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Charlottesville and the Politics of Left Hysteria

26 Aug

The murder of an anti-fascist protestor (and the less-noted deaths of two National Guardsmen) at a “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia has gripped the United States and many observers elsewhere. It has revived claims about the rise of a “fascist” threat in the West. This is simply hysterical, and symbolises the US left’s incapacity for reasoned political analysis, particularly since the election of Donald Trump.

The most striking aspect of the left’s hysteria over Charlottesville is its failure to understand that it won the US culture wars, not the right. By any reasonable measure, American attitudes have become steadily more liberal over time. A summary of opinion polling since the 1970s shows a “sweeping, fundamental change in norms regarding race”, with steady declines on practically every key measure of racism. Surveys on attitudes towards women reveal an identical decline in sexism. More belatedly, a similar transformation happened in attitudes towards LGBT people. Two-thirds of Americans now support gay marriage, up from just 40 percent in 2009, suggesting that campaigners for equal rights now find themselves kicking at a largely open door. The membership of vile organisations like the Ku Klux Klan has collapsed, from a peak of three to six million in the 1920s to around 6,000 today. Only 10 percent of the US public admit to supporting the “alt right” (only 4 percent “strongly”, while 83 percent say it is “unacceptable to hold neo-Nazi or white supremacist views”. Too high and not high enough, one might say. But the fact is that the far-right is a lunatic fringe.

The rise of the “alt-right” does not signify some grave reversal of this trend, requiring massive societal mobilisation to counter it, but a rather sad, ineffectual backlash from the side that has already lost. The fact that the “Unite the Right” rally managed to draw only 500 protestors from across the entire US (population: 323 million) speaks volumes. A “free speech rally” in Boston a few days later drew only about 100 attendees, whereas the counter-protestors numbered around 40,000, with smaller counter-protests in many other US cities. The situation is identical in Britain, where far-right rallies typically draw crowds of one or two dozen, dwarfed by “antifa” counter-protestors (and the police). Trump’s mealy-mouthed, inconsistent criticisms of “both sides” are profoundly out of step with wider social attitudes, reflected in his total isolation even amongst Republican leaders and military chiefs.

The left is hardly alone in profoundly misreading this situation – the Western media have also responded with a flame-fanning hysteria as part of its relentless campaign against Trump.

But the left’s particular inability to gauge the threat posed by the right reflects its obsession with symbolic politics. The defeat of class-based political organising – never that strong in the US – in the 1980s means most leftist agitation has focused on identity-based campaigning. This has noble roots in the Civil Rights Movement, and early feminist and gay liberation struggles, some of which also involved a strong focus on material redress. But in contrast to these early movements, which had universalistic goals of equal treatment, identity politics has come to fetishize differences based on sex, sexuality, ethnicity and religion in an extremely divisive and moralistic manner, with the vigorous policing of public language, symbols, and private beliefs.

Accordingly, the analytics of political economy have been replaced with an analytics of identity. Once, the left understood socio-economic and political inequality to stem predominantly from gross inequalities in wealth, maintained by circuits of capital, ideology and state coercion. Today’s identitarian left attributes it to the uneven “privilege” of different identity groups, which is assumed to flow from continued prejudice (even if it now lurks “implicitly” in the subconscious). This leads to attacks on “privileged” groups – notably “cisgender” white men – and a politics of “calling out” prejudicial behaviour. That “whiteness” masks enormous disparities in wealth and power is disregarded. Those dedicated to the cause, particularly in the oppressor “white” category, must practice the virtue-signalling rituals of “wokeness”, declaring their privileges and implicit prejudices and pledging to continuously work to improve. Those who do not are deeply suspect; a refusal to admit one’s racism is seen as proof thereof. In the last decade, the movement has acquired a strongly authoritarian streak, particularly on university campuses, with growing demands to shut down speakers and movements whose views do not conform with the new orthodoxy.

The alt-right is merely the mirror image of this. Right-wing, white nationalism has been around for centuries, but identity politics has given it an important filip by encouraging some to embrace “whiteness” not as a spur for shame and “wokeness”, but as a positive source of identity. The scenes in Charlottesville of the two sides alternately screaming “black lives matter” and “white lives matter” at one another signifies this most clearly. Others on the “alt-right” are less interested in white nationalism than simply needling campus radicals by tweeting “dank memes” from their parents’ basements.

