Thursday, January 07, 2016

Digby on "false consciousness" and liberals getting skittish about "political correctness"

Digby Parton is one of my favorite political analysts. One of the things she's been hashing over lately is the ever-vexing question of class and race in Donald Trump's support.

This is an old issue. It was an issue for the Populists in the late 19th century, who had an appeal to white Southern workers and farmers against the power of the trusts and concentrated wealth. But the Southern planters, bankers and industrialists also had a powerful appeal to whites to beware of Populists or other lefties who might promote black equality.

Tom Watson of Georgia embodied this political dilemma. Sarah Soule wrote about his early political career in "Populism and Black Lynching in Georgia, 1890-1900" Social Forces 71:2 (Dec 1992) (The ellipses here are for parentheses that refer to other sources referenced in the article.)

Research has recognized that Georgia was one of the most Populist of the southern states. Lead by Tom Watson, the great Populist leader who advocated a biracial union and equity for the downtrodden, the state's Populists actively sought the black vote ... Between 1892 and 1894, Georgia Populists increased their African American Representation at the State convention from less than five delegates to almost 25 ... In 1894, some districts of Georgia boasted 30% African American representation ... Some historians (Shaw 1984) argue that Georgia's Populist movement prospered in counties with a high (over 50%) black population, although other historians dispute this claim ... [my emphasis]
But Watson later decided that the furthering of his political career required doing away with all this actively seeking the black vote business. And he wound up going down in history as one of the South's most notorious racists. And that's not an easy status to achieve.

11 Alive Atlanta reported in Statue of "first class hater" to be removed from Capitol 10/21/2013 on a latter-day sanction against Watson's image:

Gov. Nathan Deal quietly signed an order this month to remove the controversial statue of Tom Watson from the prominent west side entrance of the state capitol building. ...

Watson was a late-19th century andearly-20th century state lawmaker and member of Congresswho, critics say, represented the worst of Georgia politics in the post-Reconstruction era. ...

"Tom Watson was a first-class hater and it wasn't just Jewish people, he hated Catholics and Black people too," said Anti-Defamation League southeastern director Bill Nigut, in a 2010 story on 11 Alive News.

Watson was a prominent voice in the buildup to the 1915 lynching of Leo Frank, a Jewish businessman convicted of murdering of Mary Phagan. "His anti-Semitism and racism was particularly vile," said Sen. Vincent Fort Monday. Fort says Watson whipped up racist sentiment that led to a riot in Atlanta in 1906.

"I think Tom Watson stands out because of the impact he had on the psyche of the people of this state and the region," said Rep. Tyrone Brooks (D-Atlanta). "It's appropriate to remove him from the front door of the people's capitol."
It was and is a commonplace in the labor movement that white racism is a tool of the bosses to create division among the workers. There were many examples of it in the South during Segregation 1.0, from mines in the Appalachians to factories in Alabama, where black workers were hired as "scabs" to break strikes by an all-white work force. Labor has always understood this problems as a real impediment to the labor movement, whether they called it "working class solidarity" or something less lefty-sounding. "Solidarity" is still not a dirty word in the labor movement, though.

The famous study headed by Max Horkheimer on The Authoritarian Personality dealt directly with the phenomenon of racism and other authoritarian tendencies among people who would seem to have clear economic interests in economically liberal/progressive policies.

With so much of the political world and our Pod Pundits more than half-stuck in 1969, it's also worth noting that something like this was also part of the career of George Wallace. In the effectively one-party state of Alabama, Wallace always attracted significant black votes. Not because they imagined he secretly stood for racial equality, although in his 1983 gubernatorial race he made gestures toward repudiating his racist positions. It was because in a contest between two Democratic candidates, Wallace stood for policies like free school textbooks that were more beneficial to black families than the policies advocated by his opponents.

This is a large part of the background of the issue as Digby has addressed it in various places recently. In Donald Trump will make America white again: “White working-class anxiety” is a dog-whistle for racism Salon 12/22/2015, she discusses the general assumption that Trump's support is especially strong among "non-college educated working class whites." The national press uses college education as a measure of the difference between working class and non-working class; I think there's a big problem with that definition but I won't go into it here. But by any reasonable definition, white working class voters are a part of Trump's current coalition, which hasn't yet been tested in an actual election. Digby writes:

He [Trump] isn’t the only one playing in that “bracket” — Ted Cruz also draws from it — but this does suggest that if you want to understand Trump and Cruz’s appeal you need to look at that group of voters and it’s natural that observers would look at their working class status as being the key to it. After all, people who are losing ground economically are going to be angry, depressed and generally upset and Trump speaks to those feelings very directly. ... President Obama talked about this at some length yesterday, saying that Trump was “exploiting” these peoples’ fears[.]

