A common criticism from the left is that President Obama speaks only the language of universalism – the framing of social problems and articulation of political solutions that apply across the population to the neglect of a targeted focus on specific forms of injustice and discrimination that are embedded in the daily experience of particular peoples and communities.
But in thinking about the outcome of this election, it seems clear – to me anyway – that many white voters processed the words, actions, and images of the Obama presidency very differently than many on the left did. What jumped out at them wasn’t the language and practice of universalism. It was something very different. In their reading, they believed the country, with the president as maestro-in-chief, was squarely on a forced march to a multi-racial, multi-cultural, politically correct, egalitarian society. And for them, this was anathema – a direct challenge to “America,” as they knew it and their place in it.
When the president spoke – and he did on many occasions, the last time at the Democratic Party convention – of an “America” that is inclusive and generous of spirit, rights past and present wrongs, guarantees everyone an equal place at the table, acknowledges shameful episodes in our past, and celebrates a mosaic of people and cultures, it rattled the heads and hearts of many white people. Or when images of multi-racial and multi-cultural events at the White House filled their televisions screens, these same people flinched. Or, when President Obama challenged policing practices that wantonly stole away the lives of African Americans, or berated the National Rifle Association for its resistance to the most modest gun control measures, or defended Planned Parenthood in the face of scurrilous, right wing attacks, or lent support to marriage equality, fury at the president grew.
If he spoke – and he did often – of universalism and universal solutions to society wide problems, such as jobs, wages and income inequality, economic stagnation, and health care, either their ears didn’t hear his message. Or, worse still, they considered it a sleight of hand to conceal his main agenda.
Latecomers to this motley crew were a significant number of white workers across the Midwest who once supported and voted for the president, but sometime in the past four years they decided to hitch themselves to this nasty opposition. And though there was nothing they could do about their earlier votes, they were not without means to make up for their “screw up.” With a presidential election around the corner, they vowed not to vote for that “crook,” that “liar,” that “criminal, and “that nasty woman” who, if given the chance, would continue the transformation of the country that the president set into motion.
On election day they carried out their vow, enough so at the margins that Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin swung the election Trump’s way, albeit with the help of the archaic and anti-democratic Electoral College.
What made this switch easy, writes Slate political writer Jamelle Bouie, is that their vote for Obama [in 2008 and 2012] “didn’t signify a change of heart. At most, he wasn’t George W. Bush. At best, he was “one of the good ones,” someone they could respect, even if they viewed his group with fear and suspicion. And four years later, he wasn’t Mitt Romney, a man who embodied plutocracy in approach, affect, and attitude. These Americans voted for Obama and kept the white racial frame that shaped their understanding of their place in this country.”
But in this election the choice was different. In Trump, they found a candidate who took delight in his political incorrectness and crude anti-democratic sensibilities, who activated their “white racial frame.” When he spoke of “Making American Great Again,” what these and other Trump voters heard wasn’t simply a commitment to fix unfair trade agreements or rebuild crumbling infrastructure. To believe so is naive to say the least.
What also registered was a commitment to put the brakes on any further movement toward a robust, multi-racial, multi-cultural, and egalitarian society as well as an equal determination to restore “America” to its glorious past – a past in which everyone had a place in a society deeply riven by vast inequalities, unrelieved exploitation, and violence.
What they didn’t see in Trump is that his first loyalty isn’t to them, but to the moneybags on Wall Street and Main Street as well as a nasty collection of authoritarian ideologues in his circle and himself.
Is it there any mystery really why a section of white workers voted for Trump? Or why he overperformed in small towns and rural communities?
This isn’t to say that all white people in general or all white workers in particular shared this point of view; they didn’t. A substantial minority were of a different mind and cast their votes for Hillary, which when added to other votes gave Hillary a two and a half million advantage over Trump.
Nor is it an argument that economic discontent didn’t figure into their thinking; it obviously did for many. But even here, it seems fair to say that these discontents, real as they are, were cognitively and emotively filtered through and modified by the lens of whiteness, maleness and masculinity, nativism, an idealized past, and cultural resentments generally.
Finally, major sections of the working class – a fact that is either ignored or goes unanalyzed by most left populists – despised Trump and everything he stood for.
All of which leads me to these conclusions:
First, this election in the minds of tens of millions was a contest of competing visions of our country.
Second, the two candidates embodied in imperfect ways these competing visions as well as the larger political clash between contending and powerful class and social forces and coalitions. But one would never know this from the near singular focus of too many progressive and left people on the “flaws” of Hillary that left them sitting on their hands this fall and holding their nose when they voted for her.
Third, the broad democratic movement is on the defensive, up against what looks like an authoritarian and reckless President and a right wing dominated Congress, for the foreseeable future. In these circumstances, only the elaboration of a strategy that soberly assesses the current alignment of class and political forces, systematically enhances the organizational wherewithal, political capacity and geographical reach of the Democratic Party, labor movement, and other major social organizations, accents unity and mutuality in its mulitiple forms, lifts up the importance of Congress and the 2018 elections as critical sites of struggle, extends solidarity to the new social movements, attends to the struggle for peace and against militarist aggression and, defends every inch of democratic space will begin to move us to a new political landscape.
Fourth, an overarching task is join the defense of peoples who have been and remain the target of the of the aggressive words and actions of Trump, the alt-right, and the mini-Trumps that pox too many communities.
Finally, it is hard to overstate the imperative of complicating the notions of class and class struggle. What the new economic populists haven’t absorbed is that – call it what you want – other forms of oppression or issues of identity or democratic rights broadly understood are organic to class formation, consciousness, and unity, not to mention broad democratic and popular alliances and coalitions. These categories of analysis and struggle are interactive and interconnected. Giving primacy to class and turning everything else into secondary, lower order phenomena is a recipe for defeat. It will never withstand the Trump offensive. We can and must do better.