The danger in Democrats' new anti-Trump unity
Uniting to defeat the worst aspects of Trump's agenda is good. Uniting without deciding what you stand for is bad.
It's less than two weeks since the inauguration, and President Trump is already healing the divisions within liberalism.
On Friday, Trump issued a new executive order banning people from seven majority-Muslim countries from entering the country. The blowback was swift: Politicians lambasted the order, protesters flocked to airports across the country, and courts ruled against the poorly thought-out command. Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) showed up at Washington Dulles International Airport to spar with Customs and Border Patrol officials holding people in detention. Several other Democratic politicians and scores of civil rights activists also attended the protests and worked to get detainees released. Some of America's biggest corporations also spoke out against the order in public statements ranging from concerned to furious. Silicon Valley giants like Google and Facebook were especially outspoken.
It was, in other words, a remarkably broad and unified show of organized and impassioned political opposition from the Democratic Party, which just months or even weeks before seemed riven by divisions, and its corporate allies. Unfortunately, a danger lies in this unity, if Democrats are serious about stopping Trumpism for good.
Let's revisit the protests from Silicon Valley in particular. As The New York Times noted, the Valley abides by "the mantra of globalization that underpins the advance of technology," and is a place where just about everyone "came from somewhere else or is a son or daughter of someone who did or is married to someone who did." This relative meritocracy is also probably the most prominent cultural exemplar of the mythos that American capitalism works: The belief that people become fabulously rich because they're brilliant, because they worked hard, and because they contributed great value to society. This is followed by the belief that these entrepreneurs, armed with their great wealth, are the people best positioned to solve society's ills.
And that's where things get a little dicey for Democrats. For all their social progressiveness, Silicon Valley elites share the opinion of the GOP donor class that society benefits the most when wealthy capitalists are unshackled and unleashed to pursue their visions.
Cory Booker is also indicative of this uncomfortable problem. His public opposition to Trump's order and his norm-defying decision to testify against the appointment of Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) for attorney general were both laudable. But he also defended Bain Capital and private equity firms in general from criticism by the Obama administration in 2012, saying they help create jobs. He has fiddled with the idea of scaling back major entitlement programs; he's worried that demonizing the mortgage industry as a whole could discourage investments in projects that help alleviate poverty, and he's one of Wall Street's favorite politicians.
Booker is also a proponent of the school choice reform efforts, which is a perfect encapsulation of the Silicon Valley ethos: The movement operates on the assumption that American meritocracy is good and works, and that the solutions to poverty and inequality lie in "market" efforts to deliver better forms of education, and thus give everyone a truly equal chance to compete.
But there is another view, which holds that Wall Street and private equity firms like Bain Capital don't create jobs, but extract wealth from the rest of the economy. It holds that inequality is not the result of capitalism rewarding superstar skills, or of any particular failure of our education system. Instead, inequality results from a fundamental shift in power from workers to business owners, created by the erosion of unions, the failure to raise the minimum wage, and the general retreat of government policy from job creation and robust public investment. This view says that Silicon Valley's wealth is the result of rent-seeking through intellectual property law and regulatory gamesmanship. In short, it says that America's capitalist meritocracy is a sham, and that our economy needs to be fundamentally remade in a more just way.
This view is also horrified by Trump's racism, his revanchist nationalism, and all the reactionary cultural forces he has unleashed. Like the lie of meritocracy, bigotry is another way some people are cut down so others can be lifted up.
The Silicon Valley and Cory Booker view has more or less shaped the Democratic Party and American economic policymaking for the last few decades. It's left us with skyrocketing inequality, and rural and small-town economies that are dying across the country. It's delivered stagnating wages, a far more precarious labor market, and a safety net that's just big enough to inspire resentment from people who are still struggling but earn too much to qualify for its programs. Faith in the goodness of the American economy, its institutions, and its workings, created the environment that nurtured Trumpism. And centrist Democrats offer no solutions to Trump's supporters except "go back to school" and "move to the city."
Now, all politics is about coalition building. In many respects, this split within the Democratic Party and the liberal worldview was exemplified by the bruising primary between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. And it's right and proper that both sides can now come together to combat Trumpism.
But the split isn't going away. The two sides' horror at Trump is rooted in very different attitudes about the nature of American society and the U.S. economy. Soon, Democrats will have to start trying to retake power, and they will have to decide what their message will be, what they will fight for, and how they can win. When that time comes, this split will come raging back out into the open.
And for the Democrats to succeed in dethroning Trump, one side in their internal split will have to lose.