Reverb of the Repressed: Race and Classlessness

In an election that should’ve been a landslide, Joe Biden has merely survived. The lesser-of-evils option has triumphed against one of the most unpopular first-term presidents in history. This victory suggests, given the relatively narrow margin, that it was greatly dependent on Trump beating himself. Had he comported himself more presidentially, put a human face on the pandemic, stopped tweeting nonsense, been nicer to McCain and Arizona, and stopped calling everyone an idiot, he would likely have won handily.

But the pattern to the voting suggests that deficiencies in the Democratic Party were also a stimulus since Trump’s support increased among the groups the Democrats have historically attracted, especially racial and ethnic minorities, the lower/working class, and the LGBT community. Comparing 2016 with 2020, it increased 6 points with black men; 5 points with black women; 4 points with Hispanic men; 5 points with Hispanic women; and 3 points with white women. The overall numbers showed a decrease in white support, a minus 1 point, mainly because of the decline in support by college-educated white men. But they show an increase for working-class white men. There is no comparable breakdown yet for the Asian population, but overall it increased for Trump by 7 points. Regarding class, Trump made gains among the non-college degreed population—Biden drew those with even some college—and those making under $50,000 per year, by 3 points (Chris Alcantara et al, “How Voters Shifted From 2016 And Swung States For Biden And Trump,” Washington Post, 11/12/2020).

And while voters banished the tweeter-in-chief—though just barely, contravening the 8-10 percentage points the polls predicted he would lose by—they retained a conservative bulwark against “liberalism” in Congress (certainly not against progressivism, virtually banished from the Democratic platform). The Republicans made gains in the House, securing 7 more seats, and are likely to hold the Senate.

Is the electorate schizoid? They don’t want Trump the person—reacting especially to his handling of the pandemic—but seem to support a sufficient number of legislators responsible for delivering the conservative agenda. But the question is whether they are morphing into diehard conservatives or latching onto a momentary affiliation, bolting from a Democratic Party that doesn’t represent its interests. A protest versus a conversion.

Consider the issue of education and income inequality. It would seem the Democratic Party is becoming more elitist, a tendency well-documented over the past two generations. Despite the election-cycle rhetoric it has left the working class behind. But it would be a mistake to say that the Republican Party is becoming less elitist and more populist—in a progressive sense at least—as an organization that genuinely absorbs the lower orders for the purpose of advancing them up the ladder of success. Trump captured voters making under $50,000, as mentioned, but also increased his support relative to Biden among those making over $100,000, and by a substantial margin (Biden increased his support over Hilary in 2016 among voters making between $50,000 and $100,000). The Republican Party is not likely, given its donor culture, to stop drawing the superrich; and the Democratic Party, given its quite similar funding base, is not likely to reverse its trajectory any time soon. While hardly mirrors of each other, their bases of elite support historically have gradually dovetailed, lending credence to the suggestion that they’re essentially two wings of one Party. The challenge by progressives to realign the Democratic Party promised to compound the choices, inject diversity into the mix. In the absence of this representation, Trump’s new constituent base has thrown wrenches into the works.

As Matt Taibbi claims, Trump didn’t deserve the support of these abdicators, but the “Democrats’ conspicuous refusal to address economic inequality and other class issues in a meaningful way created an opening” filled by his loyalists. This doesn’t mean that the Republican Party is the new locus for the representation of minorities and the working class. An emptying process is surely to soon form as the populace realizes what a skewed performance this was. But Biden’s gesturing and proposed appointments thus far would suggest this outcome will likely not be an abrupt wake-up call that kickstarts the process to make the Democratic Party whole again either (“Which Is The Real ‘Working Class Party’ Now?” TK News, 11/5/2020).

Ben Jellis, head of the NAACP, explained the aborted landslide as a marketing fluke: The Republicans are simply better at using the media tools. Once the issues are better presented and framed, he suggested, the people will see the light (DemocracyNow, 11/4/2020). They will understand it was in their best interests to vote for a Party…that ignores them? This would require some serious sleight of rationalization, a troping through the thicket of electionese to assuage existing and potential voters to disavow all the deficits, reject the things that polls show they wanted: universal health care, higher wages, job and retirement protection, security from the violence wrought by market solutions, “law and order” protection from crime and street violence, etc. Advertising gets people to purchase what they don’t need; to go against their rational interests. So do the ad managers in the Democratic Party want to indenture voters to go against their interests, hoping that over time they will convert to the…truth? Isn’t this the formula for the construction of fake news?

