Friday, February 2, 2018

The end of our democracy: the triumph of racism

There's an important new article from Ezra Klein over at VOX, where he reviews a new book called "How Democracies Die".  And it makes clear that race (and its proxy, evangelical Christianity) remains the fracture of this country.
Our democracy was built atop racism and has been repeatedly shaken in eras of racial progress. The founding compromises that birthed the country included entrenching slavery and counting African Americans as three-fifths of a person. ...Then in the the Civil War’s aftermath, the pursuit of equality fell before the pursuit of stability — in Reconstruction and continuing up through the mid-20th century, the Democratic and Republican parties permitted the South to construct an apartheid state atop a foundation of legal discrimination and racial terrorism, and it was in this environment that American politics saw its so-called golden era, in which the two parties worked together smoothly and routinely..... 
The racial progress of the civil rights era led to a series of political assassinations and, shortly thereafter, to the election of Richard Nixon — who quickly caused a democratic and constitutional crisis of his own. In the aftermath of that period, little was done — and much was undone — on civil rights, and American democracy stabilized. 
That is, it stabilized until the election of President Barack Obama, which led to a hard turn toward confrontation in the Republican Party, and — perhaps predictably, given this history — to the election of Donald Trump, who pairs racial resentment with a deep skepticism of both democratic process and the legitimacy of his opponents.
So Republicans and Democrats are deeply divided by race and religion, to the extent where toleration and compromise aren't possible. survive, political systems need parties who place fundamental values above immediate political or policy gain. America’s democracy is currently operating without that protection. History shows that leaves us vulnerable....Democracies fend off challenges when participants value the preservation of the system — its norms and ideals and values — over short-term political gain....
Quoting from the book,
If the definition of “real Americans” is restricted to those who are native-born, English-speaking, white, and Christian, then it is easy to see how “real Americans” may view themselves as declining. As Ann Coulter chillingly put it, “The American electorate isn’t moving to the left — it’s shrinking.” The perception among many Tea Party Republicans that their America is disappearing helps us understand the appeal of such slogans as “Take Our Country Back” or “Make America Great Again.” The danger of such appeals is that casting Democrats as not real Americans is a frontal assault on mutual toleration.

This is not a new observation. Former Republican (and now Political Orphan) Chris Ladd has made the point before:
We are discovering that no one ever really cared much about abortion. No one cared about fiscal restraint, or tax cuts or nationalized health care. The Republican base we painstakingly assembled across fifty years is only really interested in one thing – preserving the dominant position of their white culture against a rising tide of pluralism. Other issues only mattered to the extent that they helped reinforce and preserve white supremacy.
In an interview, Ladd expands,
I grew up white trash in one of those forgotten hellholes in Trumplandia. Most of these places were hellholes decades ago in their imaginary prime. They were hellholes 80 years ago when writers like James Agee came to ogle their inhabitants and muse on their simple virtues. Now they many of them remain hellholes with fewer people and less going on. 
Nothing about these places has changed apart from the fact that the rest of the world got better, a lot better. And most importantly, the world has gotten better for people like African-Americans, Hispanics, and women; people whose suffering and enforced weakness used to give Trump voters some relative comfort. 
....Mealy sympathy-pieces about backwater towns in thrall to Trump offer a certain comfort to everyone else. We would all be relieved to discover that this national nightmare was just a big misunderstanding, another example of “elites” failing to listen to the common people. We could just hug it out. 
Sorry. I’ve been listening to these people my whole life. We are not facing some new problem born of globalization or capitalism or trade. We are facing America’s oldest problem.

When white people feel their hold on power slipping, they freak out. And it always starts with the folks lower down the economic ladder, because they have the highest relative investment in what it means to be white in this country. There’s not a damned thing we can do about it other than out-vote them and, over time, out-evolve them until this crippling and occasionally lethal national glitch is slowly worked out of our bloodstream. 

Klein concludes his review with a quote from the book:
The simple fact of the matter is that the world has never built a multiethnic democracy in which no particular ethnic group is in the majority and where political equality, social equality and economies that empower all have been achieved.
It is not clear that we will change that.

1 comment:

Marshall Scott said...

Just for the record, James Agee grew up very close to those "hellholes." He grew up in Knoxville, Tennessee, in the midst of the Appalachian coal belt, and had family living in the coal fields. When he had part of his education at Sewanee, Tennessee, the local industries were coal mining and lumber. If Ladd intends to sound dismissive, perhaps he did not know that, for all his later education, his early formation was also affected by those "hellholes" and the people who live in them.

Having also grown up there, I do think there is something more that can be done. We can put some real money into economic development and education there - things the current administration might talk about, but has shown no real interest in actually doing.