“Many governments have been founded upon the principle of the subordination and serfdom of certain classes…Our system commits no such violation of nature’s laws…With us, all of the white race, however high or low, rich or poor, are equal in the eye of the law.”
Confederate Vice President, Alexander Stevens on the Confederate Constitution, 1861
Election 2016 is a hopeless puzzle for most analysts. Religious conservatives hailed a crude, philandering casino magnate who has appeared in pornographic films. Working class voters cultishly backed an out-of-touch New York tycoon promising massive tax cuts for the wealthy and a new war on unions. Pro-life voters backed a candidate who has staunchly defended Planned Parenthood. Clinton-haters elected a guy who was, at least until a few months ago, a personal friend and golfing buddy of the Clintons. Voters who seemed to care little enough about race to elect a black President just a few years ago now seem to be animated by blatant racial appeals.
What happened last year is not so tough to understand if we recognize the role race plays in fostering our unique political culture. Race in America is more than ignorance. It is more than malice or bigotry. Race plays a vital structural role in our political system, a role so fundamental to the rest of its operation that we hardly ever pause to consider its importance.
Thanks to generations of progress in civil rights, race, and more specifically “whiteness,” is failing. Being white is losing its meaning, its privileges, its social and even religious significance. As it fades, it has weakened a load-bearing wall in our democracy. Our goal of transcending race, encoded as a distant aspiration in our founding documents, threatens to undermine the “classless” assumptions that make the rest of our system work. Stripped of race as a reference point, and of whiteness as a marker of special privilege, we are left to cope with class as our main expression of identity.
Our political system has no tools, no institutions, through which to wrestle with matters of class identity. As we struggle to assemble a new Republic from the wreckage of the Trump administration, we will either restore whiteness to some semblance of its former status, or we will develop new tools of political expression, unprecedented in American experience, to address needs of groups who have been decoupled from their prior racial alignments.
Cultural and political alignment along racial lines once produced meaningful, tangible results for low income whites. It also produced a vital sense of pride and meaning that blunted any development of class identity. To an extent not seen anywhere else in the world, struggling low-income voters in America could identify with wealthy tycoons, so long as both were white. Accomplishments of robber barons and real estate moguls were “our” achievements, examples of what was possible in America. Whiteness as a cultural force fed the development of unique common identity and a powerful nationalism. All Americans were united in an ersatz “middle class,” a designation that evolved into a quiet code for whiteness.
One need not feel any enmity toward other races, or even an awareness of other races, to participate in the benefits of whiteness. A race-defined culture allowed Americans at all income levels to enjoy a political and economic system largely free of the class burdens that hampered economic development elsewhere in the world. A systematically oppressed and disenfranchised class of black and Hispanic workers performed “work Americans won’t do” at prices that lowered the cost of living for everyone else. Taxes they paid, and still pay, were siphoned into a galaxy of safety net benefits carefully cordoned off to disproportionately benefit whites. Preferences in education, hiring, policing, justice, even zoning, quietly perpetuated the interests of white “middle class” families at the expense of others.
On the aggregate, modern white voters bear far less explicit bias against individual blacks or Hispanics than in the past. They do not regard themselves as racists, and in the truest sense of the word perhaps they are right. Your average Trump voter bears no ill will toward individual black people or other minorities. They are entirely comfortable with the notion of civil rights for minorities, when civil rights are interpreted as an opportunity for “hard working” black people to participate in a rigidly white-dominated culture. Most American white nationalists are entirely comfortable with freedom for minorities, if that freedom is defined as an opportunity to become white, to graduate through education, refinement, and achievement, into an asterisk-laded version of whiteness.
While insisting that they lack a racist “bone in their body,” Trump voters, almost to a person, will react with fierce and angry resistance to any suggestion that non-whites should be granted the opportunity to influence the shape of American culture in any way that reflects a non-white identity. Jews are fine, so long as our common institutions are still dedicated to celebrating a Merry Christmas. Blacks are fine, so long as they don’t trouble us with complaints about what Elvis did to their music or what security forces do to their children or what my Grandpa did to their Grandpa. Hispanics are welcome so long as I don’t have to “press 1 for English.” As long as America remains securely white, Trump voters are comfortable allowing non-white people to assimilate into it.
Everything about that complex system of white nationalism has been steadily weakening in recent decades. Eight years under a black President marked a vital psychological breakpoint in the decline of this cultural cushion. We saw a black man inviting black entertainers to the White House and treating them as not just human equals, but cultural equals. We saw a black President taking “extravagant” vacations, which in fact were modest compared to his predecessors, but shocking as an expression of black success. In addition to racial minorities, we saw women, homosexuals, Muslims and other formerly subordinate people asserting themselves, expressing an identity independent of a traditional white cultural standard. We saw African-Americans boldly challenging their treatment at the hands of our security forces. It was enough to break white nationalism as our defining order, but not quite enough to establish a new order that would make sense in its absence. You break it, you bought it.