Then there are those in the Democratic Party—particularly Heidi Heitkamp—who are claiming it was pushed too far to the left by the squad of progressives, fomenting a backlash. These six or seven “upstarts” may have changed the discourse in the lead-up to the election, getting the slate of candidates for the nomination to at least give—mostly negative—lip service to issues raised by the squad. But the repression of the progressive platform proposals at the Convention, and Biden’s virtual silence about them over the course of the campaign since, discredit this mythology. Biden’s list of potential Cabinet picks is identity-politics-correct but could nearly double as Republican picks. Big Pharma, Wall Street, and military and deficit hawks are geared to structure his government, eerily reminiscent of Obama’s choices.

The real tragedy is that the issues the progressives espouse are overwhelmingly supported by the voters. It’s striking how many candidates won who ran on these issues, especially Medicare For All. The electorate seemed starved for an alternative (Jeffrey St. Clair, “Roaming Charges: After/Math,” CounterPunch, 11/13/2020). The narrowing—the mainstreaming—of the election agenda as a result of the exclusion of progressive issues restricted the turnout for the Democrats, what would’ve helped stem the migration toward the Republicans (Briahna Joy, DemocracyNow, 11/5/2020).

The conventional wisdom ever since Sanders mounted his challenge was that to beat Trump and the Republicans the Democratic Party had to go mainstream, avoid being too “radical,” move closer to what their adversary represents. A “socialist” candidate would never get the broad support to win. And since so much of the chatter during the intervening years was personal anyway, a slew of negative digs against Trump, being able to proffer the ameliorating kindness of Biden’s image as a replacement could seal the deal. The same argument was parlayed in 2016 in advancing Hilary ahead of Sanders, but polls showed that he would have easily beat Trump because he offered a real alternative.

Many Republicans were even more extreme than Heidy Heitkamp, saying that the Democrats mis-gauged the electorate’s hostility to socialism! Trump campaigned loudly about how the victory by the Democrats would bring “socialism,” the drumbeat of repetition effectively transforming this meme into a larger-than-life truth. Not unlike how the overkill of claims that the Russians influenced the 2016 election, stealing it from Hilary! How a volley of assertions that this Democratic Party on the eve of the election was too “radical”—threatening to turn this country into a socialist republic—could stick, speaks volumes about how the social media out-of-context snippet has been able to lodge itself into the minds of so many Americans.

If the institutional largesse only existed that would permit a debate about what socialism is, or what the substantive policies are that these elite co-caretakers of the one-Party state espouse! But the attraction to symbols, the attachment to simplistic substitutes, is mostly what drives the process in the absence of options that can lead to ideological clarity and specific improvements in people’s lives. This election’s outcomes are the result of the compounding of false claims, irrational attractions, and wrong choices about wrong candidates. They reveal a profound desire for content that couldn’t be delivered. Was the election then symbolically nullified since too many apparently voted against their true interests?

But who can reliably say what someone’s true interests are? What knowledge produces the assurance that any one person or group has chosen the correct path or articulated the truthful course? Don’t people know what they want?

Any number of research-spawned angles can extrapolate motives and consistent narratives to separate the fantasy—the false consciousness—from the substance. The concept of false consciousness implies wrongness, that the perp utters or supports something that is unsustainable from one of these angles. But choices can express degrees of enlightenment and wrong-headedness, be functional for someone even if they don’t have a full mastery of options and consequences, and potentially lead to at least some emotional satisfaction and even truth for them. Granted, an eruption of irrational forces can trump wizened urges, the basis for Wilhelm Reich’s treatise on how German citizens ravaged by the Depression voted for the Nazis, the Party least likely to realize their interests (The Mass Psychology of Fascism, 1933).

Perhaps this is the same eruption we’ve witnessed in the red states over the past several years where the inequality gap is wider than in the blue states, but voters continue to legitimize the Republican Party’s policies that sustain it.

