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O My America: Corporate America Deluxe

Lawrence Bush
November 26, 2016

by Lawrence Bush

I'M IN COLUMBIA, South Carolina, visiting my pregnant daughter and looking with wondering eyes at the world that elected Donald Trump.

Among those I shared Thanksgiving with was a young father who works in military intelligence and who voiced to me, over the course of two days, his strong objections to Southern racism and voting rights restrictions (he's a northerner living in Georgia), his strong objections to standardized testing, and his support for the anti-pipeline protests in North Dakota — all this from a guy who voted for Donald Trump. We'd been forbidden in advance to talk politics with our Thanksgiving tablemates, so I didn't get to ask him about the thinking behind his vote, but every time we took a walk to air the dogs, he had plenty to say politically, and it all sounded quite Bernie Sanders-ish.

Go figure. I'm starting to think that there is no generalizing about people and their politics — that each of us joins whichever "clubs" we belong to based on very idiosyncratic influences.

Meanwhile Trump is making awful political appointments while making nice with the public and speaking in ways that suggest that his administration is going to be not-quite-classically Republican. I find myself comforted by two hopes (slim, slim hopes): 1) that the U.S. has enough of a legal and cultural foundation in diversity, in constitutionally protected rights, and in social progress, to withstand whatever a Trump administration has in store for us; 2) that Trump does, in fact, have "New York values" and may be as upsetting to Republican conservatives as to Democrats because he's more interested in being the greatest President ever than in serving corporate masters and a certain political ideology.

These are not predictions -- they are hopes, and probably illusory (at least the second). One prediction I am willing to make, however, is that the FDR-New Deal model of interventionist government is dead for at least the next two decades, and that America is going to be in a phase of raw, unregulated capitalism that will be dizzying in the technological and cultural changes it fosters, disastrous for the planet's climate, and heady for the rich. Trump the Businessman is going to unleash business entirely — Wall Street is already bouncing off its own ceiling in excitement — and corporations are going to complete their transformation into entities more powerful than nation-states.

What does that mean for us?

I DON'T REALLY KNOW. But I'm willing to share some of my speculations:

• If progressives want to have any influence on the country, that needs to happen less in the "defend the government/revive the New Deal" realm and more in the long-term realm of asking key questions about the new society in which we now live -- and trying to convince our society to adopt positive, progressive answers to those questions. Teachers' unions, for example, which are sure to be under severe, possibly shattering assault over the next decade, need to shift the debate away from "public versus charter" or "public versus privatization" -- for that cause will be nearly lost under Trump's appointed secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, a billionaire advocate of charter schools -- towards the question, WHAT SHOULD EDUCATION LOOK LIKE in the information age, in our privatized yet very diverse world? How much time should kids spend in a building, how much time in independent study, how much time in their neighborhoods? Should schools become community centers? What should the teaching profession require of teachers and of schools in light of these needs? Teachers unions must position themselves on the side of parents and children as well as teachers, and raise issues that unify these constituencies.

• Another way of saying this is that progressives must seek to maximize their influence by speaking of the greatest good -- especially the greatest economic good -- for the greatest number at all times. We must appeal to common sense; we must be aware of how we are coming across when our positions are "counter-intuitive;" we must embed our identity politics within a broad vision of American democracy and strength-in-diversity; we must learn the rhetoric of patriotism and learn how to shame those who spout rhetoric of hatred and exclusion.

• We are going to be more empowered as consumers than as citizens in the years to come — and we're going to have to learn how to use that consumer power (boycotts, shareholder resolutions, public opinion advertising) to influence corporations, many of which, after all, still need to sell us stuff in order to survive, let alone thrive. We have to figure out what it means to be politically active in a highly individualized, cowboy capitalist culture, in which private life is everything and social life is voluntary.

• We should be promulgating a vision of a post-scarcity capitalist society, and celebrate the fact that we're already there, technologically speaking. We have vast automation, with more to come, and industry that is so productive as to nearly make stuff for free. We need to embrace this as opportunity, argue for a basic adequate livelihood for everyone, explore leisure as a key part of human existence, and stop making everybody work so unnecessarily hard. (And then Jewish Currents can stop trying to figure out how to make money off this website and just go with the information flow of giving it away for free.)

I KNOW THAT much of this will sound half-baked to readers, or perhaps like I'm surrendering to the right. Maybe it's all of that — I've written this piece in less than an hour, since I feel responsible nearly every week, as the editor of JC, to say SOMETHING at this website about what's going on in the world. I accept Trump's election as a defeat for my political "team," notwithstanding Hillary's victory in the popular vote; the Democrats should have been able to tromp the man, and instead they lost the great majority of states. It was a major defeat for liberalism.

Anyway, what counts is not the strength or accuracy of my specific ideas, but simply the basic thought that we can no longer simply criticize the world-as-is, but instead must foster conversation about the world-as-it-might-be. And we should get that conversation onto the airwaves, onto the big screen, onto the internet, and across all boundaries into the mainstream culture.

Starting here.

Lawrence Bush edits Jewish Currents magazine.

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.