Is America Ready for a War on White Privilege?

In my opinion, all political campaigns are identity based.  Shaking the money tree to the tune of $1 billion + it now takes to run a national campaign demands access to big money, deference to capital, and a willingness to promote political loyalties on the basis of identity, not class.  George Soros is not going to underwrite an anti-plutocrat jacquerie marching on Washington.

Post-election there has been a lot of defensive bleating by mainstream Dems that they did not run an identity politics campaign i.e. one that trafficked primarily in ethnic/gender allegiances to attract voters.

There is considerable spittle devoting to rebutting the idea that Clintonism was Vote Your Vag + African American tactical voting.   “Issues, ability, and values brought the voters to Clinton” is the refrain.

The campaign spin was that Clinton, a tired pol with more baggage than an Indian passenger train– and who had interrupted her self-declared mission as champion of the oppressed for a resume-polishing stint as warmonger at the State Department–was Jesus in a pantsuit and the primary task of her campaign would be restraining the American public from skipping the election and making her president by acclamation.

Judging by the immortal exchange at Harvard between Kellyanne Conway and Jennifer Palmieri (“’I would rather lose than win the way you guys did,’ Palmieri said, her voice shaking” per NPR.  Well, Wish. Granted.) it looks like the Clinton campaign had partaken intemperately of its own Kool-Aid.

Trouble is, Clinton was an establishment pol promoting a rather murky elitist and globalist agenda that pushed zero nationalist and populist buttons.  She was the candidate of the 1% and she needed help of some of the 99% to push her across the electoral finish line.  She and her handlers chose identity, not soak-the-rich faux populism as her path to the White House.

Clinton’s strategists eventually chose identity-lite for the general election campaign, targeting voters whose idea of heaven is attending continuous performances of Hamilton for the rest of eternity, instead of unambiguously throwing out red meat to the blocs she was targeting to elect her.

Coulda worked.  Shoulda worked.  Except Clinton was a clumsy campaigner with a less than galvanizing message.  Trump, a talented carny barker, ran his much narrower identity politics campaign as an outsider, igniting the bonfire of white anxiety and stoking it to white heat.  And, pending the outcome of the recounts, he did good enough to win.

Unsurprisingly, the Democratic Hamiltonians hang their hats on the coulda/should/mighta/might still.

This comes up a lot, complete with torrents of spicy rhetorical lava, when Sandernistas play the class card and claim their guy wudda won with a class-based appeal that would have lured a decisive number of white males into the Democratic camp.

Prudence might dictate looking at Sanders’ socialism-lite as a way to advantageously slice and dice the white electoral gristle.

Inside the Democratic Party at this moment, however, vitriol carries the day as champions of the “woke” coalition—energized by African-Americans who, with the endorsement of John Lewis, placed all their eggs in the Clinton basket—point the finger of blame at everybody and anyone but themselves for failing to deliver the “Expect Us” rainbow triumph, and furiously resist Sandernista white “class” outreach.

Problematically, repudiation of the Sandernista claim involves tarring both Sanders and the voters he was targeting as irredeemable, despicable racists who would have been deaf to any principled class-based appeal.

This kind of flamethrowing works OK if you won the election; but if you’ve lost, and find it necessary to dismiss almost half of the electorate as either Nazis or deluded fellow travelers—and sustain eye-bulging outrage for the duration of Trump’s administration– it creates a certain awkwardness.

It’s also identity politics.  You can call it “identity politics by default: they started it!” but it’s basically “Admirables” vs. “Deplorables”.  Unity is derided as appeasement and the political dynamics are being driven toward increased polarization by a combination of money, self-interest, hurt pride, conviction, and calculation.  Judging by my Twitter timeline, not an infallible indicator I’ll admit, defining and running against the Trump Republican Party as bigoted scum is seen by some activists as a winning strategy as well as a moral imperative.

Sooner or later, the Democratic Party is going to have to decide whether an overt anti-white-male-racist posture is going to deliver the winning combination of advantageous demographics, fired-up base, and big-money support.  2018 (mid-terms) or 2020 (presidential)?  Or maybe sometime later?

In other words…

When will the War on White Privilege be fought?

Well, it was already roadtested during the primaries.  Hillary Clinton’s surrogates used it to eviscerate Bernie Sanders in the southern states, and POC activists still use it to deny Sandernistas a spot at the DNC strategy table/feeding trough.

White privilege issues took a dirt nap during the general, when avoiding the alienation of white voters nationwide took precedence over nailing down black Democratic support during the crucial southern primaries.

But I saw inklings of it back in June, when John Lewis organized a sit-in of Democrats on the floor of the House of Representatives to protest Republican inaction on gun control following the Pulse nightclub massacre.

Lewis was attempting to amplify the call President Barack Obama made for gun control legislation in his eulogy for Reverend Clement Pinckney, one of eight people, all African-Americans, massacred in a church in Charleston.  Obama framed the Charleston killings as a tragedy but also a catharsis, one that would bridge racial divides and unite Americans in a shared abhorrence of gun violence.