Given limited choices, and confusing and even polarizing interpretations—framings—by intellectual gatekeepers, people will latch onto symbols. Like MAGA (Make America Great Again). Bonding with others in large groups who’ve not experienced a great deal of improvement in their lives—and can expect little help from the Democrats—can produce a libidinal charge, a rush of belongingness that transcends friction and difference. Such symbols are real for many who might even have enough truck with the relevant facts to evaluate how flimsy this slogan is. Most beings are a mesh of dispositions, the potential to express the insightful and the frightful, or even both together in some symptom that taxes the clinical mind.

No doubt there are some voters who appear lost in a sea of falsity and fakery, and there’s no shortage of critics who conflate this malady with Trump’s supporters. But others voted for specific reasons, aligning issues with interests, so passionate about their decision that Trump’s personal transgressions were erased from consciousness.

Iowa voters strongly supported Trump, especially in rural areas where the per capita income is lower than in the cities, and in counties that went big for Obama in 2008 and 2012. This shattered the image of the Republican Party, according to Chris McGreal, as a country club grouping. He contends this was not simply an example of successful manipulation by a false Republican populism, however. Farmers, hit hard in recent years economically, benefited significantly from Trump’s policies on trade, particularly with China, getting grants the administration “claimed” were generated through tariffs on imports. Many voters felt abandoned and talked down to by the Democrats who treated them like gun-toting hicks. And they were uneasy about the riot-spawned violence. Interestingly, there was wide support among voters for the issues that Black Lives Matter expressed until the violence, and they felt the Democrats did little to authoritatively respond and explain it, mostly letting it happen and blaming Trump (Chris McGreal, “How Did Trump Manage To Boost His Support Among Rural Americans?” The Guardian, 11/20/2020).

The Democrats missed the opportunity to craft saner policies on trade. And with respect to the riots, since the violence hardly came from one source, they could’ve delivered a palatable version of the complex narrative unfolding over the course of the past several months to allay the fears of those threatened and expose their manipulation.

Did voters of color who bolted for Trump match their interests, or get befuddled by the messages? How could so many of those Trump was persistently accused of being racist toward for most of the year finally support him? Did they mistrust the accusers, or disregard the issue of color entirely? Obviously, the Democrats attracted large numbers of these voters, but in a climate of critical overkill against Trump this increment of support beyond 2016 sticks out.

Trump’s toxic rhetoric against immigrants—or rather migrants and refugees, aspiring to become legal—was sufficient to turn many against him with charges of racism. But the ICE family separation policy notwithstanding, his record on deportations was less extreme than Obama’s. Many voters surely saw through this contradiction and ignored the rhetoric. But many also were not sympathetic with the Democrats’ open borders argument, feeling that they had worked hard to secure their legal status here and new arrivals were being advanced beyond the conventional process and often given benefits many of them, or even long-standing citizens, had not been given.

But there are other reasons why immigrants, particularly Hispanics and Asians, voted for Trump and the Republicans. They see themselves, according to Jay Caspian Kang, as living lives that have little to do with America’s traditional racial hierarchy and were not receptive to the “antiracist and antixenophobic messaging” that came from the Democratic Party (“’People of Color’ Do Not Belong to the Democratic Party,” New York Times, 11/20/2020)

Not that they’re unsympathetic with antiracism—many having been victims of racism themselves—but in building their communities successfully from the bottom up they’re demonstrating how the collective will can mitigate the effects of racism. Hence the sentiments in these communities against affirmative action. There is sympathy, Kang contends, for a reaching-out by either the Democrats or Republicans that attempts to build a multi-racial coalition that clarifies the common interests as well as the bases for division between groups, including lower class whites, a strategy that could help lift all together. The Republicans offered the semblance of doing so, whereas the Democrats mostly refused, endorsing the black-white binary.

One issue that can help focus these common interests is class. While not all cultures of color are equal, each has its own strikingly unequal hierarchy. In fact, this inequality has spiked in the past few decades in these cultures, trending in the same direction as the society overall. But the lens of class is mostly ignored, especially when it comes to analyzing exit poll data. The Asian and Hispanic communities have improved their aggregate numbers in relation to the white majority as an elite, wealthy class has mushroomed in each. The black community hasn’t favored as well in the aggregate, but there have been advances within its upper tiers—more later—that predate the Black Lives Matter engineered protests from earlier this year.

