“Democrats Try Wooing Ones Who Got Away: White Men“, a front page story datelined Royal Oak, Michigan, in the New York Times, March 3, 2014.
I grew up in an early Detroit suburb, Royal Oak, and lived there for seventeen years, a model son of the white lower middle class. I attended an extremely conservative Catholic church dominated by Fr. Charles Coughlin. The postwar economic boom seemed in those days to make progress for all a real likelihood. All seemed well in an economy which was supposed to “lift all boats.” After high school I entered the University of Michigan at one hundred dollars tuition per semester. The autoworkers’ union, which had led militant factory occupations ten years earlier, was winning more than twenty dollars an hour for assembly line workers. One-third of America’s corporate sector workforce was unionized for bargaining power. The everyday evidence of upward mobility suggested that black people would follow to the Promised Land, sooner rather than later.
There was a racial divide, of course, one only dimly visible to me. When I was four years old, Detroit’s black rebellion exposed the deep rage at northern-style segregation. Fearing the violence, my family migrated to one of the first suburbs, Royal Oak. It was the beginning a white flight that would last for 60 years, turning Detroit into an economic carcass and cutting its population by half. The real story was kept from my friends, and myself, and finally exposed thoroughly in the 2007 book Colored Property, by David Freund (University of Chicago Press). Unknown to me were homeowner covenants limited to “white persons of the Caucasian race” except for their black domestic servants.
But when I went to the University of Michigan, and soon after joined the student movement, it seemed certain that segregation, after a final showdown, was doomed to become a relic of the modern middle class’ forward movement.
Now the New York Times is wondering whatever happened to Democratic strongholds like Royal Oak and Detroit. Southeastern Michigan became the birthplace of the so-called Reagan Democrats. White flight has withered Detroit. Auto plants relocated to the South or South America. Unions now represent only seven percent of the private sector workforce. The battered old Confederacy has survived the civil rights movement. The rise of White Power is the result.
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We who were raised on the myths of pluralism and melting pots often have a hard time grasping the persistent growth of a Tea Party that still spouts the very doctrines which we believed were obsolete 50 years ago.
In 1962, we who created the Students for a Democratic Society were convinced that the John Birch Society was a pack of raving crackpots ready for the dustbin. But its durability is shown in the simple fact that one of its founders was the father of the Koch Brothers, Inc. The Klan was ready for the museum too, yet it keeps resurfacing in the form of lunatic militias. The doctrinaire Christians, Catholics and Jews were supposed to evolve and assimilate into a new and tolerant melting power Americanism, but instead have solidified on the Right. Issues like poverty and racism were going to fade away in the liberal affluent society, but they are still with us.
It’s important to remember how wrong we were in our optimism. Though progressives gained enormous ground over the past five decades, and though Obama’s multiracial coalition has become a progressive majority, the adherents of those “obsolete” doctrines continue to adapt and grow.
The White Right keeps on rising. It is now a dominant force across Europe, which some of us recently extolled as a safe focal point for social democracy and environmentalism. The National Front is the ascending party in France, home of our Western enlightenment icons. The basis of this right-wing trajectory is white hostility towards Islamic immigrants coupled with economic austerity programs and the remoteness of the EU bureaucratic elite. In America, the same forces are at work, and it’s not too extreme to ask whether the black robes of certain judges have just replaced the white robes of the Klan.
The Tea Party’s victories last week in the Virginia and, apparently, Mississippi primaries should deflate any corporate or liberal fantasies that their extremism is out of style. The formidable presence of Senator Rand Paul in the Republican Party guarantees that the right-wing populist moment is here for a while longer. The more moderate dinosaurs of the GOP are cringing and making deals with triumphant followers of Ayn Rand. The US Senate could become the base for an Obama-hating movement by November, cementing three branches of government into one stranglehold.
None dare call this Fascism, but this is how Fascism begins, with the toxic components of racism, recession, and the “threat” of the forbidding Other in the person of Barack Hussein Obama and other illegal aliens.
Yes, it is true that only about one-third of Americans adhere to the core Tea Party belief in stopping the rise of a multi-cultural, multi-racial majority through such varied techniques as election tampering, voter suppression, secret campaign contributions, control of Supreme Court appointments, propaganda from the parallel universe of FOX News, utilizing Christian churches as private political parties, aligning with the Jewish right over Israel, seizing state legislatures in odd-numbered years, and so on. This numerical right-wing minority already has captured one of our two major political parties and is just two election cycles away from capturing the state. (That’s only the official state of course, the one we are allowed to vote for, as opposed to the inaccessible agencies of state and business who now surveil us, steal from us, and bombard our brains with false advertising.)
