Backlash in the Name of Inequality
Originally published on November 16, 2016 by CLiME Director David D. Troutt
The presidential election that was too vulgar for us to write about, with accusations too inarticulate to describe policies, and an intimidating atmosphere of racist, nativist and sexist extremism inflaming every imaginable social division, finally received the emotional outcome it created. Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton in a historic upset destined to be known as the ultimate political demand for change. For those dedicated to working against structural inequality, this may be the transformative change we never imagined. The U.S. will now be run by a Republican president, Congress and a conservative Supreme Court majority.
Cut through the sum of post-mortem line drawing—the country’s coasts, the educational attainment of its voters, where they fit on the metropolitan grid, their race, gender and citizenship status—and we see the power of inequality, upside down.
The angriest, most betrayed and forgotten constituency was not comprised of the African American, Latino and immigrant communities targeted by institutional discrimination and the continuing effects of the Great Recession, but working-class and blue-collar whites whose position has slipped under the rapid constraints of globalization. We have always known the economic instability was blind to color in the United States, especially in the last fifteen years. However, we had not anticipated the strength of its frustration—both its politically fed up and its racially weaponized forms. Trump’s policies are not clear. His symbolism, however, is getting clearer. The tone—which is what we will all live with until the policies kick in—is zero sum. This suggests a steep climb, if not a repudiation, of some of the core beliefs underlying CLiME’s work—mutuality, the progressive power of changing demographics and the persuasive weight of factual evidence. We have some reckoning to do.
Before we do, consider this much that we know objectively about the vote for change from various news sources. Working-class whites from Rust Belt states overwhelmingly supported Donald Trump, especially men. Hillary Clinton barely won the woman’s vote; 53% of white women voted for Trump. In battleground states, many white Democrats also voted for Trump. The expected Latino voter surge occurred, but exit polls showed 29% voted for Trump (the same percentage as Asian voters). African Americans voted overwhelmingly for Clinton, but failed to vote at 2008 and 2012 levels in key electoral states. Non-college educated whites, especially older voters, remain a significant voting bloc, and they are either angry at or dissatisfied with Washington and desperate for an outsider who will hear their calls for change. They did not trust Clinton to deliver that.
There’s a lot of uncertainty about the president-elect’s actual policies, but we can begin to make objective sense of the implications this election will have on how and whether we can effectively reduce structural inequality. Obviously, if Trump’s tax and trade policies can remake the terms of a labor economy restructured over the last forty years or more—that is, if his administration can increase the manufacturing sector everywhere it’s contracted and drive up wages in the service sector—that might stabilize household income and community wealth for a broad, multiracial swath of working-class and lower middle-class people, reducing inequality. But overturning such tides of globalization may take much more than Republicans will deliver. And it will not reach the structures of inequality rooted in discrimination.
This much seems clear about inequality and the election:
1. It was a repudiation of President Obama. Some of this was intended by Trump supporters, some a result of disaffection with Hillary among Democratic voters. Neither campaign emphasized the growth of the economy or job creation under Obama, nor the first increase in middle-class wages and reduction in poverty rates. The objective gains of the Obama administration were at risk, and the result will mean many will be dismantled or transformed beyond recognition—Obamacare, executive orders on immigration and climate change and, most critically for CLiME’s work, the federal courts and the Department of Housing and Urban Development. In an interview, Trump was quoted pledging to rescind the HUD rule on affirmatively furthering fair housing.
2. Civil rights advocacy will assume a defensive stance again, and strategies for progressive change will probably avoid federal arenas in favor of local ones. Donald Trump has already signaled his contempt for many federal agencies, and his intention to nominate conservative judges from the Supreme Court on down. Those facts alone counsel against federal strategies to reduce structural inequality. The risks of bad precedents are already great. A refocus to states will also be challenging, given conservative control of many statehouses, declining budgets and—as this election reinforced—profoundly stratified state electorates. Thus, we will be forced to smaller regionalism and larger localism as the footprint for reforming the institutional arrangements that reproduce structural inequalities. The electorate’s mood—which was roundly misread—may augur little hope for integration strategies. Remember, widespread economic inequality was expressed in terms more hostile than unified.
3. Colorblindness, that myth, has been eviscerated again by the reprise of white identity politics. Pundits and journalists roundly admonished the nation for forgetting about the pains and needs of disaffected white people. The explosion of explicit racism that became the undercurrent of Trump’s campaign to these voters fueled and legitimated not just their status as economically struggling people, but their entitlement to feel angry about it and to project that anger onto others. Whatever form of white nationalism this took—I hate that you forgot about me or I hate because you forgot about me, the lesson is clear: white votes matter. This explicit racialization, routinely fanned by conservative media, makes it hard to argue post-racialism with a straight face.