That these losers are now depicted as a serious threat to democracy reflects a twofold deficit on the identitarian left. The first is its failure to bring much of the American working classes with it. The loudest practitioners of identity politics are (privileged) students on university campuses, not fast food or factory workers. The left’s growing divorce from material considerations, and the self-flagellation demanded from millions of impoverished whites, has left most people baffled or cold. Attempts to build solidarity across identity groups on the basis of material interests have often faced outright hostility from identitarians. Occupy Wall Street, for instance, was derided for its “race problem”, while Bernie Sanders’ attempts to mobilise the “99 percent” met denunciations for his (mostly mythical) misogynistic “Bernie Bros” and for neglecting black people. Tellingly, the identitarian left preferred Hillary Clinton’s cynically assembled “rainbow coalition”.

This led to a second failure: the lumping of anyone who did not embrace this agenda into a unified “basket of deplorables” motivated exclusively by vile prejudice. Viewed through the prism of identity, the rainbow coalition’s failure to win power could only be understood as a “racist whitelash”, signifying the existence of a terrible counter-force, prompting widespread denunciation of “white people” and truly hysterical claims that a fascist regime was now in power. In reality, as we explained at the time, there is no way that a “whitelash” could explain Trump’s election, and the administration’s subsequent disarray and disintegration – the only legislation Trump has signed being additional sanctions on Russia, which he had opposed prior to his election – signify gross ineptitude, not an authoritarian regime – still less a fascist one. In this fevered atmosphere it is easy to see how 500 losers are hysterically misinterpreted as representing a much bigger force in American society.

A hysterical campaign against “fascism” is not only a major distraction, it will only compound the left’s problems. All the objective evidence shows that there is actually no need to persuade the vast majority of Americans of liberal principles of equality. They already agree. When everyone from Mitt Romney to Bernie Sanders agree with you, you are kicking at an open door, and that suggests you are in the wrong house.

The real question is how the left can win over a majority to a programme of radical social, political and economic change that addresses both economic disparities and the gross inequalities suffered by minorities. Both are required because they interact, producing vast disparities in household income, poverty, unemployment and incarceration rates among ethnic groups. But this cannot be tackled by setting identity groups against one another, turning the struggle for equality into a zero-sum game. Telling white citizens that unless they practice self-flagellating “wokeness” they are “fascists” is no way to persuade people that the left is capable of solving both their economic grievances and advancing the rights of minorities simultaneously. Already, large numbers of Americans feel they have no dog in this fight: only 10 percent of them support the alt-right but 41 percent have “no opinion”. The identitarian left has not only failed to win over the so-called “white working class”, but even a plurality of black Americans disagree with tearing down Confederate statues, the main flashpoint at Charlottesville. A phoney war against “fascists” – especially one that depicts “ordinary people” as “white supremacists by default”, as one CNN editorial put it – will likely alienate many people already perturbed by the authoritarianism and illiberalism of a group increasingly being dubbed the “alt-left”. The Democratic Socialists of America are rightly trying (yet again) to rally people around a shared agenda of economic change and social justice, but despite making major concessions to identitarianism, even they face internal challenges from an influx of young agitators steeped in identity politics.

Moreover, history shows that anti-fascist campaigns only hobble the left and empower the state, because they urge the expansion of authoritarian powers that are inevitably deployed against progressives and minorities. In the mid-1930s, supported by anti-fascist campaigners, Congress convened a Special Committee on Un-American Activities Authorized to Investigate Nazi Propaganda and Certain Other Propaganda Activities. After World War II, under Senator McCarthy, this committee turned its sights on the left. Similarly, under pressure from anti-fascists, Britain adopted the 1936 Public Order Act was passed, which was subsequently used more frequently against the left than the right, including Sinn Fein marches in the 1970s and striking miners in the 1980s. Today, American leftists urge tighter restrictions on freedom of assembly and speech, asking both government and employers to intervene. There is already evidence that growing regulation is targeting progressives and minorities, and over 250,000 people have petitioned the government to declare “antifa” a “domestic terrorist group”. Germany, meanwhile, has just shut down and raided popular leftist website IndyMedia for “sowing hate against different opinions and representatives of the country”.

Charlottesville is a wake-up call, alright. But not in the way the American left thinks.


