Who Put the Hate in Hate Crimes?

October 29, 2018

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Once again, the country is shocked and outraged by acts of mass violence. Cesar Sayoc allegedly sent pipe bombs to fourteen prominent Democrats. Robert Bowers allegedly killed eleven people at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. Both men were troubled loners holding extreme political views.

Once again, we will debate whether the responsibility for these actions lies with the individual perpetrators alone, or whether responsibility is more widely shared. If we do agree that it is shared, we may ask if both sides of the political divide are equally responsible for hatred and violence, or if Donald Trump and his supporters have played a special role in the decline of political civility.

Trump has referred to people like Sayoc and Bowers as “wackos” and “sick, demented people.” He is right to the extent that their actions are far from the general norm. We may reasonably ask what peculiar circumstances and life experiences helped create these mass murderers. Sayoc, for example, was abandoned by his father and apparently desperate for a strong authority figure, which probably contributed to his alleged attraction to Adolph Hitler. Such explanations are only starting points, however, since not every female-headed family produces a budding Nazi.

The sociological point I want to make is that deviations from the norm certainly matter, but the norms themselves matter too. When we normalize hatred by vilifying some out-group, we make it easier for violence-prone individuals to act on their impulses. We tell them who it’s okay to hate. Apparently, Cesar Sayoc had no strong political affiliation until Donald Trump came along. Then Trump became his authoritarian father-figure, and he let Trump define his enemies for him–Obama, the Clintons, immigrants, etc.

Robert Bower hates immigrants too, calling them “invaders that kill our people.” But he has been less supportive of Trump because he doesn’t think Trump goes far enough. Bower focuses his hatred especially on Jews, blaming “the filthy EVIL Jews” for bringing “the Filthy EVIL Muslims into the Country!!” One particular object of hostility that Trump, Sayoc and Bowers have in common is global investor and Democratic donor George Soros, who is Jewish. Right-wing conspiracy theorists have been accusing him for months of funding the Steele dossier and immigration caravans, and Trump has also accused him of financing opposition to Brent Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination. When Trump attacked globalism the other day in the oval office, his young supporters started chanting “Soros! Soros! Soros!”

Trump himself does not have to be as extreme as Bower or Sayoc to give some comfort to their views. I trust that Trump does not approve of sending pipe bombs to Democrats or murdering Jews in synagogues. But he has vilified immigrants by exaggerating their association with violent crime, attacked the legitimacy of our first black president, and characterized the press and his critics as public enemies. The nationalism he has espoused is widely understood as white, Christian nationalism, since his support comes overwhelmingly from those groups. That helps normalize racial and religious intolerance. It feeds into a narrative of white, Christian victimization that discourages power-sharing and encourages domination.

The Republican Party was already well on its way to becoming the white, Christian party before Trump appeared on the scene. As the Democratic Party became more open to civil rights, religious neutrality, and gender equality, Republican politicians saw an opportunity to gain or hold power with subtle and not-so-subtle appeals to white supremacy, Christian supremacy, and male supremacy. They played on fears that many Americans have of living in a more pluralistic global community. Robert Bowers just takes those fears to an extreme when he says things like “Diversity means chasing down the last white person.” He didn’t develop his hostility to diversity in a political or cultural vacuum. Historically, no political party has had a monopoly on politically-motivated violence. In the 1960s, I saw violent acts by liberal protesters as well as violent attacks on peaceful demonstrators by defenders of the status quo. But currently, I see the greater threat of violence from the political right.

Are Sayoc and Bower gross violators of social norms? Of course they are. But the Party of Trump has also been changing the norms themselves, working harder to antagonize and divide while failing to respect and include. I cannot recall an administration or party as content to govern on behalf of an angry minority and as disinterested in building a larger consensus. Getting rid of any policy associated with Barack Obama has become more important than actually solving social problems. Keeping the base in a state of fear and loathing of anyone or anything new and different has become a way of generating support without actually doing much.

Anxieties about globalization are reasonable. Playing on those anxieties to set one group of Americans against another is not. Progressives can present a more constructive response to global diversity and competition than what the right has to offer. It must be one that challenges individuals to earn status through their accomplishments and social contributions, not demand it on the basis of race, religion or gender. It will also have to challenge social institutions to make the investments in people that help them become as accomplished and socially useful as they can be. I see no other way to build a community in which love trumps hate.

