We Were Eight Years in Power (part 3)

March 24, 2018

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In his final chapter, Ta-Nehisi Coates reflects on Donald Trump’s election, a tragic turn of events from his point of view.

Race trumped class

Many commentators on the Trump election prefer to explain it more by class than by race. Focusing on Trump’s slim but crucial victories in industrial states like Michigan and Pennsylvania, they tell a story of working-class voters threatened by trends like globalization, loss of manufacturing jobs, and the declining share of national income going to labor. Although there is some truth to this interpretation, Coates has some good reasons to be skeptical.

As I pointed out in my post “Why Trump Won” shortly after the election, Trump won Michigan by less than one percentage point, but he won Alabama by 28 points. This is no surprise to Coates, who finds that race and racial attitudes were better predictors of voting than economic class. Although enough Obama voters switched their allegiance to Trump to swing the election, the bulk of the Trump voters were the same whites who never supported Obama in the first place.

There are plenty of working-class people in all racial groups, and “deindustrialization, globalization, and broad income inequality…have landed with at least as great a force upon black and Latino people in our country as upon white people.” Yet it was primarily whites who went for Trump, by a 20-point margin according to the exit polls. Clinton won blacks by an 81-point margin, and she won both Latinos and Asians by 38 points.

One study found that “the most predictive question for understanding whether a voter favored Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump was ‘Is Barack Obama a Muslim?'” This is not really surprising considering that Trump achieved political notoriety as a “birther” suggesting that Obama’s African birth disqualified him to be president. “Trump truly is something new,” Coates says,”–the first president whose entire political existence hinges on the fact of a black president.” Trump’s election was impossible without eight years of white fear and resistance directed against Obama despite his moderation and careful racial neutrality.

Considering all the talk about the Trump campaign as a populist working-class movement, readers may be surprised to learn that on the average, Trump voters had incomes a little higher, on the average, than Clinton voters. And why shouldn’t they? Trump voters were predominantly white men, who are still the highest earning group in the country.

In order to predict how someone voted, the first thing I would want to know is their racial identification. The second thing I would want to know is how threatened they feel by the ascendancy of minorities and women. (I would also want to know if they are evangelical Christians threatened by the secularization of public policies on issues such as abortion and gay rights.) Only then would I turn to economic status for an explanation.

The politics of racial identity

Our ability to see race as an issue is affected by white racial dominance itself. If white is the norm and black the exception, then blackness is what is noticed. Problems concentrated in black areas, like a crack epidemic, are black problems, while problems concentrated in white areas, like opiate addiction, are just problems. The second type gets a lot more sympathy than the first.

Although many commentators have criticized “identity politics” for polarizing the country, they apply the term more readily to black identity than white identity. If a black female voter votes for Clinton, they can easily see her as voting her race or gender identity, and they can readily blame Democrats for playing “identity politics.” If a white male votes for Trump, they say he is voting his working-class interests. So Trump is the working-class champion, while Clinton must be the elitist out of touch with “real people.” Never mind that Clinton did better among voters who saw the economy as the most important issue, as well as voters who were most interested in having a president who “cares about me.” And never mind that she won the popular vote, which Democratic candidates have now done in six out of the last seven elections. If Trump voters were real people, what were Clinton voters, aliens? Trump’s suggestion that he lost the popular vote because of fraudulent votes from illegal aliens goes exactly in that direction.

Identity politics is alive and well in both parties. Accusing the other party of narrowly appealing to blacks and women is an effective way of making one’s own narrow appeal to white men. And vice versa.

But class mattered too

Coates emphasizes that Trump was elected by a broad coalition of white voters–men and women, young and old, with and without college degrees. But his own numbers show that Trump won white college graduates by only 3 points, while winning white non-graduates by 37 points. No doubt economic issues played a role in that result, since people without college degrees are faring especially poorly in the new economy.

However, we cannot be sure that even people who are in the working class actually voted on the basis of their class interests. They could still be voting more as whites clinging to white privilege, as men with disparaging attitudes towards women, or as evangelical Christians hostile to gay rights. All of these tendencies are more common in the less educated white population, and especially in the less educated white Southern population. They may even be voting against their true class interests, if voting conservative on race, gender or religious grounds plays into the hands of economic elites pursuing their own agenda.

When less educated workers do vote their economic interests and insecurities, they may be drawn to an ugly, zero-sum, “beggar thy neighbor” kind of economics. The aim is to protect one group’s jobs at the expense of some other group, such as immigrants or foreigners or even U.S. citizens in other industries. Tariffs on steel may help U.S. steelworkers but hurt not only foreign steelworkers but workers in other domestic industries affected by higher steel prices.

Trump’s populist appeal continues a long tradition of appeals that do not so much help workers as a class as keep them fighting among themselves for meager benefits, while the interests of the wealthy are fully served. That’s a pretty good description of Trump’s fiscal policy, which cuts taxes primarily for the few while hurting programs beneficial for the many.

How to respond?

The fact that race and class are so entangled in our politics makes Coates’s emphasis on race both illuminating and limiting. How much to focus on race in our political discussions remains a delicate issue.

