The Trump campaign: a white revolt against ‘neoliberal multiculturalism’
When pressed to explain why they are backing their candidate, some of Donald Trump’s white supporters often answer with a critique – one that Trump himself articulates – in which they couple America’s multiculturalism and growing multicultural population with, for example, trade agreements like NAFTA, corporate relocation of American manufacturing jobs overseas, and business reliance on cheap immigrant labor. Not surprisingly, this coupling has been routinely analyzed and condemned as racist scapegoating of people of color – primarily African Americans and Hispanics – for economic problems not of their own making.
Yet the fact that these Trump supporters interweave neoliberal policies and practices into their frequent invectives against multiculturalism indicates that something else is at work. Indeed, it suggests that what we might be witnessing is blow back from what Jodi Melamed (“The Spirit of Neoliberalism”) calls neoliberal multiculturalism – the “incorporation of U.S. multiculturalism into the legitimating and operating procedures of neoliberalism” – and thus blow back from neoliberal proponents’ evocation of multiculturalism to champion their economic policies and practices as the embodiment of our national ethos; from the framing of “neoliberal policy as the key to a postracist” and multicultural “world of freedom and opportunity”; from the fact that multiculturalism functions now as our nation’s “official antiracism,” through which neoliberalism – and thus our economic dominance – is cast as “in harmony with some version of antiracist goals”; from the ways multiculturalism serves as the expression and face – both politically and aesthetically – of U.S. global military and economic power; and, from capital’s cosmetic readjustments to our rapidly growing multicultural society – its commercials of interracial couples, biracial children, and bilingual voice-overs.
Most especially, however, Trump’s support appears to be blow back from the fact that neoliberalism has innovated, through its incorporation of multiculturalism, “new” means of “fixing human capacities to naturalize inequality,” and in ways that do not exclude – on the basis of race – folks like Trump’s supporters from its discipline and punishment.
In essence, the Trump campaign appears to be driven in part by a revolt against the “new racism” that neoliberalism has produced.
Within the framework of neoliberalism, Melamed tells us, multiculturalism “codes the wealth, mobility, and political power of neoliberalism’s beneficiaries to be the just deserts of ‘multicultural world citizens.’” At the same time, it represents those whom “neoliberalism dispossesses” as “handicapped by their own ‘monoculturalism.’” Neoliberal multiculturalism thus innovates “a new racism,” one that “rewards or punishes people for being or not being ‘multicultural Americans,’ an ideological figure that arises out of neoliberal frameworks.” In fact, it “extends racializing practices and discipline beyond the color line” – beyond, that is, the white supremacist logic of race as phenotype. As a consequence, “new categories of privilege and stigma determined by ideological, economic, and cultural criteria overlay older, conventional racial categories” – meaning, that “traditionally recognized racial identities” (like white identity, for example) “can now occupy both sides of the privilege/stigma opposition.”
This is all bad news for those Trump supporters who not only desperately cling to monoculturalism (as expressed, for example, by their desire to “Make America Great [white] Again”), but who also live and work in a hypersegregated white world. As economist/researcher Jonathan Rothwell found, the women and men “who view Trump favorably are disproportionately living in racially and culturally isolated zip codes and commuting zones. Holding other factors constant, support for Trump is highly elevated in areas with few college graduates, far from the Mexican border, and in neighborhoods that stand out within the commuting zone for being white, segregated enclaves, with little exposure to blacks, Asians, and Hispanics.”
Within the framework of neoliberalism, to be so damn white is to be, or to risk being cast as, just another Other.
This might help to explain in part why Trump supporters at times speak of themselves in terms of racial marginalization, terms they conflate with their lost (or perceived lost) fortunes under a neoliberal economic order that they understand to be at odds with their particular identity politics because it is aligned with the multiculturalism they loathe. To them, nothing signifies this alignment more clearly and demonstrably than the triumph of Barack Obama, who for eight years has stood at the helm of the neoliberal global order and who Trump supporters blame for policies (like NAFTA, for example) enacted prior to his administration.
