U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Big Tent

Some ideas are pretty rare outside of certain circles. [Insert joke about favorite idiosyncratic sub-subculture here.] Others pop up all over the place. The latter phenomenon particularly perks my interest when a political idea displays this versatility; if conservatives, liberals, and leftists all dabble, at least occasionally, in the same predilection, you know something is up.

Ever since the election, such a case has been catching my attention. Trying to make sense of the epic and entirely unpredicted horror show of a Trump victory, conservatives, liberals, and some leftists have all flocked to different versions of an underlying explanation: one way or the other, white people got their feels hurt and exacted revenge at the polls.

This population of white people sometimes appears un-classed, as in the case of Mark Lilla’s historically inept and astoundingly arrogant op-ed attributing Clinton’s loss to her unhealthy and offensive obsession with diversity/identity politics. It makes sense for a liberal to make this move; while they might constantly council drawing attention to issues that impact all Americans, actually doing so would entail criticizing capitalism a lot more harshly than most Democrats, if not most liberals, are (still!) inclined to do. It’s hard to tell the white working class, after all, that they’re being screwed over by the rich when you’re pretty invested in protecting said wealthy elites. So, the offended group in question often just becomes “white, rural people” in general.

For leftists, the focus falls on the white working class, and instead of counseling a postracial politics of entirely fictional American unity, a class consciousness fit for the revolution is recommended. The failures of the Democrats loom even larger here, as would be expected; constitutionally incapable of speaking to the constituency they consistently exploit, the center-of-center party is worse than useless. Nonetheless, sometimes a confident argument remains that the wayward whites are simply not being spoken to correctly – as can be seen in this thread, Jacobin recently raised the heckles of many non-Marxist leftists by arguing that ultimately, of course, it comes down to class.

Before I go any further, I’d like to note the merits and wrinkles of the above arguments. Liberals like Lilla observe, correctly, that when you are used to privilege, equality feels like oppression – except he characterizes attempts to push back against white supremacy as narcissism and suggests that the appropriate strategy for dealing with the reactionary response of whites is to cease saying anything that deprives them of their usual experience of being at the center of the political and social universe. (Somehow it’s minorities that are narcissistic, instead of white people who can’t bear to not hear about how great their culture is from time to time, but I digress.) If Lilla was coming at this critique from a leftist perspective – ie, Democratic tokenism is standing in for real democracy as they continue the policies that maintain a white supremacist state – he would be getting somewhere. But, as he’s not, there’s nothing else worth seeing here.

Leftists who emphasize the need for a politics of class also have solid points to make. When substantial portions of your (supposed and historic) constituency simply stay home, clearly you are doing something wrong. And – surprise surprise! – I entirely agree that a politics of solidarity based on the shared politics of class is absolutely necessary to building a socialist movement.

Yet even here, this argument sometimes slips into suggesting that such a thing could be possible by avoiding differences rather than dealing with them. I’m not arguing that the Marxist left denies the reality and power of racism; for sure, most of these analyses say, Trump’s open xenophobia was part of his appeal. But this acknowledgment is usually followed up with the assertion that if there was a real party of the working class, the problem wouldn’t be substantial enough to lose elections – given the opportunity, the vast majority of the white working class will vote along lines of class, not race.

Articulating my problems with this position would require a post on to itself, so I’m leaving that aside for the moment. But notice how both liberals and leftists (and I’ve left conservatives out of the mix here, since their role in this discourse is too obvious to bother with) are flirting with this idea that ultimately, when we dig our way down through the failures of parties, policies, and rhetoric, what we won’t find at the bedrock is racism. Liberals like Lilla, of course, laughably think we’ll find some glorious Lost Ark of True Liberalism (please, listen to Indy and don’t open your eyes!), but classic Marxists also insist that as powerful as it is, race ultimately is a tool of class war, and lacks the autonomy to be anything else. To top it off, not all such leftists are white people – but, quite frankly, enough are to raise an eyebrow or two (or three).

So, what have we learned today? Other than the absolutely banal observation of “white people of all political persuasions can be found denying/downplaying the importance of race” I’m actually not sure. But what I do think is valuable here is to notice that the deepest ideological constructs of society do not always come packaged as points in a clear political spectrum; what makes hegemony hegemony, after all, is that it frames reality without being noticed as a Particular Point of View. So when you find these political notions that like to flirt with all sides, it is advisable to pay attention to them; they are pointing to something deeper and more difficult to excavate than our faith in our own capacity for critical and rational thinking usually allows us to acknowledge.

One Thought on this Post

  1. All this kind of recapitulates the debate over populism in the 1960s – Norman Pollack, Vann Woodward.

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