When Obama was interviewed by Coates, he said, “I’m careful not to attribute any particular resistance or slight or opposition to race.” He understood that calling his white opponents racists would only harden opposition to his policy agenda. Unfortunately, Hillary Clinton couldn’t resist calling Trump supporters racists, sexists and xenophobes–deplorables, in short–and that didn’t help her cause either.

I would like to see politicians promote their policies with positive appeals to egalitarian values and the general economic good. For progressives, that includes sharpening their economic message to persuade people that progressive taxation to support investments in education, infrastructure and universal health insurance is better than more trickle-down economics. To those who say the country cannot afford these things, progressives should challenge them to explain how we can afford still more tax cuts, extravagant military expenditures and deficits.

As an educator, I realized that I had to gently lead my students to raise their consciousness about race and gender, so they could gradually acknowledge and transcend their own prejudices. I would like to think that a good political leader would also be partly such an educator. We must call out political operatives who manipulate prejudices for their own advantage, but we must also have some faith in the majority of Americans to achieve greater racial understanding. Coates admits that his own experience–and his experience of the Obama years in particular–has caused him to lose that faith. I understand his pessimism, but I cannot endorse it.

 

 


We Were Eight Years in Power

March 20, 2018

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Ta-Nehisi Coates. We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy. New York: New World Publishing, 2017.

We Were Eight Years in Power is a collection of essays published by Coates over the course of the Obama presidency. Coates introduces each essay with a “notes” section written for this book. This format requires the reader to work a little to understand the author’s current thinking. Sometimes Coates uses his introductory remarks to express doubts about what he has previously written, especially in the earliest essays.

Changing views of the Obama presidency

One of the areas in which Coates’s views have evolved is the nature and significance of the Obama presidency. At first, he expresses some optimism that Barack and Michelle can rise above the racial divide and help bring about a post-racial society. Looking back on that phase now, he says, “In those days I imagined racism as a tumor that could be isolated and removed from the body of America, not as a pervasive system both native and essential to that body. From that perspective, it seemed possible that the success of one man really could alter history, or even end it.”

In his essay on Michelle Obama, “American Girl,” he describes her story less as a distinctively black story than as part of a common American story. She is not a victim of poverty, but a product of a “proto-middle-class group of blacks who held the community together.” She can remember her South Side Chicago neighborhood with pride and nostalgia, just as other ethnic groups can remember neighborhoods they may have left behind in their moves to the suburbs. “If you see black identity as you see southern identity, or Irish identity, or Italian identity–not as a separate trunk, but as a branch of the American tree, with roots in the broader experience–then you understand that the particulars of black culture are inseparable from the particulars of the country.”

Writing a year later, however, Coates is starting to the see the Obama presidency as part of a familiar cycle of “transracial spirit” followed by “retrenchment.” By then he has read works like Edmund Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom, which have led him to believe that white freedom, equality and wealth have long rested on a foundation of black oppression, an arrangement highly resistant to change. By the fourth year, he says that “the full dimensions of a tragedy were starting to come into view for me, with the movement to cast Barack Obama as alien as its first act.” This leads him to a renewed interest in Malcolm X’s critique of American society and his advocacy for black consciousness and black pride.  When Coates writes “The Legacy of Malcolm X: Why His Vision Lives on in Barack Obama,” he is struggling to reconcile Malcolm’s radicalism with Obama’s more cautious efforts at change, but in retrospect he admits that the “Obama-Malcolm parallel” in that essay is “strained.”

In “Fear of a Black President,” written in the fifth year, Coates’s disappointment in the Obama presidency is on full display.  Now he writes that “Obama’s racial strategy has been, if anything, the opposite of radical.” He has been forced into moderation by a “nation enlightened enough to send an African American to the White House, but not enlightened enough to accept a black man as its president.” When he reveals any identification with black people, as when he expresses sympathy for shooting victim Trayvon Martin, the issue becomes politicized and more whites take the opposing position. That “prevents Obama from directly addressing America’s racial history, or saying anything meaningful about present issues tinged by race, such as mass incarceration or the drug war.”

After interviewing Obama for “My President Was Black,” written in the eighth year, Coates seems to have lowered his expectations enough to admire Obama for how he has handled his job. “For eight years Barack Obama walked on ice and never fell. Nothing in that time suggested that straight talk on the facts of racism in American life would have given him surer footing.” At this point he is more accepting of what Obama has done, but still has no illusions about how much real change has occurred. “I don’t ever want to forget, even with whatever personal victories I achieve, even in the victories we achieve as a people or a nation, that the larger story of America and the world probably does not end well. Our story is a tragedy.” Coates describes himself as being resigned and at peace, accepting that “resistance must be its own reward,” whether it accomplishes social equality or not.

A tragic view

Coates is serious when he subtitles his book “An American Tragedy.” By his own admission, he can accept a rather bleak racial outlook with some resignation because “I am an atheist and thus do not believe anything, even a strongly held belief, is destiny.”