Of course, it goes without saying that neoliberal policies have absolutely created great suffering for many whites who support Trump – especially those who are poor – and have opened a space for neoliberal policymakers and cheer leaders to explicitly and unashamedly frame these whites as undeserving, shiftless and lazy (monocultural) Others. “The truth about these [white] dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die,” wrote Kevin Williamson of the National Review. “Economically, they are negative assets. Morally, they are indefensible…The white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles.”
White suffering, however, goes hand-in-hand with the fact that whiteness remains privileged within our economic and political order, and in spite of the new racism that neoliberalism has produced. We still operate, as Melamed explains, under “a racial-economic schema” that “continues to associate white bodies and national populations with wealth and nonwhite bodies and national populations with want.” Thus, whites who do fall on the side of stigma are nevertheless privileged Others, a people excluded from the kinds of brutal racial procedures that neoliberalism “adapts,” for example, to “innovate new forms of racialized wage slavery such as one finds in the free trade zones of the global South.” Nor are these white Others subject, to any comparable degree, to the kind of discipline and punishment meted out (for instance) to poor, hypersegregated/monocultural African Americans, discards of our racial capitalist regime.
None of this should be surprising, of course. After all, capital and state power remain firmly in the hands of primarily white elites – like Trump – for whom multiculturalism is a means to expand their wealth and power because it facilitates the opening of markets abroad. Within neoliberal frameworks, in fact, white men in particular are the consummate neoliberal subjects, against which most of us are measured and frequently found wanting.
The willingness of Trump’s supporters to not see in neoliberalism white elite power is itself a testimony to their deep investment in the “old” racism of white supremacy, long ago rejected (Melamed tells us) as the official racism of the state in the service of global economic expansion. That investment compels Trump’s supporters to speak in the very terms that mark them as Other (as we saw recently, for example, in the New York Times video of whites at Trump rallies. While that video exposed the raw racism of the candidate’s supporters, it simultaneously framed them – and invited us to see them – as Other). Ironically enough, the more they vocalize their racism, the more they announce themselves as men and women who are unable and/or unwilling to reconstitute themselves as proper neoliberal subjects, i.e., as neoliberal multiculturalists.
Lest we be tempted to say, “so what?”, we would do well to consider this: the very framework that marks Trump’s racist supporters as Other is also a framework that denies – and renders unspeakable – the existence of racism altogether.
Neoliberal multiculturalism articulates our nation, and the neoliberal project that our government serves, as nonracial (or, as Melamed writes, neoliberalism has effectively incorporated “U.S. multiculturalism in a manner that makes neoliberalism appear just,” while it obscures “the racial antagonisms and inequalities on which the neoliberal project depends”). It condemns as “divisive” antiracist critiques of neoliberalism and U.S. racial politics – condemns them as that which actually creates racial division, discord, and inequality. Moreover, it invites punishment and disapprobation upon those who both challenge racist practices and expose neoliberalism as being the racist plunder that it is.
Thus, it should come as no surprise, for instance, that those who organize under the banner of Black Lives Matter are frequently attacked for defending, against neoliberal policing, those presumed to be undeserving of our regard – the black/monocultural children, women and men who are marginalized not because of any political and economic policies (we are told), but because they have failed to refashion themselves as proper American neoliberal subjects, i.e., as disciplined and efficient rugged individualists, self-styled entrepreneurs and competitors in our free market society. Indeed, BLM defense of the undeserving marks BLM itself as the ultimate Other, to which state surveillance and violence, along with “All Lives Matter!” (an incantation of neoliberal multiculturalism if ever there was one), are appropriate, disciplinary responses.
So what seems to be unfolding before us, then, is a racist revolt against a racist paradigm – a revolt that speaks not so much to a desire on the part of Trump’s supporters to upend neoliberalism per se, as it perhaps speaks to an unspoken desire to reconstitute it as an explicit articulation of white power. And why would they want to upend neoliberalism, after all? Contrary to the myth that they’re all poor whites who are beset by low wage employment, addiction, and so-called broken homes, many of Trump’s supporters, as Rothwell discovered, are not particularly distressed. They haven’t been “disproportionately affected by foreign trade or immigration.” On average, they don’t “have lower incomes than other Americans.” And they are not “more likely to be unemployed” than the rest of their countrymen and women. To the contrary, they have done relatively well for themselves, even if the communities in which they live have taken a downturn.
