Tuesday, January 03, 2017

How Much Racism -- If Any -- Must Democrats Tolerate?

by Neil H. Buchanan

"Even voters’ racism must be ignored if we are to avoid a one-party state."  Those words appear under the headline ("Neil Buchanan: Can the Democrats Win Back Trump Voters?") of my most recent Newsweek column.  Did I really say that?  Did I argue that we must ignore racism?  Yes and no.  Understanding both answers is important.

It is standard practice for authors of columns not to write their own headlines or short descriptions.  A professional editor/journalist (who is, in Newsweek's case, also a scholar) reads each piece and summarizes the most interesting argument, to give readers a sense of the author's point of view.  While authors often complain about this process, I find that it frequently provides an interesting insight into my writing that I might otherwise have missed, especially if the editor focuses on what I might have thought to be the less essential of two or three arguments in a piece.

But this is arguably different.  Did I really say that we should ignore racism?  Again, yes and no.  If asked to summarize the piece for myself, I would have said that my core point was a refutation of the now-familiar claim that some Trump voters cannot be racists because they voted for Obama.

In my mind, therefore, the takeaway from the column was that those Trump voters should not be let off the hook so easily.  They might in fact be racists, and they at the very least rewarded an openly white supremacist campaign with their votes.

In particular, I noted that a person can be a racist but still have voted for Obama, because racial animus is only one of multiple motivations that go into the mix of arguments and emotions determining how people vote and interact with each other in the world.

Consider, for example, how racism can play out for a person who has the authority to hire and fire employees.  That person might think of himself as quite open-minded, especially if he has hired nonwhite applicants in the past.  Yet that would not prevent him from acting on his racism in other ways, such as by immediately suspecting a nonwhite worker of a workplace theft, or by setting different standards for promotions or salary increases.

This means that the small sub-group of Trump voters who also voted for Obama could still be racists in a very active sense (whether conscious or subconscious).  And as noted above, they were certainly not concerned enough about Trump's racism -- including, among many examples, Trump's clumsy (at best) handling of endorsements by white supremacists --  to refuse to vote for him.  That is a very troubling reality.

It is interesting how much of the discussion of the 2016 election ends up circling back around to Hillary Clinton's widely misunderstood "deplorables" comment.  Trump and his team (especially his running mate, Mike Pence) pounced on that comment, distorting it by saying that it showed Clinton's disdain for "millions of Americans."  The idea was that she had said that it is impossible to be a Trump voter and also be a good person, so (according to Team Trump) everyone should view her as an elitist who hates regular people.

Along with plenty of others, I pointed out at the time (and many times thereafter) that Clinton had meant exactly the opposite of what the Republicans claimed.  She did say, quite correctly, that there really are plenty of awful people who were drawn to Trump, people who were beyond reach for the Democrats as a practical matter and utterly repellent as a moral matter.  That crowd is now well represented in the incoming administration, especially in the person of the president's chief strategist.

Yet Clinton's musings were not really about those unapologetic white supremacists at all.  She was trying to get at the idea that many apparently non-deplorable people seemed to be ignoring Trump's obvious bigotry.  She was trying to ask how to pull in the people who were not vicious racists and sexists but who somehow found Trump appealing in other ways.  She was, in other words, trying to figure out how to win the votes of people who are racists (or racist-tolerant) in the sense that I described above but who might nonetheless be convinced to turn away from Trump's ugliness.

As I noted in my most recent column, this is also the conundrum that Vice President Joe Biden was confronting when he talked about people who live in the white working class neighborhoods that he views as his home base.  When he said that they were not racist and not sexist, he was saying that their embrace of a bigot was temporary and in important ways understandable.

The problem is that, because racism exists along a spectrum (actually, in multiple dimensions), making political calculations regarding target audiences is extremely tricky.  Democrats could simply say that Trump voters are lost forever, because it is not worth trying to appeal to people who could overlook everything and still pull the lever for Trump.  Rather than trying to swing those voters back, Democrats could decide to hold their current voters while winning over new voters and non-voters.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, the Democrats could say that they are going to do everything they can to appeal to all but the most committed white supremacists among Trump's voters.  The danger there is that Democrats would not merely be engaging in a Biden-esque willingness to assume that most people are inherently good, but they could soon find themselves excusing more and more blatant bigotry.

