It is not very easy to find good news in the American election. Or to announce whatever good news one has found in a tone that is not surly. But it seems to me there is very good news here on the perennial accursed topic of race, what Barack Obama rightly called America’s original sin.
As Kurt Mahlberg wrote recently on Mercatornet, perhaps the biggest surprise of all is that “at this year’s election, Trump gained ground with almost every demographic except — wait for it — white men.” He did better among blacks, Latinos, Jews, even LGBT voters. And as Mahlberg observed, this outcome seemed to displease and baffle many pundits; he acerbically quoted Paul Krugman’s characteristic tweet that: “The more I look at this election, the less I imagine I understand.”
Fair enough. Pundits get things wrong and occasionally even admit to being baffled. Honesty is good. But Krugman’s tone is not really one of self-examination or reconciliation; it reads more like a condescending snarl at dumbo minorities who don’t know what’s good for them.
Mahlberg finds two things to like in this outcome. First, he says “everyday Americans just don’t buy woke-think” including non-white, non-male, non-straight etc. And as a result: “Whatever the final outcome of this election, the future on the right hand side of politics is looking bright and energetic.”
I think he is right on both points. But horses before carts, people. The really good news is buried behind Krugman’s bafflement and Mahlberg’s consolation, is incredibly good news. It is that America is not a racist swamp. If it were, all these minorities including the one that’s not, which is women, and the one that soon won’t be, which is non-whites, would be huddling round the Democrats for protection and warmth. As many long did. And not without cause.
It will not do to deny the obvious. For a great many years the United States was the land of the free, provided you were not dark-skinned. Various pallid ethnic minorities encountered a certain degree of bigotry, from the Irish in the 19th century to southern and eastern Europeans into the early 20th, especially if they were Jewish. But they generally found that life was better the moment they set foot in America and it just kept improving. The bigotry was real, but not nearly as bad as, say, anti-Semitism in the Russian empire. And every day in every way it became less oppressive.
For blacks and others with dark skin, and for Native Americans, the situation was different. Dreadfully different. So appallingly different that one blanches at descriptions of it. It was true and there’s no denying it.
As a result, it was the Republican Party that got the overwhelming majority of the few votes blacks were able to cast even in the North from the end of the Civil War down through the Great Depression. But the black vote then swung massively to the Democrats, even though they were still the party of white supremacy in the south, because the New Deal included them with an unprecedented degree of fairness and they were hardest hit by hard times. The GOP remained formally committed to civil rights to a greater degree than the Democrats until the Johnson Administration in the mid-1960s. But after that the Democrats dropped the Confederate flag literally and figuratively and good for them doing so.
Now here the conventional story becomes disturbing. Supposedly, when the parties basically switched clothes around the time of Richard Nixon, trading electoral bases, it was because as the Democrats became enlightened on race the GOP started blowing nasty dog whistles to which tens of millions of Americans nastily responded.
If true it would confirm Hillary Clinton’s claim about the “basket of deplorables”. But it was not true. Because if there is no denying that America denied freedom to blacks, there is also no denying that the freedom in question was real, precious and ultimately extended to blacks and other minorities too.
I do not say that all Republicans voted from pure motives. I do not say that no Republicans were racist. (Of course I do not say all Democrats voted from pure motives either, or that none of them were racist, including a surprisingly large, vocal and loathsome fringe that hates white people.) But one of the things that has poisoned American politics, and here I do take on a surly tone briefly, is the torrent of abuse unleashed at conservatives for being unreconstructed haters.
If many supported Trump, and excused or even welcomed his belligerent tone, it is not because they were racist. It’s because they were sick of being unfairly called filthy names as a matter of course. And who would not be?
Of course if their reaction were driven by a guilty conscience it would be inexcusable. But it was not. It was driven by resentment at being abused relentlessly and without cause. And if Democrats want to know who lowered the tone of American politics, in addition to looking to their own unwavering support for Bill Clinton, they should examine carefully their own harsh rhetoric not just about Republicans but about systemic racism, pervasive bigotry, haters and so on.
I have found this “narrative” depressing as well as infuriating. Not so infuriating that I ever excused or backed Trump; I will not be dragged down into the boiling mud. But it was so unfair and so discouraging given the amazing progress Americans have made on race, to some extent pulling the rest of the world with them. Oh, we mock and jibe, but what other Western nation has had a non-white head of government?
It was only 40 years from the riots of the 1960s and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr to the election of Barack Obama. What comparably inspiring story exists in the annals of human history? And yet in the face of it, those most ostensibly committed to racial harmony kept irresponsibly sowing the seeds of bitter division, telling black Americans their white neighbours despised them, that they could not get a break, that America stinks and always will and so on and so on in a foul torrent. But it wasn’t true and the intended audience increasingly knows it.
My silver lining thus is not that more blacks and other official victim groups voted Republican. I do think it’s a good thing. But my silver lining is why they did it. It’s because the whole story of America as unredeemable, deplorable, loathsome and structurally oppressive is just wrong. And I welcome the growing recognition of it because I welcome the thing being recognized.
What becomes of American partisan politics going forward? I don’t know. I don’t know whether Biden can heal, Trump will finally go away, the old bipartisan consensus on unaffordable spending will continue, America will fall as Rome fell. In any case I want good government not partisan victory, and know that those who put their faith in politics generally face disillusionment in short order. But it’s not the point.
The point is that America’s original sin really does seem to have been healed. Its lingering effects have not, and will not easily be erased. But the millions who voted for Trump, even those currently suffering a mental breakdown at his defeat, are not racists. Especially not those who are themselves not white and are not ashamed to be seen with those who are.
So there’s some very good news amid the wreckage and anxiety.