Coates thus explicitly rejects Martin Luther King’s assertion–paraphrased from the nineteenth-century Unitarian minister Theodore Parker–that “the arc of the Moral Universe is long, but it bends toward Justice.” For Coates, there is no reason to expect progress, nothing to have faith in. “There would be no happy endings, and if there were, they would spring from chance, not from any preordained logic of human morality.”

This is significant because it places Coates outside of a long tradition of black optimism, often expressed in religious language. In the words of the “Black National Anthem” (“Lift Every Voice and Sing”): “Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us/Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us.” Or as King said, “We as a people will get to the promised land.”

A focus on race

Coates’s relentless focus on race in telling the American story is both a strength and a weakness. It is a strength because it informs the reader by delving deeply into racial history. In “The Case for Reparations,” which Coates regards as the best essay in the collection, he documents the long history of discrimination that has kept black families in inferior housing and prevented them from accumulating wealth in real estate. They have been victimized by questionable tax claims and land seizures in the South, restrictive covenants forbidding sales to non-whites (my parents’ house had one), redlining of black neighborhoods for mortgage and insurance purposes, contract sales in which buyers accumulated no equity, discrimination in home loans (even for veterans under the GI Bill), as well as outright violence and intimidation.  Most recently, black loan applicants have been targeted for predatory loans with extremely risky terms, leading to disproportionate losses in the foreclosure crisis.

The effects of deprivation accumulate from generation to generation like compound interest, something that whites forget when they wonder why anti-discrimination laws haven’t led to instant black progress. Income disparities accumulate into larger disparities in net worth, so that black families have much less to fall back on in times of financial distress. Because of continuing patterns of segregation, “black families making $100,000 typically live in the kinds of neighborhoods inhabited by white families making $30,000.” That’s a sobering thought for anyone who has wanted to move into a better neighborhood for the sake of their children.

Once he appreciates the extent of the damage from racial segregation, Coates takes a dimmer view of black neighborhoods like the one Michelle Obama grew up in:

It is common today to become misty-eyed about the old black ghetto, where doctors and lawyers lived next door to meatpackers and steelworkers, who themselves lived next door to prostitutes and the unemployed. This segregationist nostalgia ignores the actual conditions endured by the people living there—vermin and arson, for instance—and ignores the fact that the old ghetto was premised on denying black people privileges enjoyed by white Americans.

Coates would like to see some form of reparations to compensate for the economic damage done to black people. He is open to different forms it might take, including Charles Ogletree’s proposal for “a program of job training and public works that takes racial justice as its mission but includes the poor of all races.”

Obviously any program that sounds specifically race-based will face significant white opposition, at least until white America faces up to the magnitude of the harm it has done. But even those who are skeptical about reparations can benefit from the information Coates provides in making his case.

A blind spot on class

On the other hand, the strong focus on race leads Coates to downplay the class factor in the American story. The point is not just that variables like class–and gender and religion too–are important in their own right. It is that they intersect with race to add new dimensions to the race story itself.

Because he draws the line so sharply between black and white, Coates tends to lump all whites together as beneficiaries of racism. The story he wants to tell, based on Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom, is a story of “rights gradually awarded to the mass of European poor and oppressed, at precisely the same time they were being stripped from enslaved Africans and their descendants.” These two developments are integrally related. “Enslavement provided…the foundation of white social equality.”

Ironically, the idea that whites are equal in their superiority is exactly what Confederate leaders liked to claim, as Nancy Isenberg discusses in White Trash. Jefferson Davis said that “white men have an equality resulting from the presence of a lower caste,” and John C. Calhoun said that all whites, “the poor as well as the rich, belong to the upper class, and are respected and treated as equals.” But is that fact, or part of racist ideology?

The alternative, advanced by critics of the South from Ulysses Grant to Lyndon Johnson, is that poor whites have been victims too, of a system that held down the cost of labor and set one part of the working class against the other. Whites who are low on education and income are especially interested in being respected as whites–and maybe as men and as Christians too. But that may lead them to vote their social identity instead of their class interest. What they don’t get for their support of the white establishment is collective bargaining rights or greater investment in public education. In this view, racism plays into the hands of economic elites by dividing and weakening the working class.

Coates is skeptical of race-neutral programs, since they may help both blacks and whites without necessarily closing the gap between the two groups. The counter-argument is that any program aimed at the disadvantaged should help black people disproportionately, since they are disproportionately disadvantaged! The expansion of Medicaid under Obamacare is a much simpler and politically feasible way of helping minorities than reparations.

Finally, the exclusive focus on race may be largely responsible for Coates’s pessimism. By seeing the problem just as a conflict between a black minority and a white majority, he paints himself and his people into a corner, unable to make common cause with other oppressed peoples. Cornell West goes so far as to accuse Coates of inadvertently serving the global elites by marketing fatalism.

Although I recommend this book for its racial insights and historical information, I prefer the vision of William J. Barber’s The Third Reconstruction. He calls for a “fusion coalition” uniting people with many different social justice concerns across racial and other lines.

