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What’s next for the progressive movement?

  • Published at 12:03 am November 14th, 2016
What’s next for the progressive movement?

It was difficult to pen down this piece waking up in the aftermath of the US electoral result. Deep down, I went to bed with a very heavy heart that this nightmare might turn real and I woke up to my wife shouting: “You were right, Trump did win.”

I will never say that I had bet my money on a Trump presidency, but my educated guess was that it is much closer than what these polls were suggesting or what CNN wanted us to believe. And alas, the nightmare became real.

Nonetheless, I strongly believe that this is not the moment for despair.

The severity of what has happened -- the electoral victory of a political alliance and a man who does not believe in climate change nor the Iran deal -- necessitates thorough introspection and meticulous planning forward, at least for the progressive movement. But let me rewind a little to add context to what I am going to suggest.

In 2002, Bernie Sanders gave a powerful speech rationalising his no-vote for the Iraq war. His foresight was so impeccable that it charted out all the direct and indirect consequences of the failed military venture that has divided communities over the last decade and have resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people.

Of course, he did not stop there as he went further by pointing out to the Bush administration the systematic fault lines -- especially the manufacturing job losses due to misguided trade deals, the under-investment in education and infrastructure -- that are developing in the US economy and that the political establishment is failing the ordinary people.

Today, those economic fault lines, which emerged out of the dogmatic faith in free trade and globalisation, have given rise to a political constituency so powerful that it has empowered a demagogue out of their sheer distrust for the establishment.

But make no mistake, this constituency was even pivotal in 2012 when President Obama was running against Governor Mitt Romney.

To be precise, Mitt Romney stood by the standard free-market neo-liberal economic dictum and argued why the auto-manufacturing industry should not be bailed out.

The anti-establishment political wave that is reconfiguring the political space in the West needs to be transformed into a positive force, and this demands strong leadership from the progressive left

Yet, Obama bailed out the auto-manufacturing industry, which gave a positive signal to the working class that he will not overlook the ever critical “forgotten people” of the country. This decision ultimately facilitated his victory in the critical state of Michigan which gave him 16 electoral votes that Hillary failed to win in 2016.

Yet, if Bernie was the candidate of the Democratic party, Trump would not have found it this easy to attract the blue-collar manufacturing working class who saw Hillary’s blind support for misguided trade deals that never worked for them.

Hillary was on the verge of becoming president as out of nearly 120 million who voted, 200,000 votes in Florida, Pennsylvania, and Michigan could have tilted the pendulum in the other direction.

But, she only came this close because President Obama invested all his anti-establishment political capital behind her, which, over the last eight years, she not only failed to respect but also chose not to recognise.

I felt tearful watching thousands of young people joining anti-Trump protests as an aftermath to this polarised election. Not only did the Democratic Party establishment fail them, they robbed them off a chance by totally disrespecting their frustration with the status quo.

Hillary was so dismissive of this sentiment that she did not even consider an anti-establishment candidate for her running mate. Many speculated that the choice of Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders as a running mate would have completely changed the outlook of her campaign.

Yet, she simply assumed that those who resented her pro-establishment credentials would simply fall in line because Trump is evil. And this decision even looked misguided against a global wave of resentment that fueled the political rise of characters like Nigel Farage in the UK and Marine Le Pen in France.   

In any case, her long career, which is full of self-serving compromises with corporate America which made her family one of the richest political families in the US, eventually haunted her like a ghost throughout the last year and a half.

It is difficult to speculate but maybe she woke up every day and justified to herself that these compromises are necessary evil for her to become the president. And yet nothing appears further from the truth.

So what is the future of the progressive movement that was started by Sanders? Will the aspirations of the young minds which got excited by politics because it offered a real scope to challenge the establishment and create an inclusive economic order just die out because pragmatic status-quo-loving individuals were too arrogant to see the truth?

I think President Obama must come into this new movement. The anti-establishment political wave that is reconfiguring the political space in the West needs to be transformed into a positive force, and this demands strong leadership from the progressive left.

Most importantly, he is too young to retire, and, post-January 2017, he should transcend electoral politics and become a beacon of progressive values all over the world.

There is genuine scope for him to become a global and national voice like Martin Luther King Jr, and raise political caution and objection in every corner where the Republican regime attempts to undermine people’s interest by refusing to acknowledge pertinent issues like climate change or economic inequality. To put it straight, he must reinvent himself as an activist of the progressive agenda and should not think that his legacy only constitutes what he did as president.

In the just concluded election, he wasted his political capital behind someone who admired a war criminal like Henry Kissinger. I felt that it was a mistake that he will certainly regret.

But, over the next few years, he can travel the entire US and invest his political capital for all the progressive state-level, congress-level, senate-level political leaders who can take the progressive left movement forward.

In effect, there is a genuine scope for President Obama, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren to salvage the progressive cause and help deliver the best chance that the Democratic Party have of overcoming the present disarray. Let’s hope those who disagreed with us before will have an open mind to see our case in the future.

Ashikur Rahman is Senior Economist, Policy Research Institute of Bangladesh (PRI).

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