By Doctor Comrade
Matt Hall is a graduate of Harvard University's History program. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. You can read the full transcript here.
Thomas Wood argued in the Washington Post that “Moving from the 50th to the 75th percentile in the authoritarian scale made someone about 3 percent more likely to vote for Trump. The same jump on the [symbolic racism] scale made someone 20 percent more likely to vote for Trump,” as measured by the 2016 American National Election Study. Matthew Hall and I discussed the data, the differences between factions within both major parties, and how the Left should react to these findings.
Doctor Comrade: I'm very interested to dig into this data more, but so far these are my observations:
1. Because white Republicans believe that if blacks just worked hard, they'd be as successful as whites, Republicans don't believe in systemic racism, and they think blacks are lazy. Terrifyingly racist.
2. I'm interested to see how the analysts tease out economic anxiety and racism. In my estimation, the two are inextricably linked in the mind of the white voter: they see a direct trade-off between "blacks/Mexicans/etc. getting jobs" and "whites losing jobs." And the argument I've made before is that the rural white worker holds in their heart a deep antipathy for the black urban dweller, who they see as receiving benefits from liberals while the rural worker suffers. They don't perceive that blacks and whites both live in poverty, they think that blacks are moochers or "welfare queens" while hardworking whites keep getting screwed. This is an attitude steeped in racism that also expresses economic anxiety.
3. I'm not convinced that "authoritarianism" and "economic anxiety" and racism are not also closely linked. Because they fear change--or fear the erosion of white supremacy, or fear "political correctness," or fear the godless liberals, or fear the end of coal, or fear the end of American industrial jobs--they turn to an authoritarian demagogue. This could manifest as racism easily.
Matt Hall: I wonder about a few things.
1. What shifted the rich towards Clinton? From a pure class-war standpoint, Trump seems like clearly the better, obviously more pro-Wall Street candidate. I wonder if it has to do with a certain type of weird corporate 'liberalism' displayed here. Maybe rich people prefer the bland option?
2. Interesting that authoritarianism didn't shift much except on that obedience question. I think that directly reflects more of an interest in an 'outsider' candidate. Fair enough, considering that many feel the government is broken. I don't think the article's explanation of 'Trump's voters are less authoritarian' is very convincing considering none of the other numbers shifted.
3. This data tends to support my earlier theory that the racist backlash spike actually manifested more in 2012, but was more hidden by the media due to Obama winning fairly easily. However, I do question one element of the data.
Let's take Bob. He's a Republican. No matter what, Bob will vote for the Republican candidate. However, in 2000, 2004, and 2008, Bob didn't really base his vote on 'race' when asked about it. It didn't come up. However, in 2012 and 2016, he listed racism as an important factor: first against Obama, and then for Trump.
Basically, Bob is the same person he's always been, but now his racist thoughts are brought more to the forefront because of Trump. Trump made racism a bigger explicit motivation. He cultivated and encouraged part of the base to embrace racist views which first blossomed in 2012.
4. A convincing argument by the data here is that Trump was so overtly racist that he polarized and disgusted Clinton voters over the issue, while Trump voters remained largely the same as they've always been. It's the apocalypse model of Communism: if the economy explodes, anti-capitalists gain more energy! In this case, a comparative hyperracist made his opponents more anti-racist.
On a side note, I think painting white people in general as racist, or even white Republicans, is painting with a too broad brush. I generally don't like when those generalizations get applied to other racial groups either.
I do think you're right about economic anxiety contributing to racism. The poor immigrant is pretty much always hated. The exact race of that immigrant changes (Germans, Irish, Chinese, Mexican, etc.) but there seems to be a weird, historical recurring theme of 'this race tends to have more poor people so screw them for being a drain on society and jobs!'. Having talked to many Republicans, I can absolutely confirm that there's a big worry about layabouts who just sit at home and don't work. I'd say it's probably one of the first things a Republican will talk about when talking politics, followed by something related to political correctness. Further, that's something that existed long before 2016. This isn't to say racism doesn't exist: this is just my phrasing of the idea you raised of 'economic anxiety and racism mix super well'.
