As we limp toward the finish line in Election 2016, we are starting to get a clear picture of the Trump phenomenon. The campaign’s heat comes from two demographics. Older white voters all over the income and class spectrum who remember the ‘good old days’ when they drank from the white’s-only fountain, and blue collar whites, especially in the South and rural areas. Those less-educated voters form an interesting slice of the electorate because they complicate one of the simpler narratives of the campaign.
They are not necessarily poor. Their average incomes seem to be above the median. For the most part, they have not been seriously impacted by trade. They seem to belong to America’s shrinking middle, not just in terms of income but also geography. Globalization, the knowledge economy, immigration, and an accelerating pace of life are all conspiring to undermine their assumptions about the world. Despite their fairly steady economic condition, they have experienced a considerable decline in their relative affluence and influence. In traditional American form, they are venting their anxiety on minorities.
Today’s post at Forbes explores the structural impact of American racism. In a theme familiar to the GOPLifer veterans, it explains that racial bigotries played a vital role in shaping our politics. In a perverse irony, the demise of white supremacy will undermine our democracy unless we recognize the role it has played in our culture and find a means to replace its functions:
For all his many insights, King seems not to have recognized what professor Derrick Bell would describe thirty years later. In the strictest sense, blue collar white workers were not ‘voting against their interests’ by supporting racist politicians. They were rallying around their last tie to a form of racial solidarity that for centuries had delivered meaningful, material rewards. Voters in white Southern counties most desperately dependent on the welfare state voted overwhelmingly for Romney in 2012 and backed extremist Tea Party candidates. Based on the same intersection of tangible interests, that cohort of voters is flocking to Donald Trump after ignoring Bernie Sanders.
The material rewards of racism are as real as the bars that separated King from his jailers. On one side were men who held secure government jobs for life. Though their incomes were modest, they enjoyed guaranteed health care and a pension. The machinery of a deeply oppressive system was calibrated to spare them from its most violent tendencies. Those men saw and sometimes meted out the worst abuses that system could deliver. By virtue of the racial heritage they shared with wealthier whites, they enjoyed a thin, but vital degree of protection.
Failing to address what white racial and cultural supremacy means, especially to whites lower down the economic ladder, creates a risk. Without some wider cultural replacement, we may settle in to a long era of racially Balkanized politics, in which voting behavior is dictated by loyalty to identity rather than any serious discussion of policy.