In the wake of declining white privilege, measurable suffering has been most acute at the lower income ranges, but that is not where the bulk of the political resistance has formed. Voters who are reacting to the death of whiteness with the most fury are not poor. They are not suffering economically much at all. Voters who backed Donald Trump most enthusiastically are the ones who have lost the most in terms of their relative dignity. They are the ones most threatened by an emerging alliance between educated, affluent, urban whites and an assertive new generation of minority voters and women. Trump voters are not going to allow wealthier whites to break out of our white nationalist order, leaving the rest of white America behind.
What does the suffering look like for those abandoned by the decline of white nationalism? It looks like drug addiction, moral malaise, and aimlessness. Trump whisperers have identified de-industrialization and globalism as the drivers of the Trump phenomenon, particularly in the Rust Belt states that were key to Trump’s victory. That evasive explanation lags about 40 years behind conditions on the ground.
Have the Rust Belt states suffered in recent years? Only in relative terms, in comparison to the knowledge economy hubs of the west or our major urban areas. In fact, most of the old manufacturing centers of the Upper Midwest have fared far better in the Obama years than in the past.
Pennsylvania’s Erie County gained attention as a place won by Obama and lost by Clinton. Explanations generally focus on a declining manufacturing base, but that decline happened forty years ago. Deindustrialization of the Great Lakes region has been pretty much complete for some time now. As bad as things are in many stretches of the Ohio Valley and Great Lakes, it isn’t as bad as conditions in the 80’s when the region was hemorrhaging jobs in six-figure chunks at a time.
Manufacturing employment in the US has been declining since the 70’s. The Rust Belt’s share of US employment declined by a third between 1950 and 1980. We didn’t start using the term “Rust Belt” during the Obama Administration. That term dates back to the 70’s. Economic decline in the Ohio Valley and Upper Midwest hit its crucial peak in the mid-80’s. This was a decade prior to NAFTA, when Barack Obama was a young college graduate.
In economic terms, the former Rust Belt experienced a return to stability in the Obama years. Obama rescued GM with an enormous government bailout, saving not just hundreds of thousands of jobs, but the pensions and health insurance of almost half a million retirees. Unemployment in Pennsylvania’s Erie County dropped by almost half. Wage growth in Erie County has outpaced the rest of the country consistently for the past thirty years. Average wages are higher there now than they were before the financial collapse.
Look carefully at conditions in Erie County and you’ll find nothing to support the narrative that these places have experienced some unique economic crisis during the Obama years. The opposite is true. These places experienced a devastating economic transformation during the 70’s and 80’s which is long over. Manufacturing is actually returning to these places, though in its new form with far fewer workers enjoying far safer, more humane working conditions.
Something is definitely happening in places like Erie County to explain their massive political shift. And it happened over the past eight years. Whatever it was, it had a powerful impact on the residents’ sense of well-being, though only the white residents and mostly the ones who are beyond their working years. In fact, it had its strongest measurable impact on residents who are too old to be effected by the job market at all. Despite a powerful economic recovery, America’s white working class strongholds have experienced a crisis of meaning, of identity, and of purpose in the Obama years.
This mysterious malaise found its voice in a candidate who promised to devastate the social safety net and eliminate a federal program that provided many of these voters with their health insurance coverage. Their political savior was a candidate who offered no coherent positions on any issues of economic relevance. White voters in places like Erie County gave their enthusiastic support to a man who articulated only one clear political position – building a wall to keep out “dangerous” non-white foreigners. They backed a candidate who promised to restore America’s faltering white nationalism.
Why would the religious right back an utterly irreligious moral cretin? Because the religious right was never about religion. It was a movement to preserve a white cultural identity through a state religion. Why would rural voters back a New York real estate tycoon? Because he is promising to resist the decline of white dignity eroded by snooty, racially compromised city-dwellers and uppity women. Why would Democratic factory workers vote for a wealthy Republican who will gut their unions? Because he has promised to restore the preferences they enjoy from their race and bind them in (enforced) common interest with wealthier whites – a much more powerful benefit in America than a union card.
Their vote for Donald Trump reflects less a specific hostility toward other races than a nostalgia for lost privilege. Presented with no persuasive alternative and with their concerns dismissed on all sides, they have forcefully and dangerously endorsed a return to an oppressive white nationalist order. That effort will almost certainly fail, but that failure is of no comfort to the rest of us.
Their determination to turn back the clock has already wrecked the Third Republic, forcing us now to build something new without a blueprint. That new entity could be a promising new light, or it could be a nightmare. Election 2016 is an even more challenging and complex puzzle than most commentators realize. What political force can replace white nationalism as a cohesive element in our culture? Time to find a solution is running out.