What’s the Matter With White Folks?: Racial Privilege, Electoral Politics and the Limits of Class Populism

Published in LIP Magazine, Spring, 2005

It almost goes without saying that the analysis offered up by mainstream commentators in the wake of the Presidential election has been largely devoid of anything resembling substance: not that this should be considered particularly shocking, but it needs to be mentioned in any event.

For example, the persistent claim that President Bush’s re-election was the result of a “moral values” revolt by Christians has been seriously overblown. After all, Bush actually received more votes (and a higher percentage of votes) from those who said terrorism was the most important issue than he did from those who identified moral values as the key to their electoral behavior.

Likewise on the scale of absurdity has been the quadrennial drivel spewing from the mouth of Al From and his cronies at the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), to the effect that if the Democrats would just move further to the right they would find themselves on the winning end of election night outcomes. After years of following this advice, the Democratic Party has lost ground in the Senate, the House and in states across the country. Indeed, most of the Democrats who have been ousted in the past decade have been precisely those, especially in the South, who never ran or governed as progressives but rather hewed most closely to the Republican line.

But what has been even more distressing than the predictably off-base analysis served up by the DLC or the chattering class on Sunday morning talk shows has been the equally simplistic diagnosis of the Democrats’ problems provided by the liberal-left and progressives. Whether in the form of a Nation or American Prospect editorial, or a Jim Hightower screed, or the writings of best-selling author Thomas Frank (What’s the Matter With Kansas?), the prescription is the same: all the Dems need to do is develop a good old-fashioned populist appeal, whereby they point out the economic self-interests of voters who are moderate income and yet voting for Republicans: persons who, they should naturally view as their class enemies.

Actually, this is pretty much the same thing said by all corners of the left every election year. I’ve said it myself in fact, any number of times. Just as the DLC says the Democratic Party should move right and abandon its working-class roots, the left says it should do the opposite, moving left to an explicitly class-based politics. While the left’s suggestion may be closer to the truth than that offered up by the DLC, it too has serious flaws and would be unlikely to succeed, at least as expressed by those making the case.

Who is ignoring their class interests? The color of “false consciousness”

The reasons for the likely inadequacy of class-based appeals are varied but must be examined if those pushing for their adoption hope to prevail in future political struggles. To begin with, it must be recognized that to a large extent, some voters are already voting their self-interests and need no hand-holding or persuasion to do so in the future. People of color, for example, voted at least 70-30 against the President, with African Americans doing so by an 89-11 margin. Likewise, union households voted overwhelmingly for the President’s removal, as did low-income voters earning below $30,000 annually.

So which voters could we say were, as Thomas Frank might put it, ignoring their class interests? Who are the persons who have, in Frank’s terms, become vulnerable to “wedge issues…whose hallucinatory appeal would ordinarily be far overshadowed by material concerns?” Though Frank is loath to say it and pretty much everyone else in the mainstream has ignored it as well, the answer is simple. The problem is white people, by and large: especially white folks in the “anxious middle class,” whose incomes are vulnerable though not too terribly low, depending on where they live (between $30,000 and $50,000 annually), but who are certainly closer to the working class than the wealthy whose candidate they tend to vote for. It is only these folks who seem to ignore their class interests and vote Republican.

The racial electoral divide, indeed, is larger than any of the others about which we constantly hear discussion. So, for example, the oft-mentioned gender gap this year was only 7 points, and the gap between those earning $30-50,000 and those earning $100-150,000 was only 8 points. Meanwhile the racial gap in voting between whites and people of color was a whopping 28 points-even greater than the 21-point-gap dividing those with incomes between $15-30,000 and those with incomes above $200,000 annually. The white/black divide was 47 points: a modern record, in large part because Bush increased his vote among whites by 4 percentage points, capturing 58 percent of all white votes cast, including 62 percent of white men and 55 percent of white women.

The racial voting gap was especially pronounced among evangelical Christians. This is particularly important, given the inane pronouncements about how evangelicals were responsible for Bush’s victory. Fact is, only white evangelicals elevate their provincial moral concerns above classical conceptions of self-interest. Black evangelicals — a sizable group to be sure — voted against Bush by margins of at least four to one, despite often agreeing with conservatives on certain issues like abortion, gay rights or prayer in schools. But white evangelicals and “born again Christians” voted 78-21 for Bush, a huge increase from the 62 percent average received by the Republican candidate in the two previous Presidential contests.