I recall reading an article many years ago by an African-American activist who had grown up in Louisiana in the 1950's.  He described how white politicians would show up to campaign in black neighborhoods and say quietly to community leaders, "Now, when I campaign in white neighborhoods, I'm going to use the n-word a lot, just to fit in and try to appeal to them.  But don't you worry, I won't really mean it."

The Democrats clearly have to avoid ending up at that ugly end of the spectrum, but they can and should avoid completely giving up on Trump voters.  For one thing, there were plenty of potential anti-Trump voters who did not bother to come out to vote in 2016.  Democrats' most obviously supportive groups, from liberal women to younger voters to Latinos, apparently could not be bothered to come out to vote in greater numbers than they had in 2008 and 2012.  African-American turnout was down.

Some people argue that this lack of enthusiasm was not the non-voters' fault, because Clinton was in various ways supposedly unappealing.  But compared to what?  If current non-voters are supposed to be the antidote to Trumpism, we have to ask why the prospect of Trump as bigot-in-chief was not enough to drawn them to the polls.

In other words, if voters who swung from Obama to Trump are to be thought irredeemable, we have to remember that the voters who did not bother to vote against Trump are hardly guiltless.

Moreover, this still leaves the Democrats facing the problem of local politics.  If they give up on the Obama-to-Trump voters in the swing states, Democrats have even less chance of replacing Republican governors and other federal and state officeholders with people who believe that climate change is real and that the answer to every problem is not tax cuts for the rich.  Republicans' voter suppression efforts will continue unabated.

All of which brings us back to the core question: Do Democrats have to ignore some voters' racism in order to win again?  Up to a point, yes.  There really are people who revealed themselves to be somewhere along the racism spectrum (most obviously, by voting for Trump or by not voting at all) but who are also potentially part of an electoral coalition that would bring Democrats back to power.

Although I would hope that it goes without saying, I will say emphatically that this does not mean that Democrats should justify or excuse the racism that allowed Trump to cobble together his non-majority victory.  They must never do so.

But if "ignoring" the racism that allowed those voters to participate in Trump's ascendance means trying to find the good that Joe Biden (and I) think is still residing in the hearts of many Americans, then Democrats should do exactly that.


David Ricardo said...

A couple of points

First of all racism is not static, it is dynamic. It is also beneath the surface of most potential racists, that is, it is not something they are thinking about and acting on daily. So one explanation of the shift in voters from 2012 to 2016 is that the Trump campaign brought out the racism inherent in many lower income, lower educated, less urban white Americans. In fact this was certainly one of the strategic goals of the Trump campaign (and yes Kellyanne, we’re talking about you and your campaign and your openly virulent racist appeals).

Second, going forward Democrats must win back the votes of some of these Americans. But they cannot do so by out-racisming the Republicans, they cannot do so by being more pro gun, by being more anti-immigrant, by being more callous and indifferent to those who are suffering and needing government help. They are going to have to market themselves, demonstrate to voters that their form of government which yes, does target the less fortunate who happen to be non-Caucasian will also help the Obama voter turned Trump voter.

Consider North Carolina, my state. Along the I 40 corridor from Raleigh to Asheville and the I 85 corridor from Durham to Charlotte the state is a vibrant, diverse, multi-cultured economic dynamo. These are the Democratic voters. Outside these areas are large groups of racist, bigoted voters full of hate and resentment. Many of them will always vote Republican no matter how much it is against their economic interests. But many of them can become Democratic voters if Democrats will show them how they can prosper under Democratic policies. We in North Carolina know what to do, we just need the will to do it as do other Democrats.

Shag from Brookline said...

