Many months after the election of Donald Trump, new data and research findings continue to provide fresh light on that critical historical moment. The main strand of this research is a search to understand who voted for each candidate, and what motivated their vote. The results are not entirely intuitive, increasingly complex, and, as pundits like Nate Silver have noted, surprising – and certainly not consistent with the prevailing opinion on election night.
In particular, there appears to have been a gradual reversal of election night consensus on the role and relationship of economic anxiety and “racial” anxiety, or anxiety of the “other,” in terms of motivation and voting patterns. Recent elections have increasingly demonstrated the importance racial polarization among the electorate. Yes, 43 percent of whites, according to exit polls, did not vote for Trump, and the more recent survey evidence suggests that number might be slightly greater. But, the number of whites supporting Democrats has been in a general decline since President Lyndon Johnson. Most whites, especially in the South, were uncomfortable, at best, with civil rights since the civil rights movement, and political tacticians such as Lee Atwater brilliantly preyed on this anxiety with the so-called Southern Strategy, using coded appeals to appeal to racial resentment. The country quickly and relatively easily moved from the promise of a more racially fair society to de facto segregated schools and housing to racially based mass incarceration. The march to Trump started in the ’60s.
Until the civil rights movement, the Republican Party had been a largely northern party, associated with the “war of northern aggression,” and the party of big business and an urban, industrialized economy outside of the South. While most southern whites did not, in fact, own slaves, there was widespread support for that “peculiar institution,” and southern white identity was deeply connected to, and even constituted by, an ideology of white supremacy. The refrain of local control in response to the Brown mandate and knee-jerk antagonism to Washington, D.C., was bound up with protecting a way of life that largely included domination, exploitation and control of black labor, black bodies and black life.
The South, since 1896, was largely a one-party system dominated by the Democratic Party. But it might be more accurate to assert that American politics since then has been controlled by three, not two, parties: Democrats, Republicans and the South. After the New Deal, which was largely pushed by northern Democrats, Republicans like Dwight Eisenhower reluctantly agreed to accept a greater role for the federal government in not only protecting civil rights in the South (recall the Little Rock incident), but also protecting people from corporate excess and the more extreme havoc caused by boom and bust cycles. We have a name for this. It is called regulations, like Glass-Steagall or the Wagner Act, which regulate market dynamics.
Although the economic effects were far more severe than recent downturns, the Great Depression, we might note, did not produce a dominant ethnic nationalism as it has more recently in Western nations. Instead, it produced the most robust welfare state in American history up to that point. How did that happen? How did the Depression lead to Social Security, public works programs, unemployment insurance on an unprecedented scale, the Wagner Act and so on? Why didn’t the South exercise its power in Congress and prey upon the racial fears of its constituents to thwart these developments, like Trump today?
In part, it did. Southern leaders in Congress, where they could, built racial ramparts into the heart of the New Deal, creating exclusions for black workers and black labor and in old age insurance, housing programs, etc. These accommodations to white supremacy, demanded by the southern Democrats, ensured that white privilege was maintained.
The Great Depression did not automatically shift white working-class support to reactionary demagogues (although there were many, like Father Charles Coughlin), as many today might suppose. Instead, by accepting a white racial hegemony, there was space for more liberal populists, like Huey Long, who were less vulnerable to a politics of race-baiting.
The point is that the politics of “the other,” in this case race, has been important in shaping our political and economic policy agenda, especially in times of economic crisis. The New Deal was not the first such economic crisis, nor would it be the last. The politics and structure of the New Deal was strongly informed by race. The Great Recession, triggered by fraud in the mortgage market, led to an aggressive federal response that created the Tea Party as a resistance movement, blaming the victims of the crisis as the culprits, with unavailable racialized overtones, epitomized by Mitt Romney’s infamous “47 percent.”
There is a general recognition that economic anxiety, stress and instability are fertile ground for demagoguery and various strands of right-wing nationalism. Yet, we have a more difficult time seeing how anxiety of the “other” generates a neo-liberal policy agenda that hurts the working and middle class. This is a blind spot for too many.
From one perspective, we are still contesting the aftermath of the civil war, whose fundamental questions of citizenship, belonging and equal rights remain unresolved in many respects. The South lost militarily, but won the fight over Reconstruction, and gained ground politically and culturally for several generations. Why was the virulently racist movie, The Birth of a Nation, the first Hollywood blockbuster?
The Republican Party achieved national ascendency by appealing to hostility to civil rights and racial resentment, and flipped the South from solidly Democratic to solidly Republican. The specifics of the Southern Strategy continue today: attacking integrated education, affirmative action, fair housing, welfare, unions, and promoting “right to work laws,” the War on Drugs and mass incarceration as well as new, nefarious laws like “Stand Your Ground.” The through-line is policies that are punitive to blacks while promoting, at least symbolically, the prerogative of white supremacy with the intent of further entrenching economic elites.
