The Point Magazine was kind enough to invite me to participate in a series of reflections on the 2018 midterms. My thoughts on voting after moving from Paris to Chicago are below. See The Point’s full series here, featuring Lauren Michele Jackson, Anastasia Berg, Jon Baskin, Rosemarie Ho, Robert L. Kehoe III, Jesse McCarthy, and Rachel Wiseman.
Two years ago, I expected my friends and neighbors in Paris to react to the election of Donald Trump more or less the same way they had to the previous Republican presidency. George Bush’s cowboy mannerisms and his quick trigger finger had summed up for the French all that was wrong with the United States, and Jacques Chirac’s refusal to join our adventures in Iraq is still universally remembered with pride. Smug anti-Americanism might well have been warranted in 2016, but far more often the response I encountered was one of sympathy. Perhaps, sensing I was an American somewhere on the left of center, my French interlocutors simply felt sorry for what I must have been going through. After a while, though, I began to sense something deeper, an understanding that Trump was not just a quirk of American backwardness. There was something going around the democratic world, and if my country had contracted a particularly bad case of the disease, France was far from immune—particularly as Marine Le Pen began the campaign that would take her frighteningly close to the Élysée Palace.
For me as an inexperienced freelance journalist in Paris, Trump was a blessing in disguise. There was enough demand for hot takes on a new regime nobody quite understood—demand that would have been inconceivable under a Hillary Clinton presidency—that I was able to pay my rent writing for French newspapers about American politics. One question that ended up guiding much of my writing was what Trump’s America meant for the left. Many French readers assumed that in a moment when European parties like the Parti socialiste were crumbling, there was little hope for left politics in a country where even moderate social democracy had failed to take root. Yet during this same moment, a candidate like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez could becoming a national political star, while the organization she belonged to, the Democratic Socialists of America, increased its membership tenfold over pre-Trump levels. It was hard not to at least wonder whether the Trump era was an opportunity for American left movements. If Trump revealed how close American democracy was to the abyss, he also frustrated established assumptions of what was possible in our politics. More so than in any other moment I could remember, it seemed plausible that a genuine vision of equality and solidarity could emerge out of the chaos.
However reassuring these hopes might have been as I moved back to Chicago from Paris several weeks before the midterm elections, the results showed only a modest Democratic “blue wave,” much less a revival of socialism. It is one thing to speculate—as I had been accustomed to doing—on the kind of political “moment” we are living in, another thing entirely to actually define that moment by organizing, campaigning, and persuading. On that front, the left has as much work cut out for it as ever. But if the victories for voting rights on ballot measures in Florida and Michigan were any indication (or the defeat of the odious vote-rigger Kris Kobach in Kansas), this was an election about the future of majority-rule democracy. The whole world is struggling to understand how under today’s conditions, it is possible to maintain a society of equals. If socialists—democratic socialists—and their progressive allies have their way, America might once again be a place to look for answers.