But as monoculturalists, they are entirely vulnerable to neoliberal multiculturalism’s racializing discipline.
Trump, then, is not only the promise of an end to that vulnerability; he is also a beginning, the promise of a new new racism, one that resembles – and honors – the racism of old. Or as one supporter put it: “He’s the last chance we have to…preserve the culture I grew up in” – the last chance, that is, to preserve a culture of white economic, social, and political privileges that can be passed on, ad infinitum, to future generations of white monocultural Americans.
Originally published at CounterPunch.
Donald Trump: A presidency befitting white minority rule?
By now it has become a truism that Donald Trump’s success in the 2016 presidential primaries can be attributed in no small measure to the support of white voters who harbor deep, seething resentment and anxiety about “changing demographics” – that inexorable transformation of the white population to minority status. Twenty-seven years from now, the U.S. Census Department predicts, African Americans, Latinos, and people of Asian descent will be the majority, a development apparently frightening if not dystopian enough for some white people to cast their lot with a candidate whose level of self-absorption and inexperience is matched only by his level of contempt for policy, women, Mexicans, and Muslims (that’s just the short list).
But what, precisely, is it about changing demographics that makes Trump so appealing to his white supporters? And why does imagining him in the White House assuage their fears about becoming racial minorities?
No one who has written about demographics and Trump’s appeal has really addressed these questions and, as a result, the phrase “changing demographics” reduces too often to a mantra of sorts, something one repeats with the conviction that it both clarifies and enlightens.
I suspect these questions haven’t been addressed because those who have written about Trump and “changing demographics” assume that the impending population shift will be a rather seamless and mundane political moment – indeed, that it will be a natural evolution through which one kind of body (brown) will, by virtue of its existence, take up the political space and share the power of another (white).
“New political agendas will be set by non-white voters and the non-white politicians they elect,” writes Amy L. Bernstein in “Face it, we’re on our way to being a majority minority country.” “The dominant white power structure will not disappear overnight, but it will be diluted, integrated and subsumed in various ways, great and small. Big money, and big business, may retain their outsized influence, but over time the money will flow to – and from – different hands.”
Sounds painless, right? And yet these key words in Bernstein’s prediction should give us pause: “the dominant white power structure will not disappear overnight.” Let me just restate that sentence in blunter terms: white people (generally speaking, of course) control the nation’s political, economic, social, and military institutions. They will retain this control long after the year 2043, when whites become a minority.
These truths the “changing demographics” mantra – and those who use it to narrate a seamless transition from white majority to white minority status – simply cannot bear. Indeed, the mantra ultimately ensures that we dare not speak the implications of what it will mean, for whites and people of color, when the majority that controls so much becomes a minority firmly in control of so much. More pointedly, the mantra guarantees that we never even consider that some of our countrywomen and men are deeply invested in, and absolutely committed to securing for their and their children’s future, something akin to “white minority rule.”
The politics of the current election cycle, however, beg us to discard the benign “changing demographics” narrative and to come to grips with the sense of crisis – expressed so poignantly by Trump’s successful primary run – that an increasingly fearful segment of the white population is beginning to feel about the transition from majority to minority status.
Indeed, I think it is fair to view the Trump campaign, the GOP assault on voting rights (17 states, Ari Berman recently noted, “have new voting restrictions in effect for the first time and 15 states have new or tougher voter-ID laws”), and the general GOP crack-up as being, in many ways, the messy, ugly work of sorting out and settling, not the question of how to accommodate and live with the reality of an increasingly diverse electorate, but instead the question of how to safeguard white power – the rule of some whites, anyway – when whites are no longer the majority.
In other words, what we’re witnessing with the GOP generally is (as Stan Greenberg puts it) “a ferocious counterrevolution to stop these new and expanding demographic groups from coalescing to form a politically coherent bloc capable of governing successfully” – or, conversely, a war to ensure that “the dominant white power structure” maintains its grip on our political, economic, social and military institutions regardless of how expansive and numerically overwhelming these new demographic groups become. “What happens when we have no control over things?” asked League of the South member and white nationalist blogger Brad Griffin in a recent New Yorker feature article on Donald Trump’s nationalist coalition. “You’re seeing it play out right now.”