4. Misogyny is a force. “On paper” the canyonesque disparities in presidential qualifications between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have long been acknowledged by people of good will. But in context, the Trump campaign’s rhetoric fanned a different fire we were making progress on dousing, which amounts to this: Lots of people, including many, many women, will hold a woman candidate for president to an almost impossible standard of ethical rectitude and trustworthy leadership than a man—even a vulgar, politically non-experienced, intemperate and truth-challenged man like Donald Trump. Whatever her flaws, the hatred of Hillary Clinton transcended Hilary Clinton.
5. The post-modern death of shared facts imperils evidence-based change. This election showed the extreme relativism in much of the public’s reading of evidence as fact. A Fox news “fact” is not an MSNBC “fact.” An NPR “fact” is the inaudible and irrelevant whisper of elites. Throw in Facebook, Twitter rants and all of our selective blogs, and “the public” has lost more than a common basis for truth. We don’t even share the same standards for determining what’s true. It’s not at all clear how we will soon coalesce behind a common faith in fact-telling. If you cannot count on people’s rational capacity to hear your evidence fairly, the ground beneath your arguments is quick sand.
If those are fair observations of what the 2016 election means to ending structural inequality, let me end with some more interpretive thoughts about race, class, gender and the prospects for mutuality. Mutuality, CLiME friends may recall, is that progressive notion of interdependency first asserted nationally by Dr. Martin Luther King, who proclaimed “We are tied in an inescapable network of mutuality.” Despite our spatial, racial and economic balkanization, we are wrapped in a common destiny of cause and effect. What happens to some of us, affects all of us in important ways. Yet it is the recognition of these social physics that promises a beloved community.
That promise suffered mortal blows last Tuesday. What we saw was a prime example of worried and wounded Americans expressing their economic alienation in accusatory and divisive ways rather than seeing the commonality of their misfortunes. The working class, after all, is disproportionately people of color. Their economic status has been marginal for generations, and they have benefited very little from anything an Obama Administration targeted at them alone. As CLiME’s work and that of countless researchers have shown, the struggles of people of color to attain stable middle class status have been confounded mainly by two factors: powerful institutional racial and economic discrimination and structural changes in the post-industrial economy, like globalization. Working-class blacks and Latinos die sooner, make less money, have less wealth, suffer more poverty and unemployment, fear more crime and violence, attend weaker schools and enjoy fewer resources of an abundant nation’s bounty—even in the same places where whites have struggled. The white working class, on the other hand, has suffered mainly at the hands of only one of these factors—structural changes that lowered wages, displaced manufacturing and favored capital investors.
What might have been a moment of broad voter recognition of mutual interests in policies that stabilize all families instead devolved quickly, loudly and sometimes violently into an us-versus-them game of non-evidence-based blame. I am not suggesting that all Trump voters express the invective aimed at Mexican and Muslim immigrants, the demeaning of blacks, the tacit KKK support and the open “Trump that Bitch” misogyny. I am saying that they accepted it as part of their vote and have now frustrated the chance to stop it. It is an indelible part of who and what won last Tuesday, separating us farther from each other than actual facts about social standing and economic vulnerability would indicate. This is the toxic palliative of inequality, an addictive opioid of fleeting pleasure that separates the desperate interests of people with common concerns, a fix with no easy cure.
This blow to mutuality relied on a powerfully familiar and divisive trope: a hierarchy of vulnerability, entitled on the one hand and discredited on the other, “givers and takers.” In this frame, white economic alienation is the entitled kind, something we had all better fear and placate, to “take back” from the outsiders inflicting that vulnerability as of right. That view of vulnerability risks, like the Southern Strategy of Nixon’s era or the Reagan Democrats of the 1980s, being racialized, privileged and institutionalized by the new president, Republican Congress and the federal judiciary. The minority objects of conservative scorn—whose statistical deficits, rather than supposed gains, remain the canary in the country’s coalmine—are discredited (again), their shared pain and unstable futures deemed something Other, stuck in stereotyped incompetence and self-victimhood that is not in the national interest to solve right now. They voted for Hillary. They had their chance under Obama.
This is fundamentally the wrong premise for a nation tired of inequality. More than ever, we still need each other’s success. We still pay the costs of each other’s failures. The hope had been that we would continue to find new ways not only to show this in our research and advocacy, but to demonstrate effective ways to use policies of mutuality in our common interest.
Everyone should have the resources to reach their potential. Everyone should be able to live in decency and with respect. Everyone of us should have a life and a voice that matters to those who govern and distribute our nation’s immense wealth. Continue to hope. It is still in us to change for the better. But we will have work even harder. There is no other way. Keep hope alive.