Fables of the Reconstruction
Kevin Baker’s essay [“Losing My Religion,” Easy Chair, March] voices a concern I’ve seen articulated with increasing frequency and alarm since the election of Donald Trump: What if it isn’t just the politicians who are corrupt, but the voters, too? “So determined are otherwise intelligent commentators to believe in the people,” he writes, “that it warps their political judgment.”
Baker’s implication seems to be that there’s too much democracy, that we are beholden to the will of the people to our eternal detriment. In making his case, he elides several facts: that our president lost the popular vote, that the four justices constituting the Supreme Court’s right wing were appointed by presidents who lost the popular vote, and that the Republicans controlling the Senate represent a minority of the electorate. He goes on to conflate racist white voters with “the people,” finishing his essay with a wholesale indictment: “The people, yes—they did this.”
In fact, the people’s will is not reflected by our government, and won’t be so long as we are held captive by a minority. The problem, despite Baker’s misgivings, is that we do not have and have never had nearly enough democracy.
Baker rehashes Hillary Clinton’s famous “basket of deplorables” argument, which continues to be a troubling rhetorical gambit of those on the left. Yes, there are elements of misogyny and racism embedded in the values of Donald Trump’s base. And, yes, individuals should be held responsible for their views and actions. But a genuine progressive vision doesn’t write people off as lost causes.
Republicans have long cultivated fear and loathing to divide Americans along the fault lines of race and religion. This was the fundamental idea behind the Southern Strategy, and it is alive and well today. Eroding public institutions—education, health, Social Security—and sowing distrust of government redounds to Republicans’ benefit, even as it adversely affects much of their base. It’s easy to tear things down, as reactionaries have always done. It’s much harder to build things, but that’s the Sisyphean task before progressives.
Our goal must be to construct a system in which everyone has an opportunity to thrive—this is the only path to a more egalitarian, more informed, less divisive society. In the short term, the goal isn’t to bring the entire “white working class back into the fold,” as Baker puts it, dismissively—just a handful will do. About 12 percent of those who voted for Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Democratic primaries ended up voting for Trump in the general election. If even half of these voters came back (under, say, a Sanders candidacy), it could make a decisive difference in swing states. It can be done: 13 percent of Trump voters in 2016 had previously voted for Obama, and some of them voted for Democrats in the 2018 midterms.
Moreover, people of color make up 40 percent of the working class. A strong progressive message—one that counters Trump’s racist and ersatz populism—would galvanize many groups and result in a progressive victory in 2020.
Grave New World
While Lauren Groff very compellingly decries the failure of the doomsday preppers to address the dangers of climate change [“Waiting for the End of the World,” Letter from Saluda, March], she responds to the weekend’s most dystopian incident with little more than irritation.
On Groff’s last day among the survivalists, she is approached by armed police officers who believe her rental car is a stolen vehicle. OnStar has disabled the car’s engine accordingly. Even after she shows the police her rental agreement, it takes several hours for the officers to concede that a mistake has been made and for OnStar to permit her vehicle to become operable again.
This is precisely the sort of Orwellian scenario that the camp’s participants would seem to fear. As should we all. What if she had been a person of color? Or a non–English speaker? What if one of the apocalypse campers had misconstrued the situation, leading to gunfire? It’s all too easy to envision a political protest at which the participants’ vehicles are disabled at the insistence of the police. Just as the preppers Groff meets cannot stop a storm surge with their Glocks, her retreat in New England cannot protect her from the overreach of the high-tech modern surveillance state.