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Friday, November 25, 2016


The comments on this blog have become personal, and I blame myself for that, so I am going to stop.  Instead, let me step back and try to achieve some perspective on the recent election.  [Readers of my Autobiography may recall that my deeply personal engagement in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, in the early 60’s, eventually led to such psychological stress that I retreated into theory, the first product of which was In Defense of Anarchism.]

Clinton lost the Electoral College.  On the other hand, she won two million more votes than Trump.  It seems obvious that had she done something differently – or indeed any one of a dozen things differently -- she would probably have won.  After all, as it is, she would have been the winner in any other democratic election in the world.

But having lost, Clinton is no longer a factor in American politics, nor is her husband.  So let us put the Clintons to one side.  I for one will not be entirely sad to see them go.

It is being widely argued that the Democratic Party must move past what is called “identity politics” and instead embrace the interests and needs of “the Working Class.”  I have written a good deal on this blog about the complex of issues raised by such claims, most recently just twelve days ago, and I am not going to repeat here the reasons why I think that so-called Liberation movements have sought the perfection, not the overthrow, of capitalism.  But it is useful, I think, to remind ourselves of some well-known facts about the American economy and society, in the light of which we ought perhaps to adopt a more nuanced view of the appropriate stance for a truly progressive political movement.

The median income of all U. S. households is currently about $55,000 -56,000.  Exit polling during the Republican primaries identified median income of Trump supporters as roughly $72,000, which would place the “typical” Trump supporter’s household in the top 40% of American households.  The median household income of Democratic Primary supporters of Clinton and Sanders was pretty much the same, roughly $61,000, very close to the national median for all households. 

In America, the median household income for White households is somewhat more than $71,000, for both Black and Hispanic households, somewhat more than $43,000.  Thus if we use the phrase “working class American” to refer only to non-college educated Whites, we are in effect saying that Black and Hispanic families don’t “count” as part of the Working Class, which is a point of view with a long tradition in America and also is simply nonsense.

As is very well known, Blacks and Hispanics at every level of educational credentials earn less than Whites with comparable credentials.  What is more, women of any race or ethnicity earn less, for a given level of educational credentials, than men of the same race or ethnicity with the same credentials.

It is also well known and has been widely commented upon that Trump did much better than Clinton with non-college educated White voters.  Roughly 36% of all Americans 25 and older have a four year college degree, up from about 5% when I went to college in 1950.  41% of Whites have a college degree, 21% of Blacks, and 16% of Hispanics.  Thus, the concentration on non-college educated whites in discussions of the election once again has tended to carry with it the unstated assumption that Blacks and Hispanics don’t count as anything but Black and Hispanic. 

Now think for a moment about all of these figures.  Clearly, Clinton was successful in drawing the votes of the working class, if you count as working class those Blacks and Hispanics who make less than the median household income and do not have college degrees.  And any progressive movement going forward must concentrate on all of those who fit the description of “non-college educated working class.”  But it must also focus, both as a matter of ideology and as a matter of practical politics, on all the ways in which American society imposes extra burdens on women and the non-white, over and above the burdens it imposes on all those, White and non-White, male and female, who are suffering because of the grotesque income inequality and even more grotesque wealth inequality in the American economy.

Foreswearing “identity politics” is a loser, if it means not talking about those extra burdens.  And talking only about the extra burdens is a loser, if it ignores the ways in which non-College educated Whites have been losing out to college educated Whites in the last thirty years.

The big questions are these:  Can attention to the legitimate economic complaints of non-college educated Whites be separated successfully from a pandering to the illegitimate and indefensible longing for White privilege that forms an undeniable element in Trump’s appeal?  And, Can a successful coalition be formed of college educated and non-college educated men and women of all races and ethnicities?  If the answer to both questions is yes, then we have a winning coalition that can make real progressive change.  If the answer is no, then I, for one, am not willing to compromise with, turn a blind eye to, pander to, or pretend not to notice racist, sexist, and homophobic passions for the sake of electoral success.


s. wallerstein said...

Your post above is one of the clearest statements about the dilemmas of left politics in the U.S. that I've read since the election. Thanks.

Chris said...

Not quite sure why I'm in the title? I happen to agree entirely with everything in this post, and have for some time (for a over a decade maybe). My criticism of identity politics is perfectly in line with yours professor. We are on the same page.

I think Bernie is getting too much flack for his comment which is widely misunderstood, per usual, by those in the establishment who seek to minimize and mitigate his role in society.

