A political system haunted by racial violence and terror. An economy delivering great wealth for the few amid stagnation and indebtedness for the many. A rising millennial generation with deteriorating prospects increasingly willing to put their bodies on the line for something better. A climate catastrophe already beginning to unfold on the flooded streets of our largest cities.
With the profoundly troubling events in Charlottesville—and before that in Ferguson, Berkeley, Baltimore, and elsewhere—the ghosts of America’s past have come crowding in. And the ghosts of our future made landfall with Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. Like all such ghosts, these demand a response. We must now produce one that is both deeply moral and capable of getting at the heart of our difficulties. We must overcome the nightmares of fear, hatred, and isolation that have seized our politics with a strategy that can deliver solutions commensurate with the scale of the problems we face.
Three challenges stand out against a backdrop of crisis and malaise. The first is the need to confront squarely, and on an ongoing basis, America’s deep history of racism that has led to armed white supremacists marching openly in the streets and a Neo-Nazi sympathizer sitting in the White House. The second is the imperative to get off the defensive and, coming together, put forward a much more powerful, transformative alternative to Trumpism—real, practical solutions to the deep economic and ecological problems we are facing as a nation, building from the bottom up, as all serious movements must. The third calls for a political strategy capable of uniting a broad coalition around a shared agenda for building power, mobilizing the potential mass movement for fundamental transformation that is in the making if we develop the tools and alliances to bring about lasting change.
Our first commitment, as Cornel West has urged, has to be moral and political. We must mount an all-out attack on racism, racist leadership, and the so-called “alt-right”—including those who currently lead the country. America is not the only nation in the world in which the populist right has captured state power. Hungary and Poland each have right-wing authoritarian governments. Narendra Modi, India’s Hindu nationalist prime minister, once incited a massacre, while Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu have each presided over one. But the presidency of the United States is unique in the extraordinary political, economic, and military resources it commands. It’s time to face up to the fact that racism has been central, not incidental, to this power, with deep roots extending all the way back to the origins of the nation.
The United States was founded on white supremacy. Our early economic development rested on the theft of Native land, expropriation of African labor, and expansion into Mexican territory. By 1860, Yale historian David W. Blight reminds us, slaves were still worth more than the entire productive capacity of the country taken together. This history—encompassing Jim Crow, systematic discrimination in local, state, and federal programs, and a continuing racialized regime of mass incarceration—is deeply interwoven in our social fabric. The University of Virginia Rotunda—at which white nationalists, their faces twisted with hate, held their infamous torch-lit rally—was erected and maintained by slaves. The City Council’s decision to remove the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee—proximate cause of the far right’s invasion of Charlottesville—was accompanied by a $4 million reparations plan for the city’s historically marginalized black neighborhoods. Even as we mobilize to defend minority communities under assault from Trumpism, we must now massively expand our efforts to repair the terrible legacy of harm we as a nation have inflicted upon them.
Our second challenge is to distinguish between symptoms and causes in order to confront the underlying problems. Donald Trump may stand at the head of some of the most sinister forces in American political life, but the present crisis long predates him. Exploding economic inequality, wage stagnation, poverty, deindustrialization, economic and political disenfranchisement, disinvestment—for decades, under Clinton and Obama, no less than Reagan and the Bushes, most of the gains from the richest economy in the history of the world have gone only to the very top. Real wages for the vast majority of American workers have been stagnant for at least three decades, while the income share taken by the top 1 percent has jumped from 10 percent in 1980 to more than 22 percent today. In terms of wealth, the top 10 percent now command around three-quarters of the total, with the richest 400 individuals amassing more wealth than approximately the bottom 190 million Americans combined.
There are also growing disparities between black and Hispanic Americans, on the one hand, and white Americans on the other. Over the past 30 years, for instance, the average wealth of white Americans has grown a fifth faster than that of Hispanic Americans and by more than three times that of black Americans. And all of this inequity has been driven by an economic system addicted to growth, all too happy to “externalize” the consequences for our ecological future.
We are now living the consequences of these dangerous patterns. Many communities are falling into decay, their social bonds dissolving. Violence remains endemic (including shocking levels of violence against women). Civil liberties are eroding. The lives of millions are compromised by economic and social pain. Health inequality is on the rise, with the life expectancy gap between rich and poor people born in 1950 up significantly over those born in 1920. The labor force participation rate has declined for two decades—and is projected to decrease still further. Young people are saddled with ever-growing debt, including (but by no means limited to) a staggering $1.3 trillion in student loans. The incarceration rate has more than quintupled since the 1970s, and remains among the very highest in the world with people of color incarcerated at dramatically higher rates than their white counterparts. Polling on everything from Congress to the media shows a significant fall in public trust. At some point something had to give. This is the context that permitted the monstrous rise of Trump.
At the same time, traditional liberal strategies to achieve equitable and sustainable outcomes simply no longer work to alter most of the big trends. The government lacks both the will and capacity to use taxation and after-the-fact redistribution to achieve equity goals or to regulate corporations effectively. Puttering around on the edge of the climate crisis, we fail to understand that we face a systemwide crisis, not simply an economic and political crisis. It is time to get serious about taking on the underlying economic institutions and relationships—capital markets, private credit creation by big banks, footloose multinational corporations—that corrupt the political system and drive current economic and ecological outcomes. It’s time to face up to the profound institutional and systemic nature of our difficulties.
