Last week, I discussed what I see as the first central lesson of Naomi Klein’s new book, No Is Not Enough: Resisting Trump’s Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need—that Donald Trump represents nothing new in American politics but rather, is the logical extension of decades of terrible ideas and policies. Today I’ll focus on the second key lesson of Klein’s work.
Neoliberal Incrementalism Brought to You by Democrats Is Not Enough
On this point, Klein is refreshingly clear-sighted: the window that is open for significant change is closing. As she notes, “In short, climate change detonates the ideological scaffolding on which contemporary conservatism rests. To admit that the climate crisis is real is to admit the end of the neoliberal project.” But, she argues, too many on the left side of American politics just don’t get it.
Indeed, I would suggest that there is a profound historical amnesia in the Democratic Party, a refusal by far too many liberals to acknowledge the deep significance of the party’s break with the New Deal tradition represented by Bill Clinton and the Democratic Leadership Council’s embrace of a neoliberal turn in the nineties continuing through to today’s New Democrats. Commentators such as Thomas Frank have traced the roots of this even further back to the beginnings of the Party’s break with labor in the early 1970s. Progressives ignore this history at their peril.
Perhaps less attention paid to high-profile personality conflicts and more focus on history and the logical political consequences of ideological shifts in the party would better illuminate the source of our current failure of vision. Here Klein is quite useful.
A case in point, Klein claims, is the “hostility of so many powerful US liberals to Bernie Sanders.” Noting the well-documented efforts of the Democratic establishment to slow Sanders’ role, she observes what was (and is) “troubling and revealing” about some liberals’ resistance to the Sanders revolution was the frequent claim that, “while they support bolder policies to fight inequality, those policies aren’t worth championing because the American public is too conservative, too pro-capitalist, and would never support them. So they back establishment candidates in the name of pragmatism.”
But the end result of this clever strategic positioning was not the victory of Clinton’s neoliberal incrementalism but of Trump’s bogus populism which masked his real project while stealing populist outrage from the left. And now we are all paying for it.
Thus, we need, according to Klein, a politics that responds to our crisis of imagination. As an example, she cites the Canadian “Leap Manifesto,” a project she worked on with a wide range of Canadian activists putting forth a boldly utopian answer to the climate crisis and widening economic inequality. As Klein puts it: “We chose to leap because it raises a defiant middle finger to centrist incrementalism—the kind that calls itself ‘cautious’ but is in fact exquisitely dangerous at this late stage in the climate crisis. The gap between where we are and where we need to go is so great, and the time left is so short, that small steps are not going to cut it—we need to leap.”
This leap to a new kind of aspirational politics is, for Klein:
A captivating “yes” that lays out a plan for tangible improvements in daily life, unafraid of powerful words such as redistribution and reparation, and intent on challenging Western culture’s equation of a “good life” with ever-escalating creature comforts inside ever-more-isolated consumer cocoons, never mind what the planet can take or what actually leads to our deepest fulfillment.
So as we watch the Democratic leadership embark on a new period of political gamesmanship with Trump and the release of the Clinton memoir reignites the primary battles of old, let’s hope that what wins the day is not a clever political piece of triangulation but the movement inside and outside the party to go big and bold with universal health care and other equally visionary proposals like free college and 100% renewable energy that seek to shine a light in the present darkness rather than just saying “no” to Trump and attempting to split the middle.
Maybe, just maybe, that “yes” might spark a broader movement to win back our democracy.
Klein is right–our time is short–but I’d like to think that we have what it takes to at least try to win the future rather than tacitly admitting defeat and hoping for a little chump change.