Voters’ Motives and Left Agendas
By Collective 20
[Collective 20 is a group of writers located in different places throughout the globe. Some young, some older; some long-time organizers and writers, others just getting started, but all equally dedicated to offering analysis, vision, and strategy useful for winning a vastly better society than we currently endure. The members of Collective 20 hope their contributions concerning social, political, economic, and environmental issues will generate more useful content and better outreach through a collective publication effort as opposed to individuals doing so on their own. Collective 20’s cumulative work can be found at collective20.org, where you can learn more about the group, see an archive of its publications, and comment on its work.]
Some things are utterly obvious. We will not solve the face-off between proto fascism and progressive much less revolutionary aspirations by compromise. We will not arrive at good outcomes by accommodating vile views.
Democratic party elites say, accommodate them. Compromise with them. Don’t challenge them. Break bread with them. Hopefully all leftists realize that such a choice would be a road to calamity. Hopefully we also realize that to block liberals’ inclinations to accommodate Republican earth burning requires holding the liberals accountable to the actual needs of society and the world.
On the left we therefore shouldn’t passively hope against hope that public officials will serve humane priorities. We should grow our organized, informed, activist power to force the outcomes we desire. We should grow our numbers as well as solidify and act on our commitments with our current numbers. But to grow our numbers we must reach out to new people. And new people means people who aren’t already rushing to join us. It means people who up to now haven’t found us compelling or attractive. It even means people who have found us repellant.
But the entreaty to reach outside our comfort zones to people who don’t like us and even to people who dislike or hate us, does not say we should look at Trump, and at his agendas, and at his words, and compromise with that. It does not say we should look for some middle ground between Trump’s vicious view of reality and our own feminist, anti racist, and anti classist view of reality.
It says, instead, that we should talk not with Trump, an absurd and suicidal project, but with some subset of people who voted for Trump. Not with his rich supporters. Not with his overtly, religiously, outrageously, and most aggressively racist and sexist supporters. But with his working class supporters who are rightly hostile to existing relations, who rightly mistrust mainstream institutions, who continue to suffer real and severe harm, and who try to make choices to alleviate that harm. We should reach out to them to grow our numbers sufficiently to develop an overwhelmingly majoritarian, informed, self conscious, committed movement to win fundamental positive change.
Contrary to the above perspective, many left commentators say, or appear to say, that to welcome a subset of Trump’s supporters into progressive and left activism will compromise our principles. It will forsake the constituencies we can better reach.
And are those outcomes possible? Yes, they are. But are those paths inevitable? No, they are not. Can we avoid those outcomes and instead bring new people to left commitment while we maintain our principles, projects, and aims? We can and we must.
But do there in fact exist Trump voters who progressive and left organizers can plausibly break bread with without compromising away our aims, values, and integrity?
About two thirds of age-eligible U.S. voters voted in 2020.
Somewhat less than one third voted for Trump. Somewhat more than one third voted for Biden.
That Biden won the electoral college by a bare sliver of votes in a few swing states is monumental in our win/lose system. He will replace Trump as President. But as an indicator of the views of the country, the election would have been little different had just 10,500 ballots in Arizona, 14,100 in Georgia, and 20,600 in Wisconsin been marked Trump not Biden, so that Trump won.
Roughly fifty five percent of white women who voted, voted for Trump. Nearly sixty percent of white men who voted also did so. It was a higher percentage of white women but a lower percentage of white men than in 2016.
Rounding off, over one third of eligible white voters voted for Trump. That’s a lot, but it is certainly very far from all white voters.
One motive for such votes is that over one third like or even love Donald Trump and all that he and the Republican Party stand for and have done. This motive would suggest that such voters are incredibly ignorant, delusional about the implications of Donald Trump having a second term, or self consciously and aggressively imperialist, classist, racist, and sexist in the worst degree, like Donald Trump.
At the same time, somewhat under one third of white voters cast ballots for Joe Biden. Is there an analog to the above effort to explain Trump voters? I think there is.
Assume the worst, we might call the approach.
If we rule out any motives other than the worst, then analogously to an increasingly prevalent way of thinking about Trump’s voters’ motives, what do we get for Biden voters?
We would say one motive for Biden votes is liking or even loving Joe Biden and all that he and the Democratic Party stand for and have done. This motive would tend to suggest that these voters are incredibly ignorant, delusional about Joe Biden’s commitments, or self consciously and aggressively imperialist, classist, racist, and sexist in the worst or, at best, in nearly the worst degree, like Joe Biden.
Staying with Biden voters for a moment, are there possible explanations for Biden’s votes other than the one offered? For example:
- Thinking that Biden can serve the rich better than Trump while arousing less public opposition.
- Hating Trump more than disliking or hating Biden.
- Thinking that however bad Biden is, he for one reason or another may break with some deadly patterns.
- Thinking that on most issues it makes no difference, but on a few, fighting Covid 19, opposing gun violence, defending abortion rights, or being dignified enough to make a difference, for example, Biden will be reliably better.
So in light of these additional possible motives for voting for Biden, if we had the means, which I doubt, we could ask, okay, is about one third of the white population in like or in love with Biden, or did a significant percentage of those who voted for Biden simply hate Trump more, or think Biden might be more likely to break with some hated policies, or think that it makes little difference in many respects but where there is a difference, say regarding abortion rights or curbing police violence or appearing sane, Biden might be significantly better? Lacking answers to those possibilities would it serve any good purpose to talk about all Biden voters as Biden lovers, as Biden wannabes, and as unreachable?