For many Trump/GOP supporters, in fact – those who are professed white nationalists as well as those who are not – Barack Obama’s ascendancy to the White House made it abundantly clear that they must act now to secure control for the future. Border walls, disenfranchisement, mass deportation, gerrymandering, continued support for a militarized police force within African American and Latino communities, unfettered gun rights – these just make sense as strategies of containment to guarantee white power now, white power tomorrow, white power forever.
So, too, does support for authoritarian, fascist-leaning, racist, strong-arm leadership. Democracy, after all, has proven to be the enemy, the very mechanism that opened the doors to an influx of immigrants of color and greater political participation of communities historically marginalized through the exercise of white supremacist politics and economics. Donald Trump is thus a godsend, and perhaps in the mind of some a precursor not so much to a future Hitler, but instead to a future F.W. de Klerk. “White men in America and across the planet,” proclaims Daily Stormer website author Andrew Anglin, “are partying like it’s 1999 following Trump’s decisive victory over the evil enemies of our race” (how ironic is it that Stormer makes his white power point by quoting the music of the late African American entertainment icon Prince Rogers Nelson?). “Who needs Muslims? Who needs Mexicans? Once you ask those questions, you think, who needs Haitians?” asked white nationalist American Renaissance editor Jared Taylor during a Wall Street Journal interview. “Mr. Trump is reacting in an almost visceral way to the idea of whites becoming a minority.”
Those Trump and GOP supporters who are driven by their fears of becoming racial minorities are truly canaries in the mine. They are letting us know in no uncertain terms that, for many whites, there’ll be no partying like it’s 2042, no passively facing the fact that “we’re on our way to being a majority minority country,” and certainly no capitulation to the idea that “nonwhite voters” will set “new political agendas” or that “Big Money… will flow to – and from – different hands.” What we’re witnessing now portends even more troubling efforts, by some within and outside of the GOP, to secure white power for a white minority future – efforts that will surely be met with great resistance from the emerging majority as well as from many white people. This is what “changing demographics” means, and if we don’t “face” that – if we don’t speak frankly about being on track for a collision course with those who will resist, at all costs, a “white power structure…diluted, integrated and subsumed,” then we’re setting ourselves up for being wholly unprepared for the possibility of a very tumultuous, if not violent transition.
But we don’t have to stay on that track.
To get off, we need to make a thing of the past the power exercised now by the (not so exclusively white) “power structure,” so that that power won’t be a thing of the future. This we can accomplish precisely by engaging in on-the-ground organizing to up-end the structural economic, political and social inequalities that this “power structure” hopes to make permanent features of everyday life for us all – including many of those who fret about becoming racial minorities. We need to turn “changing demographics” into a mantra for the adoption and implementation of such egalitarian polices as a national living wage, a guaranteed income, fair trade, equitable urban redevelopment and the vigorous regulation of real-estate speculation, free higher public education, targeted and disproportionate funding for public primary and secondary schools located in distressed communities, effective regulation of financial institutions, drastic reductions in defense spending, the expansion of protections for labor organizing, progressive taxes, the transformation of law enforcement into nonviolent community peace keeping units, and the adoption of robust anti-discrimination laws in the areas of housing and employment.
Among other things.
What we need to do, in other words, is make minority status itself – that is, economic and political vulnerability and marginalization on the basis of race – a relic of a white supremacist past.
Your vote for Hilary Rodham Clinton will not protect you
A friend recently told me that while I could “afford” to vote for Bernie Sanders because I am, as she put it, “highly educated,” she absolutely could not vote for him – nor could many of her friends and others who were decidedly not like me (i.e., highly educated). “For me,” she argued, “the stakes are too high” – the stakes being the elevation of Donald Trump to the highest office in the nation, and thus potentially four years of GOP control over all branches of government. Because of the real and present danger that a Donald Trump win would pose, “I will vote this November,” she declared emphatically, “for Hilary Clinton.”
My friend is right, of course. I am highly (or perhaps, as my brother would put it, over) educated.
And just for the record, I am also middle-class, African American, lesbian, 52, gainfully employed, insured, and a U.S. citizen with a (meager) retirement savings. Et cetera. I will vote for Sanders when my time comes, and if she captures the nomination, I will vote for Clinton. (That’s a strategic black vote, by the way).
