The Left has suffered its greatest political loss in a decade. Weak as ever following a tumultuous general election cycle, Democrats are struggling to unite after Republicans have swept the presidency and Congress. Soon, the GOP will make important conservative appointments to the judiciary, which will be sure to have effects that outlast the Trump presidency.
Such a liberal defeat was all the more demoralizing because progressivism was assumed to be a given. It stopped being an ideal that had to be strived; instead, it became perceived as inevitable with the passive passage of time.
In response to sexist, racist or anti-gay perspectives that appear “backwards” on social media, liberals often righteously retort, “Go back to the 5th century!” Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Sermon at the Temple Israel of Hollywood” has been widely quoted among progressives as reassurance for the unbelievable — “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.” As James Gleick argues in “Time Travel,” people have fallen into the trap of assigning time the agency to manufacture change when it is merely a bystander.
Last week, I was one of what is currently estimated at more than one million people who attended women’s marches globally. The humor of women wearing pussy hats and hysterical chants like “We want a leader, not a creepy tweeter!” made Trump the subject of America’s ridicule. But it also comforted me to see signs with dark slogans, which confirmed that apprehension surrounding Trump’s ascension was not an overreaction.
“America, Drink Your Kool-Aid,” one read, with a black-and-white political cartoon of Trump portrayed as Jim Jones. In Washington D.C., crowds sang to the rallying call, “No Trump! No KKK! No Fascist USA!” For the first time, Orwellian quotes displayed prolifically on protest signs felt descriptive rather than prophetic.
I suspect there is also something universal in the subconscious appeal of political cynicism.
One would think that such an approach is especially easy when what should be a dystopian alternate history plot line is reality. Regardless of party affiliation, what could entrench despair more than the utter devastation of liberal ideals that have been ingrained among American youth?
Through history lessons on the Constitutional Convention, generations of American children have been taught to engage in discussion with political rivals and to compromise. They have been urged to embrace diversity through colorful, enjoyable multicultural fairs. They have learned to emulate George Washington’s honesty through the cherry tree narrative.
It’s not surprising, then, that according to Gallup, at 45 percent, Trump was inaugurated with the lowest approval rating of the modern polling era. Even among voters who cast their ballot for the president, distaste for him is high. Few, with the exception of Trump’s administration, would be willing to defend the entirety of Trump’s actions.
Conversely, Hillary Clinton represented a vision for the future that should have been easy to support. Instead, her comparably centrist policies were not lauded for their careful attempt to bridge divides, but criticized for being less than ideal. Her endeavor to promote inclusion rather than exclusion was lambasted for exploiting identity politics. And despite promoting her fair share of political falsehoods, Clinton was consistently more honest than Trump on the campaign trail — yet she was the one slandered with the nickname “Crooked Hillary.”
Imperfect as she was, the two-party political machine provided voters with only one of two options, and a sizable portion (though not a majority) voted Trump.
Critically, in the run-up to the general election, it was unpopular to voice support for Clinton, even in liberal settings. Any brave declarations of support for her were hedged with opening statements like, “She’s obviously very flawed, but…”
Slate columnist Michelle Goldberg reported that she was shocked to learn her community turned out in large numbers for Clinton despite the perception that Bernie Sanders was favored. One local resident explained that, “As a Clinton fan, I have had to be diplomatic even though I am patronized… I am honestly sick of it.”
Various media organizations picked up on the fact that for the historical significance it represented, the story of the first woman to be nominated for president by a major party platform was grossly underemphasized.
Faced today with a seemingly impossible doomsday scenario, the Democratic Party and self-identified liberals can no longer afford to be complacent. For eight years, as liberals, we have smugly shared videos of our favorite Commander-in-Chief and his endearing dad humor and scoffed at absurdities like the birther movement without seeing them as true threats. Surrounded by people who agreed with us, whether physically, on social media or at the highest level of political representation, there ceased to be a reason to make change — unless, of course, we paid attention to what was happening outside of our intimate bubbles.
This is no longer the case. Trump’s election has made the foreign familiar — and ironically, that which is foreign lies within our own borders.
Yet, there may be some silver lining.
Confronted with executive decisions that are blatantly wrong, Trump’s presidency will present an opportunity for Americans, equipped with only their common sense, to be civically engaged. For the first time in a long time, it will not require reading hundreds of pages of briefs before a citizen is informed enough to participate in a political argument. In an age of information overload, the ability to merely know “right” from “wrong” is empowering.
The fact that the populace may finally feel as if its opinion is legitimate without dedicating careers to political science is game-changing. The high attendance at the Women’s Marches on Jan. 21 was a testament to this.
It is easy to mobilize against a political figure who has been caught proudly recommending men to “grab [women] by the pussy.” It is difficult to defend someone holding the highest political office in the world when he name-calls professional women “bimbos.”
It is, however, taxing for a person to be placed on the defensive for supporting a presidential candidate who may have ties to the fossil fuel industry and authoritarian regimes. It requires extensive research to eloquently voice support for Clinton despite the fact that she once opposed gay marriage, supported the Iraq War and engaged in negotiations for complex trade agreements that have been blamed for the demolition of entire industries.
We may find it easy to agree with E.J. Dionne Jr. when he wrote, “The democratic idea is in grave jeopardy when citizens simply shrug over being manipulated and don’t expect more from their political leaders than posturing, positioning and captivating media circuses.”
Americans are not too oblivious for this to fly over their heads. But the next step will be more contentious. It is easier to be against something than for something. A coalition has been built against Trump; now, a coalition must be built for positive change.
Contact Jasmine Liu at jliu98 ‘at’ stanford.edu.