The Pivot of U.S. Politics: Racial Justice and Democracy
The contest between multiracial democracy and white authoritarianism was at the center of the 2020 election, and it will be a defining feature of U.S. politics for at least a generation, shaping the political terrain upon which all other struggles take place and necessitating an anti-right front.
The United States will be a multiracial democracy – a democracy in which people of color have full democratic rights — or it won’t be a democracy at all. This is the key lesson of the Trump era, and the necessary starting point for left strategy. It means that even with Trump out of office, racial justice will be the pivot around which U.S. politics turns. That includes class politics, and the question of whether or not a specifically working-class movement takes shape that is powerful and durable enough to grow in the decade ahead.
STARKLY DIFFERENT ALTERNATIVES
The Republicans have made it crystal clear that the alternative to multiracial democracy is not an imperfect democracy, one in which racist flaws can be gradually eroded, but white authoritarian rule. Indeed, this polarization has already remade U.S. politics in the past twelve years, by cohering social forces on the left and the right, generating entirely separate media and information bubbles, reframing how social groups understand their own interests, and pushing political leaders in the GOP to adopt positions they would have deemed beyond the pale just a few years ago.
The left faces a crucial and challenging set of tasks: expanding the broad anti-right front, keeping it together and focused on the danger of the right, while also finding a way to integrate economic struggles as well as issues of climate, gender, and peace more deeply into the politics of the forces committed to democracy. This will require a workers’ movement fully immersed in the struggle for racial justice, a task made more difficult but all the more urgent by the significant numbers of white workers won over by Trumpism. If we can make significant progress on this, if multi-racial working-class forces become key drivers of the broader democratic struggle, we have the best shot at remaking U.S. politics in a way that prioritizes the needs of working-class communities and communities of color.
DYNAMICS DRIVING POLITICAL POLARIZATION
The U.S. was born as a White Republic founded on settler colonialism and slavery. The White Republic survived the Civil War and Blacks did not secure government enforcement of the right to vote until the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The very next year, James Meredith was shot while marching across the South for the right to vote without fear. Black voting rights have been under assault in the decades since, accelerating even further since the 2013 Supreme Court decision that struck down a crucial portion of the Voting Rights Act. Our historic task is to defeat the far right’s attempt to create a new form of white authoritarianism and install a genuine multiracial democracy for the first time.
Struggles over racism and racial equality have often formed the pivot upon which U.S. politics turns. The present intensity of polarization, however, is first and foremost a result of the political strategies pursued by the Republican party and the rise of neoliberalism in the post-civil-rights era. Over the course of decades, Republican party leadership and right-wing grassroots activists have articulated the upward redistribution of wealth with a variety of other social issues – abortion, gun rights, law and order politics, opposition to welfare, busing, and affirmative action – to produce a political bloc with a social base that allowed it to compete in and win elections.
That social base was overwhelmingly dominated by a cross-class coalition of white voters. The political rhetoric that Republican leaders like Reagan deployed to cement its social base typically used dog-whistle racism, especially anti-Black racism. The party’s success on this front tended to push the Democratic party on the defensive, in some cases – as in the attack on welfare – moving it to accommodate rather than confront racism.
Some sections of the GOP, particularly the California Republican party, sought to stoke anti-immigrant (really anti-Latinx and anti-Mexican) sentiment. Through the early 2000s, however, such an approach was moderated by those who believed conservatism ought to appeal to Latinx and Asian American voters, and the party did earn substantial voters from those communities at the national level.
The election of Obama radically shifted the balance between the more racist and more multiculturalist wings of the Republican party. Obama, for all his shortcomings, symbolized the growing weight of voters of color in national elections and the progressive possibilities that power portended. The Republican party’s electoral strategy of pulling in a super majority of white voters and a much smaller segment of voters of color seemed to be reaching the end of its shelf life.
We can understand the present-day Republican party in terms of the range of responses to this dilemma. Trump and those who are ideologically aligned with him have adopted the approach of repudiating wholesale the place of people of color within the U.S. polity, These figures tap into the racism that fueled birtherism and stoke it with chants of “Send them back,” directed against the women of color that form the Squad.
Many traditional leaders and strategists within the Republican party disdain the open racism of this approach. Their difference with Trumpism is, however, merely tactical and for the moment they have proven willing to accommodate Trumpism’s worst impulses, mounting only tepid and sporadic objections to Trump’s most embarrassing statements.
