Imagining a new eco-political ideology for the American Left.
AUSTIN — In the middle of a sweaty crowd blocking traffic on the Congress Street Bridge Wednesday night, November 9, in Austin, Texas, hundreds of protesters rallied against the United States’ new president-elect and the hateful demagoguery he spewed throughout his 16-month-long campaign.
Many in the crowd were concerned with protecting minority groups endangered by a new rising tide of American racism shouted in unison — and they issued a rallying cry for the upset voters who watched Hillary Clinton’s presidential run go up in flames, and an election that celebrated the ridiculous and offensive rhetoric of a political outsider.
“Mic check!” protesters yelled, one after another, airing their grievances. “Mic check!” Hundreds of voices called out in response.
In their angered voices, the group’s
diversity rang out.
In their angered voices, the group’s diversity rang out, each time echoed by the crowd:
“I am an Indian American living with a disease.”
“I am a white male. I am gay. But that doesn’t define who I am!”
“I am a black woman, and I am strong. Donald Trump has got to go. We can change the world, no matter who’s president. And we fucking will!”
While the immediate task at hand, according to the protesters, is to fight back against racism, xenophobia, and sexist rhetoric, the long-run mission is a political restructuring that upends the right vs. left status quo. We need not normalize the Trump presidency, but we do need to address a political division in this country that pits red voters against blue.
“Obviously, things aren’t working the way they’re going,” Carol Fraser, a protester and University of Texas at Austin graduate student studying community and regional planning said. “We have a lot of work to do.”
There has never been a better time for a radical shift in our national political ideology.
Although our American political system has been upended, there has never been a better time for a radical shift in our national political ideology. While the Democratic Party is scrambling to reorganize itself, progressive voters need to stick to their fundamental principles but also reevaluate their political techniques, especially at the community level.
This new call to action should be constructed around the ideals that we know in our hearts to be true: That today’s political and economic system is based on the accumulation of wealth and power at the expense of the majority of hard-working Americans. Those most disenfranchised by this system — people of color, the LGBTQ community, and working class whites — are all alienated by the fundamental political beliefs embraced by Washington elites in both the Republican and Democratic parties.
Both camps have embraced globalization and the free market as the only paradigm of economic development, which has concentrated wealth and power at the upper tier of our economy. This necessary realignment of political power is more than right vs. left, liberal vs. conservative. It’s an entire restructuring of how we think about political and social mobility in this country, and at the root of the problem lies capitalism.
Whether you voted for Trump or Clinton, this system of unequal power would have remained.
“Capitalism is incompatible with democracy because it creates economic inequalities that inherently accumulate political power,” says Robert Jensen, longtime political activist and journalism professor at the University of Texas. The reality is that whether you voted for Trump or Clinton, this system of unequal power would have remained in place.
But what does the country need to do to rebuild a political system that works for everyone, not just the 1%? First, we must dispel certain fundamental beliefs that have led us to this point: American Exceptionalism, an unwavering belief in the power of the free market, and the certainty that technology can simultaneously fuel our energy-hungry lifestyles and save us from climate change.
“If I said I could take a model to replace capitalism off a shelf and hand it to you, you’d call me a lunatic,” Jensen says. He’s right — we cannot simply dismantle capitalism as an economic system — that would be apocalyptic. However, we can change the way that we think about our role within it and therefore imagine viable alternatives for the 21st Century.
So, how do we need to think?
First, we must dispel the myth of
First, we must dispel the myth of American Exceptionalism. The notion that the United States, or any other nation, is inherently or morally superior is absurd — especially when we easily forget that American power rests on the shoulders of the genocide of indigenous people and the exploitation of African slaves.
Grounding the American narrative in fact rather than fiction will amend our relationship to the rest of the world, as well as discredit the sentiments of white supremacy and patriarchy that fueled Trump’s rise. We will be less likely to engage in foreign wars, we will enable a society that respects women, and we will give all ethnic groups and sexual orientations equal voice. Although it is a hard pill to swallow, acknowledging the reality of America’s history is integral to rethinking politics in this country.
Second, we must disband the notion that the free market will solve all our ills. Deregulation of financial assets on Wall Street and the offshoring of jobs to the developing world are economically and ecologically unsustainable. Indeed, Americans lost around 2.9 million jobs to offshoring between 2000 and 2012, according to the Center for American Progress. Fortunately, many Trump supporters — ones who would have voted for Bernie Sanders — already agree with this item on the progressive agenda, making it an easy sell across the aisle.
The third belief, however, is rarely discussed. The idea that our American lifestyle is sustainable on this planet is shortsighted. “There is no human future in the belief that we can endlessly tap into the dense energy — coal, oil, natural gas or nuclear — and imagine we’re going to create a sustainable planet,” Jensen says. The belief that cheap solar or wind energy will save us is a pipe dream — it cannot come fast enough. What’s more, Trump’s announcement that the leader of his EPA transition team, Myron Ebell, a prominent climate change denier, should add urgency to the need to make real lifestyle alterations now.
We must divorce ourselves from the notion that humans are inherently superior to nature.
To do this, we must philosophically divorce ourselves from the notion that humans are inherently superior to nature, and that we can control it and dispense with it as we will. As Americans, we have a responsibility, now more than ever, to commit to a carbon-neutral lifestyle, reimagine localized food regimes, and use American ingenuity to invent low-energy technology that redefines the way we interact with our world. As such, the best way to protest against a political system married to capitalism is to limit engagement with fossil fuel technology and personally change your lifestyle to be ecologically sustainable.
This is an extremely tall order. Of course, it is naïve to think that gardening, eating veggie, and riding your bike will solve all our problems. But if we boldly embody the environmental ideals we wish to see, and then build local, state, and eventually national policy around those ideals — real sustainable progressive change will return to this country. So we must commit to political and community-building projects that demonstrate alternatives to capitalism and bring people together around sustainable and ecologically sound practices. Then, we will see change that didn’t start on a campaign platform — it will have come from within us, from within our own lives.
If Donald Trump wants to play the game of populism — great. Let’s beat him at his own game. But let us do it in a way that espouses the profoundly human notions of love and diversity, sustainability and inclusion, and an environmentally sustainable economic system that works for all working Americans.
This is not about left vs. right — this is about the ups vs. the downs. This is about the have-nots upending the haves. This is the new revolution of the United States of America, and it’s time to make it work for us.
[Scott Squires is an Austin writer whose work has been published in Free Press Houston and the Oaxaca Times in Oaxaca, Mexico. His photojournalism has been featured in Texas Monthly, the Austin Chronicle, and the Austin-American Statesman. You can find more of his work at www.scottsquiresphoto.com. Scott is currently a graduate student, studying international policy and journalism, at UT-Austin.]