The racial divide was also far more salient than the mythical “red-state, blue-state” dichotomy pushed by the media. Though it has been scarcely mentioned since election- day, whites voted mostly for Bush (or at least split 50-50) even in several of the blue states (including New York, California, Maryland and Illinois), while people of color in the red states largely voted for Kerry.

Bottom line: interracial voting differences were far greater than differences based on geography, gender, income, level of education, age, occupational status, religion or any other factor, raising the obvious if unasked question, why? Why do white folks vote so differently from people of color? Why do white evangelicals vote so differently from evangelicals of color? Why do white working-class and lower-middle-class whites often vote against their apparent class interests, even as working-class and lower income people of color don’t?

And there’s another element too. In Stephen Ducat’s recent book, The Wimp Factor, which is on the whole an excellent examination of the motivations behind male voting behavior, the author suggests that “anxious masculinity” prompts men to seek a reassertion of domination through a macho politics of control and semi-authoritarian policy options. Yet what Ducat overlooks is how race (and particularly whiteness) undergirds his theory. After all, men of color, though subjected to the same patriarchal messages and conditioning as white men, do not usually vote for right-wing candidates or policies. So why? Why do white men vote so differently from men of color? In other words, flipping Thomas Franks’ question a bit, the issue is not “What’s the matter with Kansas,” but, rather, what’s the matter with white people?

I would suggest four principal reasons why whites vote so differently from people of color who are otherwise similar in terms of class, gender and religion–and thus why most whites are largely immune to the appeal of class-based politics, at least in their traditionally conceived form.

Most whites have the luxury of believing in meritocracy

To begin with, class-based appeals have always been difficult in the United States. This is largely because, unlike the European nations in which Marxism first gained traction, in the U.S. the notion of meritocracy has been a cornerstone of the nation’s ethos. No such pretense has existed in most places, least of all those that were so proud to have developed under feudal arrangements. But here the myth of individual merit and mobility has been central to the construction of the nation’s political soul.

This myth of meritocracy is especially alluring to whites, whose experiences with upward mobility have been just sufficient to allow faith in the concept to be maintained over time. While truly poor whites may know better (and largely vote their class interests, as noted above), those who earn incomes around the median, though vulnerable, are likely doing well enough to believe that with just a little more effort on their part, they can climb to the next level on the class ladder. As such, they are likely to be skeptical of class-based appeals for their vote. After all, they may feel no animosity for those above them, and indeed expect that one day they will join them in the ranks of the affluent.

Self-interest not merely economic under white supremacy

Perhaps most importantly, what much of the left overlooks is that self-interest is not just an economic or class concept. A simple glance at the history of this country makes it all too clear that whites, in particular, have been willing to overlook their class interests for the sake of racial privilege. Working-class whites did this in the South when elites convinced them to fight for a slave system that undercut their own economic well-being; they did it again during the emergence of the labor movement when, fearing the racial solidarity in wages that unionism would bring, they fought to keep their unions all-white. This, in spite of the obvious class interest that would have been furthered by larger, integrated and more militant unions.

In other words, white supremacy has long offered whites an alternative identity, besides their class status, around which to rally. As UCLA Professor of Law Cheryl Harris puts it, whiteness is a form a property every bit as valuable to those who possess it as the material goods they might receive by voting for more progressive candidates. This is not false consciousness, in other words, but alternative consciousness: the prioritizing of non-fiscal interests by persons who have been offered alternative benefits by a system of racial inequity.

So if whites — even those whose economic status is vulnerable — come to view progressive government policies or candidates as threats to their hegemonic status and control (be it through immigration, affirmative action, welfare and social service programs, or even a foreign policy that is insufficiently belligerent to non-white terrorists), it ought not surprise us that such persons might ignore their true class interests and vote instead for what they view as their other interests, including those that are in effect conceived in racial terms.

But it’s not only race that provides an alternative identity to which whites can cleave: so too with gender, religion or sexual orientation. So, for example, heterosexual male evangelicals of color have a hard time ignoring their economic interests, so clearly are these endangered by the right-wing politics of the ruling party. This is the case even if they share some of the gender, religious and sexual anxieties of white men. But whites enjoy enough mobility in most cases to allow them to ignore class and instead emphasize their status as men or straight Christians. After all, maleness, heterosexuality and Christianity are also forms of property in this society, as with whiteness. They provide benefits, in relative terms, and a form of personal and collective elevation above others, and as such are guarded jealously by those who fear that their status is being challenged in those realms of daily life.