Like many, I live a life of both privilege and vulnerability. I don’t apologize for what I can afford – voting or otherwise. And while I don’t fool myself about my vulnerabilities by believing that they don’t exist, I also don’t use them to claim a sameness with all African American women or others in ways that belie class, citizenship status, education and other differences among us – differences that often make for vastly dissimilar experiences with (for example) racism, sexism, economic instability.
But of course there are moments when our experiences are remarkably similar.
Nevertheless, my friend is right as well about the fact that the stakes of this election are YUGE (to use Bernie-speak). A Donald Trump win! win! win! would be absolutely disastrous for the country (and for me. I would not, as she incorrectly assumes, escape unscathed the consequences of his victory). Continued inaction on climate change; the ability to install a Supreme Court thoroughly committed to inequality, the decimation of individual rights, economic and environmental deregulation, and the interests of the rich; expansion of war in the Middle East and a return to Cold War politics; reversal of marriage equality and freedom of choice; the plunder of the treasury; repeal of Obamacare; the shredding of what little safety net we have left….this is the kind of craziness we face.
Given these stakes, then, we must vote, and vote wisely.
My friend is not alone in thinking that a vote for Sanders is a dangerous vote – one that threatens the safety of many of us, most especially those targeted by Trump, Trump supporters, and the GOP generally – while a vote for Clinton is a safe vote or, to put it differently, a vote for safety. You encounter this argument all the time from HRC supporters – in editorial pages, on Twitter, in blogs, on Facebook, in coffee houses, over the airwaves, and in conversations overheard on BART. Bernie Sanders supporters, they say, are fools – elite fools – who might very well usher us all to the end of times.
Or something like that.
Yet, I have heard similar arguments as well from Bernie supporters. Because the polls say Clinton will lose against Trump (some argue), to vote for her is to cast a dangerous vote, one that will plunge us all deep into GOP chaos. On the other hand, the polls do predict that Bernie will beat Trump. Consequently, our safety lies with his nomination.
But we should wonder about this propensity to speak of Hilary’s or Bernie’s supporters, or of a Clinton/Sanders presidency, in terms of danger, protection and refuge – this willingness, in other words, to believe that voting for either candidate will make us safe.
Should Donald Trump lose to Sanders or Clinton (assuming that he will defeat a Republican coup and actually become the Party’s nominee), we will still go home to families, coworkers, friends, neighbors – and mingle daily with strangers – who are willing to sacrifice democracy to authoritarianism, xenophobia, tribalism, patriarchy, white supremacy, and the machinations of wealthy white men (e.g., Trump, the Koch brothers) whose hunger for power is, it seems, absolutely bottomless.
We will still be surrounded by neighbors and intimates who do not eschew violence as a means to redress economic dislocation and to contend with change that is not merely a reiteration of current power arrangements.
We will still live in a country riven by hate and divisiveness, and be governed by a Congress for which that hate and divisiveness is the stuff of religious creed and public policy.
We will still live in a nation in which the infrastructure is crumbling, coastal cities sinking, schools failing, inequality increasing, desperation mounting and hunger considered just deserts for those who are poor — especially those who are poor, black and female.
We will still be at war, everywhere.
In other words, we are already unsafe – already living dangerously, and we were doing so long before Donald Trump upended the Republican Party.
So whether you vote for Hilary Rodham Clinton or Bernie Sanders, your vote will not protect you.
Thinking of safety in the narrow terms that we do – i.e., merely voting for a president every four years in order to keep at bay the draconian policies of a mean-spirited party and electorate – will not protect us. This is especially true given that our narrow conception of safety is itself a buy-in to a top-down politics of change.
Now don’t get me wrong: vote we must. It is imperative. But we need to think more deeply and ask: what does it mean to be safe? What does real safety look like and how do we create it for all of us – haters included?