What made the Southern Strategy so clever was that it appealed to racial resentment and hostility to civil rights without repelling whites who would be disgusted by a more vulgar or explicit racial hatred. So, the goal was to communicate a racial message to the base while maintaining plausible deniability that race was an issue. This was the dog whistle, or what Ian Haney Lopez calls “Dog Whistle Politics.” Arguments about the Second Amendment sound not only as constitutional claims, but as resonant fears of an aggressive federal government harkening back to the Civil War. Similarly, demands for local control are more than assertions for greater democracy, but appeals against federal courts enforcing the rights of minorities. Attacks on the welfare state and unions were not simply critiques of a profligate government or labor unrest, but about control of black labor. And “special interests” were not corporate elites, but blacks, environmentalists and unions.
If these concerns were primarily economic, then they would not have succeeded. What does gay marriage have to do with the economy? Hostility to gay marriage is not simply about protecting the family or traditional values, but about identity, including a conservative white Christian identity that Robert Jones writes about his book, The End of White Christian America. Trump’s appeal is for a continuation of that imagined white, Christian America. Why did Trump insist that Obama was a Muslim? And, perhaps more importantly, why did so many Republican voters believe him? The message is that he is the “other,” and a threat to who “we” are.
After the 2012 presidential election, the Republican National Committee post-mortem suggested outreach to a growing Latino electorate. But the rank and file emphatically rejected this détente with the nomination of Donald Trump. Instead, they doubled down on white, rural, ethnic Protestant voters. They appealed to a mythical past instead of a diverse, and changing, present.
These appeals not just cognitive, but they are deeply emotional, animated by fear and anxiety. And they are not just economic, they are ontological and spiritual. While the left complains about inequality, the right complains about the “takers,” and Donald Trump complains about Mexican labor and Chinese trade negotiators. But are these genuine economic plans, or are they better understood as emotional and ontological appeals? Is preserving 50,000 coal mining jobs going to change the economy? We must look more deeply to understand what these claims are really about.
Many of the 43 percent of whites who voted for Hillary Clinton, Jill Stein or Gary Johnson were put off by the implicit and explicit racism, misogyny and xenophobia of Donald Trump’s message. Instead, some Trump voters admitted similar reservations, but were ultimately willing to overlook them. Trump, more so than any other major American party candidate since the 1960s, broke the strategy of sticking to the dog whistle, and not being too explicit. And yet he won.
And while deep economic anxiety might explain part of what happened, it does not explain enough. For all the calls to avoid identity politics, to double down on economic, class-based appeals, Bernie Sanders lost to Hillary, in no small part because he failed to mobilize black voters while Hillary did, opening her campaign with a call to end mass incarceration. Moreover, in the battleground states where the economy was the top issue, Hillary won. If economic anxiety truly explained the election results, how, too, to explain the votes of millions of working-class black, native and Asian voters, who did not bolt to the right?
And yet, there is a way of doing identity politics that should concern us, where the critics have a point. And this is when we assert, implicitly or explicitly, that one group is more deserving of attention or remediation than another. I call this “breaking.” When any group is only concerned with its own group, and fails to connect or link those struggles with the struggles of other groups, they are leaning towards breaking. When a group shuts out other voices, perhaps even defensively, this is breaking.
There is almost always a way to frame, link and connect a group’s struggles with another group. This is called “bridging.” This happens when the causes of immigrants and the currently and formerly incarcerated are connected to fight for housing, labor rights and full civic participation. This happens when Latinos and African Americans join forces to fight against gentrification and displacement. This happens when Muslims and disability advocates jointly call for greater accommodation in schools and workplaces for prayer and physical access.
The solution to breaking — which is also othering, as it denies the full humanity of the “other” — is not “saming” or creating a false universal that erases the needs or situation of the suffering group. The solution is bridging and belonging. While belonging can recognize that we are not all similarly situated in our interest, or structures, we are not categorically different but situational different. Belonging can recognize the “other” without engaging in othering.
The ontological anxiety that is gripping America and other parts of the world may be a natural human response to rapid change. Recognizing that anxiety and helping folks negotiate is an important role for the stories and frames we use. I believe the right has been better at engaging this anxiety, but offers an “us versus them” solution. The left wants to avoid the conversation and talk about the economy, and how we are all the same. We need to move toward a bridging. empathic story not unlike the one in Canada. The story needs to be inclusive, sensitive to the anxiety and suffering and recognize that we are both the same and different. This is not the story on the left or right. We need a new story of “we” that deals with both the economic anxiety, our group-based situatedness, and our ontological need to belong.