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  • Writer's pictureKaren Young

Rebecca Solnit wants a left that is joyous, inviting…and limousine-liberal

Updated: Apr 9

Welcome to Message Monday!


I’m a fan of Anand Giridharadas, so much so that his is the only Substack I pay for.  He recently posted a two-part interview with Rebecca Solnit, who is a writer, historian and activist, and he seemed to completely buy into her statement that she wants “a left that is joyous, inviting, and expansionary, not angry, Puritanical, and closed.”


I actually agreed with much of what she said in the first interview, which diagnosed certain widespread problems within the left.


However, the second interview left me enraged.  What I read seemed much more “angry and closed” than “joyous, inviting and expansionary.”  It was a classic example of the ignorant, condescending attitude toward “Trump voters” [translation: anyone who isn’t always a Democrat voter] that is the hallmark of the liberal elite.  Giridharadas turns to her for “hope,” but what I get from her is more like despair. 


Not an attitude that will help us grow


Her ideas here are NOT a message that is going to help us grow the progressive movement, win more elections or take more power.  What she says is channeling Hillary Clinton.  It is supremely typical of the “limousine liberals” who dominate the Democratic Party and the liberal media.


This view doesn’t allow for any ideas about how “our side” might appeal to folks on the “other side,” who are completely demonized and painted with a broad brush.  Yes, Trump is dangerous.  Yes, he and some of his followers spout racist and fascist views.  Other Trump voters and Republicans are less motivated by these things. They, and other, more independent voters, could be “invited” in, but need to see an economic message more in tune with Des Moines than Davos.


Trump voters feel they have been screwed, and they HAVE been screwed. Most people in this country HAVE been screwed (as Solnit seems to momentarily understand when she praises Occupy’s 99 percent idea).  The left needs to acknowledge this AND present solutions bold enough to meet the moment.  When you can’t even do the first thing – acknowledge their pain - you sure won’t do the second thing.  You leave the field clear for Trump to encourage these folks to blame immigrants, people of color, and women for their problems.

By the way, Solnit's analysis of how the right gained power is completely wrong, though her illusions are widely shared. Read Wrong About The Right to get the real picture.


Solnit’s descriptions of the right and Trump voters


“The regular people who are attracted to American fascism today”


“People who felt that a white Protestant majority country was their country, and who also feel very frightened of being in a much more diverse country in which white Protestants and all their heteronormative whatever are not going to be the dominant culture.”


“What's startling to me about the base of the right is how eager they are to be manipulated, like dogs that will chase any stick you throw for them.”


How a more inviting and expansionary left might describe at least some Trump voters instead


“The regular people who are attracted to American fascism today”


The regular people who feel left behind by both Republicans and Democrats. White men without college degrees who have lived through huge losses the past 30 years. Many live in places that haven’t recovered yet from the 2008 recession.  There used to be decent jobs for men without degrees, and now, “gig work” and other low-paid work is almost all there is.  They feel they are an endangered species, and they are ready to fight for themselves, and anxious for a leader who will fight for them. They don’t see it as fascism.


The people whose hometowns have emptied out as manufacturing left. As companies who stayed cut jobs, pay and benefits, and just kept getting bigger and less accountable, especially since the 90’s, under several Democratic administrations. The people who have to say goodbye to their children, because there’s no opportunities for them at home.


The people who would have felt very “seen and heard” by this ad, which Trump ran right before the 2016 election, and which could have been an ad for Bernie. It's no accident that Bill and Hillary are featured throughout. Because they're hated.



Regular people and the Clintons


These are people who did NOT feel “seen or heard” by Hillary Clinton, because of her husband’s support of globalization and big corporations, and because of her statements like this:


“You know, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right?  The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic — you name it. And unfortunately there are people like that. And he has lifted them up… Now, some of those folks — they are irredeemable, but thankfully they are not America.


But the other basket… are people who feel that the government has let them down, the economy has let them down, nobody cares about them, nobody worries about what happens to their lives and their futures, and they’re just desperate for change. It doesn’t really even matter where it comes from.  He seems to hold out some hope that their lives will be different.”


(Did SHE understand that they have in fact been let down?  "It doesn't matter" where their feelings come from, after all. Did SHE feel any need to offer hope that their lives would be different with her? She did not, and neither does Solnit.)



“If you look at the map of the United States, there's all that red in the middle where Trump won…I win the coast. I win, you know, Illinois and Minnesota — places like that…


“But what the map doesn't show you is that I won the places that represent two-thirds of America's gross domestic product. So I won the places that are optimistic, diverse, dynamic, moving forward.”  


Who talks about GDP as a measure of who they represent?  She so clearly couldn’t care less about those other places that she sees as not “dynamic or moving forward.”   Guess what, Hillary?  Those places – which are not nearly so devoid of value as you imagine - are America, too.

Solnit again, on the people she’s against

“People who felt that a white Protestant majority country was their country, and who also feel very frightened of being in a much more diverse country in which white Protestants and all their heteronormative whatever are not going to be the dominant culture.”

How an inviting and expansionary left might see it:

“White Protestant majority country”

"Together, a combined 57% of U.S adults – a clear majority – express a positive view of religion’s influence on American life." Faith is something that brings a lot of people together.