Here are some relevant facts:
- The Democratic Party lost the majority of white male voters back in 1964, at the height of the civil rights and student movements;
- The white male vote was decisive twice in helping Republicans take one or both legislativebranches in 1994 and 2010;
- The Democrats now win four of ten while male voters compared to eight of ten votes from people of color;
- Obama managed to win 41 percent of the white male vote in 2008, then slipped to 35 percent in 2012;
- Because of the peculiar institution of the Electoral College, half the states are falling under the control of the white, conservative, property-protecting voting bloc pledged to block the rise of people of color, most women, most immigrant families, and nearly all LGBT voters. They also want to protect the fossil fuel industry as its burns through the planet, continue to dismantle organized labor, and increase inequality as if it’s the logical result of an unfettered market, and ultimately to Christianize our America.
My explanation for their rise is the fact that they are losing their previous historic privileges. Instead of quitting the fight for dominance, they grow more and more intense as a counter-movement against the real successes of progressive social movements. The fact that they see themselves accurately as a numerical minority only makes them more energized and dangerous. If they can not “take back America”, they will segregate into a separate country of their own, using every tool available to block the influence of federal law and “liberal” culture.
There is a belief among some on the Left that the White Right can be won over to an independent Left-Right coalition. Up to a point, this is a reasonable perspective. Rand Paul and many libertarian Republicans do oppose imperial wars, domestic spying, eastern banks and the WTO/UN “conspiracy”. They attract young people with their embrace of drug legalization and anarchists with their denunciations of the state. This attraction is something like that of American Jews, feeling beleaguered, forming tactical alliances with the evangelical Christians, or atleast until they go up in smoke in the Second Coming. It’s a dangerous game, played from a perception of progressive weakness.
But has anyone noticed any people of color at a Tea Party rally, at the primary night when Eric Cantor was dumped, or even at Republican conventions? The few people of color who stray there often are pushed in front of the cameras for the sake of appearance. There are sadly disturbed people like UC regent Ward Connerly, a nice gentleman who seems to identify with the British aristocracy, or the strange Supreme Court Justice, Clarence Thomas, opponent of the affirmative action policies that advanced his own career, or S.I. Hayakawa of San Francisco State, who reveled in crushing a student strike for a Third World studies program. Women sometimes wander into their ranks as well: Phyllis Schlafly, anti-feminism; Anita Bryant, anti-gay; and the bizarre mother-figure of them all, Ayn Rand, atheist, supporter of abortions, worshipper of naked egoism.
Taken together, these odd souls add up to little more a statistical margin of error, a deviation. What is it that some wistful white progressives fail to see here? I for one am pleased that the Ron-and-Rand Paul duo opposes the wars and the NSA, and I have written of my gratitude. But it doesn’t impress me when Rand Paul drops by Berkeley wearing cool Levis. What I want to know is why the Paul family still believes in a free-market libertarianism that defends the “natural” right of owners to operate segregated lunch counters? Or why their free-market individualism prohibits a woman’s right to choice? Or why in their view workers have no ability to join a union to bargain for their labor? Or why the elderly should be stripped of the Social Security benefits they themselves earned over working lifetimes?
While many progressives may cultivate tactical alliances with the libertarians, there should be no doubt that the Right intends to dismantle the entire New Deal structure that generations have fought to create and preserve. Until they give up their attachment to white power fundamentalism, they should be defeated, not be seen as partners in a decentralizing of America.
So what should be done to counter the rise of White Power? The first need is to be on the offense, exposing the phenomenon and fighting back. The main basis of the fight should be on values that most Americans share: full and equal voting rights for every American, for example, instead of the Republicans’ concerted effort to buy the democratic system with contributions. Second, to call them out properly. Nothing outrages the White Right more than being called racist. They may not be racist in the 19th century sense, but we do live in a time of the New Jim Crow. What puts the White Right on the defensive is the overwhelming evidence that the effect of their beliefs has led to a re-segregation of our politics, economy, education system and culture.
Perhaps most importantly, their economic populism should be separated from their preference for whiteness. The honorable history of American populism, represented today by figures like Texas’ Jim Hightower, has been tragically marred by racism. So too is the history of the New Deal, which excluded people of color (domestics, farmworkers) from most of its benefits. Of paramount importance today is the fact that many of the economic benefits that once went to white people are no longer being delivered. The striking failure of our corporate system today is that it fails to enhance the standard of living for white middle class and working class people as in days of old. People have to work longer hours for less pay and benefits, usually with two members of the household struggling to make what a single “breadwinner” earned in 1973. A downward economic spiral mixed with a rising racial gap is the crisis driving the rise of White Power and its evil companion, growing economic inequality.
Democrats and many local progressives are smart to push for a higher minimum wage and better, for livable wages, to at least mitigate this erosion of purchasing power. A global living wage would further challenge our irrational subsidizing of sweatshops which bring wages down at home. This means that extending the New Deal, not shrinking the safety net, is the most direct way to prevent our descent into racial strife. Yet our domestic austerity programs combined with secret trade deals for the privileged are paving theroad to racial hell.
The single greater indictment of the corporate economy and contribution-driven politics of ourwealthy country is the indifferent inability since 1973 to raise the wages and bargaining power for middle class and working people, and keep quality education affordable. That is the greatest correctable default, which fuels the growth of the White Right. Left-wing populism, not austerity and corporate liberalism, is essential to containing the rise of the White Right.