How the Federal Government Crushed Racist Organizing

Photograph Source: Anthony Crider – CC BY 2.0

According to data collected by the SPLC (Southern Poverty Law Center), white racist organizing in the U.S. saw a continued decline in 2020 from its peak in 2008, in the pit of the Great Recession. While unemployment skyrocketed due to pandemic shutdowns, the Federal response through the CARES Act prevented anything like the scale and scope of economic desperation that defined the Great Recession from arising. It is difficult to square this decade long decline in white racist organizing with the storyline that the radical right is ascendant in the U.S.

Why is this a point worth making? The Trump era saw the ascendance of what economist Thomas Piketty calls the Brahmin Left, or the PMC (professional managerial class). Its critique of Donald Trump and Trumpism was intended to separate him from American history in order to sell its own nationalistic, militaristic version of liberalism. The social levers it used were the residual Cold War fears of Russiagate and the faux class-blind claim that transhistorical racism is ascendant. The SPLC data contradicts this latter claim.

Graph: since the rise of militia groups in the 1990s, there has been a robust debate over the origins of organized right-wing resistance. When the stock market bubble of the late 1990s lowered the unemployment rate, the militia groups largely disappeared. The 2000s saw the decimation of the manufacturing economy and with it, a rise in racist organizing. And while unemployment rose dramatically in 2020, the Federal response through the CARES Act prevented the widespread economic desperation of earlier epochs from arising. Sources: St. Louis Federal Reserve; SPLC.

The newly emerging consensus, that it was the failures of the Obama administration that led to the election of Trump in 2016, is a radical departure from the insistence that ideological racists elected him. What ties one explanation to the other conceptually is the tendency of economic stress to widen social divisions, including racial divisions. What this explanation takes away is the idea that racism is intrinsic rather than socially determined. If Democrats really oppose racism, the lever for quelling it is broadly distributed prosperity.

Donald Trump’s use of racial divisions to boost his political fortunes— long called the Southern Strategy by political operatives, has been a constant in American politics from Republican Barry Goldwater and the Dixiecrats (Southern Democrats) to Trump. Bill Clinton and the pre-Obama White House Joe Biden were its Democratic Party practitioners. As repellant as it is, its portrayal as being outside of American history is either ignorant or dishonest.

The relationship between economic stress and social divisions claimed here isn’t new. The European fascist movements of the twentieth century achieved critical mass in the pit of the Great Depression. Adolf Hitler ascended to power in Germany in 1933 as five million Germans— a very large number given the size of the population, were unemployed and desperate. And even though the U.S. served as the basis for much of the Nazi political program, FDR’s New Deal is often credited with preventing European-style fascism from taking root in the U.S.

The relationship of economic stress to social divisions also led to the radical critique of the American and European responses to the Great Recession. Unless the goal was social suicide, leaving tens of millions of people to fend for themselves in circumstances of manufactured economic desperation is inexplicable. As economist Thomas Piketty argues, the takeover of the American Left by an educated, technocratic class— the ‘Brahmin Left,’ rendered it blind to class struggle. Given its class position, this Brahmin Left has substantive control over the dominant discourse.

To understand this politics in practical terms, the news-crafters at NPR, MSNBC, the New York Times and the Washington Post appear to take their roles in establishing the national discourse to heart. Here is the New York Times’ Dean Baquet explaining the Times’ decision to shift its focus to ‘racism’ after the failure of Robert Mueller to file collusion charges in Russiagate. In other words, Russiagate and imagined racist organizing didn’t lead the Times to want to bring down Trump. It was the desire to bring down Trump that led it to promote Russiagate and allegations of racism.

(To make this clear, there is no support for Donald Trump to be found in this piece. I did not vote for Trump, and have never supported a Republican politically. It was Barack Obama’s failure to address the Great Recession and its causes that led me to abandon the Democrats. The idiocy and condescension of the ‘you’re either with the Brahmin Left, or you’re with the fascists’ formulation should have instantly discredited anyone who deployed it. Such has not been the case, to the eternal discredit of the Brahmin Left).

As regards the Brahmin Left, if policy critiques were the basis of Trump loathing, that was the legitimate realm to take him on. However, Trump’s policies weren’t nearly the departure from American ‘norms’ that his critics claimed. Evidence in favor of this interpretation can be found in the Congressional Democrats’ willingness to pass his political program, largely without comment. If the Brahmin Left didn’t object to Trump’s political program, what did it object to? The question applies to the establishment press as well.

With immigrant children still in cages, the border wall still under construction, and almost none of the Democrat’s promised economic agenda enacted, what is apparent it that it was political leverage that the Trump critics were after, not social justice. As Dean Baquet put it (link above), the issues that the New York Times promoted, including stoking new Cold War tensions between two nuclear armed nations, were to bring Trump down. Here is Kamala Harris telling potential immigrants to stay home.

To wit: both Russiagate and the storyline of rising ‘hate’ were given voice by well-to-do, educated, elites working within dominant institutions. That the New York Times’ sources for Russiagate disclosures tended to be unnamed intelligence officials ties this crafting of public narratives to state propaganda. That 1) both stories still dominate liberal / Left discourse and 2) Russiagate charges remain unproved, while the story of rising hate is contradicted by the facts, suggests that facts have little to do with these stories.

