Ezra Klein’s Monday article in Vox addressed race in politics, comparing the election of Barack Obama with the election of Donald Trump. It was longer and more nuanced than most of what is published there, but still missed the major point.
The changes in the way race plays into national politics are not a reaction to Obama. They are a reaction to the world progressives built and are still building, a world that has seen the Left’s default position go from aspiring toward color-blindness to one of grievance-nursing along every possible intersectional axis. The political world that gave us Trump is different than the one that gave us Obama, but the difference is of the Left’s own making.
Demographics Aren’t Destiny
Klein begins with the latest version of the demographics-as-destiny argument. That theory was popularized in John Judis and Ruy Teixeira’s 2002 book, “The Emerging Democratic Majority,” and used to run something like this: as immigration from places other than Europe shifts America’s demographics, the percentage of non-white voters will rise. These voters will vote Democratic with the same uniformity as black Americans currently do, and their votes will eventually be so numerous that they will reduce the Republican Party to a permanent second place.
The next election after Judis and Teixeira’s book debuted was George W. Bush’s electoral and popular vote majority, but theories in the political world are not derailed by mere events. Demographics-as-destiny adherents focused on the “emerging” part of the title and held out hope for the day their favored politicians would win simply by existing and America would become a California writ large. Obama’s 2008 election and somewhat reduced majority in 2012 maintained the fiction, and things looked bright for the Left.
Trump’s election in 2016 changed that, as it changed nearly every working theory of American politics. Writers like Klein did not waver in their belief that Republicans would soon be swamped by numbers of unflinching Democratic voters, but added a corollary: before the apotheosis of progressivism, there would be rear-guard action by the forces of reaction. The ever-racist whites would hold off the forces of goodness and decency until even greater numbers finally swamped them. That, in brief, is the subject of Klein’s latest article.
From Facts To Faction
But even before Trump’s refutation of the theory, there was a shift in the demographics argument’s delivery. The original idea involved political scientists looking at numbers, extrapolating them into the future, and saying what they thought it would mean for the country.
It is not wrong to say these things; facts are facts, trends can be predicted based on them. But the underlying premise should make Americans a little uneasy. People vote as individuals, but progressives too often see them only as groups, the sum of their intersections. The demographic argument suggests that DNA determines our votes more than free will does, in a weird secular pre-destinationism.
The tenor of that argument changed as 2016’s election approached. Neutral recitation of the facts gave way in some writers’ work to gleeful anticipation of white people’s diminution. As the intersectional movement moved from academia to mainstream, some on the far-left dropped the powerful liberal idea of color-blind equality in favor of a system of permanent conflict between races, religions, ethnicities, and classes. All differences were deemed vectors of oppression, and the cause of it all was white people.
Articles of this sort abounded, as in like a 2015 work from Salon (“White guys are killing us”) or a 2016 article from the Huffington Post (“Democrats Don’t Need White Men to Win”). One might argue that these outlets are not the arbiters of mainstream opinion, but one of the leveling effects of the Internet is that any article can go viral.
Establishment lefties might have kept the triumphal attitude out of their pieces, but that discretion did not extend to all corners of their coalition. Since the election, things have only gotten crazier. When these articles and others like them spread through social media, that spirit of ugly, factional, demographic-inspired triumph signaled to left-leaning voters that this sort of open distaste for a large segment of the population was acceptable.
It’s Not Just Demographic Displacement
More importantly, electorally speaking, is that many white Democrats got that message, too. Their party and the Clinton campaign (which were essentially the same thing in 2016) spent all their energy hailing what Ronald Brownstein in 2012 called the “coalition of the ascendant.” But the message filtered down to the people not as one of a rising tide lifting all demographic boats into a new, more equal America, but of one group clambering over another for control of the levers of power.
How many people in the reciprocal “coalition of the descending” could be expected to remain behind in a Democratic Party that gleefully prophesied their fade into insignificance? Having been told that the melting pot was a lie and that their very existence caused oppression along countless intersecting vectors, how many could be expected not to defend themselves?
Among rich lefties, perhaps, this new reality was acceptable, as it dovetailed with their guilt over their own success. But for the middle and working classes, it constituted only a threat, and a demand that they be held responsible for the deeds of an establishment that had never included them or their blue-collar ancestors.
My colleague David Marcus picked up on this point earlier than most, writing in May 2016 that “this shift in rhetoric undermines what was once the core of anti-racist efforts. Treating people equally has given way to making all of us ambassadors for our race. This is a classic theme in critical race theory, that people of color carry a burden of representation that white people do not. But foisting the baggage of representation onto white people doesn’t solve that problem. It makes it worse.”
In abandoning color-blind equality as a goal, the far-left all but dared white people to adopt their theories and emphasize their own racial identity, even over the more unifying identity of our shared Americanism and above even our shared humanity. Sadly, this appealed to some of what became known as the alt-right. The right-wing establishment had adopted the racial equality platform that began on the Left, but instead of consolidating that victory and working together toward greater racial harmony, the Left got more radical, as the nature of progressivism demands.