Midterm Elections Present Clear Choice

October 23, 2018

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Midterm elections are primarily about which political party will control the houses of Congress. This year’s elections are mainly a referendum on Republican control of the whole federal government, since Republicans have a majority in both houses of Congress and the Supreme Court, in addition to having won the presidency despite losing the popular vote.

Given the unpopularity of Congress (currently only 21% approval), as well as President Trump (the first modern president with approval consistently under 50%), one would think that the electorate would be ready for a change. Certainly most Democrats and Independents would like to see Democrats win at least one house of Congress to provide a check on a president they view as dangerously unfit for office. On the other hand, Republican enthusiasm for the Trump presidency remains high, and Republicans have a better record of turning out the vote in midterm elections.

Although the outcome is uncertain, the choice seems clearer than any that voters have had in my lifetime. It is a choice between one-party rule by what has become the party of Trump, or better representation for the majority of Americans and the aspirations they have for their government.

Here I will describe some of the differences between our two major parties in the age of Trump. I make no claim to be neutral, since I think that continued domination of government by our less popular party will take the country in the wrong direction.

Some party differences

Neither political party is uniform in its beliefs or policies, but political polarization has made each party more uniform and predictable. President Trump and Congressional Republicans are usually on the same page, despite the protestations of a few “flaky” Senators who make a show of bipartisanship before voting with Trump most of the time. Although Democrats disagree in some respects on what they would do if they could actually pass legislation, they are pretty united in their opposition to most Republican policies.

Democrats respect the scientific consensus on climate change and want to take measures to reduce carbon emissions. President Trump remains in denial about the science, and his EPA has been dismantling Obama’s Clean Energy Initiative, loosening regulations to allow more emissions. While Trump is preoccupied with protecting fossil-fuel industries, Democrats are more interested in creating jobs in the cleaner industries of the future. We already have far more jobs in solar energy than in coal.

Republicans want to grow the economy mainly from the top down, by cutting taxes for corporations and the wealthy, while claiming that the benefits will be widely shared. Mostly they haven’t been, although unemployment has continued its long decline since the 2008 recession. Democrats want to grow the middle class through direct spending to create middle class jobs, raising the minimum wage, and making college more affordable.

Democrats support the Affordable Care Act, which made health insurance affordable for millions and would have done even more if red-state Republicans hadn’t blocked the expansion of Medicaid. Republicans failed by one vote to repeal the ACA, and they have vowed to try again if they retain control of Congress. They quickly moved to repeal it without developing the better alternative that Trump promised during his campaign.

After having failed to perform their constitutional duty to even consider many of President Obama’s mainstream judicial appointees, including the very moderate Merrick Garland for the Supreme Court, Republicans have rushed to approve extremely conservative justices who could push the judiciary far to the right for a generation. While hot-button issues like abortion and guns get most of the attention, the conservative majority has quietly been strengthening the rights of corporations and weakening the rights of workers, consumers and voters.

Democrats support comprehensive immigration reform that would balance the need for border security with the benefits of a path to citizenship for hard-working, law-abiding “dreamers” and humane treatment of refugees. While net immigration has actually been modest in the last decade, Trump’s fear-mongering has aroused nativist hostility to immigration in general, and his policy of punishing asylum seekers by taking away their children has become a national embarrassment.

Democrats are cautiously supportive of free trade, although they want trade agreements to include protections against unfair trade practices, low-wage sweatshops and environmental pollution. Trump’s more general hostility to foreign products threatens to hurt the global economy generally, with ill effects at home as well as abroad. Few economists think that his tariffs will produce much job growth in the United States. His withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership will probably just help China dominate the region.

Democrats respect our longstanding alliances with other democratic nations. President Trump admires dictators and oligarchs, and is willing to overlook their gross humanitarian violations as long as he sees the relationships as financially profitable.