One of the places Digby addresses this issue in Donald Trump will make America white again: “White working-class anxiety” is a dog-whistle for racism Salon 12/22/2015:

Trump is pushing the racial and cultural resentment button a lot harder than he’s pushing the economic button. In fact, he’s pushing the resentment button so hard that it’s activated some very serious racists who truly had been pushed to the fringes of the right wing fever swamps. According to a rather disturbing story this week in the Washington Post there has been a surge of excitement among white supremacists. It quotes a number of different leaders of the movement who are thrilled at the prospect of one of their “own” getting mainstream credibility. Trump is often said by his followers to be “saying what they’re thinking.” These racists feel exactly the same way.

This is not to say that all Trump supporters are white supremacists. But it’s also not fair to say that the Trump voters who are hostile toward immigrants, Muslims and African Americans are simply reacting to economic inequality. As Bouie pointed out, this isn’t necessarily a case of classic Marxist false consciousness, or at least that doesn’t explain or excuse their love for Trump. Their racial resentment exists all on its own.

When Donald Trump says he will make America great again, what they hear is that Donald Trump will make America white again.
Gnashing of teeth over the idea of "false consciousness" seems a waste of energy to me. Not to mention enamel. Because you could describe any campaign pitch to undecided voters as an assumption that those voters have a "false consciousness" in that they haven't (yet) decided to vote for your candidate. You could describe any sales pitch that way, as well, as assuming that your not-yet customers have the "false consciousness" of not yet wanting to buy your super-awesome product.

Frankfurt School philosopher Herbert Marcuse used the phrase and concept in One-Dimensional Man (1964). As the reader can guess from this passage, it wasn't written in the language of the average newspaper article or stock op-ed:

Certainly it is quite natural, and does not seem to call for an explanation in depth, that the tangible benefits of the system are considered worth defending--especially in view of the repelling force of present day communism which appears to be the historical alternative. But it is natural only to a mode of thought and behavior which is unwilling and perhaps even incapable of comprehending what is happening and why it is happening, a mode of thought and behavior which is immune against any other than the established rationality. To the degree to which they correspond to the given reality, thought and behavior express a false consciousness, responding to and contributing to the preservation of a false order of facts. And this false consciousness has become embodied in the prevailing technical apparatus which in turn reproduces it. [my emphasis]
Marcuse's analysis is based heavily on Hegel's Logik. Which it's safe to say to say that neither our Pod Pundits nor the average political activists pay much attention to. That's not a criticism, it's a way of stating that Marcuse is making a philosophical/sociological point, not asserting that anyone who doesn't agree with him is a dummy. Which is how conservatives use the term to claim that the Mean Libruals are lookin' down their noses at the regular old white guy who just wants to read his Bible, drank him some beer and hate on the blacks and the gays.

It's also possible to make a straightforward economic, sociological or political science case that some groups vote against their own interests in some quantifiable way. With no need to resort to Hegelian logic. In Left Blogostan we periodically see maps showing how Republican states receive more in federal spending than Democratic states, though Republicans are highly critical of domestic federal spending. Paul Krugman and Brad DeLong and other economists familiar with international economics tell us that such transfers are, among other things, part of a normal part of a well-functioning currency zone. There is an obvious case to be made that a solidly Republican state like my native state of Mississippi is voting against their own economic benefit by going Republican.

But there are other factors that go into voting, such as national security or "traditional values." And, as Digby puts it, "racial resentment exists all on its own." (A Hegelian might object that the truth is in the whole, but that's another discussion.) And some voters, a not insignificant numbers, prefer white solidarity to concrete economic benefit.

In addition to race, there are psychological satisfactions in identifying with a wealthy blowhard like Trump or a pompous superpatriot like Ted Cruz. Austrian psychiatrist Sigmund Freud expressed this unsentimental view in The Future of an Illusion (1927):

The narcissistic satisfaction provided by the cultural ideal is also among the forces which are successful in combating the hostility to culture within the cultural unit. This satisfaction can be shared in not only by the favoured classes, which enjoy the benefits of the culture, but also by the suppressed ones, since the right to despise the people outside it compensates them for the wrongs they suffer within their own unit. No doubt one is a wretched plebeian, harassed by debts and military service; but, to make up for it, one is a Roman citizen, one has one's share in the task of ruling other nations and dictating their laws. This identification of the suppressed classes with the class who rules and exploits them is, however, only part of a larger whole. For, on the other hand, the suppressed classes can be emotionally attached to their masters; in spite of their hostility to them they may see in them their ideals; unless such relations of a fundamentally satisfying kind subsisted, it would be impossible to understand how a number of civilizations have survived so long in spite of the justifiable hostility of large human masses. [my emphasis]
In a follow-up post, she states the case more

