Well, it’s that time of the year again, folks, when the talkers on the teevee warn us about “condescending” to white working-class voters. As the election nears, pundits are once again wagging fingers at anyone attributing racist actions to, you know, racism, and scolding us for not understanding the amorphous, long-standing, “very real concerns" driving those racists to do their racist things.
The thesis underlying these admonitions is that, when voters support a racist like Donald Trump, they are doing so out of economic insecurity. When a similar cohort in Britain votes to leave the European Union and tells pollsters that their main reason for doing so is immigration, they’re actually doing it because they feel left out of a globalizing economy.
This sort of economic determinism is the big “given” of our political media complex, even though it causes otherwise smart and sane people to believe stupid, crazy things.
One of those things is that white working-class voters (always an elusive demographic target, but here defined as voters without a college degree) are motivated to vote for demagogues out of fear for their economic—rather than their tribal—future. This requires believing that American voters all receive one set of facts, which they are equally adept at processing, when of course a sizable minority of voters is undereducated and gets its “facts” from pretend news sources that make things up. But the rules of modern politics, and political reporting, require avoiding words like “undereducated” at all costs, and always underestimating the role that propaganda plays in the consciousness of the electorate. These rules require an assumption that all voters are ultimately making considered choices based on what they think is good for them. Choices we must respect.
Except—and here’s the really important part—except when voters are not quite understanding things the way they should. See, the “working-class” voter, as many in the political media see him, is the salt of the Earth. He’s a hard-working, lunch pail kinda guy, a decent, honorable relic of another time, who nonetheless might just be a little slow on the uptake when it comes to figurin’ and such. Shut up he’s not a racist. He’s a good man, who’s got plenty o’ smarts, just not the kind city folk might have. All he needs is Chris Hayes or Bernie Sanders to walk him through a few things, do a little wonksplaining about TPP or Dodd-Frank, and then he’ll get it. Then he’ll understand that what he’s actually mad about is late-stage capitalism, not the thugs and leeches next door.
Here’s the thing about white working-class voters: they have, as a whole, as a voting bloc, #notallworkingclassvoters, been fearful and reactionary for a long time—since before Brexit, or the recession, or NAFTA—hell, since before the Lost Cause. And liberals have been coddling their tender sensitivities for just as long. Yet they always vote for the other guys. And they’ve never needed an economic crisis or a failure of institutions to feel that way! Weird, I know! Remember the 1950s? The greatest economic boom in history, the time when the white working class had it better than they ever had before? Strangely it did nothing to at all to slow the horrors of Jim Crow, or the raging anti-Semitism, homophobia, and fear of “communists” exhibited by the white working class during the McCarthy Era. Just as the widespread, sustained prosperity of the 60s and 70s somehow didn’t keep them from voting for Richard Nixon and George Wallace in huge numbers, or from rioting against school integration in the North. Huh.
But it’s not about racism, it’s not about fear of "the other." Racial animus, you see, is actually misdirected rage at the elites, and the discussion of it is foisted upon the public as a distraction by bourgeois liberals who lack the Real Left's brave, clear-eyed appreciation for the economic anxiety that fuels it. Or something.
This is not only wrong, it’s of course guilty of the very thing it warns against. The same economic determinists who see the calling out of racism as condescending feel no compunction when it comes to lecturing the proles about where their real economic interests lie. They’re forever reframing the debate as a problem of messaging, of getting the right information to voters and helping them understand the sources of their deprivation and potential rescue. More importantly, they are forever centering the “concerns” of the white working class despite their relatively unimportant role in the electorate.
White working-class men and their supposed rage at institutions are always the “defining story” of an election. The fact that, in this election season, the economy is doing very well, that it's been adding jobs for the longest sustained period since World War II, that unemployment is below 5 percent, the deficit has been cut in half in the last seven years, that Obamacare is more successful that we had a right to expect, that the President’s approval ratings are the highest they’ve been since early 2009, and that the presidential candidate representing a continuation of his policies is outpolling her paranoid opponent by large and sometimes huge margins among every demographic group except white men...all these things mean nothing. The real story is now and forever Hard Times in the Heartland, Where They’re Not Racist, But.
This just in, from science: by definition, paranoia is not “caused” by anything. It’s an unreasonable, irrational fear. Economic insecurity is sometimes an ingredient in the stew from which it emanates. It is not a necessary one.
Isn’t it possible that cultural, social, and even neurological factors play as big a part in creating working-class paranoia as do stagnant wages? That sometimes a feeling of economic insecurity grows from the soil of racism and not the other way around?
For economics-obsessed pundits and political operatives, it’s not just narrow-minded to ignore the realities of the working-class vote, it’s bad punditry and politics. If you think it’s important to avoid “condescending” to white working-class voters in order to persuade them to vote for Hillary Clinton, you are living in a time when Democrats were afraid to say the words “gun control” or “minimum wage.” Those days are over. The voters you romanticize are not persuadable, and they haven’t been for a very long time. The Democrats don’t need them, they shouldn’t want them and they should once and for all stop coddling them.
Some things are deserving of contempt and condescension. Racism is one of those things.