Some Notes on ‘Coastal Liberalism’ in This Presidential Election Year
By John Tamplin
1. There comes a time when commonplace liberal pieties are so inept and misleading that they demand exceptionally vigorous dissent. One such example: the idea that President Obama is a bona fide progressive and only Hillary Clinton can protect his worthy legacy. (It is the worth of his legacy I would question, not the near-certainty of its protection by a Clinton administration.)
On the other hand, suppose you are skeptical of the “Establishment” and wooed by the Bernie Sanders movement but pessimistic about Sanders’ chances to become the Democratic presidential nominee. A well-educated aspirant to the haute bourgeoisie, you learned in college to add flair to any social engagement with a bit of provocative campus liberalism. You might even call yourself a democratic socialist, although you claim that Clinton is the lesser of two evils, the only candidate who can save us from the slavering hordes of Southern and Midwestern rednecks, the ignorant and bigoted constituency of Donald Trump.
These attitudes make up a recognizable contemporary ideology. Let’s call it “Coastal Liberalism” (although the geographical designation is a trifle superannuated; adherents can be found throughout the interior, and opponents in New York and Los Angeles). As an ideology, it is foolishly arrogant and out of touch, yet it threatens to exacerbate the intolerance and bigotry its adherents oppose.
2. I come from Kentucky. Our Republicans overwhelmingly supported Trump in their primary. If the past two presidential elections are any indication of the outcome of the next one, ours will be the first state called in Trump’s favor this November. Most of the people I know were scandalized by the Trump candidacy, yet few have sought to understand its appeal. We’re so bent on distinguishing ourselves from a repulsive man that we scoff at the thought of productive engagement with his resentful constituency. We blind ourselves to the possibility that their zealous bigotry may be, among other things, a helpless response to a powerful sense of disenfranchisement.
3. In my state I have passed PSA-style billboards for diabetes awareness and prevention. In nearby counties, children in school learn to administer naloxone, an antidote to narcotics overdose. Certain parts of southern Indiana are recovering from an unprecedented HIV outbreak among intravenous drug users. Unemployment in some counties in eastern Kentucky and Appalachia is staggering. These are people with real grievances, and the Democratic establishment has offered them nothing. They have been visibly disenfranchised by the sale of the U.S. government to corporate and financial interests, and even the white middle class has seen a steady decline in real wages over the past 40 years. The decline in the country’s manufacturing base is largely a result of neoliberal “free-trade” policies promoted by both major political parties. Many disgruntled American families have seen their relative economic position decline since the early 1970s. They yearn for the post-war Golden Age when their prosperity was secured by a productive economy and they benefited from institutionalized racism and sexism. No wonder, then, that they respond to the hateful and discriminatory rhetoric that inevitably accompanies the call to “Make America Great Again.”
4. The irony of polite Coastal Liberalism is that it is unable to respond to the legitimate grievances of a huge portion of the population, in part because of the way these grievances are expressed (racism, xenophobia, homophobia), and in part because the ideology it represents marginalizes working people in favor of the super-rich. I want to make clear my rejection of arbitrary discrimination. But unlike my liberal peers on the coasts and in the cities, my rejection no longer consists of righteous indignation and dismissal, nor am I afraid of trying to understand what social and economic conditions might lead a person to be seduced by poisonous ideas.
5. A controversy has been playing out in the pages of the Louisville Courier-Journal concerning the removal of a monument to Confederate dead from the campus of the University of Louisville. It looks as though the monument will be removed; but after months of discussion Louisville will still be one of the most segregated cities in the country. We still won’t have a grocery store in the black, impoverished West End. My community will have achieved a symbolic victory unaccompanied by substantive change and relief for our black citizens. I fear that the promise of Clinton’s campaign slogan to “break down barriers” would be just another such symbolic victory should she win the election. In fact, her slogan finds a frightening echo in the public relations propaganda of JPMorgan Chase & Co. At ATMs and branch banks across the country, video monitors exhort us to celebrate Asian/Pacific-American Heritage Month. An admirable sentiment, but it underscores the disturbing fact that liberal multiculturalism is compatible with an economic system that creates stunning income and wealth inequality.
Consider the issue of pay inequality. Sanders and Clinton regularly rail against the absurd state of affairs in which women and people of color earn less than white men for the same labor. The neoliberal objection to this has nothing to do with lofty sentiments of equality. Rather, corporations bent on reducing labor costs see it as a disadvantage that labor markets place an atavistic premium on the labor of one historically privileged group. It simply costs too much for certain segments of the population to benefit from arbitrary wage imbalances. Why pay more for one group’s labor when it is evident that identical labor can be bought for less? The result is a spurious equality in which labor gets shafted “equally.”
6. Trump discredits himself every time he opens his mouth. Why further discredit him, if not to brace one’s own ego? Why dismiss his supporters, if not to distinguish oneself? These reactions are tempting but ultimately selfish. They lack sympathy and imagination, and in that respect they are no more “advanced” than the bigoted attitudes mobilized by Trump himself. By failing to understand the wellspring of hatred in the Trump movement, we may end up nominating Clinton. Should either one of them become president, their policies will no doubt continue those of their predecessors: continuous war, expansion of the state security apparatus, tax cuts for large corporations and the extremely wealthy, state subsidy of large private banks, militarization of the police, and so on. An immense fund of energy for change animates the electoral bases of both parties. Yet the presumptive nominees work, in opposite but related ways, to mobilize and divide the electorate on issues of identity and exclusion. The strategy inspires enthusiasm but serves largely to divert our attention from the encroachments of corporate America and the expansion of the predatory security state, issues neither candidate seems likely to confront.
John Tamplin is a freelance writer and translator from Louisville, Ky.Wait, before you go…
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