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The Racial Politics of the Left’s Political Nostalgia

The left and right are currently suffering from a crisis in political imagination. This is well understood regarding the right, as rallying cries such as “Make America Great Again” make explicit the nostalgic desire for a return to an idyllic past that never existed. Journalists, academics, and political pundits have been quick to point out that whatever peace and prosperity existed during this idealized past was built on the backs of women, people of color, indigenous Americans, immigrants, conscripted military personnel, and others. These points have been widely made and it is not the purpose of this piece to rehash the evidence supporting these claims. What is less recognized, however, is that it is increasingly clear that so too does the left wish to return to an idyllic past that also never existed: an era of the truth.

This belief that the problems of the present are due to an abandonment of the principle of truth betrays the political nostalgia that plagues both the left and the right. Though differing on important accounts, both the left and the right are nostalgic for the imagined peace and prosperity of uncontested whiteness. The right conceives of this peace and prosperity as contingent upon the dominance of White bodies, while the left conceives it as contingent upon the dominance of White civility. The difference between these two perspectives is that the left is more inclusive than the right. But the similarity is that whiteness is codified as “the truth”: the presence of White bodies or the performance of White civility serve as its prerequisite. To be clear, this piece is not a philosophical argument about whether something such as the truth exists, rather it is about how in the United States’ racism is irreducible to the presence or absence of truth. In other words, this piece rebukes the liberal whitewashing and favoring of Martin Luther King (in contrast to Malcolm X) and the fixation on his mantra taken from John 8:32, “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.” No. Unfortunately, it won’t.

The belief that the problems of the present could be resolved if we returned to an era of truth begs the question of when was this era of truth? And, were things really all that much better when this era existed? One need not reach far back into history to find plenty of examples of the racial harm caused by innumerous lies and truths. Since 1976, policy and public perception of welfare has been shaped by Ronald Reagan’s racial lie of the welfare queen. In 1994, California’s Proposition 187 helped reinvigorate the lie that undocumented immigrants steal resources and are criminally adept. Even though White supremacists and other right-wing extremists have generally committed more acts of domestic terrorism than any other population for the last 30 years, terrorism has long been framed as existing because of Muslims. American drug policy has criminalized African Americans at 10 times the rates of Whites, even though “5 times as many Whites are using drugs as African Americans.” These are just a handful of examples that ought to seriously undermine any confidence in the claim made by social psychologist Matthew Hornsey, but shared by many, that we once “grew up in an era when it was just presumed that reason and evidence were the ways to understand important issues; not fear, vested interests, tradition or faith.”

The point is not to expose these policies as built upon unsound evidence or a lack of truth, but rather to illustrate that a lack of evidence or truth is not the problem. For instance, if mass criminalization was the answer for the war on drugs, when Whites perceived Blacks as the primary users, the recent shift toward drug treatment for opioid addition was precipitated by White conceptualization that this is a White epidemic. Because of this perception—which is based in solid evidence—Sarah Childress of PBS reported that “outreach workers in several cities say that while funds and attention have been directed to aid [sic] white opioid and heroin users in the suburbs, they are still struggling to get the resources they need to support minorities who are dealing with the same addiction.” In the first case, a lie is used to justify mass criminalization of Blacks; in the second case, the truth is used to direct aid predominately to Whites. Evidence is not the problem, rather the racial logic by which we act upon this evidence (or lack thereof) is the problem.

Nonetheless, it is as if this ongoing history of racism had little bearing when considering our contemporary political environment. For instance, in the aftermath of the U.S. 2016 presidential election, a veritable cottage industry of opinion pieces, conferences, and academic articles emerged attempting to make sense of how a racist, misogynistic, neo-nationalist member of the economic elite could win a presidential election. For those journalists, academics, and pundits familiar with the American history of racism, sexism, and nativism, the results of the election were disappointing but not surprising. For those that were not, however, Trump’s presidency was explained as a byproduct of the closed-information ecosystems made possible by the rise of social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter—as if racism, sexism, nativism, let alone segregation, are recent inventions in American history.