While black men might logically view the greatest challenge to their patriarchal manhood as systemic — the inability, thanks to a racialized class system to provide for their families — and thus vote in more progressive fashions, white men (whose ability to serve as providers tends to be more secure), have the luxury of viewing the biggest threats to their manhood in decidedly gonadal terms: threats from feminists, homosexuals and such. So appeals to homophobia, or “anxious masculinity,” as Ducat puts it, would be more likely to work with whites than people of color and could often trump class concerns, again, not because of false consciousness, but through the capacity of privilege to create alternative interests and forms of property than those typically considered.

As for religion, there is little doubt that white evangelical Christianity has always been fundamentally different from that practiced by people of color. That difference is the difference between the faith of the conqueror and that of the conquered. While black Christianity, for example, has long been a theology of liberation, redemption and deliverance, the Christianity of white Americans has almost always been, in its fundamentalist conceptions, a theology of dominion. So when that hegemonic Christianity suffers challenges, be they real or imagined, those not accustomed to having the privileged status of their Scriptural interpretations questioned (or merely having to co-exist side by side with others who have completely different views), logically engage in backlash.

While evangelicals of color can and do conceive of “moral issues” as including poverty, unemployment, racism and unjust wars abroad, white evangelicals (at least those who are not poor) literally cannot in most cases conceptualize morality in that way, as doing so would require that they interrogate their own role in immorality, their privileges and the degree to which those privileges come at the expense of those without them.

So whether the issues at play in an election are explicitly racial, or merely play to the gender, sexual and religious anxieties of whites whose privileges allow them to define their identities other than as workers in a class-stratified system, the effect is the same: whites, more so than others, remain far more resistant to populist and class-based appeals for votes and support. Their electoral behavior is based less on values in the abstract, or moral values specifically, and more on the value they place upon maintaining their relative status as members of privileged groups.

Cynicism about the prospects for change limit class appeals

Another factor in white folks’ willingness to ignore their economic interests and instead prioritize their status as whites, or men, or Christians, or heterosexuals, is a deep cynicism regarding the ability to actually change the economic system in fundamental ways. Although this is the opposite of the above-mentioned faith in the system, which leads many to expect their hard work to eventually pay off, the irony is that both such optimism and its flipside — deep and abiding skepticism — can exist side by side, if not in the same person, then certainly within the larger white body politic.

If the class system is indeed a powerful monolith in which the wealthy pretty much have their way with the rest of us, one ought not be surprised when some folks, despairing of their ability to really change such behemoth, decide to gravitate to other forms of political mobilization than those offered by class consciousness. In fact, there’s a psychological logic to it: one that actually multiplies exponentially, the more convinced one becomes that they are getting their asses kicked by the rich.

While the left has always assumed working class folks would respond to rising class consciousness with rebellion, or at least by pushing for reform, there is in fact another option: namely, they can become so defeatist about the prospects for change that they would then seek refuge elsewhere. In the instant case, such refuge could be provided, for some at least, by the politics of race, gender, religion or sexual orientation.

By cleaving to their racial, religious, gender and sexual identities, such persons can identify with an inspiring vision of hegemony and entitlement. After all, despite feeling “under siege” by gays, women, minorities and secular humanists, identifying their interests along these axes is nonetheless more empowering than identifying as workers. Such persons can clearly “remember” a time when straight white Christian men were not only dominant (which they still are) but exercised a kind of control that was largely unquestioned and unthreatened in the mainstream. But they cannot envision a time when workers like them were ever in charge or running the show, so even if they find economic populism appealing at an intellectual and affective level, they may become cynical about the prospects for change — for exercising power — in that realm. So frustrated, they will logically then turn to those arenas of daily life where they are likely to be more successful, where their strength is palpable, where their privileges, however vulnerable, are still very much intact.