As for our own democracy, it cannot function well without an informed electorate and leaders who accept the responsibility to tell them the truth. Donald Trump is the most relentless liar we have ever seen in the presidency, and far too many Republicans–along with their favorite TV network–repeat his falsehoods. They must, of course, also discredit any fact-checking by the mainstream media by calling honest reporters “enemies of the people.” Democratic politicians are not always paragons of truth either, but they have less reason to lie about what they are trying to do, since their policies are actually intended to help ordinary people. In just the past week, Trump has claimed that the Republicans are about to pass a middle-class tax cut, while the Democrats are planning to cut Medicare and veterans benefits. No one besides Trump seems to have heard of such initiatives, but only Democrats and reporters seem interested in fact-checking his statements.

What was once the party of Lincoln has now become the party that caters to white people. Now that the Republicans on the Supreme Court have weakened the Voting Rights Act, many red states have moved to enact voting restrictions that impact disproportionately on black voters, passing them off as responses to mostly fictional voter fraud. The Democratic Party is the party of diversity, the party that stands up for the rights of racial minorities, women, and the LGBTQ community. The last thing the country needs as we continue to make slow progress toward social justice is a president and party who seek white votes by playing on fears of white victimization, all the while accusing Democrats of playing “identity politics.” What is at stake here is national identity. Americans need to understand themselves as a pluralistic people leading the way in a pluralistic world, not a bastion of white male privilege hostile to women and people of color.

The Trump administration has also been the most scandal-plagued administration since Richard Nixon’s. While Watergate was a domestic scandal, in this case the allegations include cooperating with foreign powers to undermine our democratic process. Democrats support our intelligence community and investigatory agencies as they try to determine what actually happened, while Congressional Republicans have worked to impede and discredit the investigation. President Trump has filled his administration with people who have suspicious ties to foreign oligarchs, as well as with administrators who seem to care more about profiting from their positions than carrying out the responsibilities of the agencies they head. If anyone is really going to “drain the swamp,” it will have to be Democrats.

At some times in our history, the Republican Party has been a forward-looking, even reform-minded party, as it was under Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt. Today’s spirit of reform is alive and well, but mainly in the Democratic Party. That’s where we find the greatest interest in campaign finance reform, criminal justice reform, immigration reform, government accountability, infrastructure improvements, equal opportunity, energy transformation, and human capital development for a twenty-first century economy. Democrats have a lot of work to do to translate their ideas into effective policies and mobilize popular support for them, but at least they are trying to rise to the challenges of the new age. Republicans have not only become a backward-looking party, but they are increasingly resorting to deception and political trickery to hold onto power. Trump may have shown that lying and fear-mongering can win elections, but he has also shown that it takes more than that to govern. Take away his tough, angry and deceptive rants, and there isn’t much there that the majority of Americans really want.

It’s time for Americans to become better informed citizens. Time to vote on the basis of facts, not fears!

How Democracies Die (part 3)

June 29, 2018

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In the last chapter of their book, Levitsky and Ziblatt discuss the prospects for sustaining democracy in the face of the threats from Donald Trump and other such demagogues. They think it can be done, but it will take a lot of work.

The global challenge

The impression one gets from recent news is that democracy is in retreat all over the world. The authors do not think that the evidence supports that pessimistic conclusion.

The number of democracies rose dramatically in the 1980s and 1990s, peaked around the year 2005, and has remained steady ever since. Backsliders make headlines and capture our attention, but for every Hungary, Turkey, and Venezuela there is a Colombia, Sri Lanka, or Tunisia—countries that have grown more democratic over the last decade.

The bad news is that the election of Donald Trump appears to be a setback for democracy not only in the United States but around the world. The Western powers under the leadership of the United States have played a role in encouraging democratic principles and institutions since World War II (although I would add that our pro-democracy principles have often been compromised by self-serving economic policies). Trump’s “America first” nationalism is weakening the Western alliance and strengthening the position of undemocratic countries like Russia and China. I find it especially ironic that Republicans who in the past demanded unwavering opposition to our Cold War adversaries now look the other way while Trump offends our democratic allies and cozies up to dictators.

The future at home

The authors describe three possible futures for the United States after the Trump phenomenon runs its course. The most optimistic is that our democratic norms and institutions quickly recover from whatever damage his presidency does to them. That might be realistic if Trump alone were the problem. But as the authors have discussed, the deeper problem is the polarization of our politics arising from deep disagreements over race and religion, compounded by an economic system that is leaving too many people behind.

