We can’t have progressive economic reform without confronting racism

We can’t have progressive economic reform without confronting racism

I just listened to one of the most interesting and informative conversations about race and politics in America that I’ve ever heard. Ezra Klein of Vox conducted the interview on June 29 with Heather McGhee, president of the progressive think tank Demos. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Here are some of the ideas that I took away from the conversation and that I thought were so compelling.

McGhee makes the strong argument that the history of austerity of the last thirty years in the US is necessarily racial. White, middle class (and I use “middle class” loosely) people benefit from big government but have been willing to oppose it so that “their” tax dollars don’t go to people of color. This is the “Devil’s bargain” that middle class whites and big Republican donors have struck and that Democrats continually fail to understand: why middle class whites vote against their best economic interests. And the answer, according to McGhee, is racism, fueled by dog whistles from big business-funded Republican candidates.

This explanation for middle class white voting behavior has two vital consequences for today’s politics and especially for the 2016 presidential election.

First, we cannot have large-scale, progressive economic reforms in this country without dealing explicitly with race. Progressives will not be able to cobble together the kind of public support necessary for massive change so long as middle class whites think that government investments in themselves and also in people of color is worse than no government investments at all. In my opinion, this is one of the fundamental failures of the Bernie Sanders campaign. Despite the fact that he called for universally popular government expansion, he viewed economic reform as a necessary precursor to racial progress, instead of the other way around.

In order to achieve the economic reforms that progressives (and most Americans) crave, we must first – McGhee argues – engage in the hard work of confronting the systemic racism that pervades American politics, government, and society. I encourage you to listen to the podcast to hear how she plans to go about this.

Secondly, Klein and McGhee together make the interesting point that Donald Trump’s appeal among middle class whites is that he is trying to break up this Devil’s bargain and give them what they’ve always wanted: big government that only benefits them, not dark people. This approach might have been successful in 1992 or even 2000. But now there simply aren’t enough middle class, racist white voters left to win a national election and, without the financial support of the Republican donor class, the Trump campaign can’t manufacture a victory using swift-boating or other similar tactics. Maybe if he were running against a white man and were not so openly misogynistic, Trump could eke out an election from a combination of low turnout among minorities and a lot of votes from white men and women. But he will not win white women this time around.

As McGhee notes, unless we do the hard work of addressing racism head-on now, Trump could be providing a template for how a future nationalist socialist leader could succeed in the future, if that candidate was a more skilled campaigner and attractive candidate. Barry Goldwater provided this template for the subsequent racist regimes of the 1980s and 90s.

So what now? As activists and leaders, we must not shy away from calling out racism where we see it. We must not triangulate our way around the question of race. We must be vocal in our denunciations of the racism of Trump and his racist supporters. We cannot hope to solve this problem until we all agree that there is a problem. And that starts with us.

Photo via Gage Skidmore.

About author

Will Ikard
Will Ikard 6 posts

Will Ikard is director of the Maine Small Business Coalition, which represents more than four thousand small business owners across Maine.


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