The John H Boalt Professor of Law at the University University of California, Berkeley
Ian, you’ve written about dog whistle politics. You have written about political mobilization and some of the ideological projects that have traveled under Trump-like campaigns. What’s your sense about how this has all come together?
I'm going to answer a slightly different question. More important right now than how this happened is where we find ourselves. What is the general trend of the postmortem? Around what narrative are people consolidating? I think that the basic choice is between a narrative that says, “Democrats need to refocus on issues of class and not be distracted by special interests,” or, alternately, a narrative that says, “When Americans are divided against each other by racial as well as other cultural appeals, voters tend to hand over power to plutocrats.” The second focuses on race and class, but the former focuses on class only. It’s a tunnel-vision analysis.
This is racial essentialism. It treats class as a race-less set of concerns when in fact it’s a way of expressing sympathy for the economic concerns of the white working class. We are told to find common cause based solely upon our shared class concerns, but warned not to address the negative aspects of whiteness as they actually played out.
This approach is ultimately self-defeating. Self-defeating because it's not responsive to the interests of Trump voters. They do not see the world primarily through the lens of dollars and cents. They see the world through the lens of identity and status, including the sense that the American Dream is for them alone, and that others are lazy or line-cutters. And it’s also self-defeating because it alienates the insurgent forces within the Democratic Party, people of color and people oriented toward a racially egalitarian future.
As you’re naming it, Ian, what are some of the articulations, and by whom? For example, I was just talking to someone earlier today who said that they were concerned that even Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders were consolidating a message that made it difficult to actually acknowledge what you just said. That these are not simply class issues, even among those who voted for Trump, but there's much more going on in terms of loss of status, loss of identity—as Luke [Charles Harris] calls it, “diminished overrepresentation” issues—really motivating more of this than that framework would allow. So would you include Warren and Sanders in that, or are there others that you are thinking about who represent this consolidation around the class issue as they define it?
The greatest risk is that Warren and Sanders will embrace this reductive analysis. To me this story goes under the heading, “It’s the economy, stupid.” It’s an analysis that says, “Hey, surging wealth inequality is what unifies all of us. Don’t distract us, divide us, or weaken us from focusing on the economy.” It's really remarkable because it pretends that the analysis is blindingly obvious. But in fact Clinton carried voters earning less than $50,000 a year. Among the roughly half of all voters who said the most important issue facing the country was the economy, 10 percent more voted for Clinton. When you look at the gender divide in the white working class, white men were much more likely to vote Trump--though white women are much more economically vulnerable.
The idea that it’s entirely obvious that it’s economics? On the contrary, you have to repeatedly avert your gaze and hide in denial from troubling contrary evidence. And that’s before confronting the overwhelming evidence for a different story: racial resentment.
Why is it so absolutely essential that we start having these conversations? What’s going to happen in this administration if we don't?
Economically, we’re going to see the government increasingly passing into the hands of the very wealthy, the billionaires, the corporations. We’re going to see regulations written by and for the supposedly regulated, spanning environmental, marketplace, and financial regulation. We’re also going to see levels of corruption and forms of corruption that are truly astounding, not just by the Trump family, which is small potatoes, but to the tune of billions of dollars in any infrastructure spending, or in the revamping of federal spending on schools.
In addition, and posing the greater danger to the country, focus on what’s going to happen to race relations. We’re a country that’s now 62 percent white. This is not a country that’s 88 or 90 percent white the way it was in the 1960s. In this context, we cannot afford to leave white racial anxiety unaddressed. We know that as white people confront becoming a numerical minority, they become more racially anxious and more politically conservative. This dynamic is likely to accelerate—we seem caught in a downhill slide, hurtling from coded racial appeals to explicit white nationalism. The great danger from the Right is a reenergized belief in white victimization, white aggrievement, and white resurgence.
Meanwhile, much of the Left has opted not to respond to the power of racial fear, and so, also refuses to proactively lay the groundwork for a multiracial democracy. So many of our opposition leaders refuse to talk to whites about race, about how the elite are swindling them, promising them protection from Mexicans and Muslims while stealing them blind, about how the only way forward is through a broad multiracial coalition.
And at the same time, by stressing class alone, this faction of the Left has nothing to say to people of color about our greatest concerns. They cannot and will not say to us, “We’re committed to fighting this resurgence of racism.” I think there is a profound risk of a deepening racial crisis in the country, and much of the Left is doing little to halt the slide. Instead, too many are hiding their heads in the sand, pretending that if we don’t talk about race, it’s not really out there wrecking our society.
What is it that you recommend social justice–loving people be doing now? There is the question of what we do about normalization. One of the ways that people are making a comparison that’s problematic is: we don’t want to be the party of the obstructionists, like the Tea Party was, so yes, we have to move through normalization. That’s the only way, I guess, that we can prove that we are true Democrats, in the sense that this party is one and we have to give them our total cooperation.
That’s one argument that's being made about how we handle this critical moment. The other is: do we want to actually try to go to the red spaces and make them purple, or is there enough for us to actually go navy blue—basically, motivate and accelerate the process of our constituencies being far more active, far more engaged? Make this a two-year run and it’s over, as far as this administration is concerned. I've kind of unfairly made them polarities, but I’m interested in what you have to say about it?
Normalization is disastrous. Barack Obama pursued a form of normalization right after he was first elected in 2008, pretending that the Republicans would be open to compromise. They’re not open to compromise; they’re deeply committed to the interests of the billionaire donor class that they answer to. At the very best case, were Trump to turn out to be a Romney, we would see a politics that handed over power and wealth to the very rich, including for things like privatizing social security. That’s the very best case. But we should be so lucky. Because, in fact, we’re likely to see something far more dangerous: a combination of handing the country over to the very rich plus the rise of white nationalism.
Given this reality, the Democratic Party does a lot of damage to itself when it tries to normalize Trump, because then it seems to betray its core values. The party must articulate those values if it’s to mobilize people over the next two years.
This links to the question of purple vs. deep blue. I would say deep blue through purple. By that I mean that only by articulating a set of values that speak to the concerns of middle America, that honestly address the racial concerns of whites in the working class, can we really mobilize a broad, powerful base. I definitely don’t mean more pandering to white fear. I mean challenging white fear by showing how it’s been weaponized by the Right.
It’s only through a narrative that says, “We are all in this together, all of us of every color,” that we can really create a bridge between the passions that animate the Bernie movement, Black Lives Matter, Occupy, and the Immigrants’ Rights Movement. That’s the sort of broad social mobilization we’re going to need to overcome gerrymandering and voter-rights suppression in the midterms.
Ian, do you have a sense of possibility about how to have these conversations with our white neighbors, with our white potential allies in the red zone? People are saying, “But, is it even possible?” What's your sense about what is the transformational potential of those conversations?
The focus right now has to be instead on having these conversations with white progressives. We can’t go and talk to the Trump supporters until the analysis is shared, absorbed, and assimilated by our own folks. Why is it so hard for white folks on the left to see the power of race? It's because so many of them misunderstand racism as just bigotry. They can't accept that their family members might be bigots, that bigotry might define half the voting public, that we're a country now ruled by bigots. Rather than accept that they jettison the whole idea that race might have any role. But of course racism takes many more forms than bigotry. The fight right now, the opening right now, is to convince progressives that racism is a complex social phenomenon, that it takes many forms, and that right before our very eyes race is restructuring our politics and restructuring our economy.
What should people do now?
Shift from a model of, “It’s the economy, stupid,” to a model of “It’s divide and conquer politics.”
If we don’t do that, we’re doomed. We won’t be able to speak to whites and we won’t be able to speak authentically to people of color either.