by Will Beaman
Since Donald Trump surprised the world by beating Hillary Clinton, the tired debate among liberals pundits about whether his supporters are motivated by economic circumstances or racial animus has received new energy to continue going in circles. This is in part because of its strategic implications for the Democratic Party going forward: does the party ease up on political correctness or does it refuse to change its course at all just because of some racist "whitewash"? This discussion goes in circles because it is a false dilemma, designed to keep substantive policy items off the table in favor of a noncommittal debate about cultural pathologies and messaging. We are left with two opposing sides that nevertheless agree that the party platform is not the issue.
The "whitelash" side of this argument usually draws from statistics showing that Trump's base is relatively affluent, so economic distress and anxiety cannot explain his appeal. According to this argument, even calling attention to the plight of working class whites that the Democratic Party left behind is tantamount to making excuses for racism. But while racism is undeniably central to Trump's appeal, the relative affluence of his supporters does not "debunk" the idea that political economy and class politics should also contextualize Trump's victory and the Democrats' electoral failure at all levels of government.
According to the statistics in question, Trump's base is predominantly middle-income and higher-income voters without college degrees. For liberals lacking a sophisticated class analysis, the lack of higher education among Trump supporters is just a possible explanation for their racist pathologies and ignorance. If only they shared the cosmopolitan experience and open-mindedness of our liberal commentators.
But these statistics indicate more than cultural deficiencies. They indicate a "petite bourgeois" base: small business owners, franchisees, landlords, mid-level corporate employees, real estate agents, propertied farmers, and the like. Unlike credentialed professionals practicing law and medicine or corporate executives and financial elites, the petite bourgeoisie's class position is vulnerable to fluctuations in the business cycle associated with economic downturns. It also places them in an oppositional class relationship with their lower-income employees and neighbors, who are disproportionately Black and brown due to institutional racism. This is the context in which appeals to racism are made, whether it's racist conspiracies of Black workers and immigrants taking advantage of welfare programs financed by the earning of white small businesses, or bankers conspiring with foreign "globalists" to leach off of the productive activity of those same small white businesses. To argue about whether Trump's appeal is based on "race" versus "the economy" is to miss entirely how class conflict is experienced through white supremacy and other oppressive social forms.
While the left wing of the centrist media implores us not to fall for explanations of the election that mention economic justice, the right wing of the centrist media thinks that even this superficial condemnation of racist attitudes goes too far. According to them, calling out the racism in Trump's campaign has been driving away his supporters instead of uniting them around some kind of "post-identity" politics. But when 50% of the eligible population did not even turn out to vote, it's not clear why marginalized people need to be thrown under the bus to win some of Trump's supporters.
The obvious solution, an anti-racist social democratic platform, eludes both sides of this manufactured debate, and for good reason. They don't want social democracy. At a time when most working people aren't voting, we are presented with a choice between a ruling class that is superficially anti-racist and a ruling class that thinks political correctness has gone too far. It's not even clear what specific policies hang in the balance because as usual, policy discussions are the domain of technocrats who exist above the fray. To overcome this kind of contentless debate, we should look to the formation of civil society around real political objectives. The Black Lives Matter movement, which gave rise to the most sophisticated policy discussion led by regular people in decades, began with a careful interrogation of real police violence and its underlying causes. Over time, it led to the Movement for Black Lives policy platform, which calls for ending the criminalization of Black and poor people and economic justice in concrete ways. And unsurprisingly, the Movement for Black Lives Platform has barely been covered by the same media outlets that were previously using Black Lives Matter to advance their own political narratives. It's the most difficult road, but this is the only kind of politics that can win.