Schmidt: White Americans have become the most special of interests

Schmidt: White Americans have become the most special of interests

On January 20th, 2017, the first African American president of the United States will hand over the White House to a man who was endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan. This has been commented upon many times since Election Day. But how did it happen?

The New York Times, in its post-election analysis, emphasized the “unique coalition of white voters” who supported the president-elect. Trump voters, the Times noted, supported him because they felt he would “hear and protect” them, and because they felt he would “fight special interests.” In fact, however, Donald Trump owes his victory to interest group politics.

Donald Trump is president-elect of the United States because, in the election of 2016, white people voted as an interest group.

Interest group politics is a central concern of those who study American politics. We usually nod towards James Madison’s description of factions (“a number of citizens,” Federalist 10 reads, “who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or the permanent and aggregate interests of the community”), and then move on to discuss the diverse assemblage of interests – professional organizations, ideological movements, partisan groups, and so on – whose perpetually shifting coalitions make up the stuff of our political system. Whites aren’t usually included on the list of the interest groups we study. Rather, they form the backdrop of all that political activity.

This isn’t because whites aren’t factional in American politics; quite the opposite. Whites have just been such an enormous majority of our electorate – the entirety of it, in fact, for most of our history – that they are part of all the interest groups. There are white Democrats and white Republicans, white Communists and white reactionaries, whites who support gun registration, whites who support hydraulic fracturing, and so on.

The percentage of whites in the electorate, however, has begun to shrink. This isn’t because there are less white voters in the American citizenry. It’s just that our voting public has become increasingly racially diverse, and thus whites have formed a smaller piece of the pie. After the election of 2012, the Republican Party published a self-study of their losses, a campaign “autopsy,” that emphasized that new demographic reality: “By the year 2050 we’ll be a majority-minority country and in both 2008 and 2012 President Obama won a combined 80 percent of the votes of all minority groups. The RNC cannot and will not write off any demographic or community or region of this country.”

This is why many – most, I believe – political scientists thought that Trump was committing political suicide when he began his presidential campaign by saying, of Mexican immigrants, “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” And then he kept going, endorsing religious tests on immigrants and targeting non-white protestors at his rallies for violence. To intentionally alienate non-white voters, and all the interest groups that oppose racism and that include whites, was, according to the math of American political science, suicidal. But that math – our math – assumed that white people would, like they normally do, occupy positions all over the electoral spectrum.

Instead, white people – whites with college degrees and whites without, working class, middle class, and wealthy whites, millennial whites and baby boomer whites, white men and white women, independent white voters and even whites in the Democratic party – voted for the candidate of the white power movement. (See here and here.)

In other words, we assumed that banking on racism is foolish because we assumed that the voters and interest groups who oppose racism would outnumber those who support it, and we assumed that, as is usually the case, whites would be distributed across a wide variety of interest groups. We knew that a majority of whites would likely vote for the candidate who promised to protect their supremacy; but we didn’t think that so many whites would coalesce as an interest group.

For whites to organize as an interest group is different, you see, from, say, German Americans, or Mexican Americans, or Catholics, organizing as an interest group. There is no Whitish faith, driven from distant shores by religious oppression. There is no Whitelandia, whose heritage is defended in charming annual festivals. “White” does not name a historical civilization. White is a political and legal category that was created by racism.

We conventionally misunderstand racism, to our profound disadvantage. We confuse it with prejudice, with individual bias; we read it as a question of individual choice. It is not. Racism, like capitalism or socialism, is a system for the organization of resources. Since the first half of the seventeenth century, “race” was the rationale for extracting labor and land from some human beings to the benefit of others. Over time, race also became the gateway to citizenship. “White” is the name of the beneficiaries of that system. And while those beneficiaries may be a smaller portion of the electorate than they used to be, they still make up some 63% of the American population. If they are now voting as a, to quote the Times, “special interest group,” they are a very special interest group indeed.

“Whiteness,” is a class of beneficiary that is enabled by non-whites; white resources, white autonomy, white power are explicitly derived from those who are not white. That is how “white” works. A “white” interest group victory is, therefore, a victory at the expense of that part of the population that fuels and sustains “whites.” We have already seen, less than a week after Election Day, many examples of what this relationship looks like, in a decentralized and largely unorganized fashion. Trump’s campaign has promised us the same thing as a centralized and federally organized platform of Muslim registries and deportation squads, but even if those promises are lies, the GOP need only continue with its post-Shelby County v. Holder program of rolling back voting rights to serve an interest group coalition of white people qua white people.

Racist rhetoric expands beyond race, however. A politics in defense of a class of people who serve as beneficiaries at the expense of others can reduce almost everyone to the level of “resources.” Ask the Gold Star families of the veterans who serve as religious Others for the Trump campaign, or the disabled, who Trump used as punch lines. Ask any woman you know about the underlying logic of the electoral victory of a man who boasted that he can grab any woman he finds attractive by the genitals, simply because he has money and fame.

Donald Trump brags about committing sexual assault as a way of impressing a minor entertainment reporter, and wins the presidency, and his victory is logical. It follows the logic of an interest group politics built, explicitly, around the empowerment of one group of people at the expense of almost every other group of people in the country. And Donald Trump is the least of it. Governor Mike Pence treats the bodies of the women of Indiana as the raw material for his overheated eschatological horror fiction. He seems to genuinely believe that his version of Christianity gives him the right to command the health, the bodies, of the women in the state whose executive branch he heads. And now he is the vice president-elect of the United States.

The winning strategy of the 2016 election was offering “white power” to white voters. As a result of that strategy, the party that Donald Trump used to achieve power will soon control the White House, the Senate, the House of Representatives, three out of every four state governments, and it will likely transform the U.S. Supreme Court for a generation.

And who are we, in the face of all that? We are a majority of those who voted in this election. We have scores of our own interest groups. We have neighbors we’ll stand beside, and who will stand beside us.

The United States may never be a nation that assumes the importance of equality, autonomy, or respect. We may never institutionalize civil liberties and civil rights to a degree of safety that extends beyond every two-year election cycle. But I believe the United States will remain a place where people fight for civil liberties and civil rights, for equality, and autonomy, and respect. And tomorrow, we return to that endless fight. I’ll see you there.

Photo via Flickr/Gage Skidmore

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Ron Schmidt
Ron Schmidt 45 posts

Dr. Ronald Schmidt is an Associate Professor of Political Science in the Department of History and Political Science at the University of Southern Maine.

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