The Mo(u)rning After
Finding Words for Political Disaster
Waking up in a state of mourning after Donald Trump’s horrifying victory in yesterday’s presidential election has caused me to take refuge in one of my favorite childhood movies. The Poseidon Adventure was released in 1972, as political life in the United States was turning from explosion to implosion. This cheesy flick told a story about ordinary people who are having a perfectly nice time until their cruise ship, knowingly sent out by its owner without sufficient ballast, is flipped by a tsunami wave (you see where I am going with this.) The theme song for The Poseidon Adventure — adventure my ass! — was “There’s Got to Be a Morning After,” sung by Maureen McGovern. You can listen to it here. McGovern, who was an unknown secretary when she was tapped to sing this song, made it a hit. Subsequently, she had a modest career as “the Disaster Lady,” a moniker she earned by also singing the title song for The Towering Inferno (1974).
The message of The Poseidon Adventure was that we must not give in to despair, even in our darkest hour. In order to save our own lives, we must come to terms with, and fight back against, the new reality. The challenges faced by those on The Poseidon are considerable: in the midst of dinner, the tsunami hits, and the passengers’ world literally turns upside down. Partygoers in formal wear find themselves sliding down a floor that first becomes a wall, and then a ceiling. Naturally panic and despair ensue. But a small group (played by actors like Shelley Winters, Gene Hackman, Red Buttons and Ernest Borgnine, who were famous for portraying “ordinary” people) coheres. They save their own lives by making their way to the ship’s hull, having intuited that the remaining oxygen will gather there, and they can perhaps survive long enough to be rescued.
Of course, this makes perfect sense as the S.S. Poseidon is upside down and everything in it is dropping into the sea. But not everyone can cope with the new reality. In one particularly grisly moment, our little band of heroes encounters a large group of surviving passengers, led by the ship’s doctor and remaining officer. Unquestioningly, they are walking towards the deck of the ship — which is, of course, becoming immersed at a rapid rate. We never see them again. Although the group does not make it to the hull with its membership intact, our friends do get there; they bang on the steel skin until rescuers cut through it to save them.
Trump’s victory is a shipwreck of unimaginable proportions, and to my mind, the political world is as upside down as the S.S. Poseidon. I am appalled by the violence, racism, xenophobia, and disregard for basic ethical and moral principles tolerated, even embraced, by the cross-class white voting public that formed the core of the Trump coalition. I am also appalled that many of these same voters learned nothing from having elected George W. Bush, a man whose thin talents and resume — compared to our current President-elect — seem impressive. Nevertheless, the 2000 election launched an international catastrophe that became the platform for all of this. It plunged Americans into debt and stole their savings; it directly caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, and maimed countless others; and it set millions of refugees in motion around the globe. Needless to say, like many of my friends, I am frightened about what will happen next. I am also terrified for our undocumented comrades who may be trying to figure out how to leave the country in the next eight weeks.
In the Chelsea neighborhood of New York last night, many of us were walking our dogs in between the complex math reports that dominated election coverage as things got worse. It got later and later; strangers embraced each other, wordless in our grief and shock. Then we went home and embraced the people we lived with, as the floors turned into walls, and then to ceilings. There were still no words. At 12:15 a.m., having been wrong about everything, I logged out of Twitter and went to bed.
Now it is the mourning after. It’s time to find the words.
I am uncertain about the future, and I don’t really know what to say. Yet. But I do know that starting today, we must find the words, and we Democrats must be kinder to each other than we were for the last eighteen months. We could even try being kinder to Republicans and conservatives, since they are in charge now and we are not. What is perhaps most important is that we do our best to not blame each other. Democrats are so good at that, and although many of us who supported Bernie Sanders during the primary season believed that Clinton’s flaws as a candidate were exactly this fatal, surely her candidacy was not as great a sin as a GOP process that gave us a vicious, incompetent, and mendacious clown in a field of candidates where not being a clown was utterly disqualifying.
I would also urge my Democratic friends against the blanket condemnations that we tend towards when we are angry and reactive. “The country” didn’t do this, and “white people” as a collective did not do this. The Jill Stein and Gary Johnson voters did not do this. Progressives, and conservatives who voted for Clinton, are everywhere in these 50 states. Millions of people who voted for Clinton live in those so-called red states that, by virtue of majority vote, elected a raving lunatic and tax cheat, a man who, by his own admission, has never read a book and thinks government works more or less like a casino. The final vote was 51%-49%, and thousands of anti-racist white people, many of whom came over from the Sanders campaign after the convention, worked with our sisters and brothers of color to elect Hillary Clinton.
I do feel strongly that there was a profound failure of words in the Democratic Party, and a failure to come to grips with realpolitik. Those who supported Bernie Sanders did not anticipate what might come of the volatility of the populism they were activating, or the misogyny that was part of that brew. For their part, Clinton supporters often dismissed Sanders voters as only sexist and misguided, ignoring the real risks of her historically fraught relationship with the voting public in general, with the Democratic left wing, and with conservatives.
When we are able to find our words again, we must deplore the misogyny that was activated in this process in both the Democratic and Republican parties; and we must find new ways to organize as a counterweight to our government as it will exist for at least the next two years. But we also need to re-evaluate what we mean by change. This may mean asking why the left rejects incrementalism and compromise out of hand, and whether the liberal feminist vision that brought Hillary Clinton to the dance has not reached its limits as an electoral strategy and a recipe for political transformation.
When we are able to find our words again we need to talk about what a progressive feminism and a socialist vision for the 21st century look like. It seems like a no-brainer that you aren’t going to get to socialism through liberalism, but that is what we presume time and time again when we muster our party around a platform of incremental, market-based change and refuse the viability of third party and fusion politics. Furthermore, identity politics as we understood them are finished. A Clinton media strategy based less on the issues than on exploiting Donald Trump’s coarseness seems to have imagined that “women” would cohere as a class, much as Betty Friedan imagined at the founding moment of the National Organization for Women. Unsurprisingly, this strategy was probably most effective among professional women who can see the tangible benefits of this vision in their lives, achievements and careers.
Hence, as we move forward, we must grapple with the fact that these feminist appeals wilted in the face of complex forms of female disenfranchisment that cross racial and regional lines. We must grapple with it that our current uderstanding of what feminism is failed to persuade “women” to tick the Democratic box in sufficient numbers to defeat misogyny and racism (and it isn’t because these women haven’t been groped, beaten, raped, shamed and discriminated against.) We need to grapple with the possibility that, in the absence of robust working class organizing and poor people’s movements, symbolic appeals to feminist solidarity appeal to those of us who have things — health care, bank accounts, satisfying work, citizenship, education, homes — that other women and the men in their lives are systematically denied.
These are hard thoughts, but when I have rested, when I have found my words, this is where I will start my thinking, and I look forward to thinking with you here at Public Seminar. There’s got to be a morning after.