This emphasis on information ecosystems and the truth has led the left to fixate on political polarization and consensus politics. Political polarization is offered as the reason for our current political impasse, claiming politics is tainting our ability to evaluate evidence in a reasonable manner. This has led some to look back upon the past, nostalgically, for those times of political consensus as a way of illustrating how dysfunctional the nation has become. For instance, a popular chart by Keith Poole, Howard Rosenthal, and Christopher Hare is often used to illustrate the extent of American political polarization, with the concern being that the United States is as polarized today as it was “around the time of the Civil War.” Though this is indeed concerning—as the Civil War was devastating—we should not be misled into believing that consensus is inherently good; for instance, what would consensus have meant in the context of the Civil War? A continuation of the Three-Fifths Compromise?

Likewise, a closer look at Poole, Rosenthal, and Hale’s chart illustrates that political polarization was weakest and, by extension, consensus strongest from 1935 to 1953. Though this era saw the United States unite to combat the atrocities of Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Imperial Japan, it also saw the passage of Executive Order 9066 (which authorized the internment of Japanese and Japanese Americans from 1942 to 1946), the rise and peak in union membership (during a time when unions were traditionally hostile to non-White workers), the continued prominence of sundown towns (which used a combination of legal and extra-legal, often violent, means to keep towns all-White), and the Displaced Persons Act of 1948 (which Harry Truman signed reluctantly after decrying that “the bill discriminates in callous fashion against displaced persons of the Jewish faith”), amongst other atrocities. So though this era signaled America’s ascension as the world’s leading superpower, and is thus nostalgically remembered as our country’s golden age, these examples illustrate that it was only a golden age for some (and indeed, was built upon the backs of many).

If we take seriously the left’s calls for a return to an era of truth and consensus politics—which, we should be clear, are not exactly the same thing—we are left with a similar desire as that of the right: a return to the pre-Civil Rights era, specifically the 1930s to the 1950s. This ought to give us pause. Surely, some will claim that the desires are different; the left wants a return to when science was respected, unions were strong, and the government took care of its people; the right wants a return to when (White) American manufacturing was respected, (White) American workers were strong, and the (White) American government set uncontestable global policy. The desires of the left and right are nonetheless two sides of the same historic coin, which is precisely why consensus existed during the mid-twentieth century. This is not to say the contentious debates did not exist during this period, but rather that the accomplishments looked upon favorably from this era by both the left and the right were built upon an entanglement of the interests mentioned above. Science, industry, unions, the (White) American working class, national policy, and foreign policy all coalesced to create an era of peace and prosperity for Whites that was built upon the backs of women, people of color, indigenous Americans, immigrants, and others.

Documenting this history is not a call for the left to abandon an interest in the truth. It is instead a call to recognize that the truth is not enough and has never been enough. Society does not change because of a new discovery or creation; society changes because a confluence of political, economic, cultural, and environmental forces come together in such a way that change is the only option. Truth is a part of that equation, but its effect is indeterminate and its power limited. The post-truth, then, offers the left an opportunity: if nostalgia for the era of truth is evidence of the desire to return to a time when racism, sexism, and nativism could hide behind the façade of truth, our present moment makes it impossible to pretend that science is not political. This does not mean that the truth produced by science is necessarily false—though some truths are fraudulent—but instead it means that the ends for which the truth is sought, and for which truths are sought, are inherently political.

Because the truth is inherently political, we must also abandon our nostalgia for political consensus; instead, we must contest, debate, and protest our current political regime. When lives are being destroyed by forced deportation, defunding of education, encroachment on indigenous sovereignty, mass criminalization, unequal access to healthcare, and so much more, then we have no choice but to contest, debate, and protest. Consensus is great if it is a viable option, but when the right conceives of consensus as contingent upon putting (White) America first, then it is critical that the left not be tempted by calls for (White) civility; doing so would be to once again abandon those bodies for which this invitation is not an option. As Augusto Boal often said, “Solidarity means running the same risks,” then we must be skeptical of the temporary, superficial solidarity offered by those on the left who long for a return to those more “comfortable” days when the truth was certain and political consensus was the norm.

Robert Mejia is an assistant professor with the Department of Communication at North Dakota State University.

Kay Beckermann and Curtis Sullivan are doctoral students with the Department of Communication at North Dakota State University.

A version of this paper was presented at the Data & Society Research Institute’s Propaganda and Media Manipulation Workshop.

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