Lee Jones


Trumped: The Nadir of US Representative Democracy

17 Nov

The election of a manifestly incompetent, billionaire bigot as president of the USA has come as a shock to many people, as indeed it should. Unfortunately, too many have been quick to reach for a familiar and self-serving excuse: blame the electorate. In 2004, when George W Bush was re-elected, the Daily Mirror spoke for many in asking how 59,054,087 people could ‘be so dumb’. This time around, voters are not only being derided as ‘stupid’, but also misogynist – because they rejected a highly-qualified female candidate for a nasty, self-declared ‘pussy-grabber’ – and also racist – since voters backed Trump either because, or in total disregard of, his intensely racist and nativist campaign rhetoric and policy pledges. But, while sexists and racists doubtless supported Trump, this does not explain how he was able to win the election. Indeed, the ‘whitelash thesis’ only distracts attention from the actual cause of his victory: the rot at the heart of America’s democratic system in general and of the Democratic Party in particular.

In brief, the ‘whitelash’ thesis is that white, middle-class and especially male voters reacted against Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, drawn to Trump’s racialized promise to ‘take their country back’. The thesis draws on facts like the following. 67% of white men backed Trump. His supporters prioritised the (racialized) issues of immigration and terrorism over the economy. Trump voters were not the poorest, earning under $50,000 per year (they voted mostly for Clinton); they are the middle-income workers (who in the US are generally referred to as ‘middle class’), who care more about affirmative action allowing minorities to steal jobs from whites than they care about trade offshoring jobs. So they voted Trump not out of real economic plight, but because they feel their white privilege slipping away to non-whites and, for men, to women. They felt that ‘eight years of one demographically symbolic president is enough’, blaming their economic grievances on a black president instead of Ronald Reagan, whose policies actually started the rot. And they voted ‘against an economy they believed was giving women a step up’. The most subtle versions of the thesis admit that not all voters may have been motivated by such concerns, but they nonetheless ‘gave force’ to these retrograde views by endorsing Trump.

No doubt this ugly portrait describes a certain hard-core minority of American voters. Nonetheless, there is no way that this thesis can account for Trump’s victory.

The simple reason is that there was no surge for Trump, even among the white working class; on the contrary, support for the Republicans fell – it just fell much more for the Democrats. In fact, the hallmark of the 2016 presidential election is the radical disengagement of vast numbers of citizens from the democratic process.

This is obvious merely from turnout data, which is being scrupulously analysed on Facebook by Kole Kilibarda. As he puts it: in 2012, the two major parties got about 125m of 130m votes cast, while 90m eligible voters did not vote; in 2016, they got 122.5m of 130m votes cast, while 100m eligible voters (higher due to population growth) abstained.


White voters did not support Trump significantly more than Mitt Romney in 2012: there was only a 1% swing, to 58% for Trump/37% for Clinton. That is, disproportionate white support for Republican presidential candidates is a longstanding fact (going back to Lyndon Johnson’s repudiation of the ‘Dixiecrats’), and did not substantially change in 2016. Evidence from the five ‘rust belt’ states that fell unexpectedly to Trump shows that he only picked up about 300,000 white working class votes. This makes it hard to sustain the idea of a whitelash against Obama.

Indeed, overall, Trump not only got fewer votes than Clinton but also about 400,000 fewer than Romney. He was not a popular candidate whose ideas and rhetoric enthused most Americans. He won just 47.2% of the vote, or 21.6% of the eligible electorate. Many who did vote for Trump did not like him: 57% of whites thought him untrustworthy; a quarter said he was unqualified and lacked the right temperament; and only 42% of his supporters ‘strongly favoured’ him, while 61% of citizens had an unfavourable view of Trump. Many Trump voters also disagreed with key policy positions like deporting illegal immigrants. Trump did not boost his vote with his ‘whitelash’ trash-talk – he didn’t even hold up the Republican vote from 2012. At best, he managed to rally the traditional Republican base – and little more than that.

So the question is not so much why Trump won, but why Clinton lost to such a poor opponent. The fact is that while the Republican vote declined, the Democrat vote collapsed. It fell from 69.5m in 2008 and 65.9m in 2012 to just 61.3m, despite the electorate increasing by over 18m over this period. Turnout was especially bad in states that Clinton lost. Kilibarda’s analysis of the Rustbelt-5 shows that while Trump picked up 300,000 working-class votes, Clinton lost 1.5m as voters either went for third-parties (about 500,000) or abstained. As Kilibarda puts it: ‘Trump did not “flip” these states as much as the Democrats lost them.’ Problematically for the whitelash thesis, Clinton’s collapse was worst among minority voters: compared to Obama in 2012, she was down 8 points among African-Americans and Latinos, and 11 down among Asians. Accordingly, 8% of blacks, 29% of Latinos, 29% of Asians and 37% of ‘other’ minorities voted Republican. This was particularly devastating because demographic change was supposed to work against Trump, with the white share of the electorate declining from 72% to 70% from 2012-16.

