Race to the Top

Ever since the 2016 election, when the Democratic establishment faced a surprisingly strong challenge from Bernie Sanders and his relatively mild form of economic leftism, liberal partisans have insisted that everyone in America is underselling the damage done by racism.  (Everyone, that is, except themselves.  No one rolls their eyes more while intoning ‘white people, am I right’ like college-educated white professionals.)  The left, according to this narrative, doesn’t care about racism, forever subordinating it to class issues, while the right has merely intensified its already-existing racism, having become emboldened by the ascension of Donald Trump to the office of Racist-in-Chief.

Part and parcel of this fabulist literature in which the far left and the far right are essentially identical (leaving the white liberal economic elite entirely innocent of harming nonwhite minorities, a position that might need a bit of fact-checking) is the idea that leftists, having argued that material impoverishment was likely a factor in driving the white working class to support Trump, are therefore aiding and abetting the bigotry of these racist Morlocks, and that therefore, nothing they say should be believed.  “Economic anxiety”, indeed, has become a punchline for a certain brand of woke liberal, uttered with scorn after some report of heinous prejudice, as if it is not possible to both be racist and suffer from deprivation and injustice.

The latest outbreak in this propaganda battle has been the release of an opinion poll by the Washington Post, a source of ‘real’ news except when it isn’t, indicating that race prejudice (or, as it is euphemistically phrased, “fear of diversity”) was more of a driver of Trump votes than financial ruin. This may very well be true; many of the building blocks of this overall false narrative are true.  It is correct to say that Trump’s main support came not from the rural poor, but from well-off suburbanites, particularly women; but it is also correct to say that many exurban whites living on the margins of society went for him as well, and expressed their support for him in racist ways.  It is correct to say that leftist politics has always maintained elements of anti-racism, even when it was held at arm’s length by mainstream liberals; but it is also correct to say that open racism and intolerance are on the rise, and that the neo-fascists of the alt-right have been more visible and outspoken since Trump’s electoral victory.  It would be as foolish to argue that racism played no part in the election of Donald Trump as it would to argue that Bernie Sanders is a racist misogynist who doesn’t care about women or black people.

So the question is not whether racism played a part in the last presidential election.  Racism plays a part in essentially every political struggle in America, and has done since the country was founded; even a space alien could see that, and no leftist with any credibility has ever denied it.  Even if the Post‘s poll doesn’t say exactly what people think it does, it doesn’t matter:  The left’s argument has never been that racism is unimportant; only that it is inextricably bound up with the problems of capitalism, and we cannot solve one until we address the other.  Even the question of how much racist attitude fed the election of Trump is, at this point, more or less an academic one. What is of critical importance now is this question:   What are we going to do about it?

This is the precise reason that I find all the I-told-you-so crowing amongst liberals over the release of the Post poll so frustrating.  If you accept its findings at the most simplistic level — that a significant portion of the American population is so hopelessly racist that they elected a pathologically unqualified real estate hustler to the Presidency because he promised to send the National Guard to Chicago’s South Side to rough up the blacks — what does that mean for the country?  What lesson can we learn from it, and what strategies can we apply to our electoral strategy to make sure it doesn’t cost us in future elections?  It seems to me to be a rather fatalistic viewpoint.  Leftists, for all the struggles we face, tend to be somewhat optimistic, because we believe that the inequalities of capitalism, being created and sustained by a greedy minority of men, can be addressed through the exercise of political power.  You can fix the economy, but you can’t fix racism.  If you believe that a significant number of your fellow citizens in a democratic republic are irredeemably racist, and that this factor above all others influences they way they vote, what possible solution can you have?  Do you secede?  Disenfranchise them?  Fight another Civil War?  Wait for them to die?   Give up on democracy?

None of these seem especially practical to me, especially coming from Democratic centrists who are usually the first ones to argue that they are the pragmatic grown-ups of the American political classroom.  Nor does it address the many factors that complicate the narrative that the election was swung entirely by the race-hatred of recidivist hicks:  the way so many counties went for Trump that previously went for Obama; the increasingly high number of minority voters who simply stayed home; the overall low turnout in the election across the board.  Trump won the White House with about 26% of the eligible vote.  Even if every single Trump voter was a dyed-in-the-wool Klansman, which is certainly not the case, that’s a small minority.  A party with as many resources as the Democrats should have relatively little trouble neutralizing them.  If you have as much as three-quarters of of voting population to work with, it’s hard to swallow the argument that you lost more than half of them because the remaining fourth was too racist.

The kind of data-wrangling and opinion polling that the Democratic Party loves so much tells us a lot of things, some of them contradictory.  But some of its data is pretty unambiguous, however it is read: Bernie Sanders has consistently been the most popular politician in America, both before and after the election, and polls show that he scores higher with minorities than Trump or Hillary Clinton. Leftist economic policies such as free college, universal health care, and a livable minimum wage are supported at rates over 60%, and consistently outrank other issues in the priorities of the electorate. And, crucially, young people — the most important demographic if your strategy for addressing racism is ‘wait for all the bigots to get old and die’ — go for Sanders first and Trump second, but they don’t think much of the Democratic Party.

Racism was a factor in the 2016 election, and it will be a factor in every American election from now until we decide as a country to give everyone else the same respect, support, resources and opportunities that we regularly extend to white people.  But to hide behind it — to pretend it was an insurmountable force of evil that keeps the Democrats losing one election after another — is to ignore the programmatic flaws that lost the White House to Trump, and will keep the party losing for years to come.

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