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The disenfranchised and the demagogue: Reflections on the US presidential election

Brentyn sent me a Dharma book recently. He’s been living in Ohio for the past few years and during the election campaign, he was in a fever. I told him not to worry, that Trump would never get in. But he was worried and he was right to be. He included a postcard with the book and wrote that things had become ‘interesting’. Swastikas were being graffitied around town. Some people were fighting back, outside the university library ‘Fight fascism – support refugees’ was written in chalk. The day after the book arrived there was an attack at that university. A Somali refugee assaulted nine people with a knife before being shot dead by police.

Jeff says that the left has been steadily losing ground to the right over the last couple of decades. One of the greatest defeats to the left was when the influence of the unions was weakened. It’s important to remember that the power base of the left used to be the working poor. This shifted near the end of the 1960s when the left began to focus on minority, or identity, politics. Identity politics are important – we need to fight for the rights of women, ethnic groups, the LGBTIQ community, disabled citizens – but when the left focused on these groups they forgot about the working poor. While the economic boom of the 50s and 60s meant that these workers were gaining ground, neoliberalism since the 1980s has diminished their opportunities. For the left to fight back it is necessary that the working poor, minorities and women come together – as Bernie Sanders knows. Sanders was around when the left was strong. He understands that the working poor have been overlooked and because of this the left has lost its base.

One way in which the working poor are held down is by an implicit belief that they are responsible for their own circumstances. We live in a society that perpetuates a myth of meritocracy – the belief we have equal opportunities and all it takes is hard work for you to thrive and lead a good life. But this a fallacy. In the US, the combined toll of low wages, high rents and the cost of health care means that there is little chance for the working poor to improve their lot. This demographic is not only growing, it is losing ground. The myth of meritocracy creates a sense of worthlessness in those who don’t understand why they are unable to ‘get ahead’. It implies a moral deficiency, where those with wealth and privilege are seen to have acquired these through hard labour and moral superiority. In truth, the system is designed so that the underclass remains an underclass. They form a cheap labour force. The exploitation of these workers reduces their bargaining power and ability to access the education that would enable them to move forward (Bageant, 2007). Bernie Sanders is fighting for a living wage. When you allow people to escape poverty they can compete in society. Presently, the opportunity to get ahead has been ripped from underneath the working poor, and they are angry.

And this is something we should worry about.

The anger of these people is focused downwards. They are kicking down, as Tim says. Those who are disadvantaged take their anger out on those of greater disadvantage, because they are powerless to attack the people who do hold power.

In steps Trump – a true demagogue. The demagogue says what the people want to hear. They give the voters what they want and in this way, they secure their own power. Trump said exactly what the working poor of the US wanted to hear. This accounts for his success with these heartland voters.

Now the die has been cast and the question is, what next? The left needs a new vision, an overarching vision that includes both identity politics and working class issues. A cohesive vision that is strong from within, not fragmented and divided. While the educated left has contempt for the working poor, these workers in return have contempt for latte sipping liberals and education (Bagenant, 2007). Sadly, it seems that the privilege of education can result in the inability to see the needs of those who lack the resources to get an education.

From my perspective, the situation of the left seems paradoxical when I think of myself and my friends in the counter-culture. We can find no way to reconcile our beliefs with those of the people voting for One Nation or Trump. The counter-culture is not an affluent community, but we see ourselves very differently from these right-wing voters. How can we form an overarching left perspective that embraces these people?

Part of the problem is that we can’t see what has given rise to these people’s hatred and vitriol. This is not to excuse the rise of Neo-Nazism – a fact that has me terrified. But it seems we need to understand the circumstances that have led to this and the lack of opportunities that these voters experience. Until we fight for their education and access to opportunities – until we fight for their rights, we must watch helplessly as the world tumbles into this terrifying right-wing backlash. Until we fight for the rights of those who vote for the very values we deplore, we will not see sanity (and decency, and humanity) return to our shores.


Big thanks to Jeff and Tim for sharing their ideas with me. There are comments in this piece that are drawn directly from things they have said in these discussions.


Bageant, J. (2007). Deer hunting with Jesus: Dispatches from America's class war. USA: Crown Publishers.

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