White wealth is greater in the aggregate—when factoring its percentage of the population—than that in all the other racial/ethnic groups. But despite these different overall levels, each racial group has basically the same level of inequality. According to the People’s Policy Project, for each group the top 10% owns about 75% of the total wealth, while the bottom half owns virtually none of it. In between there is a modest “middle class” that owns the remaining 25%. Looking at the groups’ interrelationship, we see that 88.5% of the top 10% of Americans are white and this segment owns over 77% of all the wealth. The propertyless lower class, which makes up the bottom half of the country, is disproportionately nonwhite but also thoroughly multi-racial with whites making up the slight majority at 55% (Matt Bruenig, “Wealth Inequality Across Class And Race,” 3/5/2020).

Looking at race with a class lens reveals that skin color is not the whole picture. It’s hard to imagine propertyless whites doing damage to people of color when they have no power to exert. The perpetrators of racism—as opposed to mere slurs—will likely be those in the upper tier of wealth accumulation who command the most influence to negatively impact lives for prejudicial reasons. And these perps can be nonwhites as well. We can say then that systemic classism operates across the racial/ethnic field.

And class is a corrective to the tendency by politicians to compare aggregate data between groups, which can distort the real picture. Saying that people of color are many more times likely to die from Covid compared to whites, for example, which certainly contains truth, will be further from this truth when different class segments are isolated for analysis. One of the major contributors to Covid is obesity, which closely correlates with the lack of access to good health care, a malady that strikes those in all the lower classes disproportionately.

The extreme hierarchy of wealth and privilege in all ethnic groups constitutes a powerful fascism, one whose exclusion of so many from the avenues of success becomes a super-breeder of hostility and division that prevents the coming-together that the nation needs so badly to move beyond Trumpism. The propertyless fixated on their own survival become resentful of their masters at the top of the hierarchy, as well as those from other groups, especially whites who possess such a large portion of wealth. Every fascist order marginalizes some group and the propertyless are clearly that here. But it raises the question of what a minority is. The success of diversity policies targeted mostly at the top tier over the course of the past few decades have at least bronzed the worker mix, helped along in the wake of this past year’s rise in antiracism consciousness. Though Trump drew increased support from lower income populations, as mentioned, his spike among minority groups will surely reveal that many of its members are from the upper tier. Minorities are defined culturally as Democratic liberal policies have pushed for more inclusion of the diverse. A reconfiguration, where minorities are defined economically, will help to build a multi-racial coalition that forces the propertyless in all groups to see their common interests. How did MLK’s ideas get lost?

The effect of the absence of a class perspective is especially consequential for how the resources meant to combat black inequality are being channeled. Billions are being pledged by major corporations to support the cause with the bulk earmarked for advancing those aspiring to pursue the college course. Bank of America is granting multi-millions to the LA Community College District to fast-track blacks through the educational process and into the corporate hierarchy. An enlightening gesture indeed, yet B of A was one of the banking perps responsible prior to the Great Recession of 2008 for redlining blacks from mortgages—or giving them discriminatory mortgages guaranteed to fail—and then robo-foreclosing them without refinancing options.

More enlightened policies could have forestalled the spike in inequality in the aftermath of this economic catastrophe, keeping capital in the hands of those most in need. This could’ve helped alleviate the excess burden of the demand for college as the answer to catalyze the American Dream for blacks. In fact, why are we not seeing more support for the vocational track and programs that can help lift those who will never go to college, so they won’t languish in minimum wage jobs? This under-targeted culture is the main locus of those who indeed bear the traces of deprivation from the legacy of slavery. More attention to this sector can fast-track results for improving inequality, bridge more of the gap between them and upwardly mobile black men. Census data shows that slightly more than one-in-five—about 2.5 million—black men ages 18 to 64 have made it into the upper third of the income distribution (Bradford Wilcox et al, “2.5 Million Black Men Are in the Upper Class,” Institute for Family Studies, 7/23/2019). Realistically this kind of upward movement will reach a limit, so the expansion of opportunity for the bulk of those with no college aspirations will help to ballast the system.

If systemic classism is operative in all groups—along with systemic racism—then the goal should be to expose how it works and use this knowledge to help more citizens of any color to break through its barriers and escape the propertyless category. This will help energize the repressed progressive agenda and align voters’ interests with some semblance of rationality, hopefully leading to the transcendence of the one-Party system.


John O’Kane teaches writing at Chapman University. His recent book is Toward Election 2020: Cancel Culture, Censorship and Class