The shift between 2008/2013 and 2016 might be explained by the failures of the Bush/Cheney Republican Administration's two-terms with two-wars, unaid for tax cuts primarily for the wealthy and ... [drum roll] .... its 2007-8 Great Recession. Obama's opponent in 2008, John McCain, had mostly been in lockstep with Bush/Cheney and his pick of Sarah Palin as VP did not exude confidence.. In 2012, the deep economic hole left by Bush/Cheney had been filled in and beyond by Obama by way of economic recovery. As for the shift in 2016, there were several reasons that included racism, spurred on by Trump AND most of the Republicans. Racism was subdued in 2008 because of the failures of the Bush/Cheney Administration and the Republican Party came up with week opposition of McCain/Palin. In 2016, Obama was not a candidate. Trump's campaign attracted those who needed to blame the "Other(s)" for their economic circumstances. There were several "Other(s)" to blame, including people of color. Racism can be dormant but Republicans continue with Nixon's Southern Strategy of his winning 1968 campaign. Trump has expressed admiration for Nixon recently. Subsequently reports appeared of H.R. Haldeman's notes late in the 1968 campaign he received instructions on steps to take to thwart LBJ's Vietnam peace efforts. This might be a comparison of Trump's bro-mance with Putin in his to Russia with love 2016 campaign.

Aside to David: Query: To what extent are the NCar pig farms located relative to the Triangle?

David Ricardo said...

North Carolina can be roughly divided into three distinct cultural and geographic regions. The western part is populated by highly independent descendents of Scotch Irish immigrants from the 18th and 19th centuries. The central portion is the Piedmont, which is the economic/educational engine of the state and contains the Triangle in its eastern section. The eastern part is the old tobacco and rural area with signficant poverty and a socio economic culture similar to the rural deep south. The hog area is this eastern region. It starts a few miles east of Raleigh. In fact, there is an imaginary line east of Raleigh, crossing it takes a person from San Fran/Seattle/Portland type communities to a central Alabama like society.

The important things though are BBQ and basketball. It is becoming increasingly ok to order hush puppies slaw and vegan Brunswick stew in the urban areas, which I do more and more. If you do go for Q, don't mention beef and be very careful in expressing a preference for eastern vs Lexington. Order what's on the menu and say no more and under no circumstances even mention South Carolina Q which is mustard based as violence may ensue. The same can be said for expressing approval of Bball that is played in Cameron Indoor Stadium.

Shag from Brookline said...

David suggests that when in the eastern section for Q, play by the Seinfeld "Soup Nazi" rules.

I do appreciate David's geo/political tour of NCar. Thanks. But I can't get out of my mind the eco concerns with the pig farms as it clashes with refrains from "Nothing Could Be Finer .... : that I still carry in my head from my youth.

MG said...

What I object to and think is highly unproductive is the blanket use of the word "racist" to encompass the entire range of negative race based behavior and attitudes, both conscious and unconscious. Given our history since the civil rights movement, being called a racist in the minds of everyone except academics carries the same moral opprobrium that being called a Nazi does. In the minds of most people a racist is someone who is a member of the KKK, or who uses the N word without shame.

What has happened is the academic community has -- unilaterally -- arrogated to itself the authority to redefine the word to include not only overt forms of racism that we all know and hate, but unconscious forms as well. But at the same time they haven't updated the sanction, opprobrium, stigma -- and reputational harm -- that the word carries. All racists are deplorables, full stop.

I for example don't consider myself a racist and if you call me one get ready for an extreme response. It will probably involve a middle finger and a declaration that we are never speaking again.

On the other hand, if you suggest to me that I harbor racial biases that I may be unaware of, I'm all ears. If I'm doing that I absolutely want to know about it so I can remedy it.

The problem again is the intellectual class's presumption that it is the final judge of what words mean, without the approval or input of the people they apply the words to. When the academy identifies anyone as a racist who does not meet its privileged standard of moral racial uprightness, the reaction of most is to feel unfairly labeled, stigmatized, and misunderstood. You have no hope of having any meaningful dialogue with them . . . and their reaction is to vote for people like Trump who is indeed giving the academy the middle finger.

Shag from Brookline said...