The circular logic, that deploying stories to bring down a political figure is legitimated by the stories deployed to bring down that political figure, falls completely apart when / if the stories don’t match the facts. This is where much of the Left press in the U.S. stands at present. The Southern Strategy of using barely coded and uncoded racist appeals to win elections has been a staple of American politics for the last century. As repellant as it might be, the idea that it places a politician outside of American history is not just ahistorical, it is anti-historical.

The conceptual challenge for the liberal / Brahmin Left is to support its class interests from within its imagined ideological perspective. Step one was to abandon the idea of class. That much of the American Left has been consumed by a transhistorical conception of race since 2016, one where economic class is believed to diminish the purity of race as an object of struggle, fits it neatly into the neoliberal fix of diversity. As racist organizing was declining in the U.S. (graph above), it nevertheless replaced class struggle as the political problem in need of being solved.

Through race, a moral drama was substituted for class struggle. The moral drama was / is of a racist white working class pitted against a classless race that has been politically and economically repressed. Through the prism of race, class was effectively erased. This is quite spectacularly not the case in fact. The Brahmin Left considers itself allied with classless blacks against working class whites even though a preponderance of American blacks are working class.

The fact that all (100%) of the BLM (Black Lives Matter) signs in my region of the American Northeast are in the yards of bourgeois whites illustrates this tendency. The more racially segregated a rich, white, neighborhood is, the higher the propensity of BLM signs being displayed. The residents who live in these neighborhoods claim the moral certainty of claiming a moral certainty. As an abstraction, the belief that racism is bad is the politics. Or more to the point, signifying that one believes that racism is bad is the politics.

Another way to understand this is that the Brahmin Left has housing and food security, adequate healthcare, and steady and meaningful employment. For it, Medicare for All and a $15 per hour minimum wage are abstractions that won’t impact their lives one way or another. Without policy consequences, there is little difference between empty rhetoric and the provision of material benefits to needy people. Liberals can ‘be for’ Medicare for All and a $15 per hour minimum wage without ever doing anything to bring them about.

In the U.S., history was given a new starting point in 2016. Republicans (and Democrats) have been suppressing voters since I was but a wee lad, most egregiously in 2000, when dim warmonger George W. Bush was appointed to the presidency by political associates whom Ronald Reagan had appointed to the Supreme Court. Chief Justice William Rehnquist, who oversaw Bush v Gore, is alleged to have personally participated in Republican voter suppression efforts.

The ‘Southern Strategy,’ barely concealed racist appeals intended to garner white votes in the South, was pioneered by Dixiecrats— Southern Democrats, and was co-opted by reactionary Republicans from Barry Goldwater through Donald Trump. Bill Clinton and, up until he joined Barack Obama’s administration to attract retrograde Democrats, Joe Biden, used so-called dog whistles to similar effect. Trump joined a long, ignoble history in American politics. However, he didn’t invent the Southern Strategy.

In terms of lunatic nihilism, the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis was a Soviet response to the U.S. stationing first-strike nuclear missiles in Italy and Turkey. With overwhelming missile superiority and the only demonstrated proclivity to use nuclear weapons against civilian populations amongst nations, U.S. President John F. Kennedy came closer to ending human civilization than anyone else in world history. Donald Trump shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near nuclear weapons. But neither should any other U.S. president of the last century.

The point: voter suppression, stoking racial divisions for political gain, and lunatic nihilism that risks the lives of most living things on the planet, are as American as gratuitously overthrowing a foreign leader for the benefit of American business interests. Claims otherwise are revisionist history. The problem is that without this erasure of history, the existing members of the American political class look remarkably like the problem they are putting themselves forward to solve.

The economic dislocations that emerged from the Covid-19 pandemic, combined with the political animus generated around the 2020 presidential election, would seem the perfect storm for racial scapegoating. Nevertheless, thanks to the Federal largesse of the CARES Act, racist organizing continued to decline in 2020. As has been understood to varying degrees for centuries, neoliberalism, as market capitalism, fosters social divisions by pitting workers against one another.

Through the CARES Act, unemployment compensation was raised and its distribution broadened, eviction and foreclosure moratoria were issued, and non-means-tested payments were made to individuals. The CARES Act was fundamentally different from the late and inadequate Federal response to the Great Recession, which was centered around the trickle-down theory that what benefits business and the wealthy will eventually trickle down to the masses. Taking bosses out of the mix through direct payments demonstrated the potential of government to create good social outcomes.

That pure self-interest can be ascribed to Donald Trump’s motives for proposing the CARES Act— an historically unpopular president facing a re-election challenge in the midst of a wildly mis-handled pandemic, has no bearing on its social consequences. With unemployment at the highest levels seen since the Great Depression, (median) household income rose in 2020 as racist organizing declined. The power of the SPLC data is that it demonstrates this tendency across time. Lowering economic stress creates a better society.

The converse has also been demonstrated. Unfettered capitalism caused the Great Recession. The failures of the government response to it led to several million deaths of despair and the election of Donald Trump. Joe Biden entered office with an articulated understanding that it was the failures of the Obama administration that led to Trump’s election. Six months in, Mr. Biden has one Covid-19 relief bill to his name. While this doesn’t fit what Mr. Biden said to get elected, it does fit his half-century-long history as a legislator.

Rob Urie is an artist and political economist. His book Zen Economics is published by CounterPunch Books.