Equality was seen as unachievable, so grievance-balancing intersectionality would take its place. As a bonus, such a system of finely balanced intersectional offenses required constant debate and, ultimately, gatekeepers to determine which historical wrongs were greatest. That gives a small elite a great deal of power, in contrast to the simpler virtue of just leaving people alone and treating everyone equally.
All of which is to say, Klein misses the point when he acts as though Trumpian resentment sprang up on the Right ex nihilo. Klein begins his essay about white racial resentment with the election of Obama, our first black president. While we should not say that one black chief executive signaled the end of racism in America, it does at least signal that a majority of people were not so enthralled by white grievances that they could not elect a black man to be the leader of the free world.
Yet that same electorate’s turn to Trump is seen as evidence that white Americans are relentlessly racist. What could have caused the change? Klein points to the demography, but that has been changing forever and should have helped his side, not hurt it.
The new factor in the electorate equation was the attitude around that demography, and the Left’s premature celebration when they thought the game was won. Abandoning equality when they thought it was of no more use to them, they showed their true face to people, including those to whom equality still meant something.
That, at best, leaves one party still dedicated to that ideal. At worst, it leaves none, with both parties becoming rival factions nursing competing racial resentments.
The Equation Does Not Balance
Beyond misplacing the blame, Klein and those like him misunderstand the nature of race in politics. Specifically, they think that not only will demographic changes continue into the future, but that 2018’s definitions of race will continue as well.
But history shows that this has never been the case. For a country that has long been preoccupied with race, America’s standard definitions of race have undergone considerable change. They will continue to do so.
Even if the Democrats are correct that they will receive the vast majority of minority votes, they are wrong that our current politically motivated definitions of whiteness and non-whiteness will remain the same. Klein briefly engages with this point, though he ultimately ignores it: “Demographers can and do disagree over whether these projections will hold. Perhaps Hispanic whites will begin identifying simply as whites in the coming years, much as the Irish became white in the 20th century. Race is what we make of it, and what we make of it shifts and mutates.”
There’s no “perhaps” about it. This change has been going on forever, and attempts to ignore it are willful blindness motivated by politics. In the twenty-first century, politicos speak of the historical dominance of white people and their oppression of non-whites, but that is not how people thought of themselves in those days.
In Theodore Roosevelt’s time, people in the establishment (including TR himself) spoke not of the white race but of the Anglo-Saxon people. That narrow definition of the people they desired to see in charge of things was big enough to admit other Protestants of colonial heritage (including Roosevelt’s New York Dutch ancestors), but not enough to admit the Irish, Italians, Jews, Greeks, and Slavs who had made up most of the immigrants over the previous half-century. These, they believed, were utterly foreign and had cultures at odds with American values.
How things changed. Klein notes that the Irish “became white in the 20th century,” and he is correct. Indeed, the Irish are so thoroughly white that it seems now ridiculous to suggest that they are anything but white. Other groups that immigrated around the same time have likewise been welcomed into the establishment, accessing its societal benefits and costs alike.
There is no reason to believe that other white-looking people like Arabs and Persians will be long excluded. Indeed, their identification as non-white people is primarily a political matter at a time when access to intersectional vectors of oppression is more politically advantageous than “becoming white.” Even the term “white” may be eclipsed by some new artifact of racial ideology or pseudoscience
This goes to show how race is far more a matter of politics and social theory than of biology. No matter what 23andMe says about our DNA, how we view ourselves—and how others view us—is far more mutable. The groups we now call “white” and “people of color” are constructed by political alliances of convenience, not biological facts, just as the so-called Anglo-Saxon people was. Increased intermarriage between whites and non-whites will blur these artificial lines even further. They have changed, and will continue to change.
Racial Grievance Politics Are Already Changing
Already the ground is shifting. Affirmative action, once intended to redress the harms of white discrimination against non-whites, is now being used to limit Asians’ college admission as well. Does that mean they are beginning to be no longer a part of the awkwardly named “people of color” coalition? Or more to the point Klein brings up: evidence exists that many Hispanic people identify themselves as white. Does that disqualify them from the “coalition of the ascendant?”
Race is not something that is projectable as a trend, and even discussing it in such fine detail—who is white? who isn’t?—feels kind of gross and un-American. That is the biggest problem with observations like Klein’s: by drawing attention to the many variations within the American people, they exacerbate the divisions between us. By imputing political judgments to entire races, they encourage people to align their politics to their race instead of their values.
The real solution to racial grievances in politics is to return to the old liberal American idea of aspiring toward equality, no matter how difficult that goal may be to attain. Instead of focusing on where people are coming from, let’s talk about where they are headed, who they are in joining the American melting pot and becoming every bit as American as those who were born here.
Some Trump voters have come to adopt grievance politics, and Democrats have endorsed that platform for years. They all should reconsider their choices, make politics about ideas, not skin color, and return to the universal American values that once brought us together.