Continued


White Trash (part 2)

February 16, 2018

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Nancy Isenberg discusses how pejorative stereotypes like “poor white trash” have served to stigmatize people as a “breed apart,” attributing their economic position to their own inherent deficiencies. Occasionally, however, the derogatory labels give way to more sympathetic portrayals, some of which can inspire economic reforms.

That was especially true during the Great Depression. In promising a New Deal for forgotten Americans, Franklin Roosevelt focused the country’s attention on poverty in general and Southern rural poverty in particular. He called the South “the Nation’s No. 1 economic problem.”

The Roosevelt administration explicitly rejected the conception of poor whites as a distinct breed, hopelessly confined to a mean and ugly condition by some hereditary weakness.

Secretary of Agriculture Wallace predicted that if at birth one hundred thousand poor white children were taken from their “tumble-down cabins” and another hundred thousand were taken from the wealthiest families, and both groups were given the same food, education, housing, and cultural experiences, by the time they reached adulthood there would be no difference in mental and moral traits.

In his Southern Regions of the United States (1936), Howard Odum supported this view with comprehensive data and sociological analysis. He showed how the Southern states had perpetuated poverty by managing land poorly, tolerating high rates of illiteracy, and depriving citizens of basic services. Among the groups the New Deal targeted for special assistance were tenant farmers, two-thirds of whom were white. They did much of the South’s agricultural labor but owned practically nothing.

The suburban frontier

After the Depression and World War II, the U.S. population was majority urban, and many upwardly-mobile Americans were moving to the new suburbs. Although the large metropolitan middle class may have created the impression of a classless society, “suburbs were turned into class-conscious fortresses. Zoning ordinances set lot sizes and restricted the construction of apartment buildings, emphasizing single-dwelling homes to keep out undesirable lower-class families.” [Early suburbs, like the one I grew up in, also had restrictive covenants in the deeds confining ownership to Caucasions.]

Among the groups left behind in the move into the new suburban neighborhoods were inner-city residents–now mostly nonwhite–and the rural poor. The latter might now be living in mobile homes instead of shacks, but they were still stigmatized as “rednecks” or “trailer trash.”

However, the discontents of suburban living gave an interesting twist to lower-class stereotypes. At a time when many social critics and young people were starting to criticize the suburban lifestyle as too bland and conformist, colorful characters with lower-class origins, like Elvis Presley, could achieve status in popular culture. Their uninhibited, undomesticated and macho personas could have broad appeal, at least in the expanding leisure and entertainment industry.

Varieties of identity politics

Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” programs tried to carry on the New Deal tradition, seeking to uplift rather than stigmatize the poor. As a Southerner himself, Johnson was well aware of how southern elites and politicians kept poor whites in their place, but held their support with appeals to white supremacy: “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.”

Johnson tried to help both the rural poor and the inner-city poor. But he knew that his party’s strong stand on civil rights legislation was going to lose white votes in the South. That gave the Republican Party an opportunity to win over poor white voters who had voted Democrat since the 1930s. Another problem for liberals was that public assistance now carried more of a stigma than it had during the Depression–the stigma of a lazy dependency on Big Government. Republicans could invite voters–rich and poor–to identify with a much more positive image–Nixon’s “‘Silent Majority’ of Americans who saw themselves as hardworking, middle American homeowners dutifully paying their taxes and demanding little of the federal government.” This reinforces one of the main points of the book, that “identity has always been a part of politics.” Different parties just go about constructing social identities in different ways.

Negative stereotypes of the poor persisted, but they were more likely to emphasize a “culture of poverty” than hereditary deficiency. Social scientists no longer thought that poverty was inborn. But they became divided over whether children acquire an impoverished way of life mainly from their families and neighborhoods, or whether they are forced into it by oppressive economic conditions. That is a subject I wish Isenberg had explored in more detail.

The politics of social class

On one level, this is a book about how we stigmatize the poor instead of confronting the class barriers that keep them poor. More subtly, it is a book about how we co-opt the poor by offering them more positive identities to sustain them in the absence of real opportunity. The rebel soldier defending his Southern heritage, the fiercely independent hillbilly in coal country, the low-wage worker claiming to want nothing from government–All these politically enhanced self-images have served systems mainly profiting someone else.

Those who are profiting more than ever, the economic elites who claim an increasing proportion of the national wealth and income, work to channel the resentments of the poor away from actual elites and toward those who question the system.  The poor:

…are told that East Coast college professors brainwash the young and that Hollywood liberals make fun of them and have nothing in common with them and hate America and wish to impose an abhorrent, godless lifestyle. The deceivers offer essentially the same fear-laden message that the majority of southern whites heard when secession was being weighed. Moved by the need for control, for an unchallenged top tier, the power elite in American history has thrived by placating the vulnerable and creating for them a false sense of identification—denying real class differences wherever possible.

Donald Trump’s brand of populism is taking the co-optation of the poor and the vilification of liberals to an absurd extreme, hopefully absurd enough to expose the game for what it is. He appeals to poor whites not as low-wage labor in need of economic reforms, but as whites, or men, or Christians, or gun owners, or native-born Americans hostile to immigrants. And he is quick to brand his political adversaries and critics as “enemies of the people,” the people being the folks described above.