Safety, it seem to me, resides with us, in what we do every day – in whatever capacity we are able – to put in place policies and institutions that are grounded in safeguarding and nurturing the lives of the most vulnerable. For if the most vulnerable are cared for, if that which is creating the vulnerability in the first instance is eradicated (poverty, segregation, war funding, separate and unequal school systems, state-sponsored and private acts of violence, structural inequalities, the upward distribution of wealth), then safety will be the order of the day (I, for one, believe that this means envisioning economic, political, geopolitical and social security through the eyes of a poor, undocumented girl of color – but that’s just me).
That kind of safety is purchased in part by the vote, but most especially by political action and grassroots involvement at the local level – like, for example, sitting in on and participating in neighborhood meetings, helping to organize your workplace, conversing with and listening deeply to people who are different from you, running for office, creating viable third, fourth, fifth party alternatives.
Perhaps most of all, the kind of protection we seek – real safety – is purchased by our refusal to live in fear.
We need to stop proclaiming that we are afraid of Donald Trump and his supporters, and to stop telling everyone else that they should be afraid. When we do this, we make him, and them, larger than life, and in the process, we make us small, fearful and powerless.
Our fear will not protect us.
So let’s move beyond fear and way, way past thinking of either Sanders or Clinton as our saving grace; they are not (while we’re at it, let’s also abandon altogether the shitty, hateful, divisive discourse that passes as constructive political engagement. There’s nothing radical about speaking the same language as, and acting like, those who hate us).
Instead, let’s demonstrate the truism that we are in fact “the ones we have been waiting for” and that our calling is to be dangerous to the politics of what is. Let us make the nation absolutely unsafe for poverty, war mongering, patriarchy, racism, xenophobia, neoliberalism, free (as opposed to fair) trade, economic inequality. Let us be dangerous to all that stands against peace. And let us be so regardless of whether or not Hilary, Bernie or Donald ends up in the White House.
But of course, let’s make sure that neither Donald nor a GOP alternative makes it anywhere near the Oval Office.
Flint’s White People, Flint’s Water Crisis, and the Race to the White House
Thirty-seven percent of Flint, Michigan’s population is white. Approximately 14,000 of Flint’s white population live below the poverty line.
Neither statistic has factored much into discussions concerning the water crisis in Flint or in analyses of the “structural racism” that created the crisis in the first place (in fact, pundits and others have cited the statistics merely to show that Flint is, and Flint’s poor are, predominantly African American).
But these statistics matter, and they matter not only because they speak more fully to the suffering state and federal officials visited upon the people of Flint. They also matter because they betray Democrats’ and progressives’ failure to seize opportunities to speak directly to, and be in conversation with, poor and working class whites about the class and race politics that have created much of their suffering. No one who has talked about Flint – not Hilary Clinton, not Bernie Sanders, not their followers, not progressives in general – has had anything to say whatsoever about just how expendable to Michigan’s white elites are the lives of Flint’s poor and working class white folk. In fact, it is almost as if whites who live at the margins in Flint don’t exist at all (or exist only so that one can make a point about black people and racism).
At a recent event in Harlem, for example, Clinton said of the water crisis: “It’s a horrifying story, but what makes it even worse is that it’s not a coincidence that this was allowed to happen in a largely black, largely poor community. Just ask yourself: Would this have ever occurred in a wealthy, white suburb of Detroit? Absolutely not.” During a town hall meeting, Sanders, too, wondered what “the response” would have been had the water crisis happened in “a white suburb.” Flint “is a poor community,” Sanders stated. “It is disproportionately African-American and minority, and what has happened there is absolutely unacceptable.”
To be sure, both Clinton and Sanders probably considered whites included in the term “poor community.” But it is clear that poor white people were not the point Clinton and Sanders wanted to make. Instead, what Clinton and Sanders hoped to demonstrate (for good reason) was their understanding of how racist policies continue to constrain the lives of African Americans and to serve the interests of well-to-do whites. Or maybe what they hoped for was recognition of what New York Magazine writer Rembert Brown gleefully declared about Hilary Clinton: that they were willing to “chastise” their “own privilege” and, in so doing, to put “the privilege of whiteness front and center.”