So the truth is that white and minority voters abandoned the Democrats en masse; but white voters did not rush for Trump. Far from being the gullible fools of much liberal commentary, somehow believing that the oligarchic Trump was their saviour, they refused to vote for either party, backing third candidates or simply abstaining. Indeed, the 100m citizens who did not vote are the crucial force in this election, dwarfing the voters supporting either main party. Put simply, Trump could not even maintain Republican support levels from 2012, winning thanks only to 107,000 votes in just swing three states. If Clinton had been able to mobilise just 1% of the non-voting population in key states, Trump would have lost.

Her failure to do so cannot be understood independently of racism or sexism. It is true that local laws requiring voters to show photo ID tend to affect (or indeed target) minorities more than whites, which one study suggests depresses Democrat votes more than Republican ones. We will not know their true effect until turnout data is clearer. It is also true that Clinton was down 5 points with men, including Democratic men, while gaining only 1% among women on 2012, and her big collapse among black voters was with men, not women – providing stronger support for a sexism thesis than a racism one, particularly when we consider how many voters had backed Obama in 2008 and 2012. However, race also intersects here: as one commentator puts it, if white working class women had split 50/50 instead of 62/34 for Trump, Clinton would have won.

Nonetheless, invoking these factors as a primary explanation implicitly assumes that Clinton’s platform was good, especially relative to Trump’s, and so a lack of support can only be attributed to malign forces and motives. But actually, many people did not feel her platform was good. No more voters felt enthused by a Clinton presidency than a Trump one – just 4 in 10 for each. 44% of eligible voters viewed her unfavourably. Obama at least offered ‘hope’ and ‘change’, with big ideas on healthcare and the like – though his failure to deliver much arguably explains his waning support in 2012. But Clinton was a pale imitation. She is the quintessential establishment candidate; her sole claim to ‘change’ was to be America’s first woman president.

This may have put off some male voters, as stated above – but it clearly failed to enthuse women, too, given their tiny 1% swing towards Clinton. Some commentators have been quick to blame ‘internalised misogyny’ or female ‘sexism’, especially among whites. But perhaps – just perhaps! – women wanted a bit more and so refused, in Susan Sarandon’s words, to ‘vote with their vaginas’. They stand condemned because they refused to obey the diktat of neoliberal identity politics, preferring instead to vote on other issues.

The same goes for the so-called ‘middle class’ – not the poorest citizens, who are kept afloat by Democrat policies and vote accordingly, but middling workers who, despite working hard, are experiencing declining living standards and feel pessimistic about the future (a parallel here to Brexit). Certainly, some of their grievances may take a racialized form as they blame immigrants or minorities. But what alternative form did Clinton suggest that it take? Unlike Bernie Sanders, who promoted an explicitly class-based framework, it is impossible to say what Clinton offered these people, because she barely addressed their concerns. Clinton has been a leading figure in an increasingly technocratic political class that, since the 1980s, has largely ignored working people, abandoning them to the mercies of the free market, neoliberal trade deals, and stagnating real wages, while cosying up to Wall Street and billionaire donors. ‘Middle-class’ voters would be foolish to believe that Trump would do much differently, but nor can they reasonably have much faith that Clinton will depart from form. Her elitist disdain for Trump’s ‘basket of deplorables’ simply compounded her enormous distance from ordinary voters.

The 2016 US presidential election, then, is a sad story of the hollowing out of America’s representative democracy. The rot was halted temporarily by Obama’s promise of hope and change, but resumed quickly enough. The so-called ‘Grand Old Party’ could not generate a single serious candidate to rival a perma-tanned reality TV star, and even this wild populist could not maintain – let alone increase – Republican support. And the best the Democrat establishment could field was someone loathed by much of the electorate. A hundred million Americans felt so divorced from the political process, so unrepresented by either political party, that they could not bring themselves to vote for anyone. The result is a president that only a small minority of American voters actually wanted.

Of course, it may still be objected that it is all very well for white workers to abstain; thanks to their ‘white privilege’ they won’t bear the brunt of Trump’s nasty policies. While those pushing this line still struggle to explain (i.e. conveniently ignore) the millions of non-white voters supporting Trump, the more important response is this: in a democracy, a settlement that serves the interests of minorities cannot be created without simultaneously appealing to the interests of the majority. For this reason, fragmented identity politics won’t do. An inclusive socialist platform, capable of appealing to workers of all sexes and ethnicities, remains essential.

Lee Jones

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