This is not a book about economic policy as such. It contains little analysis of what programs would actually uplift the poor today. It is more about the stereotypes that get in the way. What Isenberg wants is a sober class analysis unencumbered by such stereotypes:

…The most powerful engines of the U.S. economy—slaveowning planters and land speculators in the past, banks, tax policy, corporate giants, and compassionless politicians and angry voters today—bear considerable responsibility for the lasting effects on white trash, or on falsely labeled “black rednecks,” and on the working poor generally. The sad fact is, if we have no class analysis, then we will continue to be shocked at the numbers of waste people who inhabit what self-anointed patriots have styled the “greatest civilization in the history of the world.”

Neither stigmatizing the poor nor co-opting them with flattering stereotypes is helpful. As Tevye said in Fiddler on the Roof, “It’s no disgrace to be poor, but it’s no great honor either.” Poverty can become a cultural tradition and a flawed social identity. But policymakers need to see it first and foremost as an economic condition.


White Trash

February 14, 2018

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Nancy Isenberg. White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America. New York: Penguin Books, 2016.

The term “identity politics” has recently entered our political vocabulary, mainly as an accusation against Democrats. The complaint is that Democrats divide the country by appealing especially to women and minorities. In contrast, Republicans like to claim that they aim to unite the country with an economic growth agenda that will help everybody.

The truth is a lot more complicated. For one thing, a facade of unity politics can hide a reactionary kind of identity politics. A campaign’s overt message may be that it is not specifically about women’s rights or minority rights because it’s for everybody. But the underlying message may be that it’s really about defending white, male privilege. Isenberg’s history of America reveals an even deeper problem, that identity politics goes beyond issues of race and gender to infuse discussions of social class. People of the same race and gender–such as white men–have often been assigned different social identities based on their class level. The persistent use of slurs like “white trash” reveals this, and it tell us a lot about the dark side of the American class system.

Politicians have a long history of claiming to identify with one class of people or another, in order to invoke deep feelings of class superiority or class resentment. Donald Trump is only the latest and most obvious example. “Like many before him, Trump…tapped into a rich vein of identity politics: the embrace of the common man, the working stiff, the forgotten rural American.” What I find most fascinating about this phenomenon is that Trump tries to have it both ways, combining policies favoring the wealthy with populist rhetoric appealing to the poor–but especially the white, male poor. That this has worked for him shows just how powerful identity politics can be, whether the identification is authentic or manipulative.

White poverty and its stigmatization

Isenberg is interested in how Americans have characterized the white, rural poor, usually in some pejorative way: “First known as ‘waste people,’ and later ‘white trash,’ marginalized Americans were stigmatized for their inability to be productive, to own property, or to produce healthy and upwardly mobile children–the sense of uplift on which the American dream is predicated.”

Such pejorative descriptions are a response to the tension between the American dream of upward mobility and the class barriers that have made it unrealistic for those born into poverty. Attributing poverty to the innate characteristics of the poor rather than to a lack of opportunity helps preserve the American dream and deny the need for social reform. “Rationalizing economic inequality has been an unconscious part of the national credo; poverty has been naturalized, often seen as something beyond human control. By this measure, poor whites had to be classified as a distinct breed.” If rich and poor are distinct breeds, then the class system reproduces itself naturally, and there’s little to be done about it.

Occasionally, “populist themes have emerged alongside more familiar derogatory images, but never with enough force to diminish the hostility projected onto impoverished rural whites.” This makes their class struggle as much about respect as it is about financial gain. And that goes a long way to explain their enthusiasm for politicians who seem to speak for them, even if the tangible support they promise never quite materializes.

The roots of poor white stigmatization go back to Colonial times, especially in the Southern colonies originally created for economic gain.

British colonists promoted a dual agenda: one involved reducing poverty back in England, and the other called for transporting the idle and unproductive to the New World. After settlement, colonial outposts exploited their unfree laborers (indentured servants, slaves, and children) and saw such expendable classes as human waste.

Land was the major source of wealth, but it was considered wasteland until it was put to commercial use. People who were not engaged in economically productive activity were seen as a kind of waste as well. “…Colonizers denoted some people as entrepreneurial stewards of the exploitable land; they declared others (the vast majority) as mere occupiers, a people with no measurable investment in productivity or in commerce.” Southern colonies became divided between a hereditary class of owners and a hereditary class of landless servants, with only limited opportunities to cross class lines. Actual slavery was a “logical outgrowth of the colonial class system.”

By 1770, most of the land in Virginia was owned by less than one-tenth of white people. The society of “freeholders” imagined by Thomas Jefferson never came to pass because too few people could acquire the land or resources to become successful farmers.

In 1663, King Charles II granted a charter creating the Carolina colony with eight “absolute Lords and proprietors.” Several years later, John Locke wrote the Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina, a document that not only gave every freeman “absolute power and authority over his Negro Slaves,” but established a servant class whose status would be inherited from generation to generation.  (This reminds us that in those days, even the advocates of democracy placed severe limits on it.) While South Carolina conformed to the hierarchical model pretty closely, North Carolina became somewhat of a “swampy refuge for the poor and landless,” with a weaker planter elite. For that it got the reputation of a “wasteland resistant…to the forces of commerce and civilization,” a land of “useless lubbers.”

