The Racism Question in U.S. Politics

by Neil H. Buchanan

As we face the new year and the realities of politics in a post-Obama world, the Democrats understandably feel the need to act as if some things are still normal.  That is, even if they suspect that Donald Trump and the Republicans will soon turn the U.S. into a one-party state in all but name, the Democrats need to avoid admitting as much -- to themselves or anyone else -- to prevent their fears from become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

This means that, in the hope of being able to win elections in the future, Democrats are trying to think through the various reasons that the recent elections did not go their way.  True, their party did pick up two seats in the Senate and several House seats, and the presidential election was lost only because of Trump's bizarre and extraordinarily narrow path to victory in the electoral college.  Even so, there were times during the campaign when there was good reason to believe that Hillary Clinton would win in a landslide and that both houses would flip to the Democrats.

So even though it is classic defeatism that has some people on the left calling the 2016 election a "rout," there is certainly plenty of reason for Democrats to try to figure out how such a promising election ended with so many disappointments.  Much of that discussion involves trying to decide whether they have permanently lost the voters who gave Trump his tiny margins of victory in what were once reliably Democratic states, especially Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin.

One obviously wrong argument that emerged soon after the election was that the Democrats became too invested in so-called identity politics.  Jennifer Finney Boylan's powerful response to that load of nonsense, "Really, You're Blaming Transgender People for Trump?" called out the absurdity of describing protections against discrimination and violence as "boutique issues."

But the big issue, the issue that stops conversations cold, is still the question of race in America.  When Vice President Biden said in December that the people in his original home state of Pennsylvania who voted for Trump were not racists or sexists, he was simply but powerfully trying to say that there was no reason to demote non-economic identity issues in favor of pocketbook issues:
"There's a sense in some of our party that, wait a minute, we either have to tone down our progressive point of view and ramp up what we're going to do for working folks or somehow talk less about working folks and ramp. ... There is no conflict in the neighborhoods I come from. None. None at all."
Interestingly, however, the people who have been most excited about Biden's defense of the white voters who moved over to the Republican side in 2016 are right-wing ideologues.  When I Googled "Biden these people are not racists" this morning, the first five hits were from hyper-conservative websites that had seized upon the idea that their readers were not bigots.  The Democrats' favorite regular Joe had said so!  Even those who foment bigotry understand that, for now at least, it is politically useful to be able to say that your supporters are not bigots.

It is understandable that Biden would say what he said.  He sees that Democrats are not going to do themselves any favors by alienating potential future voters.  Although Trump voters are likely to deny having been wrong, even when the nasty results of Trump's presidency become painfully real, some might be persuadable in future elections if they are not pushed further away by Democrats.

More importantly, Biden seems to sincerely believe that the people in his working-class neighborhoods are not motivated by bigotry.  I want to believe it, too, as I have noted several times during and after the campaign.  In a column last month, for example, I wrote that "intent matters" when it comes to placing the label of bigotry on people.  Like Biden, I grew up with (and am related to) people who ended up voting for Trump and the Republicans, and I would find it painful to say that they are all racists and sexists.

The reason that this is difficult, however, might be because we want to believe the best in people, even if it might not be justified.  Having seen the sweet side of an aunt or a brother-in-law, and then finding them standing with Trump, the temptation is to say that they made their political decision in spite of his blatantly white supremacist campaign, not because of it.  That might be true, but it might also be wishful thinking.

In any case, Democrats would not want to call all Trump voters bigots both for strategic reasons and because it might simply not be accurate to level that accusation.  On the other hand, it is not helpful to be in denial, and there has also been some rather sloppy reasoning on offer to support the claim that Trump's voters are not racists.

The most seductive argument is that because some of those voters had also voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012, they could not possibly be racists.  Many politicians and pundits have offered variations on this argument, with one letter to the editor of The New York Times capturing the idea succinctly: "Unless those voters never noticed that Mr. Obama is black, they based their decisions on something other than race."

The problem with that defense is that it defines racism in a conveniently narrow fashion.  If a racist is someone who would never, ever consider voting for a nonwhite candidate, one who walks into the voting booth muttering racist slurs while caressing a dogeared copy of Mein Kampf, then obviously the vast majority of Trump's voters are not racist.  (Some apparently would qualify even under that narrow definition, however.)  But that is not a meaningful way to define racism.