David Auerbach said...

Just want to register agreement with Chris' second paragraph. There's been an enormous amount of Bernie-blame (much of it incoherent and arising, it would it seem, out of need to continue to tout Clinton as the perfect candidate). As if Clinton were the maven of intersectionality and Sanders a clueless economic deterministic. Step 1 in practical politics is to correctly identify the enemy...

Guy Tennenbaum said...

"Thus, the concentration on non-college educated whites in discussions of the election once again has tended to carry with it the unstated assumption that Blacks and Hispanics don’t count as anything but Black and Hispanic."

Thank you! This point can't be stated enough. The more I mull it over, the more it's clear to me that this election was simply a racist backlash. Given the history of this country, this is the simplest explanation for what we've seen. And on an individual level, If you heard the racist things Trump said and did and still voted for him, then you are a racist, or else you are complicit in open racism (so a racist of a different order, in my book).

People who want to claim otherwise are making a great to-do over the fact that some who voted for Obama switched to T***p. But this makes no sense. First, it ignores the fact that A LOT of people voted for McCain and Romney. Second, being racist and voting for Obama are not mutually exclusive. As Jamelle Bouie pointed out in Slate, the sociological history of the antebellum South is proof that hatred for blacks as a people isn't incompatible with "love" for individual blacks. (Bouie relates an anecdote of a white couple saying they planned on voting for "the n****r" -- and I personally have heard things to that effect.) Also, it's been argued that the reason McCain and Romney fared poorly among a certain segment of the "working class" is precisely that they *didn't* run campaigns of open White nationalism.

I'm sorry if this isn't very constructive. (Thanksgiving conversations were not always pleasant). If there's any comfort to be had, perhaps it's in the fact that many of the voters who delivered T***p his narrow victory will surely be dead by 2020.

Chris said...

Telling all those Trump voters "you're racist, and that's why you voted for Trump", is a recipe for a guaranteed disaster and total alienation from any future coalition. Even if they ARE racists (and they of course aren't all!) it's not as if a sudden epiphany will hit them and they'll say "you're right, I am racists, I never thought about that, next time I'll vote Democrat!"

Guy Tennenbaum said...


Perhaps you are right. But in my opinion, willingness to cast a vote for T***p, overlooking the racial animus he has stoked, is a serious moral failing. Never mind being taken in by all the other bullshit he spouted that doesn't directly bear on race. (Although, what populism he espoused seems to be of a piece with his white nationalism.) And yes, people generally do react badly to having their moral failings pointed out to them. But must people always be coddled? especially in a culture that loves nothing more than to lovingly obsess over the supposedly myriad moral deficiencies of minority communities?

And I never said that people can be persuaded to vote Democratic by having their racism (or implicit racism, or complicity with racism) pointed out to them. I said that many people just won't be around to vote at all. I have in mind here something like what Niels Bohr said about paradigm shifts: that they must await a few funerals. I only hope I'm not being overly optimistic about the intelligence and integrity of the younger generation (although based on public surveys, I don't think I am being.)

Unknown said...

"Thus, the concentration on non-college educated whites in discussions of the election once again has tended to carry with it the unstated assumption that Blacks and Hispanics don’t count as anything but Black and Hispanic."

I don't think that this assumption necessarily follows. White, non-college educated voters are a sizable group that previously strongly voted Democrat, have been doing so less in recent years, and this year were lost to the Democrats. The reasons for the loss of this group seems to me to be a legitimate subject of inquiry.

Race may well be part of it, but it can't be all of it or even a major part of it--this is a group, after all, that voted more for Obama than it did for Clinton.
Something else is at work.

A search for the reasons for their defection doesn't mean that Black and Hispanic voters don't count as anything except as Black or Hispanic. If white working class and either Black or Hispanic working class voters had been carried by the Democrats, but not both, a search for the reasons for losing either Black or Hispanic working class votes certainly would have been legitimate and would not imply that whites counted only as whites.

Guy Tennenbaum said...

David Palmeter,

You say that something else is at work, but what could it be? Black and Hispanic working-class voters have suffered the same misfortunes as their white counterparts, yet as a group they seem to have no trouble voting their economic interests. Whatever message the Democrats are sending, it is being heard loud and clear by those minority groups. But when it comes to the white working class, we're all supposed to fall to our knees and rend our garments lamenting our failure to "empathize" with their plight. I find this disturbing.