None of us can or should expect a transformation in race relations overnight.  Every time something like this happens, somebody says we have to have a conversation about race.  We talk a lot about race.  There’s no shortcut.  And we don’t need more talk.  (Applause.)  None of us should believe that a handful of gun safety measures will prevent every tragedy.  It will not.

But it would be a betrayal of everything Reverend Pinckney stood for, I believe, if we allowed ourselves to slip into a comfortable silence again.

The political conditions were deemed to be ripe, since demographic and electoral shifts had forced the NRA in a deep, virtually monogamous relationship with the Republican Party and allowed the Democrats to seize the moral and political high ground as both national unifiers and gun control advocates.

The opportunity to amplify African American social and political aspirations through the broader issue of gun control was, I expect, seen as attractive both by African American and Democratic political strategists.

At Slate, Jamelle Bouie laid out the thinking:

[N]either [Pelosi] nor her caucus has to cater to vulnerable Democrats in the rural South or West. The kinds of voters Democrats once tried to attract by shying away from gun politics are Republicans now. And Democrats don’t believe they need to reach out to them. The politics, they argue, have turned… this past week is the clearest possible evidence that we’re watching a new kind of Democratic Party, one in which a young black representative from Brooklyn named Hakeem Jeffries, speaking shortly before midnight, invokes Martin Luther King and Bull Connor in a call-and-response with his colleagues. One that’s changing.

The GOP,at least in the eyes of liberal critics, had in contrast committed itself irrevocably to serving as the party of the white as the Democrats scooped up the rest of the rainbow.

This understanding—that the Democrats were already on the winning side in the identity politics contest—perhaps provided the pretext for officially dismissing the overt influence of identity politics considerations and focus on ladling out Clinton pap in the general election instead.

Beyond the predictable exploitation of the Republicans’ slavish devotion to the agenda of the NRA, there was an interesting kulturkampf subtext: that the dead hand of white conservative America was holding back the real America by its domination of institutions like the US Congress, which is pretty much lily-white.

In fact, a rather compelling case was made that, thanks to the vital alliance between the NRA and conservative Republicans, collateral damage of the effort to maintain GOP dominance was the unnecessary deaths of thousands of Americans due to gun violence.

Or as Bill Moyers put it:

Once again the Republican leaders of Congress have been revealed for what they are: useful stooges of the gun merchants who would sell to anyone — from the mentally ill to a terrorist-in-waiting to a lurking mass murderer. And the Republican Party once again has shown itself an enabler of death, the enemy of life, a threat to the republic itself.

Human decency as well as American progress, therefore, would dictate that these old white guys and their reactionary and self-serving agenda get booted from office and letting a new team dedicated to pushing America forward instead of holding it back take over.

It was a seductive narrative of what I like to call “White Twilight/Black Dawn!”  It exploited the rhetoric of intersectionality—shared experience of oppression as a defining political identity—to permit the African American community, as the prime wronged American ethnic bloc, to claim a position of moral and political leadership.

Of course, white privilege is sustained not only by racist domination of powerful institutions, but also by white votes, and direct confrontations with white political power, particularly on behalf of African Americans who compose only 14% of the US electorate, tend not to go well, particularly in national elections.

African American activists’ ambitions to punch above their weight are increasingly hampered by their limited demographic clout and also by perceptions that their political strength has plateaued and the growing Hispanic demographic component will displace African Americans in the party league tables and hearts of political planners.  Hence the obsession with the “intersectional” force-multiplier narrative.

Add to that disturbing expressions of black militancy surrounding the shootings of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge, and I think a conscious decision was made by Clinton strategists in the summer of 2016 to soft-pedal racially-inflected attacks on white privilege (like Occupy stunts in Congress led by black male politicians!) and go with the positive but apparently fatally mushy “rainbow coalition” alignment (hugging black moms + Hamilton!).

The electoral results were not pretty.  Now the question is, rethink or double-down on race-inflected Democratic identity politics?

Is there a political future in an open, polarizing political campaign against conservative whites founded on the idea that they must surrender control of the public institutions they currently dominate?

Let it be said I am a believer in the fact of white privilege, as well as its beneficiary.

There is a special circle in Unzworld Comment Section Hell devoted to flambéing folks who don’t understand that, far from reveling in unearned privilege, Caucasians are not enjoying anywhere near the advantages merited by their genetic and cultural endowments.  Well, fire up the barbie.

But…just for the sake of argument…let’s assume that the idea that pruning the white deadwood becomes a top priority for political activists.  How would that work?

Pretty well, I think.

The big story over the next thirty five years is the inexorable decline of the white vote from majority to plurality.  That kind of demographic trend is bloody chum in the political shark tank.

Some day some opportunistic and charismatic pol is going to stand up and sell the message that it’s time for the old whites to step aside and give the young people of color their shot.

Political happenstance will dictate, I think, how much racial justice and social progress we get, and how much co-option and corruption.  And I have a feeling that Hispanic as well as white factors will continue to marginalize black political clout.

But it’s not too early to think about what the war on white privilege might entail, and what choices might be made.

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Peter Lee edits China Matters and writes about Asia for CounterPunch.  

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