing all or most of the time. Now, that number is under 15%. And who can blame us? Trust started falling with Watergate, accelerated under 8 years of Reagan telling us that government couldn’t do anything right, was reinforced by the failures of the war in Iraq, our national failure to protect the poor after Katrina and the financial crisis of 2008. If you’re not at least a little mistrustful, you’re not paying attention.
When people start to mistrust systems, two things happen. They stop participating within them, and they look for someone – a single person who they can relate to – who promises a way out of or around the system. Mistrust leads both to low political participation, as we saw in this election, and to the rise of authoritarians and demagogues.
Someone always runs as the outsider, the rebel who’ll shake up the political establishment. The Republicans – in spite of themselves – nominated a genuine outsider this year, someone who neither understood or respected the process. When the nation – and the world – is in an insurrectionist mood, the normal rules of politics don’t apply. For his insurrectionist supporters, every time Trump trampled on another norm – threatening to prosecute his rival, banning reporters from his events, encouraging violence in his rallies – it was evidence that he was genuinely outside the system, genuinely willing to challenge the status quo. When we on the left celebrated Clinton’s self-control, leadership, competence and experience, it read as us reassuring our insurrectionist neighbors that we institutionalists were committed to ensuring that nothing major would actually change.
I work with thousands of people on dozens of civic projects, all of whom are asking, “What now?” I don’t know, and I distrust anyone who thinks s/he does. But here’s a start:
This would be a good time to take insurrectionists seriously. When we dismiss all Trump voters are racists or misogynists, we run the risk of ignoring those who hated Trump, hated what he stood for, and voted for him anyway, because they hate their dead-end jobs, they can’t afford health insurance, and they see things getting worse, not better, for their children.
Don’t get be wrong – some genuinely hateful people voted for Trump because they see him as making America Hate Again. Protecting marginalized people – immigrants, Muslims, LGBTQI, people of color – has to be the top priority for the next four years for anyone outraged and dismayed by Trump’s election.
But progressives need a new vision for an economy where workers, not just entrepreneurs, have a bright future. And I’m pretty sure that future isn’t built around the gig economy. Yes, GDP is up, but when inequality is as high as it is, that doesn’t mean a thing for most workers. Yes, unemployment is reasonably low, but the quality of jobs has dropped for many of the workers who are demanding change. Understanding that many people feel their future slipping away, and that people who feel threatened tend to treat those they see as “other” very badly, is an important step anyone who works on social change needs to take.
Not all insurrectionists are conservative. Occupy was a progressive insurrectionist movement, as was Podemos. So is the Pirate Party in Iceland, which came close to capturing power last month. Insurrectionism doesn’t have to mean a return to the political dark ages (though under Trump, it likely will.)
Progressives need to understand an insurrectionist moment as an opportunity to push for structural change. Trump wants to “drain the swamp”, and make fundamental changes to how Washington works. Conveniently, so do I – Washington hasn’t worked very well for many people for a long time now. When Trump’s incoherent and insane ideas don’t pan out, it would be a very good thing for progressive insurrectionists to offer some structural changes we’d like to make. An electoral college bound to the popular vote, larger congressional districts with rank-order voting to lessen tyranny of the majority, bans on dark money? Those are hard for with an institutionalist, who’s been put into place by that system, to fight against, but they could be the platform for a progressive insurrectionist.
If you can’t make change through law, make in another way. For the past couple of years, I’ve been preaching the idea that elections, laws and court decisions aren’t the only path to social change. I’ve done so because I’ve seen many progressive-leaning insurrectionists become frustrated with their inability to pass laws and elect leaders to advance their priorities.
Law is a powerful way to make social change, but it’s far from the only way. Deep changes like the acceptance of gays and lesbians in society is a norms-based change that unfolds in popular culture and social media far before law catches up and protects rights. Changes in technology are leading to a change in how we understand and protect privacy, allowing citizens to respond to government surveillance by hardening their personal privacy. Changes in markets, where social enterprise is emerging as an alternative to conventional enterprise, is an area where disruptive, insurrectionist practices are celebrated. We’re starting to see successful examples of change using levers other than law as the primary lever of change. This challenging moment is a good time to learn to use those non-legal levers better.
Help people feel powerful. Insurrectionism results from the understandable feeling many people have that they are powerless to change the systems that govern their lives. Anything we can do to help more people feel powerful undercuts the insurrectionist argument. Alternatively, anything that helps people make change by combatting and replacing dysfunctional institutions with ones that work better harnesses insurrectionism for positive ends. What doesn’t help is any outcome that leaves people feeling powerless and alienated, as that’s the circumstances that’s led us to this dark moment.
I didn’t want to see a Trump presidency, and the rise of insurrectionism to the highest levels of the American government scares the crap out of me. But scarier is the endless blame game I hear my allies engaged in, figuring out whether we blame the media, the FBI or anyone other than ourselves for this loss. We have a brief opportunity to figure out how to make social change in an age of high mistrust and widespread insurrectionism. It would be a shame if Donald Trump figured out how to harness this power and the progressives lined up against him failed to do so.
Also published on Medium.