I don't doubt that the white working class has at last begun to realize that the system is, as Bernie constantly emphasized, rigged against them. But instead of voting for the party that has offered -- and, thanks to a resurgent leftism, has begun to offer more and more -- constructive solutions, they fall the for the appeals of a demagogic huckster who promises to bring "their" country back. It seems naive to deny the racial appeal of this message.

s. wallerstein said...

Ed Barreras,

I think that the point is that just as we should woo and welcome aboard anti-Trump centrists like Blow and Krugman without guilt-tripping them for their past sins of elitism, so too we should welcome aboard those members of the white working class who have been explicitly or implicitly racist. The goal is to build the anti-Trump and anti-trumpism coalition, not to dig into the past sins of possible coalition members.

Chris said...

Ed, there doesn't have to be a uni-causal mechanism at work. Why can't the 'cause' be a combination of anti-establishment resentment, lost jobs overseas, Trump's charisma and his ability to speak to them as human beings not worthy of being overlooked, and maybe some racism? Instead of just saying it's racism and denying the counter evidence.

Chris said...

Forgot to tack on Clinton's total unrelatability, lack of authenticity, perceived level of corruption, and overall flaws as a candidate. Splice ALL those together as a 'cause'?

James Q said...

As someone who works with data, you need to be careful about using the median and not looking at the whole distribution? We all know that the upper-middle / lower-upper class whites will always vote republican, and those votes can be skewing the median upwards. What's the standard deviation?

My take is that republicans have a few maybe-not-so-distinct set of voters (evangelicals, the supposedly new 'alt-right', lower-class whites, upper-class whites) and because of that, maybe we should look at the exit polls a little more closely than a single median

Guy Tennenbaum said...

1) S. Wallerstein, I'm sure you are right. I just doubt that many T***p supporters are lurking here, so coalition building isn't a priority so much as honesty is.

2) Chris, what I would question is your positing "maybe some racism" as one cause, last on the list, as if it were a sort of afterthought. In fact, T***p's campaign exhibited a particularly virulent form of racism, from his conspiracy theories about Obama to his disseminating false statistics about black crime (and we all know "black crime" had its own tag on Steve Bannon's Breitbart News). Some were able to dismiss this as a misdemeanor; others thought it was closer to a capital offense. I guess we all have to decide for ourselves. But what I find interesting is that when it's pointed out that Hispanics and (especially) blacks support Democrats in overwhelming numbers, the paternalistic assumption is that this must be due mostly to identity politics -- as if blacks cared only about the Civil Rights Movement two generations ago, and not at all about economic policies in the present. And yet when it's pointed out that maybe white people are subject to identity politics coming from the other end, everyone balks and starts hurling accusations of liberals being overly obsessed with race. (Not that I'm pointing the finger at anyone here; just a general observation.)

Guy Tennenbaum said...

In case anyone is still following this thread, this column by the dreaded Paul Krugman is well worth a read, and germane to the discussion.

Unknown said...

Ed Bareras,

Krugman has hit on the problem. Now for the solution. I'm encouraged by the fact hat he's puzzled by the problem the white working class poses for the Democrats, because I certainly am.

I know Krugman is not loved on this blog, but I don't feel that way myself. This would be a happier country than it is if Krugman were to have his way.

The Artful Dodger said...

I literally stumbled across your blog and have little to add that is hopeful. My political Science professor suggested I read Morris Berman's blog a few years ago but I was more optimistic back then and I found his vision rather dark at the time. He is an ex-pat academic living in Mexico now. His books can be found on Amazon. Why America Failed is one in a trilogy. One of my favorite teachers in grade school used to pepper his lectures with humorous phrases like, "Wake up and die right!" His peripheral vision was remarkable, eyes in the back of his head, and without needing to turn from the chalk board, could toss an eraser right at the head of any student foolish enough to horse around behind his back.

That is essentially Berman's view. America is already a rotting corpse and will need to be reborn, if that is even possible. Not in the sense of Roger Griffin's palingenetic ultranationalism as a key element of fascism, but in Berman's view, America was destined to fail from the beginning. I find that Berman is making sense to me now. I do not think the next four years will pass without serious irreperable damage to many of our most necessary social safety nets and institutions.

I became interested in political economy when I learned of Henry George, started to read Adam Smith and Ricardo, J.S. Mill. I stumbled across Dr. Michael Hudson, I stumble often, and his work has really resonated with me. I would be curious to know if you are familiar with his work? He has books on Amazon as well, and a website.