If putting “the privilege of whiteness front and center” was what Clinton and Sanders were trying to accomplish (and I believe there’s some truth to this observation), then what they ultimately gave voice to was a class politics on the part of Democrats and progressives that erases the experiences of poor and working class whites, and does so through a racial politics that reifies the myth of a “naturalized, unmarked, homogenized, privileged white identity” (to borrow from law professor Camille Gear Rich’s “Marginal Whiteness”). This myth is one by which white elites have, throughout American history, defined white interests in terms of their own privileges, wealth, and power – as it is also one by which whites who live on the margins have framed (often to their great detriment) their own interests so as to enjoy the privileges of white identity.
Both candidates (as well as progressives who wrote about Flint) could have explicitly talked about how the water crisis was allowed to “happen” just as surely to Flint’s poor and working class white community as it was allowed to happen to Flint’s African American community; how the privileged whites and minorities who live in the “white suburbs” were provided with clean water; how anti-black racism constitutes a set of policies and practices that facilitate well-to-do whites’ exploitation of poor and working class white people (that is, after all, what happened in Flint). And both Clinton and Sanders (who just yesterday visited Flint & addressed the water crisis in front of an overwhelmingly white audience) could have had this discussion without giving credence to the fiction of equivalent victimization.
Indeed, both candidates could have discussed or put “front and center” for analysis and critique their own class privileges vis-à-vis the black and white Flint communities. They could have stated, as Rich observed, that for some whites “access…to the material and dignitary benefits associated with whiteness is not always assured,” and that some whites – like those in Flint, no doubt – “only enjoy white privilege in contingent, context-specific ways.” They could have spoken of whites – and even of African Americans – in terms of differences that belie the myth of homogeneity.
But that kind of discussion did not happen. Consequently, the Flint water crisis remains solely a story about anti-black politics.
Talking about the racism African Americans face in Flint and beyond, of course, is not the problem. In fact, it is necessary. But while Democrats and progressives sustain the myth of a homogenized, privileged white identity and choose not to be in conversation with poor and working class whites about the kind of class and race politics that creates their suffering (whether we’re talking about Flint or inadequate health care), Donald Trump fills the void. Through a racist and xenophobic framework he engages poor and working class whites directly, casting their suffering as the fault of racial others. In the process, Trump recreates and reinvents – by casting himself as the answer to all white America’s woes – the myth of a homogenized and privileged white identity as well as the fiction that white interests are white elite interests. As long as Clinton, Sanders, Democrats, and progressives offer no real alternative – as long as they persist in spinning the myth themselves –Trump might very well capture the White House this November, and with the help of poor and working class whites.
My book is out! Nonviolence Now! Living the 1963 Birmingham Campaign’s Promise of Peace (Lantern Books 2015)
Redefining “unrealistic”: the Bernie Sanders campaign
Moderates…are often correct in perceiving the difficulty or impossibility of racial progress in the context of present social and economic policies. But they accept the context as fixed…They apparently see nothing strange in the fact that in the last twenty-five years we have spent nearly a trillion dollars fighting or preparing for wars, yet we throw up our hands before the need to overhaul our schools, clear the slums, and really abolish poverty. (Bayard Rustin)
A consensus has clearly emerged among moderate pundits and critics regarding Bernie Sanders’ bid for the White House: his campaign and platform, they argue, are wildly unrealistic and reveal just how delusional, if not nihilistic, progressives have become. The campaign and platform are unrealistic, they tell us, because if elected Sanders will face “a House of Representatives firmly under right-wing rule, making the prospects of important progressive legislation impossible” (as Jonathan Chait has argued).
Let’s be real: any proposal that seriously addresses the concerns and champions the needs of working people will not get through this right-wing dominated House of Representatives. In fact, nothing left of center, or even a little right of center, will get through the current House. That truth, however, should force a conversation not on whether or not Bernie Sanders’ campaign and platform are realistic, but instead on what it will take – what kind of mobilization or political revolution is necessary –to remake Congress into one more amenable to policies that really address the people’s needs.
Preferring to “accept the context as fixed”(Bayard Rustin’s critique of moderates remains remarkably relevant), moderate pundits and critics have chosen a different path, which is to focus our ire on Sanders and his supporters by forwarding an argument that basically comes down to this: Bernie’s policies are unrealistic because they are not Republican. After all, following the logic of Sanders’ naysayers, his policies would have to be Republican in order to pass in the current House – and even that’s not guaranteed. One need only look at the fate of Obamacare (a Republican brain-child) to understand how precarious would be the success of a Republican policy ushered in by a Democrat (remind me again: to how many repeal votes has that legislation been subjected?).