That raises a second and more troubling possibility, that the Republican party, having become the party of Trump, maintains its power with a white nationalist appeal. That would entail running the country primarily for the benefit of a shrinking population of white Christians, and resorting to undemocratic means of suppressing the more diverse majority. “Such a nightmare scenario isn’t likely, but it also isn’t inconceivable.”

The most likely future is “one marked by polarization, more departures from unwritten political conventions, and increasing institutional warfare–in other words, democracy without solid guardrails.” The authors point to the state of North Carolina as the best example of “what politics without guardrails might look like.” For those who don’t live here, I’ll just say that Republican legislators gerrymandered the state so that they could win 10 of 13 Congressional seats with only 53% of the vote, passed voting laws that targeted black voters with “almost surgical precision” according to a federal court, and reduced the powers of the governor right after a democrat was elected to that position. The state is hardly a dictatorship yet, however, since Republican efforts at one-party domination have been vigorously resisted by the opposition party and the courts.

Reducing polarization

Political leaders will either have to learn to cooperate and compromise despite the polarization, which the authors think is doubtful, or they will have to move beyond the polarization. Although the authors call on both parties to reconsider what they stand for, they put the main responsibility for change on the Republican party, since they consider it “the main driver of the chasm between the parties.” They see more of the obstructionism, partisan hostility, and extremism on that side of the aisle.

For Republicans, they recommend changes in both organization and constituency. The leadership will have to regain some control, relying less heavily on outside donors and right-wing media. And the party must become more diverse:

Republicans must marginalize extremist elements; they must build a more diverse electoral constituency, such that the party no longer depends so heavily on its shrinking white Christian base; and they must find ways to win elections without appealing to white nationalism, or what Republican Arizona senator Jeff Flake calls the “sugar high of populism, nativism, and demagoguery.”

As for the Democrats, they should resist calls to focus on white working-class voters at the expense of their black and immigrant constituencies. But what they can do is address economic concerns that cut across race and religion. As I have argued before, they can emphasize universal benefits programs such as universal health insurance, basic income guarantee, job training, paid parental leave, subsidized child care and prekindergarten education.

Now I think I’ve been reading and writing enough for a while about the culture wars and the partisan divide. What I’m thinking about lately is the fiscal problem of how the country might pay for the more progressive public policies many Democrats advocate. Stay tuned.

How Democracies Die (part 2)

June 28, 2018

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Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt have described Donald Trump as a demagogue with authoritarian tendencies. He has not yet done serious damage to our democratic system, but the threat is definitely there.

That’s only part of their story, however. Democracy was already under stress well before Trump’s election. “Not only did Americans elect a demagogue in 2016, but we did so at a time when the norms that once protected our democracy were already coming unmoored.”

Democratic norms

It takes more than a well-designed constitution to sustain a viable democracy. After the decline of colonialism in Latin America, many of the newly independent states based their constitutions on ours, but that didn’t stop them from falling into civil war and dictatorship. “All successful democracies rely on informal rules that, though not found in the constitution or any laws, are widely known and respected.”

Two very general political norms are fundamental. “Mutual toleration” acknowledges the right of rival factions to compete for political power and achieve it, as long as they do so through constitutional means. “Institutional forbearance” is a commitment to abide by the democratic spirit of the laws, not just the letter of the laws. When those two norms break down, one or more parties may use the laws in ways that were never intended, to destroy their opposition instead of competing with them fairly.

Political polarization

What is most likely to weaken or destroy the norms is political polarization based on socioeconomic, racial or religious differences.

In the history of U.S. democracy, the most polarizing issue has been race, but racial polarization has not been a constant. Race has been most polarizing at times when one major party has taken up the cause of racial justice, as opposed to times when both parties have been tolerant of racial injustice.

In the nineteenth century, it was the Republican rejection of slavery that brought the issue to the forefront, “investing politics with what one historian has called a new ’emotional intensity.'” (I find the reference to emotionalism interesting, considering that in our current era of polarization, social scientists have been “discovering” that politics is more emotional than rational.) After the Civil War and Reconstruction, some political peace was restored, but at the expense of the rights of the newly freed slaves. In one of the greatest assaults on democracy in our history, southern whites got away with restoring white supremacy.