They are committed to gerrymandering, purging voter rolls, reducing opportunities for early voting, shutting down polling stations in working-class communities of color, restricting access to the vote through voter ID laws, rolling back the Voting Rights Act, challenging the legitimacy of the actual votes of voters of color and other tactics of suppression that are aimed squarely at voters of color. They supplement this core strategy with appeals to patriarchy and homophobia, promises of entrepreneurial success, and fear-mongering about socialism. They believe this package, combined with the anti-democratic nature of the Senate and Electoral College, will allow the GOP to remain competitive in elections, requiring only relatively minor gains among voters of color.
And they have good reason to be confident. In 2020, voters of color surged as a portion of the national electorate – growing from 29% to 35% of voters. This was enough to tip the balance to Biden in the presidential contest. But the Republicans gained seats in the House, increased their hold over state legislatures, will at worst suffer a 50-50 split in the Senate, and can look forward to control of the Supreme Court and decades of a federal judiciary packed with right-wing ideologues. All this from a white electorate that declined relative to the total electorate, and a couple percentage points of growth among voters of color.
A layer of the Republican party leadership genuinely believes that bourgeois democracy in a multiracial society is compatible with their conservative economic program. These individuals, grouped most prominently in the Lincoln Project, have mostly split openly with the Trumpists. But it is a thin layer, and one that is thoroughly isolated within the Republican party.
RACIAL JUSTICE AND DEMOCRATIC RIGHTS
Because the predominant GOP strategy – uniting both Trumpists and the tepid old guard conservatives of the party – is one of preserving its power through white minority rule, the struggle for racial justice is at the heart of the struggle for democracy. While those of us who were taught in the U.S. school system imbibed the idea that U.S. democracy was the foundation of aspirations for racial equality, we should reverse this relationship. Historically and today, it is struggles for racial equality that have eroded the White Republic and produced what democracy we have in the U.S.
There are specific demands where the struggles for racial justice and democratic rights are intertwined, such as campaigns against voter suppression. But those campaigns are inseparable from the broader struggles against racism – against police brutality, against the murders of transwomen of color, against the criminalization of immigrants, for decent public schools, etc. – that demand a recognition of the dignity of people of color within the U.S. polity.
The broader social transformation required to make gains in these struggles is what will also propel the struggle for democratic rights for people of color. As we’ve seen in the finger-pointing by centrist Democrats after the 2020 election, such racial justice struggles divide, to some extent, the anti-Trump front. Politics is an art, and it will require some finesse to keep an anti-right front together under a Biden administration, but backing away from racial justice struggles will only weaken our long-term capacity to fight the forces pushing white minority rule.
Campaigns to expand democratic rights and thus the electorate, on the other hand, have tended to benefit the progressive wing of the Democratic party. This is why groups like New Florida Majority campaigned for voting rights for all, regardless of prior criminal records, and why New Virginia Majority made a concerted effort to strengthen voting rights in its state. New Virginia Majority succeeded in transforming Virginia from one of the hardest states for people to vote in, to one of the easiest states, and it’s no coincidence that this transformation overlapped with its shift from red to blue.
The aftermath of the 2020 election makes clear the intertwining of antiracist and democratic struggles. Even after the 2016 election, Trump mounted a campaign to convince the people of the U.S. that he had won the popular vote, claiming that 3 million immigrants voted unlawfully. In 2020, as Trump pushes his theory of ‘illegal votes’ and his predominantly white supporters flood polling centers in Philadelphia or Arizona, who do we think his base pictures as illegal voters?
THE WORKING-CLASS MOVEMENT IN THE FIGHT FOR DEMOCRACY
Today, most of the left takes racial justice struggles seriously. We feel have a responsibility as leftists to dismantle all forms of oppression, and we aspire to remove racism as a form of division among workers, in order to produce a united working-class political subject.
Both of these motivations are important. But they miss the centrality of racial justice struggles to the struggle over democracy, and thus the overall terrain of politics in the U.S. Indeed, for those of us committed to building the power of the working class, an expanded democracy and the demolition of obstacles to political participation offers the best chance for the class to become the driving force within the anti-right front, and in the remaking of U.S. politics more generally.
Developing the multiracial working class into a key driver of the democratic struggle will position us to articulate – and win – a vision of democracy that includes rights to housing, education, health care, safe communities, and unionization. It should be a central component of left strategy, alongside the rebuilding of class power at the point of production. It is no accident that throughout U.S. history – from Reconstruction to the way the 1950s-60s Civil Rights Movement birthed the Poor People’s Campaign, spurred the development of second wave feminism and inspired the modern LGBTQ movement – so much of how we imagine a society where all working and oppressed people thrive was incubated in the creative furnace of the Black Freedom Movement.