I'd really like to see polling of Clinton supporters, Sanders supporters, and self-identified Communists/Socialists on this issue. I think we all like to think our wing of the party is freer from authoritarian and racist impulses because ofcoursewearebetterthanthatotherwing, but if poor factory workers broke for Trump (!!!), I wouldn't be surprised if every group has its skeletons.
DC: 1. Rich people prefer stability. They want the markets to have a slow but steady climb upward without volatility. Volatility could result in another 2008 or, at worst, a 1917 or 1933. They can't tolerate that. Besides, Clinton is so pro-business it's really sickening.
2. It's wholly unconvincing [that authoritarianism didn't affect Trump's voters]. He's a demagogue that made promises to people. They were outlandish because they weren't rooted in political experience. People look to the outsider who promises "law and order," which is coded for "more thugs [blacks] in jail, no immigrants [Mexicans], no drugs, and no crime!" And they think he can do it because he isn't bogged down by "the establishment." They want someone who "gets stuff done" (both Clintonites and Trumpers said this during the campaign). The stuff they want done is based in authoritarian impulses.
3. Racism has always been a central part of the GOP platform. Sometimes it's more coded than others. People can say they "hate welfare" when what they mean is they hate that black people get "free money." Or they hate "welfare queens" when they mean "unemployed black mothers." The war on drugs is racist, the war on crime is racist, but they support them, and chalk them up to drugs or crime rather than racism.
I think about what the alt-right has been able to do in terms of public consciousness and media exposure. They've never been more popular. They are now discussed like the TEA Party was in 2010/2012. They've been legitimized by the media, by Trump, and by Breitbart. I think this is also evidence that racists are more willing to be "openly" racist now.
Also historically, immigrants have "become white" by engaging in racist politics against other immigrants or against black people especially. There's a few great books on how the Irish became white, and now they control the Boston police departments. So I'd contest your analysis slightly and say because the "poor immigrant" is so slippery, we're now in an era where the poor immigrant is explicitly a Mexican, probably Catholic, probably has a huge family, and he's gonna steal the white man's job. (Side note: my favorite thing is Schrodinger's Immigrant: simultaneously lazy welfare moocher who works so hard he steals the white man's job!)
MH: The legitimization of the alt-right and racist sentiments is one of the worst political impacts of Trump, and winning the primary alone would have made it a nasty political issue.
One thing I wonder about: how much does racism drive economic anxiety, versus economic anxiety driving racism? Is hatred of a Mexican immigrant more because they're poor and that gets mapped onto the label 'Mexican', or does the hatred of Mexicans and blacks make people care much less about the poor? Is it an even 50/50 split? It's sad to think about, because it would be easier to 'fix' if the problem was all one or the other instead of a nasty cycle.
As for the polling on left-of-center, there's a chunk of voters within the Democratic Party who clearly hold more racist and sexist views -- I think we agree on that. The question is whether those faction members are all part of the Clinton wing, or whether they're part of the Sanders movement. For the Sanders movement, I'd like to point out that it was overwhelming white and did really well in the states that didn't break for Obama in 2008. Then again, a lot of Bernie supporters were young super liberal college students, so who knows! On the other hand, I can guarantee that if you asked similar questions about sexism, the numbers would skyrocket among the Sanders wing. I mean, again, that doesn't condemn the whole Sanders movement, but there was a fairly obvious sexist faction that made their voice very loud on the Internet, and some of them turned to Trump later on.
Let's say there was a magical poll that could identify socialists and communists who aren't Sanders-style socialists, but the 'real' ones. In that case, they're far enough to the left and woke enough, I think, that although there may be some weird racist outliers, on the whole, the movement would score much better on the racism polling than the Sanders or Clinton wing.