Between 1885 and 1908, all eleven post-Confederate states reformed their constitutions and electoral laws to disenfranchise African Americans. To comply with the letter of the law as stipulated in the Fifteenth Amendment, no mention of race could be made in efforts to restrict voting rights, so states introduced purportedly “neutral” poll taxes, property requirements, literacy tests, and complex written ballots….Black turnout in the South fell from 61 percent in 1880 to just 2 percent in 1912. The disenfranchisement of African Americans wiped out the Republican Party, locking in white supremacy and single-party rule for nearly a century.

By keeping race off the agenda at the national level, the two major parties were able to find more common ground. For most of the twentieth century, they were both “big tents” that included many of the same kinds of people. Married white Christians constituted a majority of both parties. The Democrats had the southern white conservatives, but the Republicans had midwestern and western white conservatives. The Democrats had working-class New Deal liberals, but the Republicans had educated middle-class liberals.

Democratic support for civil rights legislation in the 1960s did more than anything to re-polarize the parties, as people of color embraced the Democratic Party but southern whites abandoned it. Declining support for traditional religion among Democrats contributed as well. “The two parties are now divided over race and religion–two deeply polarizing issues that tend to generate greater intolerance and hostility than traditional policy issues such as taxes and government spending.”

As for being “big tents,” the parties have moved in opposite directions. The Democratic Party has become more diverse, being a party of white and black, native-born and immigrant, religious and secular, gay and straight. The Republican Party has become less diverse, the home of the embattled white Protestant minority, the people who used to run the country but have been losing power recently. Levitsky and Ziblatt believe that the Republican party has led the way in weakening democratic norms in order to maintain their social and cultural dominance. Ironically, it is now the Republican party that is noted for trying to lock in single-party rule by suppressing the black vote.

While the authors focus mostly on race and secondarily on religion in this story, gender is also important. The Democratic Party has also become the party of women’s rights, while the Republican Party has become the party of angry men. That also is a reversal, since it was northern Republicans who originally supported the Equal Rights Amendment.

Erosion of democratic norms

Even in the twentieth-century period of relative political cooperation, democratic norms were challenged or violated by some leaders. Franklin Roosevelt exercised unusual power during the crises of Depression and war, running for president four times (legal but unprecedented), issuing over 300 executive orders a year, and trying unsuccessfully to expand the Supreme Court so he could appoint more justices. In the 1950s, attacks on Democrats by militant anti-communists like Joe McCarthy helped Republicans win the presidency and control of Congress. One of those red-baiting anti-communists, Richard Nixon, went on to use the presidency to attack the people on his “enemies list” in illegal ways.

The authors see a more ominous “unraveling” of democratic norms beginning in the 1990s. Newt Gingrich set the tone as he rose to the position of Speaker of the House, presenting a hostile, hard-line, no-compromise front against the moderate Democrat Bill Clinton. One sign of deviation from traditional practice was a dramatic increase in the use of the Senate filibuster to block majority-supported legislation. Democrats also made heavy use of it during the George W. Bush administration, while Republicans stopped following the practice of “regular order,” which had given the opposition a chance to speak on legislation and propose amendments. During the Obama years, so many of the President’s appointments were filibustered that Senate Democrats changed the rules to disallow the filibuster for appointments other than to the Supreme Court.

Until relatively recently, Supreme Court appointments by the President have rarely been rejected by the Senate. When President Reagan appointed arch-conservative Antonin Scalia, Democrats could have blocked it with a filibuster but instead supported it unanimously. But when President Obama appointed the moderate and highly qualified Merrick Garland, Republicans took the unprecedented step of refusing to consider the nomination at all. Then they changed the rules after the 2016 election to keep the Democrats from filibustering President Trump’s appointment of Neil Gorsuch to the open seat, insuring that conservatives would keep their 5-4 majority.

So now we have a potential autocrat in the White House, leading a party of embattled conservatives desperate to maintain their hold on power. The “devil’s bargain” between this man and this party could be bad news for democracy.


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.