“Squatter” or “common man”?

After the American Revolution, many of the landless poor looked westward for land and opportunity. Even along the frontier, however, upward mobility was more limited than Americans like to imagine. “Speculators and large farmers–a mix of absentee land investors and landowning gentry–had the most power and political influence, and usually had a clear advantage in determining how the land was parceled out.” Many settlers eked out a meager living on small pieces of land, often as squatters who could not obtain ownership.

Different stereotypes of settlers coexisted in early nineteenth-century America. They could be courageous and hardworking frontiersmen, or lazy squatters who built nothing and stood in the way of real progress. Andrew Jackson promoted their positive image and represented their interests up to a point, but Isenberg believes that his presidency was “not about equality so much as a new style of aggressive expansion.” Jackson’s forcible removal of Native Americans from the southeast appealed to many white settlers (as Trump’s deportation of undocumented aliens appeals to many whites today), but Jackson did not support more egalitarian measures like universal male suffrage.

Identity politics in the Civil War

Beyond their obvious disagreement over how to view slavery, Northerners and Southerners had very different views of poor white Southerners as well. A common view in the North was that poor Southerners had been reduced to “white trash” by the plantation system. In fact, it was during the war that this derogatory term came into wide usage.

Northerners, especially those who joined the Free Soil Party (1848) and its successor, the Republican Party (1854), declared that poor whites were proof positive of the debilitating effects of slavery on free labor. A slave economy monopolized the soil, while closing off opportunities for nonslaveholding white men to support their families and advance in a free-market economy.

Ulysses S. Grant saw it as his mission to liberate not only the slaves, but also the poor whites, from the grip of the planter aristocracy.

Southern intellectuals like Daniel Hundley saw it differently, of course. They blamed the problems of poor whites on their own natural inferiority rather than on any injustice of the social order. At the same time, Southern aristocrats had the challenge of enlisting the enthusiastic support of the lower classes in the war effort. Many people who owned no slaves complained that it was a “rich man’s war and poor man’s fight.” The way to counter that complaint was to appeal to all classes of white Southerners as exactly that–white Southerners. James Henry Hammond of South Carolina argued that every society needs a “mudsill,” a class of menial laborers to do the lowest forms of work. By assigning such work to the most inferior of all races–Negroes–the South had elevated all whites to a somewhat better position. White Northerners, on the other hand, had debased their own race by confining too many of their fellow whites to the “mudsill.”

Social Darwinism and eugenics

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the idea that poverty was a natural, inherited condition for some segment of the population got additional support from a widespread interpretation of Darwinian evolution. (In The Descent of Man, published in 1871, Darwin himself distinguished “civilized” and “savage” races and predicted that the first would eventually replace the second through evolutionary competition.) The idea that whole categories of people were biologically more fit than others was a powerful weapon not only in racial and ethnic conflict, but in regional and class conflict as well.

Northerners who had opposed slavery wanted to believe that former slaves could become good citizens. “In account after account, freedmen were described as capable, thrifty, and loyal to the Union.” But many Northerners had far less confidence in the potential of chronically poor Southern whites, whom they saw as a “‘dangerous class’ that was producing a flood of bastards, prostitutes, vagrants, and criminals.”

Southern Democrats countered these ideas with their own racial arguments. For them, the former slaves were still the most unfit of races, still to be confined to the “mudsill” of society as much as possible. The mixing of the races would produce a “mongrel” race unfit for achievement or good government. That argument was useful not only for preserving white privilege in general, but for protecting the leadership class in particular. Keeping poor people of different color separate and unequal prevented them from joining together as a class to challenge the Southern elites.

Isenberg discusses the eugenics movement in some detail, since it represented Social Darwinism taken to a logical extreme. Eugenicists wanted to protect and improve racial fitness by discouraging the reproduction of inferior stock. One way to accomplish this was selective mating–encouraging people to marry only qualified partners. A more drastic measure, legalized in twenty-seven states by 1931, was the forced sterilization of the “unfit.” That term was defined rather broadly to include “feeblemindedness, epilepsy, criminality, insanity, alcoholism [and] pauperism,” according to one list. When IQ testing of recruits during World War I found the lowest scores in the Southern states–not surprising considering their lack of funding for public education–eugenicists focused their efforts in that region. In 1927 the Supreme Court upheld the right of states to regulate the breeding of its citizens, in a Virginia case involving the sterilization of a poor white woman.

A question of identification

Identity politics in general–and disagreement over how to characterize certain groups such as poor rural whites–is obviously not something invented by today’s liberal Democrats. The idea that one party divides the country with its identity politics while the other is above such things is ludicrous. All parties need to think long and hard about how they identify and relate to different segments of the electorate.