Right-wing populism’s power is in its ability to convince individuals that their material suffering can be alleviated by attacking others who also suffer from capitalism. The Republican party’s open embrace of white supremacy, and its hold on a cross-class bloc of white voters, grew as class politics in the U.S. weakened as a force in shaping people’s lives and their understanding of politics.
One segment of the Democratic Party, ensconced in the Democratic Leadership Council, saw the future of the party in terms of growth among white suburban professionals who were wary of redistributionist politics. Clinton, who emerged from the DLC, embraced the politics of multicultural diversity within his cabinet while passing NAFTA (and welfare reform). The passage of NAFTA proved disastrous for the Democratic party’s base among white workers in manufacturing-based economies. While the trend since 2008 among Democratic presidential candidates has mainly been against the neoliberal orthodoxy promoted by the DLC, even candidates like Biden who on paper had a relatively progressive economic platform tended to downplay class politics as a campaign theme.
If struggles for racial justice and democracy are going to be successful, our side will have to weaken the cross-class front of white voters that forms most of the base of the Republican party, who are being pulled into support of white authoritarian rule. This is impossible without a massive struggle to improve the lives of workers and people of color, a class struggle in the broadest sense.
Right wing populism’s weakness is that it cannot deliver on its promise of improving people’s material conditions. One short video, by NowThis News, followed a set of Obama to Trump voters in Pennsylvania as they followed Trump’s actions during the first two years of his presidency.
While some voters were clearly committed to Trumpism at a deep ideological level, one voter reacted in dismay to Trump’s attack on Obamacare. This voter, a teacher in Luzerne County named Donna, had two parents with Huntington’s disease and lived in fear her entire adult life that an insurance company would find out and kick her off healthcare. Donna also understood how Trump’s cuts to the Shine program, which provides after school programs to under-resourced school districts, would affect her close friend’s own children. After all this, a friend asks her whether she would have voted for Trump knowing everything he would do. She hesitates for a moment, then answers, “yes.”
Donna belongs in the class struggle. It’s our job to organize her.
A core set of social justice organizations, mostly rooted in communities of color and in unions with large numbers of members of color, have been leading the fight for multiracial democracy. This set of social forces has proven to be the most dynamic left political force in the fight against Trump. They were instrumental in the electoral defeat of Trump and in the tremendous boost in turnout of voters of color and young people in the election.
The uprising in defense of Black Lives thrust the issue of anti-Black racism into the center of national politics, and as it did so it cast a sharp spotlight on all kinds of structural inequities in U.S. society. The Frontline – initiated by the Working Families Party and the Movement for Black Lives Electoral Justice Project and drawing in partners like United We Dream Action and About Face – brought the energy of the uprising into the 2020 election; now it gearing up to press for deep change starting from day one of a new administration.
Our success as a left in moving a broader politics of liberation, encompassing a fundamental social transformation and the redistribution of power and resources, depends on how deeply we engage with these forces and the organizations that represent them, which are predominantly Black-led.
Take, for instance, the question of internationalism. It is currently an open question whether the Biden administration will slide into the mentality of a New Cold War with China, promoted by Trump to virulent effect in order to deflect from his failure to confront the coronavirus, but which has gained adherents in the upper echelons of both political parties. Those of us who believe that our ability to confront climate change depends upon some measure of cooperation with China can and should form our own organizations and campaigns. But we will only be able to move our politics if we are able to win over the racial justice and democratic forces that have been central to the anti-Trump fight. Based on a recent campaign along these lines, however, this is a political goal that is entirely realizable.
This article is an attempt at outlining a starting point for political strategy for the next period of struggle. Criticism and discussion is required to overcome its shortcomings, foremost among them the lack of an in-depth exploration of the relationship between the struggle for multiracial democracy and struggles against gender oppression, for queer liberation, disability rights, indigenous rights and decolonization, and for climate justice. Trumpism has intensified all these struggles as a result of its relentless assault on all those marginalized within U.S. society, and they will all play vital roles in reshaping the political terrain, so that another world is possible.
This article grew out of political discussions among Max Elbaum, Whitney Maxey, Melanie Barron, and the author. Thanks also to the Organizing Upgrade editorial collective and Bob Wing for feedback on an earlier draft.