49% of U.S. adults say both that religion is losing influence and that this is a bad thing. An additional 8% of U.S. adults think religion’s influence is growing and that this is a good thing. Pew Center survey, 2024

The survey does also find “wide partisan gaps on questions about the proper role for religion in society, with Republicans more likely than Democrats to favor religious influence in governance and public life.”  However, the survey also shows that extreme views on this matter are minority views, and certainly wouldn’t encompass all Trump voters.

“Frightened of a much more diverse country”

Again according to Pew, currently, "64% of U.S. adults say the prospect of a nation in the next 25 to 30 years in which Black Americans, Latinos and Asian Americans make up a majority of the population is neither good nor bad for the country. Nearly a quarter (24%) say this is a good thing, while fewer than half as many (11%) say it is bad."  (Rebecca: note this is a much smaller number than Trump’s current poll numbers).

"The overall decline in shares who say that the long-term growth in racial and ethnic diversity is bad for the country has been primarily driven by Republicans and Republican-leaning independents. While Republicans are more likely than Democrats to say this change would be bad for the country (19% of Republicans vs. 4% of Democrats), the share of Republicans who express this view has declined by 20 points since 2016."  (Rebecca: there are still, maybe increasingly, Republicans who are not rabid racists, for whom racism does not drive their political identity)

My personal favorite: “All their heteronormative whatever”

Most Americans believe that same-sex marriage being legal (one measure of LGBTQ acceptance) is positive. Attitudes on this issue are different among various subgroups, though the picture is far more complex than simply saying that the “other side” is anti-gay.  Views on transgender issues are similarly more complex than Solnit seems to imagine.  I see a lot of people on the left who vastly overestimate the acceptance of transgender politics in the general population.

Pew says, “Opinions about same-sex marriage’s impact on society vary widely by age, education and – most starkly – by party and religion.” 

"Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents have a largely positive view of the effect of legalizing same-sex marriage: Eight-in-ten say it has been good for society.  Republicans and Republican leaners are more divided: 43% view the legalization of same-sex marriage positively, 55% negatively. "

"Opinions about the effect of same-sex marriage vary widely among religious groups. While 71% of White evangelical Protestants say the legalization of marriage between same-sex couples is bad for society, 62% of White non-evangelical Protestants say it is good. So too do about two-thirds of Catholics (66%) and a much larger majority of religiously unaffiliated adults (82%). In contrast, Black Protestants are closely divided on same-sex marriage: 49% say it is good, while 46% say it is bad."

Transgender/nonbinary issues

Among U.S. adults overall, "six-in-ten now say that whether a person is a man or a woman is determined by their sex assigned at birth. This figure is even higher among White evangelicals (87%) and Black Protestants (70%). Among Catholics, the share who say a person’s gender cannot differ from sex at birth has risen from 52% in 2021 to 62% this year."

"By contrast, a majority of religiously unaffiliated Americans (58%) say a person’s gender can be different from their sex assigned at birth, with atheists (76%) and agnostics (67%) especially likely to hold this view."

"The same pattern is apparent in views toward nonbinary people – that is, those who don’t identify as a man or a woman. For instance, most U.S. Christians – including 81% of White evangelicals, 67% of White Protestants who are not evangelical and 64% of Catholics – say government documents should not include options other than “male” and “female” for people who don’t identify as either."

"Religiously unaffiliated Americans are more divided on this question, with 52% in favor of an alternate gender option and 47% against it. Among atheists and agnostics, specifically, clear majorities (70% and 60%) say government documents should have a gender option other than “male” and “female.”

“How eager they are to be manipulated, like dogs”

Seriously?  Is not disinformation/misinformation one of the top issues in society right now?  Are not most people, of all persuasions, tethered to their phones and inhaling large amounts of questionable information and ideas at all times, driven by anger which keeps them online?  Don’t you think Democrats and progressives can also be manipulated? 

Yes, there are a lot of things that Trump and company believe that are demonstrably not true.  And many of them, like election denialism, are dangerous. 

But I think this says as much about the tremendous challenge of navigating today’s information ecosystem as it does about the “doglike” quality of Trump voters.  How everyone seems to have fallen headlong into chasing likes and shares, and furiously commenting, all day long instead of doing something productive seems pretty bi-partisan to me.

And again, my main point: We cannot win political power if we aren't realistic about who, besides those who are part of our movement already, is really out there that we could find common cause with. People who have voted for Trump are not all cut from the same cloth. Hillary Clinton and her fellows in the Democratic Party lost some of these folks fair and square.

I apologize if I seem to be ranting.  I do find ideas like Solnit’s to be very damaging, and I hope I have shed some light on that.

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May 05
Rated 4 out of 5 stars.

Readers and the author can ask Rebecca Solnit to enter into some conversation with the author, to be shared on this Substack. Solnit is an exceptional writer and thinker. However, some of the commentators, including this author, have identified some legitimate questions into Solnits assumptions and conclusions. I would publish my thoughts. on my Substack, but with its 50 viewers, it is not quite the same. My thoughts, as a self described progressive former elected official is that limousine liberals (if that term is still used) and purist progressives fighting each other are welcome sights for MAGA, Steve Bannon, Putin, etc. So, if this author and Solnit can enter into a dialogue on this matter..then the benefit would be gr…

Karen Young
Karen Young
May 07
Replying to

Thanks for your perceptive comment! I don't know that Solnit would be interested in such a conversation, but I will consider reaching out to her.

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