To offer a mundane comparison, I care deeply about infrastructure spending, and I think that our failure to undertake these investments in our economy is a consistent failure of our political system.  During the 2016 campaign, Trump proposed to spend twice as much as Clinton proposed to spend on this essential goal.  Yet my vote for Clinton does not mean that I do not care about infrastructure spending.  It only means that other things mattered more.

Why should our standard of what constitutes racism be limited to single-issue voters?  People are complicated, and racists can be complicated, too.  We often observe how even many obviously bigoted people can be quite welcoming when they need to deal with a member of a minority group that they otherwise revile.  "He's one of the good ones," or "Some of my best friends are minorities," are textbook examples of things that bigots can say -- and mean -- without changing the fact that they have racist attitudes.

Similarly, if enough other factors line up correctly, even a distinctly racist person could conceivably decide to vote for an African-American.  Barack Obama assiduously created a persona that was the opposite of the stereotypical "angry black man," which had the effect of making him seem relatively nonthreatening to many white voters.
In the 2008 election, Obama received a great deal of favorable press as a fresh personality who offered a post-partisan ray of hope.  Meanwhile, the retiring Republican president was historically unpopular, and the economy was in a tailspin.  And who knows how racism and sexism interacted with a black candidate on one party's ticket and a woman on the other's?

In 2012, Obama and Biden could run as the saviors of the auto industry, to say nothing of the fact that the economy was (slowly but surely) improving on their watch.  Does that mean that none of the people who voted for them were racists?  No, it only means is that they were not racist enough to ignore other good reasons to vote for the Democrats.

People who voted for Obama and Trump, therefore, can have multiple priorities that motivate their votes but still be racists.  Saying that Trump's margin of victory in the key swing states was not driven by racism, because some of those voters had once concluded that they could vote for Obama, might let some people off the hook too easily.

Late last summer, in a column in which I wrestled with the question of whether Trump's voters were inherently racist, I concluded that perhaps we ultimately did not need to answer that question.  Trump was running a campaign based on bigotry and misogyny, and that was what mattered.  A Trump victory would be the triumph of hatred, no matter the motivations of his voters.

But we do need to emphasize just how much a voter had to compartmentalize in order to vote for Trump.  Faced with his vilification of immigrants, his sexist and degrading attitudes (and actions) toward women, his "birther" insanity, and so much more, Trump's voters said that there was something else that was more important to them.
What makes that balancing act for Trump's voters so troubling is that the "something else" -- the non-racist explanation for voting for a bigoted candidate -- is supposedly the economic woes of white voters in the swing states.

We know, however, that many people who have legitimate economic insecurities did not yield to their worst impulses by voting for a man who ran on a campaign of hatred and scapegoating of racial and religious minorities and foreigners.  They concluded that Trump's intolerance was too scary and too un-American, and they voted for Clinton.

A further problem, however, is that Trump's supposed path to prosperity for those voters was to embrace tax cuts for the rich and to start trade wars.

The latter strategy purportedly appealed to voters who have seen their jobs sent overseas and their neighborhoods subsequently devastated by hopelessness.  Somehow it did not matter that Clinton promised to raise the minimum wage, strengthen unions, and help people and their children get the educations they need as the economy continues to evolve.

In the end, then, the story about non-deplorable Trump voters goes like this: They are not bigots, but they voted based on economic fears for a person who offered them no realistic answer to those fears.  But this is supposedly understandable, because Trump talked about trade issues in ways that played to their anger and alienation, so they rejected the candidate who offered realistic solutions.

Like Vice President Biden, I continue to want to believe that the number of Trump voters who are beyond reach is quite small.  We want to reach them in the future, and we do not want to lump the good people in with the bad.  But it is important to remember just how extreme this situation is.

Trump voters had to ignore truckloads of evidence of Trump's bigotry.  That they once voted for Obama is interesting, but it hardly proves that racism was not the decisive factor in the swing states in 2016.  Even if it was, however, Democrats are wise to try to find the people who can still be tipped away from tolerating and enabling hatred.