The good news is that the failure of traditional politics and policies to address fundamental challenges has fueled an extraordinary amount of experimentation in communities across the United States and around the world. Practical precedents, models, and strategies already exist that build from the bottom and begin to suggest radical new possibilities. Cooperatives, worker-owned companies, social enterprises, public banks, community land trusts, neighborhood corporations, municipal enterprises, anchor institution approaches, participatory budgeting, local food systems—in a thousand different places, ordinary people have been at work creating solutions, building knowledge and power and solidarity from the bottom up. A massive escalation of this activity must now be a major priority—in civil society, in philanthropy, in communities, in workplaces, locally, regionally, and nationally.
It is time both to resist and to go on the offensive. A comprehensive plan for the economic reconstruction of our communities—connected to the urgent imperative of a large scale transition in our energy and transit systems—can define the first key element in a compelling political program around which to organize to defeat Trumpism. Such a plan would increase city and state revenues, build the tax base, add new democratized businesses to the economy that are anchored and will not leave, and increase jobs and local multipliers. It requires integrating into a coherent whole many things that we know can be done and are already being done in diverse but isolated ways in many communities across the country.
There is also an urgent need to adapt such strategies to rural areas and Rust Belt states, where they could work to rebuild economies through the creation of value chains and sustainable local production. Trump shows that we write off these communities at our peril. From upstate New York through Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin, community after community has been destabilized by waves of deindustrialization. Once-great cities have been thrown away, whole regions left behind, and around 5 million manufacturing jobs lost since the mid-1990s. From Appalachia to the Gulf Coast, communities denied any alternative path cling tenuously to the false promises of the extractive economy, fueling our planetary carbon nightmare. The terrible political consequences of all this are now coming home to roost.
Trump himself ran hard against neoliberal finance and trade, striking a chord in the abandoned towns of the Rust Belt and rural Appalachia, which proved willing to give him a chance. These are not all the racists of Charlottesville who—clad in golf shirts and khakis or military-surplus gear—resemble more the traditional fascist mix of bourgeois and “lumpen” elements. Rather they include ordinary working families whose anger is understandably boiling over at a system they know is stacked against them. An election-day poll found 72 percent of Americans—a supermajority—in agreement that “the American economy is rigged to advantage the rich and powerful.” Trump flipped a third of counties that had previously voted twice for Obama. We urgently need to rise to the challenge of this profoundly dangerous era of pain and difficulty.
To do so means adopting a multipronged strategy for building community wealth and transforming our economies, thereby defusing some of the pressures currently being exploited by right-wing forces. Examples of the power of such strategies can already be found in places where they might least be expected. Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, for example, organized for participatory planning around a post-coal future in Appalachia, fighting for the Clean Power Plan when it was blocked at state level—a prefiguration of the kind of intransigence and indifference we now face at the national level. Greensburg, Kansas became—in a deep red state, under a Republican mayor—one of the greenest towns in the country when the government acted as partner and catalyst to rebuild the town after it was leveled by a tornado. Chattanooga, Tennessee has one of the fastest internet connections in America—thanks to a municipal fiber broadband network whereby public ownership of digital infrastructure is driving local economic revitalization. Such approaches point in the direction, ultimately, of rebuilding a power base—in both red states and blue cities—for a transformative new politics capable of standing on its own feet, operating within ecological limits, and managing our economy for the benefit of the many and not the few.
New strategies of democratic ownership within a community framework could function as the linchpin of an approach capable of uniting economic justice organizers, progressives, labor, and environmental and conservation activists while at the same time presenting an attractive economic development option to municipal officials. Moreover, such an approach can also help build economic power in communities struggling against concentrated poverty. On the basis of such a strategy, “rebel cities” at the forefront of resistance to Trump can begin to address the fiscal crisis locally no matter what the political conditions at the federal and state level. By leveraging their purchasing power, and that of large nonprofit anchor institutions, cities can act to keep dollars circulating locally and get them into the hands of disadvantaged communities—and at the same time reducing the carbon footprint associated with far-flung globalized supply chains.
Building from the bottom is inevitably the beginning step, but it is not the last. It is only through the building of a new power base resting on a renewal of local agency and new democratic ownership forms that the larger trajectory of systemic power can be addressed. A build-up of cooperative, worker- and community-owned firms points in the direction of larger regional and national structural possibilities. When large corporations go down, as General Motors and Chrysler did in the last major crisis, what new directions in public and community/worker ownership, and new forms of transportation, might be possible? Next time the giant Wall Street banks come to the government asking for a bailout, what form of local, regional, or national publicly owned banks might be demanded? As we edge closer and closer to losing our first city to climate change’s deadly onset, what new demands could find a ready base of support? New models are needed, building up from real-world experience, projecting national models forward on the basis of local learning and the lessons of other nations. It is in a new coming together of progressive politics and institutional development around innovative community-based models and a powerful and bold larger national democratizing vision that we will find our answers to Trumpism.
Prior to the 1930s, key elements of what became the New Deal were developed slowly, step by step, in America’s state and local “laboratories of democracy.” This hard work laid the groundwork both for new national institutions and programs and a new national politics—a progressive liberal vision that, at the time, offered something to hope for, work for, which could counter the traditional corporate power that dominated the preceding decades. We’re in a related but much more challenging historical moment today, and must get to work building our own new models that both deliver real benefits on the ground and can also lead to much larger transformative forms of democratic institution-changing impact nationally as new political power develops. In dark times such as the present, the possibility of hope—at the level of community and the nation as a whole—depends on being able to envision and deliver an economy and a future that people can believe in.
The answer to Charlottesville, to ever-intensifying racism, to the accelerating climate crisis, and to Donald Trump himself is first, to resist, and then to get serious about changing the system that has created them, from the bottom up and in a radically decentralized way.
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