Whether pragmatic, piecemeal or revolutionary, legislation addressing the needs of ordinary folk will not fare well in this Congress. Since this is the case, we might as well go for broke. In this way, we can at least change the terms of the debates on work, wealth, and war.
Speaking of war: moderates also slam Sanders’ campaign as unrealistic because his policies are “half-baked plans” (as Matt Yglesias recently characterized them) that are “too expensive” to fund.
But in making their case not one pundit has put on the table the nearly $2 trillion dollars spent thus far on the War on Terror or the $18 trillion dollars that this war has added to the U.S. debt. In fact, even as they correctly perceive that, “in the context of present social and economic policies” – and most certainly within the current political climate – Sanders’ policies will face stiff and uncompromising resistance, pundits “apparently see nothing strange in the fact” that in the last fifteen years we have spent such an astronomical amount “fighting or preparing for wars.” No one is talking about war at all, except to remind us about past votes on the Iraq War or the threat of ISIS.
Indeed, moderates who have decried the possible tax burden that Sanders’ platform might impose on ordinary people have had nothing to say about the billions budgeted for this fiscal year alone to fight a war with an enemy that we keep mindlessly reproducing. Instead, they have thrown up their hands before Sanders’ argument that we need to provide tuition-free college education, invest in our infrastructure, make healthcare truly accessible to all and thus free from the grip of insurance companies, and “really abolish poverty.”
The exasperation some critics have expressed regarding the costs of Sanders’ domestic agenda, coupled with their silence on war spending, suggests that what they consider unrealistic is not our war economy itself – even though it has robbed the American people of real opportunities for economic growth and stability; driven (rather than curtailed) hostilities and instability worldwide; deepened poverty here and abroad; destroyed human, plant and animal life, as well as poisoned natural resources; and, created — from Des Moines to Damascus — bitterness, resentment and hate. None of that is “unrealistic.” Instead, what’s a “no-win” is a campaign and political platform that seek to eradicate economic inequality and the drivers of that inequality, some of whom profit, absolutely and obscenely, from endless war.
In other words, what they don’t say is that the war is precisely what makes Sanders’ platform costly. We can’t keep bombing people or launching drone missiles and, at the same time, educate our people for free. The latter, in fact, is economically irrational given the [fixed] context.
I think it’s time to redefine what we call unrealistic.
But I will concede this: Sanders is not without fault. After all, his platform says nothing about the continued costs of our war and how those costs stymie creative approaches to redistribution. Thus, Sanders’ campaign and platform are unrealistic to the degree that they fail to set their sights on the costs of our war economy and war culture. Sanders needs to show (for example) that the Pentagon’s push to expand the U.S. presence everywhere through the creation of “hubs” or Special Operations staging areas will take money out of our pockets, enrich war corporations and CEOs, and succeed in fomenting (and thus increasing the costs of) the very terrorism it presumably intends to defeat. And he’ll have to talk about these war effects in ways that address as well as allay people’s real sense of vulnerability to terrorism.
In other words, Sanders needs to show that as President he will take “full command of foreign affairs” (Jonathan Chait) and redirect us from permanent war to peace and economic prosperity, and through a framework that galvanizes all of us to unseat every single representative who thrives on both our fear and our hunger.
Of course, putting on the table that $1.8 trillion (and counting) is not solely Sanders’ burden to bear since the failure to speak of the economic, social, and political costs of war make all the candidates – whether they support endless war or not – purveyors of fiction. Pragmatism and conservatism are lies we tell ourselves when we continue to sink billions of dollars every year into death and destruction at the expense of everyone’s well-being and peace. We have to be moved to see such waste, and the fantasies by which they are rationalized, as “strange” indeed, as something that calls for us not only to adopt a different set of domestic and foreign policies altogether, but to actually engage politics in a revolutionary fashion – and most certainly in ways that take us beyond the dangerously narrow focus on the race to the White House.
We all need to get real.
My book is out! Nonviolence Now! Living the 1963 Birmingham Campaign’s Promise of Peace (Lantern Books 2015)