CA Bill seems to look at racism as a class issue, between academics, the academic community and the intellectuals on the one hand and on the other hand his "the reaction of most is to feel unfairly labeled, stigmatized, and misunderstood" who require meaningful dialogue or they will react by voting for someone like Trump. But there are groups between these who just might understand rasicm on their own. Early in his comment, CA Bill says: "Given our history since the civil rights movement, ..." which ignores a lot of history of racism prior thereto. Perhaps CA Bill was not around in those days, but there has been a continuity on racism that goes back to slavery, through Jim Crow, through the civil rights movement, including to the present. Since the civil rights movement there has been more open discussion of race issues. So I can understand the sensitivities of CA Bill and those who might have reacted as CA Bill suggests. America has yet to have a viable reconciliation on race. Prior to the civil rights movement, racism was acceptable to many in American society at least unconsciously. The civil rights movement that began with Brown v. Bd. of Educ. (1954) was long overdue. Perhaps the complaint of CA Bill and some Trump-voting reactors is that the civil rights movement came along to upset the then status quo, perhaps when America was Great?

MG said...

Shag, what I am trying to point out is that the academic community's use of the word "racist" is counterproductive. By using such a powerful word that most people associate with an extreme and odious worldview and behavior, and applying it to behavior that Buchanan admits is often unconscious can't have any hope for success. So much so that I wonder if his and other academic's motivations are driven more by a gratuitous desire to marginalize and punish. I don't accept such a broad definition of the word and I don't think anyone should.

A similar example goes for people who have reservations about gay marriage, etc. being described as "hateful." That is an accurate description of the Westboro Baptist lunatics, they are truly hateful people. But it's absurd when applied to the vast majority of people whose difficulties with the issue derive from sincerely held religious beliefs (most of whom come from the three Abrahamic traditions represented by billions). Most of these people don't hate anyone, at least as any ordinary person (and the dictionary) defines the word. It is unfair, inaccurate, and -- let's be honest -- often motivated by hate on the left which has more examples of overt expressions of hate than the right certainly does.

When people are unfairly and gratuitously mischaracterized they get mad. If anyone should understand that dynamic it would be racial minorities and LGBTQ people. Eventually they push back in the form of voting for someone like Donald Trump, which makes the academy complicit in the outcome.

Shag from Brookline said...

CA Bill, you obviously have a "hard-on" 9i.e., a thing) for the academic community, which is perhaps your "Other" in life. But the academic community, of which I am not a member, is an easy target. The term racist has been around a long time in American society but before the civil rights movement its use was limited, perhaps considered "politically incorrect" by many whites who obviously had no responsibility personally for either slavery or Jim Crow laws. I note that some Trump supporters, perhaps many, bought into Trump for saying things considered "politically incorrect." The fight to get on an equal playing field upset the status quo of the pre-civil rights movement. Just consider the impact on sports.

Regarding the academic community, in recent years the use of the word "rape" has seemed to have dropped for claims of what is now referred to as "nonconsensual sex" in investigations by colleges and universities related to their campuses. This doesn't soften the violence to the victim Perhaps CA Bill shares this approach of the academic community.

But CA Bill shows his true colors with this:

"If anyone should understand that dynamic it would be racial minorities and LGBTQ people. Eventually they push back in the form of voting for someone like Donald Trump, which makes the academy complicit in the outcome."

Perhaps CA Bill could identify such a someone like Donald Trump that the designated "Others" might have voted for. Was the academic community responsible for Nixon's 1968 campaign's Southern Strategy that has continued as a weapon in the quivers of the Republican Party no longer the party of Lincoln?

I assume in a response CA Bill will introduce "Others" beyond the LGBT community in the Trump-voter repertoire.

Shag from Brookline said...

Both during the presidential campaigns and post-Nov. 8th, a significant group of Trump supporters was identified as older, undereducated white males. Was their support revenge against the academic community or did they have some special wisdom that caused them to support Trump? Was such wisdom anti-education? Education has been the means whereby Americans over the years have worked so that their children would have better lives than they did. There is a serious opiod/suicide problem affecting older, undereducated white males. Are the "Others" the cause of this problem? Will Trump solve this problem? How? Educated and undereducated guesses would be welcome.