America moving left — and right

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Peter Beinart writes: By the time Barack Obama defeated Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008, in part because of her support for the Iraq War, the mood inside the party had fundamentally changed. Whereas the party’s most respected thinkers had once urged Democrats to critique liberal orthodoxy, they now criticized Democrats for not defending that orthodoxy fiercely enough. The presidency of George W. Bush had made Democrats unapologetically liberal, and the presidency of Barack Obama was the most tangible result.

But that’s only half the story. Because if George W. Bush’s failures pushed the Democratic Party to the left, Barack Obama’s have pushed it even further. If Bush was responsible for the liberal infrastructure that helped elect Obama, Obama has now inadvertently contributed to the creation of two movements — Occupy and Black Lives Matter — dedicated to the proposition that even the liberalism he espouses is not left-wing enough.

Given the militant opposition Obama faced from Republicans in Congress, it’s unclear whether he could have used the financial crisis to dramatically curtail Wall Street’s power. What is clear is that he did not. Thus, less than three years after the election of a president who had inspired them like no other, young activists looked around at a country whose people were still suffering, and whose financial titans were still dominant. In response, they created Occupy Wall Street.

When academics from the City University of New York went to Zuccotti Park to study the people who had taken it over, they found something striking: 40 percent of the Occupy activists had worked on the 2008 presidential campaign, mostly for Obama. Many of them had hoped that, as president, he would bring fundamental change. Now the collapse of that hope had led them to challenge Wall Street directly. “Disenchantment with Obama was a driver of the Occupy movement for many of the young people who participated,” noted the CUNY researchers. In his book on the movement, Occupy Nation, the Columbia University sociologist Todd Gitlin quotes Jeremy Varon, a close observer of Occupy who teaches at the New School for Social Research, as saying, “This is the Obama generation declaring their independence from his administration. We thought his voice was ours. Now we know we have to speak for ourselves.”

For a brief period, Occupy captured the nation’s attention. In December 2011, Gitlin notes, the movement had 143 chapters in California alone. Then it fizzled. But as the political scientist Frances Fox Piven has written, “The great protest movements of history … did not expand in the shape of a simple rising arc of popular defiance. Rather, they began in a particular place, sputtered and subsided, only to re-emerge elsewhere in perhaps a different form, influenced by local particularities of circumstance and culture.”

That’s what happened to Occupy. The movement may have burned out, but it injected economic inequality into the American political debate. (In the weeks following the takeover of Zuccotti Park, media references to the subject rose fivefold.) The same anger that sparked Occupy — directed not merely at Wall Street but at the Democratic Party elites who coddled it—fueled Bill de Blasio’s election and Elizabeth Warren’s rise to national prominence. And without Occupy, it’s impossible to understand why a curmudgeonly Democratic Socialist from Vermont is seriously challenging Hillary Clinton in the early primary states. The day Bernie Sanders announced his candidacy, a group of Occupy veterans offered their endorsement. In the words of one former Occupy activist, Stan Williams, “People who are involved in Occupy are leading the biggest group for Bernie Sanders. Our fingers are all over this.”

It’s true that Americans have grown more conservative on some issues over the past few years. Support for gun control has dropped in the Obama era, even as the president and other Democrats have pursued it more aggressively. Republicans also enjoy a renewed advantage on combatting international terrorism, an issue whose salience has grown with the rise of the Islamic State. Still, in an era when government has grown more intrusive, African American activists have grown more confrontational, and long-standing assumptions about sexual orientation and gender identity have been toppled, most Americans are not yelling “stop,” as they began doing in the mid-1960s. The biggest reason: We’re not dealing with the same group of Americans.

On issue after issue, it is the young who are most pleased with the liberal policy shifts of the Obama era, and most eager for more. In 2014, Pew found that Americans under 30 were twice as likely as Americans 65 and older to say the police do a “poor” job of “treating racial, ethnic groups equally” and more than twice as likely to say the grand jury in Ferguson was wrong not to charge Darren Wilson in Michael Brown’s death. According to YouGov, more than one in three Americans 65 and older think being transgender is morally wrong. Among Americans under 30, the ratio is less than one in five. Millennials — Americans roughly 18 to 34 years old — are 21 percentage points less likely than those 65 and older to say that immigrants “burden” the United States and 25 points more likely to say they “strengthen” the country. Millennials are also 17 points more likely to have a favorable view of Muslims. [Continue reading…]

Still, these measures are relative.

In a recent poll of support for Trump among Millennials, 32.2% of young adults aged 18-24 said they would support his ban on Muslims entering the U.S. They were outnumbered by 46.4% being opposed, but the fact that opposition was not found in an overwhelming majority is telling.

As much as it might be true that the Bush era provoked a backlash that pushed America leftward, the ideology of the war on terrorism can be viewed by its advocates as a success in this sense: the core issue perceived by most Americans is their experience of insecurity and any remedy for that insecurity must make them feel safe.

Many Americans express opposition to policies instituted in the name of counterterrorism and yet simultaneously harbor the multifaceted fears which have become a core component in American consciousness.

Insecurity comes in many forms — economic insecurity, fear of police brutality, fear of terrorism, fear of immigrants — but whenever the problem is fear, the remedy is security.

The fact that fear has become the foundation of the American zeitgeist is evident in the varieties of isolationism found across the political spectrum.

Isolationism on the right calls for increased defense spending and stronger borders, while on the left it promotes anti-interventionism and a broad disengagement from global affairs.

This inward turning has happened not only collectively, but also individually. No generation has become less trusting of others than are Millennials.

Millennials Less Trusting of Others

Where trust is so lacking, how can mass movements grow? Where will a sense of human solidarity take root?

Consider the tepid response to Donald Trump’s proposal to exclude Muslims from America. As much as he might have provoked many expressions of principled outrage, why has he not been countered by calls for a massive increase in refugee intake?

The United States is almost 30 times the size of Germany and has four times the population. If the U.S. was to match Germany in its willingness to welcome refugees, President Obama, following Chancellor Merkel’s lead, would be saying we need to accept four million and not a paltry 10,000.

There are 300 cities larger than 100,000 population across America and if all were to accept an average of 500 refugees, this would only amount to a modest intake of 150,000.

The number of Syrian refugees granted asylum in the U.S. in 2015 amounted to one per 172,000 Americans.

Let’s suppose that Americans were to feel collectively strong enough that 1,000 would still feel safe if they were to welcome just one refugee in their communities. This would result in an intake of 322,000 refugees.

The issue here has much less to do with an economic burden or national security, than it has with xenophobic paranoia.

That paranoia might be at its highest concentration in Trump’s America, but it seems to exist in varying dilutions across much of the rest of this nation.

Among the presidential candidates, as the self-declared socialist, Bernie Sanders should have taken the boldest stand on Syrian refugees and he has called on his supporters to sign a petition saying “we should not turn our backs on these refugees escaping violence in the Middle East” — a feel-good sentiment. But when it comes to a call for action, all he appealed for was this:

Support continuing the refugee program that promises to resettle 10,000 Syrians, mostly women and children, who are escaping violence in their home country.

Perhaps he and those in his campaign who arrived there from the Occupy movement personally favor a more radical response to the refugee crisis but have refrained from advocating for this because they believe it would undermine Sander’s electoral viability. Or perhaps this timidity is their own.

Either way, this purported antidote to “anti-immigrant hysteria” nevertheless seems to accommodate rather than challenges America’s more pervasive fears.

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