“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” – Martin Luther King Jr.
TW: racism, antisemitism, heterosexism, cissexism
I haven’t written much on here because, in spite of a quick look into what went wrong, I have felt woefully wordless. I don’t know that I have answers. I glued my attention to Trump early on in the Republican primary – something that many have held accountable for his meteoric rise. I kept the focus on him as the field narrowed, holding my ground that his visions were an American take on fascism.
His rise, his fall, his uselessness, his usefulness, held my pen captive for months. If anything on the internecine Clinton-Sanders competition I played referee, doling out criticisms on the basis of who seemed to be least examined at the moment. Their contest was secondary – whoever won had to win the ultimate battle, against an age-old adversary hostile to women in control of their own bodies and Jewish existence.
Well, he won. Sanders lost the primary. Clinton lost the general. Any hypothetical in which he would have won in her place was simply that – conjecture. But the allure of that was clearly strong to many, on a deeper level than asking who should have won the primary. It became about what should have been the focus of conversation.
Like many on the outside of the Republican hegemony, the repeated question of whether identity politics had eclipsed “economics” rang like a death knell – as if the clean water Standing Rock and Flint wanted was a resource disconnected from their racial demographics, as if LGBT rights do not cut at their core to cohabitation and hence housing and related industries, as if mandated health coverage of birth control and transgender transitioning care had affected no savings.
Decrying identity politics rarely sounded like a call for including a class consciousness in the politics of the day. If anything, it sounded like looking past some of the most economically deprived people in the country, on the basis of some or all of their identities, chosen or thrust upon them. Are we really supposed to believe that people spraypainting swastikas on walls are motivated by economic problems first and foremost?
A swastika, painted on a UC Davis residence, per Shaun King.
All of this was complicated for me by a more immediate sense of insecurity. At my new job, which was also keeping me occupied with something other than writing here, my coworkers were a motley crew of the terrified. A few days after the election, we held a visit for a recently departed member of the team – an Ashkenazi Jewish woman whose father escaped the Holocaust thanks to an integrated military unit and some elbow grease applied to a sealed train car in Nazi-occupied France. Gathered around the table with her were a Black Coptic Christian, people of color with temporary visas, LGBT people, Black people, Latin@ people, and others. The anxiety was tangible, and thirty minutes later it would spill out into the street – as other residents of the Bay Area blockaded almost every major street in a spontaneous expression of the same or similar terrors.
At the core of that terror is at least one question – which is whether it was actually true. The thing itself comes in a million colors, a thousand flavors, untold variations, but what we expected was some sense that this country was salvageable, this country could change, that this country was capable of more than it appeared. For the some among us, that means a capacity to think of women as its highest leaders. For others, that means a rejection of ethnic cleansing as social and economic policy. For others still, maybe that belief suddenly so fragile and subject to destruction was that the moral arc of the universe bends, and it bends towards justice, and it is slow but don’t doubt it. Well, this is a hell of a twist in another direction, shouldn’t we have a moment of doubt?
This doesn’t feel like a failure of the moment. This feels like running up against a wall. This feels like finding out something about the system. Something inescapable. Something unassailable. Some undercurrent that reversed, some tide that has decided to go out after so many years of going in.
Perhaps this cuts to the core of what the call for a refocusing of Democratic strategy sounds like to many of us. It doesn’t sound like shift in priorities, but a clarification of what has long loomed threateningly – that the White working class, and arguably a more specific slice of America than even that, thinks it stands to gain by other vulnerable people’s loss. Feeling like we’re suffocating under that idea, that may not sound new or radical, but it truly is. Historically, the White working class has on the whole checked the aspirations of wealthier White people.
Those expressions have at best inconsistently worked to the benefit of people of color, but a connection is hard to deny. Even at its most toxic – in the populist revolt Andrew Jackson rode into presidential office and later mass ethnic cleansing of much of the South – it easily mutated into other populist expressions of the day, including abolitionism. Whether the uniquely working class expressions of populism were always inclusive of a concern for what would happen to the newly freed slaves, is of course a reasonable concern. But the populist influence was undeniable, in that stymieing the wealthy often meant helping people of color and other groups categorically excluded from power.
What’s intriguing about US history is how every period you look to sees a similar level of success for working class politics and the politics of people of color – from abolitionism’s and populism’s fever pitch in the late antebellum, to the Gilded Age’s nadir in Jim Crow amid racist immigration quotes if not bans, and ultimately in a populist resurrection in the form of the New Deal and Civil Rights Movement (while trade unions brought integration into White political conversations). Maybe this isn’t a long arc, so much as a loose correlation between populism and egalitarianism.
Yet, that’s changed. We still have a White working class, which has begun to be defined culturally rather than economically by a social rejection of LGBT people, women’s rights, and other racially-loaded and not-so-loaded litmus tests. That labor politics leave open the door for discussing the unique needs of particular classes of labor – racialized, gendered, and so on – is increasingly less clear. In terms of symbolic representation, supposed the powerless apotheosis of identity politics, a narrowly defined White working class is at its greatest visibility – having been credited with Reagan’s wins, George Bush’s anemic win and ultimate loss, the turn towards Clinton, the close successes of George H. W. Bush, Obama’s rustbelt victories, and now Trump’s minority coalition win.
In short, it feels like gravity has stopped working, and a fundamental force in the universe has suddenly begun operating by another, still curious logic. A White working class at least generally hostile to the wishes of wealthy White elites has suddenly played a pivotal role in ushering in the wealthiest cabinet in history, after decades of almost erratic political behavior. That their questioning of the class structure opens doors to people of color and others endangered under the social and economic rules (mostly blatantly LGBT people, disabled people, Jewish people, women, and others) has suddenly been cast into doubt.
Perhaps, that’s the nature of this post-election, in which all sorts of things have been called projection. These distinctively vulnerable populations have no reason not to identify this concern – that the White working class has shifted its priorities in a way dangerous to those who wish they had their status. That’s a mirror image almost of what the supposed champions of the White working class have articulated as feeling – that they’re forgotten and left behind in a future accessible to people of color (among other marginalized groups). Yet, it’s the White working class that seems to be doing that to the jeopardizing, perhaps unrealized even, of other working classes.
The past fifty years have seen a sweeping transformation, but it is hard to perceive of it as that, from the other end of it. The historical record suggests a change within the politics of the White, and increasing cisgender and straight, working class – towards their advancement by means of undermining others struggling, and specifically away from organizing in ways that other vulnerable people stood to benefit from.