BY Jim Harding, Ph. D.
Imagine a country that has almost fully racialized its population and done this on the basis of a history of forced labour and cheap-labour immigration. Try to imagine a country that had jailed so many young males within these racialized minority groups, that it had the highest incarceration rate in the world. Now imagine a country that had so glorified individualism that many of its population viewed its own government as the enemy of liberty. And also try to imagine a society with such income inequality that many people nearer the bottom, had given up the hope that they could ever “make it”.
Now, also imagine a country with the highest per capita ownership of guns anywhere and the highest gun-related deaths. Imagine a country where ultra-nationalist and racialized ideology, backed by threats of political violence, was being used to blame many of its ills on outsider groups.
The U.S is right now more polarized than it has been since the Vietnam War. This polarization is an expression of underlying ideologies or ways of thinking that have persisted with the transition into an industrial, environmentally-destructive era.
Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump are tapping into similar economic realities, especially the impacts of the 2008 financial crisis and the export of jobs through free trade agreements. Sanders talks about growing inequality and the extreme political influence of the “1%”. A member of the moneyed class, Trump uses incendiary ultra-nationalist rhetoric while posing as the tough guy who can “make America great again”. He plays on bigotry and demeans just about every group while talking paternalistically of “loving the poorly educated”.
These are democratic socialist and undemocratic nationalist ideas at play here.
Hilary Clinton espouses a dumbed-down liberalism which suggests simplistically that every woman or minority group member should have an equal opportunity to join the American Dream (or become president). Under the Clintons and Obama the Democratic Party has lost some of its appeal to blue collar workers, who are quickly losing the opportunity to join the “middle class”. The middle class is actually shrinking. Bernie Sanders has gained some ground within this strata but so too has Trump.
Tea-Part candidate Ted Cruz articulates a religious conservatism that blames social ills on the moral decay of America and its political class. As the Republican Party has moved further to the right (Sarah Palin), its conservatism has become more evangelical and chauvinistic. Trump articulates an underlying nationalist jingoistic sentiment which is unsettling to the Republican establishment which has tried to keep American safe for corporate investment and profit-taking.
The racializing of America, largely rooted in slavery and colonialism, plays a huge role in how this ideological polarization plays out. It may seem ironic that both Clinton and Trump won the primaries and caucuses in the southern states. Clinton is getting much support from the Afro-American and Latino population while Trump is getting support from the alienated, “white” underclass.
This shows the serious political divide arising from racialization. The main reason that the Republican establishment hung in so long with Marco Rubio was because they hoped to capture some of the minority group support, traditionally going to the Democrats, because of Rubio’s Latino background. It hasn’t worked!
This is not about a “racial divide” and there aren’t “races”. This construct is itself a result of racism. Unfortunately, segments of both the conservative right and liberal left play on “race” for their own political purposes. The civil rights movement was always about respecting human dignity and moving towards equality and human rights. It was not about identity politics, where people dig-in and defend their racialized selves. Speaking of skin colour as “race” is very dangerous, because there is no “white race” or “black race” or “brown race” or “yellow race”. There is only the human race.
Such constructs may appeal to marginalized “white supremacists” or even black nationalists. But it is a demagogue like Trump who mostly benefits from exploiting this misguided and dangerous way of seeing people.
Trump threatens political violence (“riots”) if he’s kept from getting the Republican presidential nomination. This is about escalating the polarization of his mostly “white”, angry, conservative base with groups like “black lives matter” and other progressive groups. A lot of the resent that Trump is marshalling is resent towards the first black person, President Obama, getting to the White House. Trump has played to the lies that Obama was foreign born and a Muslim, in the same way that he has tried to discredit Republican candidate Cruz for having a Cuban father and being born in Canada. This is how he encourages ultra-nationalism.
But it’s not clear cut; Clinton also uses a version of identity politics, being the first woman to become president, though this doesn’t intentionally polarize people. However, there was racialized resistance to Obama’s “politics of hope” and there will be genderized resistance to Hilary Clinton’s rise to power. Trump is already normalizing misogynist views. His anti-Muslim, anti-Mexican, anti-woman rhetoric should be disgusting to most Americans, but by mid-March nearly 8 million people had already voted for him dispute all his hate-speech.
We must remember that Trump is appealing to the same strata of dispossessed, middle-aged, “white” men that is also showing a spike in suicides. American politics is now a most dangerous mix of racialized ideology and emotion. And despair! And there are many guns in the closets. This challenges everyone to muster up the forces of compassion and the pursuit of real justice. Ideas matter in this quest for sanity. However, socialist, liberal, conservative and nationalist ideas can take our eyes off the prize, the need to shift our ways to create a sustainable, ecologically-wise society. No one said it was going to be easy.