The scary wing of this group would be the Stalinists, and by extension, the polling numbers that would be unsettling would center around authoritarianism. You'd have to ask the right questions, like, "Would you prefer a democratically elected President, even if they didn't hold your views and set back the movement, or would you prefer a military dictator who would murder the dirty pig capitalists, nationalize industries, and return power over factories to the working class?" Then I think you'd get a large faction, not all of it, but certainly a big chunk that would be all 'yes, yay for a dictatorship of the proletariat!'. I'm somewhat influenced by this: Noam Chomsky explaining to a crowd that some people hijacked Communism for the sake of political power and dictatorship.
DC: To your first question, I think I buy the argument that racism is a political project used to maintain hierarchical forms of power. To this point, I think that race--as a social construct--is mapped onto the extant economic structure, capitalism. Therefore, to maintain capitalism as a socio-politico-economic system, racism is mapped onto capitalist ideology. That is not to say that racism is less important than economic anxiety--I would never dare be so reductionist. But racism doesn't exist in a vacuum; there is no inherent reason why people with different skin colors should hate each other. Racism is generated by social hierarchy so that it always benefits those with power. In the American South in the 1950s, it was against black people so that white elites could convince poor whites to reaffirm the existing power structure. Or in Iowa now, white elites (Steve King, for example) use fear of Mexicans and Muslims to ensure poor whites re-elect them, despite there being almost no Mexicans or Muslims in Iowa. (I'm referring to this argument by Bethencourt and appropriating his analysis of race and applying it to economic class in a Marxist framework).
I think your analysis of Sanders is probably correct but I don't know if we could prove causation. In my estimation, the young white folks who chose him in the primary were probably less racist than any other white voting cohort in American history. Racism has declined every generation, I think that's demonstrable. But on the other hand, the age breakdown of the Clinton folks suggests much older and therefore more likely to be racist/sexist. Age is certainly a proxy for racism for both parties.
I find myself sympathetic with Lenin's critiques of imperialism, liberal democracy, and the bourgeois state, as well as Lenin's pragmatic approach to revolution. As Chomsky points out in that video, Lenin's critiques of the state are within the libertarian socialist tradition, where anarchist-communists like me position ourselves (there are many AnComs that don't adhere to Marxism at all, but I find Marxism indispensable to my own political thought). The idea that once the workers' democracy comes to power, the state would be allowed to "wither." The slogan was, "All power to the soviets!" meaning local governance confined to the local workers' councils.
But Lenin's reversion to statism (and then the Stalinist codification of "Marxism-Leninism") is evidence why we, if we want to create a free society, must destroy both arms of hierarchical organization: the state and capitalism. Hierarchical thinking is the root of authoritarianism, that we must empower some entity to hold some kind of authority over us. In the case of the USSR or PRC or even Cuba, it was in the workers' state empowered to destroy capitalism. In the US, it is often to empower employers to provide our means of sustenance; or it is in the state to destroy whatever form of terrorism is en vogue ("savages," "black rapists," communists, Muslims, immigrants, whatever). Our government exists to protect capitalism, and capitalism ensures our government's continued survival. They are coequal. Destroying one leaves the vestiges of the other, which seek to reassert themselves. If the state can't count on capitalism to maintain it any longer, then it reverts to state repression to maintain its existence. Alternatively, when the state is destroyed, the tentacles of capitalism strangle the nascent anarchist-communist movements until they are dead (ie Catalonia 1939 killed by fascism, which is capitalism in decay).
This is only to say that authoritarian thinking exists because there is a clearly identifiable enemy: Mexicans, Muslims, Jews, and "liberals," or in the case of the authoritarian leftist movements, "anarchists," "counter-revolutionaries," or "kulaks." State power is attractive because it is the easiest solution for these problems. Democrats also have identifiable enemies that often align with the Republicans: commies, terrorists, antifa, etc. State repression is too attractive for some to pass up.