I wrote about the fallacy that drives too many liberals to assume that Trump's appeal is a matter of Marxist false consciousness: they may think they hate Mexicans and Muslims and Blacks but really they're just frustrated that they aren't doing better economically. (I have to assume these people have never met a rich bigot...) This is the Sanders pitch to Trump voters and I don't think it will work any better than it ever has because it just isn't true. Unless Sanders says that he's ready to deport immigrants and support abusive cops and surveil Muslims and worse, they're just not going to respond. Their world is not organized around economics, it's organized around bigotry toward other races and ethnicities (also, feminists and liberals...) Trump gets this and he's articulating this perfectly --- American will be "great again" once we put all these people in their places. [my emphasis in bold]
I think it's useful here to make a distinction between hardcore Republican voters and potential swing voters. The former for the most part won't be deterred from voting for a White Power candidate like Trump over economic issues. Among the latter there are more people who make take a less-than-enlightened view of non-white minorities, but aren't so committed to it politically that they will give it priority over economic or other issues.

She took another pass at the question in They don't really care about taxes, folks Hullabaloo 01/03/2016, here sounding a bit like Dr. Freud:

... these candidates [like Trump] don't have to run on lower tax rates for the middle class. All they have to do is promise to stick it to the "others" whether it's by denying benefits or a path to citizenship, deportation, abusive policing, long prison sentences, legalizing discrimination or war and more war. If lowering taxes will help accomplish those goals, these voters are all for it. But the taxes themselves are a means to an end.

That's what is animating the Trump voters --- which, at this point, makes up over half the Republican Party if you count Cruz's nutcase talk radio followers and Carson's kooky Armageddonist social conservatives. And as long as the Democratic party agrees to include all those undeserving free-loaders in their party, even if they promise to lower middle class taxes to zero, these Trump folks won't be joining up.

They are being screwed economically, for sure. But most of them care a lot more about people of color and foreigners challenging their status bruising their pride. Money isn't everything.
Digby, Well look who's voting for Donald Trump Hullabaloo 12/31/2015

"Even-the-liberal" Thomas Edsall, Trump, Obama and the Assault on Political Correctness New York Times 12/23/2015. Edsall quotes President Bipartisan Obama:

I’ve heard of some college campuses where they don’t want to have a guest speaker who is too conservative. Or they don’t want to read a book if it has language that is offensive to African-Americans, or somehow sends a demeaning signal towards women. And I’ve got to tell you, I don’t agree with that either. I don’t agree that you, when you become students at colleges, have to be coddled and protected from different points of views.
Bob Kuttner, who normally is not an "even-the-liberal" liberal comes up with a Sistah Soljah type example of "political correctness" to criticize (Thinking Harder about Political Correctness Huffington Post 01/03/2016):

Some of the ultra-P.C. stuff is silly and makes it easier for the right to lampoon liberals. At Oberlin, a college of which I'm a proud alumnus, the students have lately been protesting something called "cultural appropriation."

That turns out to mean the campus food service contractor offering ethnically-themed meals and doing a lousy job of preparing such dishes as General Tso's Chicken and presenting pulled pork masquerading as Vietnamese bahn mi. Surely students have better things to argue about.

When I was an undergraduate there, we also protested the food -- not because it was culturally insensitive but because it was just plain disgusting. The ethnically indeterminate chipped beef was an equal opportunity offender.
This past Saturday Donald Trump gave one of his White Power rallies to what in the pictures and video looks like a crowd so white I can't remember the last time I was ever part of such a white crowd. Paul Hampton reports on it in Trump pummels his opponents - and the press Biloxi Sun-Herald 01/02/2015:
Each of Trump's barbs was met with ever louder roars. But the crowd didn't find its full throat until Trump started picking on "the media."

His beef this time, beyond his usual charge that "some of them are crooked"? He didn't care for the TV photography. Particularly a cameraman at the center of the risers, where the national media was perched.

"These cameras back here will never show this crowd," said Trump, who estimated there were 15,000 in the Coliseum and 10,000 more in the adjacent Convention Center. The crowd began cheering and jeering, then urging the TV people to "spin camera."

"Look at him -- he doesn't turn the camera," Trump said. "The only time they turn the camera is when we have a heckler . I like hecklers. That's the only time they show the crowd."

The crowd, as they say, went wild. And many spent the rest of the evening trying to get a photograph of that infamous cameraman "in the middle."
Were those whites howling at some cameraman who has no editorial control over anything because they were upset about food protests at Oberlin College in Ohio?

As Charlie Pierce sometimes says in these case: Honky, please!

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