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6 reasons for the left to feel optimistic this election season

Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and Senator Elizabeth Warren hold a rally at St. Anselm College in Manchester, NH on Oct. 24, 2016.
Suzanne Kreiter | The Boston Globe | Getty Images
Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and Senator Elizabeth Warren hold a rally at St. Anselm College in Manchester, NH on Oct. 24, 2016.

The surprising rise of Donald Trump — not to mention Republicans' dominance, for now, of Congress — offers plenty of reasons to be pessimistic about American politics. Here, however, are six causes for optimism, from a left perspective.

I should stress — as I argued in my book "The Reactionary Mind" — that one reason the right's momentum is slowing has to do with how much ground it has gained in recent decades. If you consider its great animating energies since the New Deal — first, anti-labor; then later, anti–civil rights; and finally, anti-feminism — conservatives have achieved a considerable amount of success in either destroying or beating back these movements. So in one sense, the hopefulness you read below is built on the ruins of the left. Nevertheless:

1) An ABC News poll has Trump at 38 percent of the popular vote. It's only one poll, and I haven't been paying much attention to the polls (at this point, what's the point?), but if Trump does get 38 percent — which is about what I've been thinking he'll get — he'll be squarely within George McGovern territory. With a very few exceptions, he's rarely broken above 40 percent (in a four-way race).

No major party candidate of the past 50 years, aside from George H.W. Bush, has gotten less than 40 percent of the vote — and in Bush's case, it had a lot to do with Ross Perot. This will go down as a catastrophic defeat for the Republican Party at the presidential level. (That said, Clinton, with her 50 percent, according to ABC, won't be in Nixon territory, which was about 10 points higher.)

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2) For all of Trump's bluster at the third debate about not accepting the election results, I'm confident that once it's over and the verdict is in, he and his followers will go, more or less gently, into that good night.

We on the left — perhaps liberals, too — are so used to being defeated, demoralized, and depressed, so used to losing to the right, that we have little sense that the right can suffer the same. We have little sense of the impact this election could have on the Trumpites. We believe their bullsh--: We take their sense of entitlement as a sign of deep wells of conviction, of belief in their right and authority, or perhaps even of their actual right and authority, as if this really is their country.

They have a better, more accurate sense of their dwindling political fortunes, with whites and conservatives making up a decreasing portion of the electorate — and women, people of color, and liberals making up an increasing portion. It's what gives their rhetoric its enervating rather than exhilarating character. Listen to Pat Buchanan from the 1970s through the '90s: the inventiveness of his brutality, the energy of his cruelty. There's a world of difference between the expansiveness of that revanchism and the narrow straits that is Trump's. The former speaks in pages and paragraphs, the latter in two- or three-word fragments, without any Marinetti-like patter of power.

Trump's is not the voice of confidence, of right, of command. This is not the voice of a man who can lead a rearguard revolt in the streets. This is the voice of a man —and a movement — who is tired, beaten, and demoralized, who starts sentences he can barely muster enough energy to finish.

3) Consider the decreasing half-lives of the right's various populist experiments over the past four decades. In the lead-up to Ronald Reagan's victories in the 1980s, that right-wing populism was represented by the Moral Majority. And it lasted quite a long time, in part because it skillfully fused the racism of the segregation academies issue — private, overwhelmingly white religious schools in the South created in response to desegregation — with the religiosity of school prayer and the gender politics of abortion. That brand carried the GOP all the way from Reagan into the first Bush administration.

Then it was the Christian Coalition, which had a shorter political life and considerably less success. Bill Clinton was president during much of its heyday, and its only electoral victory was the 2000 election of George W. Bush. One of the reasons for its diminution of power, relatively speaking, is that it no longer had the issues of busing and school desegregation to mobilize against the way the Christian right had in the 1970s and '80s.

"We on the left — perhaps liberals, too — are so used to being defeated, demoralized, and depressed, so used to losing to the right, that we have little sense that the right can suffer the same."

Then it was the Tea Party, which, despite the exaggerated assertions of its defenders and critics, has seen an even shorter time in the sun. The Christian right had been successful, state by state, in rallying people to limit women's access to abortion through onerous legal restrictions; the Tea Party has no issue that resonates with the grassroots in the same way.

And now it's Trump and the alt-right. And you know what I think about how much time it has left on this earth.

Analysts of the right tend to think that conservatism is a permanent feature of modern political life, and it is. But what they don't get is that its specific manifestations are cyclical. They have rises and falls in response to the success or failure of the left.

The kind of conservatism we've become familiar with is on its way out, and that fall has been long in the making (since the administration of George W. Bush, I've argued). The decreasing life spans of the right's populist expressions — these ever more desperate attempts to recreate the magic of its originating moment in the backlash against the labor movement, the civil rights movement, and the women's movement — are an important sign.

4) Some time around the election of George W. Bush, Irving Kristol — not Bill Kristol but Bill's father, the real brains of the operation — told me: "American conservatism lacks for political imagination. It's so influenced by business culture and by business modes of thinking that it lacks any political imagination, which has always been, I have to say, a property of the left. If you read Marx, you'd learn what a political imagination could do."

That (and the end of the Cold War), he said, is "one of the reasons I really not am not writing much these days. I don't know the answers."

This was not the voice of a tired old man, though he was tired and old and a man. This was the voice of a movement that had lost its way, its raison d'être.

In 2016, the right, as a party and a movement, seems even more lost, more confused.

5) From the 1960s to the 1980s, California was the pacesetter for the right. It gave us Nixon, Reagan, and Proposition 13, which sharply reduced property taxes — constraining what government could do.

In the 1990s, California was again the pacesetter, only in the opposite direction: Pete Wilson tried to do on the state level what Trump is now trying to do at the national level. He threw his weight behind the notorious anti-immigrant measure Proposition 187, which passed in 1994 but was subsequently struck down by the courts.

It proved to be a spectacular political failure, long term, driving much of the state, which previously had been Republican (between 1952 and 1992, California went for the Democratic presidential candidate only once), into the hands of the Democrats and mobilizing a generation of Latino voters into permanent opposition with the GOP.

6) I hear a lot of folks saying how terrible it is that a third to 40 percent of the electorate would support Trump. And it is.

But put this in historical perspective: Once upon a time, not so long ago, that kind of racism and cruelty propelled the Republican Party to the White House — not once, not twice, but again and again and again. No more.

And if you think the difference is that the racism and cruelty were once quiet but are now loud — and that this is frightening — that argument, too, can be flipped on its head: It once took only the faintest of dog whistles to get the majority out to the polls. Now it takes a blaring speaker system, and even that doesn't work.

The country that elected a black president with a foreign-sounding name — twice —may have turned a certain kind of corner.

Commentary by Corey Robin, a professor of political science at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. He is the author of "The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism From Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin." A version of this piece originally appeared at CoreyRobin.org.

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