For Republicans, that means a lot of soul-searching about how they think about Blacks, Latinos and women. For Democrats, it means taking another look at poor southern white men. When they think about them, is what comes to mind a racist like Bob Ewell, the villain in To Kill a Mockingbird? Or do they see a victim of an oppressive race/class system, who clings to increasingly shaky white male privileges because upward economic mobility is so elusive? There was a time, not so long ago, when Democratic leaders identified strongly with the underprivileged of Appalachia, seeing them mostly as decent people who needed a decent break. I would like to see a time like that again.

Continued


Working-Class Conservatism

June 5, 2017

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Like so many others who have been closely following current events, I can easily be caught up in the outrage over President Trump’s latest tweet or poorly thought-out policy proposal. Nevertheless, I do try to stay focused on issues that transcend any one personality, no matter how–um–large. Even if Donald Trump were to be impeached, the wave of popular anger that helped elect him would not entirely subside. The fact that so many of his supporters keep sticking by him, almost without regard to what he does, indicates that he has tapped into a strong current of public opinion that will continue to shape our politics. The country will have to come to grips with what Trump represents to people, even if his own presidency is a colossal failure.

In some of my earlier posts, such as “A Leap into the Dark” just after the election, I acknowledged Trump’s general appeal to conservative voters (using that term rather broadly), but questioned his authenticity as a champion of the working class. He did, in the end, get the support of most Republicans across the socioeconomic spectrum, and much of what he is trying to do has the support of the Republican establishment. Now however, having recently read Michael Lind’s article on “The New Class War,” I want to ask if there is a distinctly working-class brand of conservatism, even if Donald Trump represents it rather inconsistently. I want to explore how the interests of working-class Trump supporters and establishment Republicans may diverge on certain issues, even as they converge on others. An angrier and more outspoken working-class conservatism could be helping the G.O.P. win elections, but it could also prove to be a divisive force that could weaken the party and create opportunities for Democrats.

Convergent interests

Climate change is a good example of an issue where the interests of many blue-collar workers seem to converge with those of the Republican establishment. Even as the scientific consensus on climate change  grows stronger, and more and more Democrats support action to control carbon emissions, most Republican leaders support President Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Accord and his renunciation of President Obama’s Clean Power Plan. In this respect, the Republican establishment most represents the interests of fossil-fuel industry executives and shareholders. Led by Americans for Prosperity, a group financed by the Koch brothers, the industry has poured millions of dollars into the effort to influence–perhaps I should say mislead–public opinion, support its political allies, and defeat its political opponents.

Almost by definition, the main concern of working-class conservatives is saving jobs in those established industries. For Republican leaders like Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, constituent pressures combine with fundraising incentives to motivate conservative environmental policy. Of course, those leaders almost always frame the issue as opposing “job-killing” regulation, not preserving corporate profits.

Continuing to do what one has always done, whether or not it makes sense to do it, is a simple conservative impulse that cuts across class lines. Conservative columnist Ross Douthat, who has voiced skepticism about climate change, now admits that “in actual right wing politics no serious assessment of the science and the risks is taking place….Instead there’s just a mix of business-class and blue-collar self-interest and a trollish, ‘If liberals are for it, we’re against it’ anti-intellectualism.”

Without sacrificing their environmental concerns, Democrats who wish to appeal to working-class voters need to emphasize the ways that government can promote job creation in clean-energy industries, as well as facilitate the retraining of displaced workers for new jobs. Just talking about the potential dire consequences of future climate change may not impress someone trying to make ends meet right now.

Divergent interests

Global trade and immigration are issues where working-class interests diverge in many ways from the traditional positions of the Republican establishment. In the recent past, Republicans have been the biggest advocates for free trade, consistent with the belief that unrestricted markets can best create wealth for all. They have been less united on immigration, but advocates of global free markets often welcome the flow of labor across borders to supply the labor needs of expanding industries. Cultural conservatives may worry about the threat to American culture from “alien” ideas or practices, worries enhanced by the threat of terrorism. Donald Trump’s proposals to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico and ban travel from Muslim countries appeal especially to cultural conservatives.

If there is a distinctly working-class position on globalism, it is based again on concerns about jobs and incomes. The free flow of capital and labor across borders has enabled corporations to profit by seeking out cheaper labor, but a lot of that has come at the expense of  workers born in the United States. That is one reason why labor’s share of national income growth has been falling. (Another is replacement of human labor through automation.) This strengthens the anti-trade, anti-immigrant sentiment within the Republican Party. It is a kind of conservatism, but not the pro-capital kind that has dominated the party in the Reagan-Bush era.

The G.O.P. is unlikely to renounce its support for globalism anytime soon. Although the United States is now a debtor nation with an embarrassingly large trade deficit, trade is still a two-way street. American companies want foreign buyers and American consumers like inexpensive foreign goods. Powerful retailers like Walmart oppose new taxes on imports.

Some new policies might benefit American workers, but Democrats are at least as likely to propose them as Republicans. International trade agreements could include stronger protections for workers. Displaced workers could have more opportunities for education or retraining. American industries could compete globally on the basis of quality–more like the Germans do–rather than on cost-cutting.

