Saturday, April 8, 2017

It's the Stupidity, Stupid!

Mehdi Hasan points to some important information and makes a good argument in this article at The Intercept.  The title sums up his claim: Trump voters were motivated more by racism than by the economy.  He's critical of Democrats like Elizabeth Warren and especially Bernie Sanders who've claimed the contrary.

His colleagues Glenn Greenwald and Lee Fang are somewhat skeptical, and Greenwald says that "there's a lot of debate - generally & at the Intercept - about this argument."  That's as it should be, but I think that even if Hasan is right about everything he says, he's accepting and fostering a confusion of issues that is all too common in American politics.

Here's an example from the article:
Both Sanders and Warren seem much keener to lay the blame at the door of the dysfunctional Democratic Party and an ailing economy than at the feet of racist Republican voters. Their deflection isn’t surprising. Nor is their coddling of those who happily embraced an openly xenophobic candidate. Look, I get it. It’s difficult to accept that millions of your fellow citizens harbor what political scientists have identified as “racial resentment.” The reluctance to acknowledge that bigotry, and tolerance of bigotry, is still so widespread in society is understandable. From an electoral perspective too, why would senior members of the Democratic leadership want to alienate millions of voters by dismissing them as racist bigots?
Sanders and Warren might disagree with me, but I don't see a problem here.  I think Sanders was constructing a false dichotomy, but then so is Hasan.  I have no difficulty accepting (if that's the word -- "acknowledging" is more like it) that millions of my fellow citizens are racist, but I don't think it's limited to Trump voters; many Democrats are also racist, and Democratic presidential candidates routinely pander to their racism.  I'm not surprised by Sanders's trying to downplay American racism, since like many Socialists he's always been weak on issues other than the US economy anyway.

It's important to point out, as Hasan does, that much of Trump's base wasn't suffering economically anyway:
Look, if you still believe that Trump’s appeal was rooted in economic, and not racial, anxiety, ask yourself the following questions: Why did a majority of Americans earning less than $50,000 a year vote for Clinton, not Trump, according to the exit polls? Why, in the key Rust Belt swing states of Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, did most voters who cited the economy as “the most important issue facing the country” opt for Hillary over the Donald? And why didn’t black or Latino working class voters flock to Trump with the same fervor as white working class voters? Or does their economic insecurity not count?
This reminds me that when Rush Limbaugh first became nationally famous at the end of the 1980s, he and his critics tried to cast him as the voice of disaffected blue-collar American whites, though his audience had an average income of $53,000 (which was worth considerably more then than it is now).  That was no surprise any more than Trump's fans should be now.  Much of the really toxic American Right is at least middle-class and college-educated, like Limbaugh himself, which is another reason to harbor skepticism about the efficacy of a college education.

According to Philip Klinkner, a political scientist whose research is Hasan's main source,
the best way to identify a Trump supporter in the U.S. was to ask “just one simple question: is Barack Obama a Muslim?” Because, he said, “if they are white and the answer is yes, 89 percent of the time that person will have a higher opinion of Trump than Clinton.” This is economic anxiety? Really?
No, claiming that Obama is a Muslim does not equal "economic anxiety," and I'm not sure anyone has actually said it does.  But it's not necessary to confuse these things.  (Especially if, as Hasan claims, voters who expressed concern about the economy, whether or not they were racist, voted Democratic anyway.)  Denying that racists are racists is a popular tactic, of course, and it's alarming when liberals and leftists try to use it.  I have friends on Facebook who are Trump supporters and racists; I challenge and criticize them on both matters as I see fit.  It doesn't seem that any of them are suffering much economically, and most of them are dependent on the Big Government Teat, but it's typical of the Right to poor-mouth themselves.

Ironically, though, many Trump-haters are just fine with thinking of his fans as low-rent white trash, often shading into overt racist stereotyping and imagery, and I find myself challenging them as often as I do the Trump fans.  It's not necessary to confuse racism and economic anxiety, but it sure is fun. This comment, for example, was posted on Facebook today under a post by a source one of my liberal friends relies on:
No one ever believed Trump...we know why the ones who voted for him did...Now they are at home looking at the news...chewing tobacco..drinking moonshine...rubbing their cousins and sound...the wealthy ones waiting on the check to clear safe and sound...but people lives were human no matter what status you are life is more valuable than the next...He started with lies he will end because of lies...America is alot more fun...when we aren't divided by race so in the words of a great man......Fuck Trump
Democratic elites are also "waiting on the check to clear safe and sound," but it wouldn't do to remember that.

So, to repeat myself, toothless, cousin-marrying losers need to be able to find jobs and support their families.  They need a roof over their heads. They need health care to fix their bad teeth and good public schools to educate their children.  To say so is not to minimize their racism or other unseemly traits, any more than good economic policy justifies poor blacks' frequent criminality and bad beliefs.  Nor is it to recommend, as the New York Times did recently, that the Democratic Party should reach out to working class whites by pandering to their racism instead of ameliorating their economic plight.  Middle class and wealthy whites also have bad beliefs and are frequently criminal, but they aren't held accountable as poor whites and blacks are.  We have to distinguish between poor whites' racism and their economic and political rights, just as we do between poor blacks' misbehavior and their economic and political rights.  Empathy doesn't entail uncritical approval, just as you can vote for a corrupt neoliberal as the lesser evil while criticizing her relentlessly.  Martin Luther King Jr. knew this, as did black radicals of the late 1960s; if today's white liberals don't know it, and it seems they don't, then they are not part of the solution but part of the problem.

It's possible in principle, and I hope in practice, to push for good economic policy without pandering to white racism or other forms of bigotry.  As I indicated, we shouldn't justify good economic policy by claiming that it will eradicate bigotry.  It won't, but I'm not sure what will.  Without reliable employment, health care, education, and infrastructure, though, the country (and the world) will continue our agonizing slow downhill slide into immiseration; in which case people's energy to fight for a better world will be diffused into so many areas that they'll become hopeless.  Which, of course, is just what the rulers want.