5 Straws to Clutch/Reasons to be Cheerful on US presidential inauguration day

Someone asked me to try and write something positive today, so here goes. As Obama_meeting_with_Trump_2President Obama told his daughters, the only thing that’s the end of the world is the end of the world. This ain’t it. So (channelling Ian Dury), here are some reasons to be cheerful:

The US is deeply federal: to a Brit, it’s striking how many of the big decisions are taken at state and municipal level. Lots of really interesting initiatives on climate change, living wage etc – the cities and states will be the incubators of new ideas and practices for future decades.

Trump is not Putin: the new President does not appear to have some master plan for hollowing out democratic institutions. He may not even have the stamina for the long slog of trying to get decisions through the system.

Trump supporters are not a monolith: 60m people voted for Trump for a whole range of reasons. Inequality and economic exclusion; objections to Obama and his policies; a backlash against ‘political correctness’ and being made to feel guilty by condescending liberals and, yes, some nasty anti-immigrant and anti-minority sentiments. That coalition is likely to fracture pretty soon under the pressures of being in office.

History is on the side of progressive change: the US is becoming ever-more diverse; out there among the public, norms are shifting in good directions (as well as some bad) on a whole range of issues. A politics built on nostalgia has a fast approaching sell-by date.

Reality exists: post-truth politics can only win temporary victories, because there is a reality out there that will come back to bite it.

Actually, it probably isn't
Actually, it probably isn’t

So what are poverty-fighting activists to do? I am not a US citizen, and cannot fully grasp the grief, anger and despair of many of my American friends, but here are some thoughts, partly arising out of conversations on my US trip just after the election.

Defend the institutions: I thought Obama’s last major speech was absolutely spot on. The job of citizens in the coming years is to defend democratic institutions – rule of law, freedom of the press.

Think about the long game: progressives have been so fixated on short term wins – policies, spending decisions, laws – that they failed to notice the longer term alienation and disillusionment with politics and politicians, leaving the path open to a particular brand of populism. We need to reengage with the long term.

Norms and narratives: that means strengthening our understanding and use of stories and narratives. We have become policy wonks, whose idea of a good ‘product’ is a ‘bad shit, facty facty’ policy paper (as one Aussie critic branded them). We’re not in a post-truth world; it’s just that truth is much more than a compilation of statistics. We need to get back to constructing more powerful and persuasive narratives and myths, as Alex Evans argues in his new book. We need to learn to speak to the heart again, not just the head.

We need to reconnect with citizens: there’s a saying I love about liberation theology in Latin Ameria and its ‘preferential option for the poor’: ‘the Catholics opted for the poor, but the poor opted for the Evangelical Protestants’. On 9th November, I felt like I had accidentally become a member of an elite that had lost touch with the hearts and minds of ordinary citizens. We need to turn off the social media, get out and talk to people, reconnect (check out the comments on my recent post on the filter bubble for some great ideas about how to do this).

Rant over. Well I feel better, even if you don’t.

Other related posts: Theories of Change for a political downturn; Pre-US trip thoughts on post-election strategy

And here’s the incomparable Ian Dury:


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5 Responses to “5 Straws to Clutch/Reasons to be Cheerful on US presidential inauguration day”
  1. Nicholas Colloff

    My only objection to your list would be the assumption that ‘nostalgia’ has a sell by date. ‘Nostalgia’ can morph in surprising directions. Think of ‘neo-Maoism’ in China whose advocates never had experience of the real thing and whose perception of the ‘real thing’ bears little relkationship to that reality (though possibly not today – that would be too depressing)!

  2. Peter Morgan

    Your first, “The US is deeply federal”, is becoming increasingly problematic, insofar as there are very nearly enough Republican-dominated state legislatures to begin the process of drafting regressive amendments to the constitution that might stick. Also telling, I thought, was your emphasis on “citizens”: the states where republicans have particularly triumphed, and where federal political power lies disproportionately by population, are distinctively dominated by not-city. Citizens are perhaps precisely those who see common self-interest instead of isolated self-reliance.
    There are many in the US who are trying hard to encourage people not to look on the bright side, not to be apologists, nor to wait and see, I suppose in the belief that protest will be effective only if people are motivated enough. Bigotry seems increasingly political and city-rural polarized as much as racial.