A good many leftists in the months before the vote implicitly or explicitly argued that one could not vote for Biden much less advocate doing so without being or becoming a Bidenite including seeking to defend the basic relations of society on behalf of the rich and powerful, as does Biden. For these commentators, not even years or decades of history of seeking to change the basic relations of society on behalf of the poor and disempowered mattered to their assessment. If you vote Biden, they intoned or implied, you reveal that you are in the camp of wealth and power.
Others on the left said wait a minute, it is perfectly possible for a motive other than comprehensive agreement with Biden to cause a vote for Biden. Those commentators argued that life and politics are more complex than they are simplistic. And likewise for motives.
Back to those who voted for Trump. What is the analog of there being multiple possible motives to vote for Biden, regarding motives to vote for Trump?
- Thinking Trump will better enrich the rich
- Hating Biden more than disliking or hating Trump
- Thinking that however bad he is, Trump for one reason or another may break with some deadly patterns
- Thinking that on most issues it makes no difference, but on one or two issues, opening the economy rather than locking it down, preserving gun ownership, repealing abortion rights, or being wild enough to make a difference, for example, Trump will be reliably better.
So I am confused.
Why are some left writers rushing to judgement regarding Trump’s white, and particularly his white working class supporters? Why can many of the folks rushing to judgement understand that people could vote for Biden for non-imperial reasons, but not understand that people could vote for Trump for non-white supremacist misogynistic reasons?
I think the reply that some would give is that Trump is just so disgusting that to not be repulsed enough to not vote for him means you don’t feel repulsed by his repulsiveness, which in turn means you abide it or you even support it. But even for Trump voters who are more deluded than Biden voters in that they buy Trump’s racist explanations for their problems, shouldn’t delusion elicit calls for education, not derision?
More, what if you voted, for example, for Obama, and then watched your life, your community, and your prospects decline and even collapse. And so you hated liberals for lying to you? You hated liberals for selling you out? And what if your legitimate needs had been violated over and over, and hoping against hope you thought that this new guy, Trump, seemingly oblivious to pressure and willing to be wild, had, in your eyes, actually been improving the economy until the virus struck. And what if you think regarding the virus he was actually on your side, trying to keep the economy running? You would be wrong, of course, but couldn’t it be that you didn’t cast your vote to bash Blacks or women but to protect your families and neighborhoods from hated Democrats, albeit deceived about your prospects under four more years of Trump?
No, some say, it couldn’t be that because the only way you could feel thus is if you discounted Black lives and women’s well being to zero. But go back to the Biden voters. Again, the same line of thinking could be applied. How could anyone vote for this defender of imperial violence and Black subjugation unless they were blind to his history?
Well, one can. Just as one can say “Trump’s racism is repellant, his misogyny is vile, his Tweets are embarrassing, and I voted for him and that should tell you how I feel about Joe Biden.” Is motivational nuance, even if from a position of confusion not possible? Is Trump voters‘ hatred for the establishment horrible or is it warranted and aware?
What about the fifth of Black male voters and the tenth of Black female voters and the nearly one third of Latinx voters who voted for Trump? Are they too, on that account, supporters of white supremacy and misogyny? If they can have, and they certainly did have, other motives, why can’t that be true, as well, not for every white voter for Trump—but for some and maybe even most?
I have not heard anyone argue that Blacks or Latinx voting for Trump loved his racism. Is deciding that all Trump’s white voters are white supremacy-loving misogynistic Trumpites logically as unjustified as deeming all Biden’s voters imperial loving Bidenites?
What about Trump’s voters who would have preferred to vote for Sanders? Should we dismiss such people causing them to feel their only home is with lying reactionaries?
Why aren’t more pundits entertaining and wondering at the prevalence of voting for Trump because you hate Biden more, or because of what Democrats have in fact done to you, or because of confusions about what Trump has done?
Does the rush toward the conclusion that 74 million Trump voters are all little Trumps rest on confused reasoning? Does the conclusion have some desirable implication that is propelling its acceptance despite grossly insufficient evidence?
Back to the need to reach out.
To urge the need to reach out does not ask progressives to jettison the agendas of those violated by police violence, systemic racism, and ubiquitous patriarchy so as to be able to break bread with Trump, his rich and powerful buddies, or his most racist and misogynistic voters at the expense of solidifying, enlarging, and deepening support where it already exists. It instead asks progressives to think seriously about how we talk, the demands we advocate, and the structures we develop in light of the fact that it is absolutely essential to reach tens of millions of white working class people to show how our aims would benefit them and our structures would elevate them.
The Intercept reported that the “Defeated Trump Campaign Tells Supporters ‘The Left Hates You’” in Fundraising Emails sent to Trumps lists. For left words to give credence to that claim is not a winning plan. So what is a winning plan?
Of course the abstract advisory to reach out effectively is one thing while practical actions to do so are another. How do we make uncompromising demands about, talk effectively about, and thus reach out about rural and urban working class grievances in ways that speak to felt needs and that accurately address prevalent worries about police violence, climate catastrophe, health decay, income inequality, war making, and more? Maybe that would be a better focus for our attention than rushing to dismiss 74 million voters.
[INITIAL SUBMISSION: Michael Albert | AUTHOR: Collective 20 (Andrej Grubacic, Brett Wilkins, Bridget Meehan, Cynthia Peters, Don Rojas, Emily Jones, Justin Podur, Mark Evans, Medea Benjamin, Michael Albert, Noam Chomsky, Oscar Chacon, Peter Bohmer, Savvina Chowdhury, Vincent Emanuele)]