Our cultural attachment to “winners” complicates class-based appeals

In keeping with this last line of analysis, our nation’s cultural attachment to winners makes the efficacy of class-based political appeals questionable, to put it generously. America, more so than anywhere else on Earth, has nurtured a cultural appeal for winners over losers, such that many of its residents seek nothing more than to identify with the winners, whoever they may be: a sports team, random billionaires like Donald Trump or Bill Gates, or the larger class of successful rich folks. To ask workers to identify their interests as workers and act on those interests is to ask them to identify, by definition, with the losers in the class game, and nothing in this culture is less appealing than to be labeled and seen as a loser. At least by identifying one’s interests and identity in non-class terms — as Christians, heterosexuals, whites or as men — such persons can nurture a sense of power, or superiority, in their status as winners, since these are all dominant groups to which they belong, instead of that relatively weak grouping of which they are also a part: workers.

While people of color can hardly ignore their marginal status, and while truly poor and lower-income whites too will typically identify their interests in economic terms, those whites in the middle class — whose economic status is precarious but not desperate — have the luxury of identifying with these other, more rewarding identities. Indeed, they have every reason to do so.

So what to do? Dealing with white political pathology

Given the various limitations placed on explicit class-based appeals aimed at middle- and working-class whites, the left must then consider what it might do if it wishes to gain actual political strength. Putting aside the obvious limitations of electoral power in any guise, there are at least some lessons to be gleaned that might help push a progressive politics forward.

First, the white left must come to realize that it has a white people problem, and that problem is directly related to white privilege. To the extent whites have advantages over people of color, it becomes possible and even likely that many whites will seek to maximize their relative advantage over others, rather than thinking of self-interest in explicitly class terms. As such, the left will have to confront white privilege directly: exposing it for what it is and how it operates, and demonstrating the harm that racial inequality does to those without such privileges, and to the larger society. In other words, we can not run away from race and racism as an issue, or hope to leapfrog the issues related to race in the name of class solidarity, when it is precisely race and racism that are making class solidarity less likely. We must confront the beast head on

Next, progressives, and especially white progressives, must point out the destructive downsides to a system of inequality, racial privilege, gender privilege and religious hostility. We must articulate and organize around an analysis that focuses on the way in which such inequalities and hostilities make neighborhoods and communities less sustainable, increase the likelihood of crime, terrorism, economic problems and the like, and contribute to the very anxieties that so many Americans feel. After all, trying to maintain one’s edge over others — be it racial, religious, gendered or whatever else — takes an enormous amount of energy, and feeds an almost paranoid devotion to “getting others” before they get you.

Third, we must develop a narrative of fairness that directly creates shame around racism, sexism, heterosexual supremacy and Christian supremacy.

Most whites who cling to these forms of domination have never been challenged to think about their views and what those positions mean for those who are different than themselves. If we assume that most white people are decent and rational — which at some level the populist theorists assume by definition — then we must also assume they can be reached by appeals to fairness. By ignoring fairness and seeking only to appeal to self-interest, we leave in place the very kind of relative thinking that has long propelled whites to elevate racial and now gender, religious and heterosexual interests to the pinnacle of their political ideology. Such appeals, of course, are unlikely to move most whites, but could certainly move the small percentage necessary to alter election outcomes, and thus create the breathing room to effectively challenge both major electoral parties and the larger political-economic system.

Finally, we must bring to bear a vision of possible social change and economic transformation. It isn’t enough to argue that the tax cuts pushed by Republicans are only for the rich, or to claim that the health care plan of Democrats is somewhat better than that offered by Republicans. Unless voters are given a reason to believe that truly transformative change is possible — not merely differences at the margins of public policy– it will make sense for them to ignore class appeals and instead define their perceived interests in arenas where they feel a greater level of efficacy and control.

Thus, the left will have to seriously revisit and extend analyses about what the economy and polity might look like, and how the system to which we have grown accustomed might change: how work might be organized differently, how communities might be re-conceptualized and how working people might be able to exercise greater power and control over their lives. While we can’t expect the Democratic Party to do much or even any of this, there is no reason why progressive movement activists can’t focus on such future visions, trading what we’re against in favor of the world we’re for.

Whatever the case, we should acknowledge the limitations of class politics, whether conceived in Marxist or Democratic Party terms. In this country, white folks are a political breed unto themselves; and until progressives come to understand the inner workings of that species mental structures, we’ll be unlikely to reverse the rising tide of reactionary sentiment among so many of their kind.

Leave a Reply