Another area in which working-class interests diverge from Republican establishment interests is taxation and spending. Wealthy Republicans have the most to gain from tax cuts and the least to lose from cuts in social spending. Working-class people have less to gain from tax cuts, since they are taxed at a lower rate already, and more to lose from cuts in social programs on which they increasingly rely.

The current debate over repealing and replacing Obamacare has dramatized this difference. Establishment Republicans have long advocated repeal, while giving little thought to replacement. Their main aim was to eliminate the new taxes on the wealthy that financed the new insurance subsidies. Trump supporters apparently believed him when he promised better health insurance coverage at lower cost. Then he double-crossed them by endorsing a House Republican bill that accomplished no such thing.  Similarly, the President’s tax “reform” bill turns out to be mainly a huge tax cut for the rich. His budget proposal includes not only that tax cut, but extreme cuts in programs that benefit many of his own supporters.

Working-class attitudes toward social spending are a little complicated, however. The American Dream is having a good enough job so that you don’t have to rely on any government programs. You want to get good health benefits at work, so you don’t need to obtain insurance from a government exchange or an expansion of Medicaid. Working-class conservatism often takes the form of anger that so many Americans do rely on Medicaid, or food stamps, or housing subsidies. In many ways, a vote for the Republican Party is a vote for a mythical America in which everybody is successful and nobody needs such things. Just as a vote against a clean energy policy is a vote for a mythical planet where human activity has little impact on the weather.

That gives the Democratic Party the opportunity and the challenge of presenting itself as the party of the real America. That’s the America where rapid economic change creates the need for a stronger safety net, since working-class incomes have become less reliable. It’s the America where enhanced threats from foreign competition and automation force us to create new and better jobs by investing more in the talents of our own people.

In short, the Democratic Party does not have to become the party of some “liberal elite” consisting of upper-middle-class professionals. It does not have to cede working-class voters to the more conservative party, where their interests are often overshadowed by those of the wealthy. Donald Trump may have gotten a lot of their votes this time, but they are very much up for grabs if he and his party let them down.

The complexities of race and class

In many of the discussions about how the Democratic Party is losing the middle class, it’s the white working class that is the focus. That raises the question of whether the attitudes of working-class voters have a racial–or even racist–component that attracts those voters to the more conservative party. That’s true to a degree, but any such conclusion has to be carefully qualified.

Much has been written about how the Republican Party–the party of Lincoln and in many respects the liberal party of the nineteenth century–became the more conservative party on racial issues. To make a long story short, the Democratic Party outraged much of its base in the “Solid South” by aligning itself with the Civil Rights Movement from the 1940s on. Then the conservative movement that captured the Republican Party in the 1960s and 70s built its majority largely by relying on a “Southern strategy.”

As with the immigration issue, establishment Republicans often take a free-market position on race. That view treats racial discrimination as an anachronism that free-market competition and equal opportunity should eliminate. Rational employers have an interest in hiring the best person for the job, and workers can succeed if they do the right things, like work hard, stay in school, and avoid having children before getting married (without the help of Planned Parenthood, of course!). The G.O.P. is also home to some cultural conservatives who believe, deep in their hearts, in a predominantly white, Christian society. But most Republicans just tend to minimize the problem of racial discrimination and prefer to solve it more by individual changes of attitudes than by government mandates.

White working-class attitudes about race tend to be conservative for at least two reasons. First, less educated people tend to be less enlightened about race. They are less aware of how systematic and enduring racial discrimination has been in American history. They are more likely to attribute the present condition of Black Americans to defects of character like lack of will power. But in addition, they do not have the greater economic security that comes with solid job credentials. Whites who cannot claim high status on the basis of educational attainment or income may take pride in being white, just as lower-achieving men may take pride in being real men, whatever they think that is. Putting down non-whites or women is one way of bolstering one’s own status. People who feel that way, whether they consciously articulate it or not, are more likely to be drawn to the political party that is less associated with movements for racial or gender equality, and less supportive of government assistance to the “undeserving” poor.

That, however, is not an unmixed blessing for the Republican Party. Racial and gender attitudes have changed so much in this country that no major party wants to be known as the party of white or male supremacy. The party establishment has to walk a fine line, tolerating some unenlightened attitudes without fully embracing them. The Democrats, on the other hand, will remain–and should remain–the party identified with the struggle for equality. Their best hope for winning over working-class voters is to try to alleviate the causes of working-class status anxiety. Again, promote investments in education and job creation, so that working people of all races and ethnicities can get ahead without having to be afraid of one another.

Although I thought that Donald Trump was going to lose the election because of his own failings, I did not agree with Hillary Clinton’s campaign strategy of attacking him and his followers instead of focusing primarily on economic issues. I thought it was a big mistake to describe his followers as “deplorable” racists and other kinds of bigots. Racial attitudes are now too complex and subtle for such a large segment of the population to be characterized that way. Economic insecurity and class tensions are no doubt complicated by the country’s unfortunate racial history. But I think that the best course for the more liberal party is to address the economic concerns that working families of all races have in common. Reject outright bigotry where it does exist, for sure, but do your best to convince people that a flourishing society has no need for it.