In the final entry in a series entitled U.S. Election Notebook, Athabasca University professor Paul Kellogg identifies some of the possible future directions in U.S. politics, made visible by the 2016 U.S. presidential election. In the last blog post, Kellogg discussed insight from W.E.B. Du Bois.
Whatever the short-term result of the 2016 election, in the long run, Donald Trump’s political project will certainly fail. He has turned his back on African-American voters, demonized and insulted Latinas and Latinos, doubled-down on a kind of sexism and misogyny without precedent from the national stage of electoral politics, and pinned all his hopes on mobilizing a sufficiently large portion of the white male electorate – mobilizing them on a racist basis – to narrowly squeak into the White House.
Working against the Trump project, is the changing demography of the U.S. electorate, captured in Figure 5. In 1903, fully 88% of the US population was white (non-racialized). The decimation of the indigenous population had been so thorough, that indigenous people comprised just 0.3% of the US population. Just 0.66% were Latina/Latinos. The only significant non-white section of the population, was comprised of the 11.3% who were African-American. As of Richard Nixon’s 1972 election victory, this picture had not qualitatively changed. The white (non-racialized) portion of the population was still 82.6%, only slightly less than it had been in 1903.
Presidents could win elections and, arithmetically, pay little heed to interests of minority sections of the population. Of Richard Nixon’s more than 47 million votes in his 1972 landslide victory, just 700,000 came from African-Americans, fewer than 600,000 from Latinas and Latinos. Ronald Reagan polled 44 million votes in 1980 and 54 million in 1984. Of that, he averaged just 900,000 votes from the African-American community and just 800,000 from the Latina / Latino community.
But from the 1980s on, it has become more and more difficult to ignore diversity and win a presidential election. There has been a slow increase in the presence of indigenous people, still marginal, but recovering from the near genocide of the 18th and 19th centuries. There has been a slow increase in the share of the population made up of African-Americans. The big change has been a steady and significant increase among Latina/Latinos. One year after Richard Nixon’s 1972 victory, Latina/Latinos comprised 5% of the population. By 1995 this had become 10% of the population, by 2010 15%. The United States – particularly urban United States – is an increasingly diverse society. Figure 6 shows that by 2044 more than 50% of the country’s population will be racialized, and that percentage will steadily grow for the rest of the century.
Best before date
Trump’s appeal to a white nationalist coalition based on open appeals to racism has a best-before-date. It only has a chance of working when his only potential base of support – the white electorate – remains a majority. The days of that majority are clearly numbered. Seen this way, his political movement (if one can call it that) represents a desperate backlash against inexorable demographic trends, a backlash with no long-term chance of success.
His movement has created an enormous crisis for the Republican Party, revealed to have been an unstable coalition between a neoliberal fiscal conservative elite, and an alienated, mass base, open to a politics of narrow nationalism and race-baiting.
But what of Hillary Clinton’s Democratic Party? Clinton will surely emerge victorious after November 8, but any student of the 2016 election will be struck by how difficult it has been for her to put down the threat of someone as distasteful as Donald Trump. Through the summer, it was not clear that she was going to be able to defeat him at all. An earlier post suggested that this was in part rooted in sexism – the reluctance by a section of the electorate to countenance a woman president, parallel to the reluctance by some to countenance the presence of President Barack Obama, an African-American.
But – the sluggishness of the Clinton campaign also reflects deep problems within the Democratic Party itself. The New Jim Crow, outlined so clearly by Michelle Alexander, might have been launched by the Republican presidency of Richard Nixon, but it has been nurtured and sustained by Democrats. Since 1972, alongside 24 years of Republican presidential rule, we have experienced 20 years of Democratic presidential rule – and the New Jim Crow remains intact.
The truth is, the Democratic Party is a deeply flawed political project. In the nineteenth century, it was the party of the southern plantation class – the slaveocracy. It bent toward liberalism and social-democracy through the New Deal of the 1930s and the Great Society of the 1960s – a set of policies associated with President Lyndon Johnson, policies which expanded social services in the country.
President Bill Clinton and presidential-candidate Hillary Clinton, emerged as opponents of this bend towards social-democracy. Their wing of the Democratic Party – “New Democracy” – was associated with the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), formed in the mid-1980s and for a while chaired by Bill Clinton. The DLC “pushed balanced budgets, free trade, tough-on-crime policies, and welfare reform.” The first – the push for balanced budgets – is the only aspect which the current Clinton campaign openly touts. All of the others have proven politically damaging. The Clintons’ support for trade deals such as NAFTA, have given a large audience for Donald Trump among a working class section of the electorate, who feel that those trade deals have taken their jobs. The “tough-on-crime” approach is precisely why, as Michelle Alexander pointed out, Bill Clinton did nothing to end the mass-incarceration scandal which scars U.S. society. And welfare reform led to the infamous “end of welfare as we know it” under Bill Clinton’s presidency, a reform which “stipulated that people could receive no more than five years of government benefits in a lifetime, though states could set their limits lower and many did, with some instituting a two-year lifetime limit.” This had the effect of making millions of the poorest in the United States ineligible for social assistance.
You need look no further than this to explain the insurgent candidacy of Bernie Sanders – an open socialist who surprised everyone and very nearly became standard-bearer for the Democratic Party. Sanders’ campaign attacked the corporate elite embraced by the Clintons and New Democracy and picked up the welfare state threads they had let fall – free tuition for public post-secondary institutions, health care for all, an expansion of social services. With this set of politics, Sanders found a huge resonance, particularly among young, urban voters.
You need look no further than this to explain the insurgent social movement – most visibly represented by Black Lives Matter, which is challenging systemic racism in the United States regardless of which party – Republican or Democrat – this puts it up against.
There is no easy way to know what political futures will emerge after November 8. But if we study the changing demography of the country; confront the issues raised by the New Jim Crow analysis and the Black Lives Matter social movement; and attempt to understand the mass appeal of the Sanders campaign – then we might see some of those futures with just a bit more clarity.
U.S. Election Notebook #1: Grief of the Parents
U.S. Election Notebook #2: Memories of Goldwater
U.S. Election Notebook #3: Calculus of ‘misspeaking’
U.S. Election Notebook #4: Birther origins
U.S. Election Notebook #5: Memories of George Wallace
U.S. Election Notebook #6: The Colour Line
U.S. Election Notebook #7: Glass ceilings & backlash
U.S. Election Notebook #8: Slaves in the White House
U.S. Election Notebook #9: Locking up the vote
U.S. Election Notebook #10: The New Jim Crow
U.S. Election Notebook #11: Not a dime’s worth of difference?
U.S. Election Notebook #12: ‘A sort of public and psychological wage’
U.S. Election Notebook #13: Political futures
Paul Kellogg (Ph.D. Queen’s, M.A. York) is an Associate Professor, Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies, Master of Arts – Integrated Studies Program, Athabasca University. Among his courses at Athabasca is POLI 345, “American Government and Politics”. He is the author of Escape from the Staple Trap: Canadian Political Economy After Left-Nationalism (University of Toronto Press, 2015). His teaching and research interests are political economy, social movements and global governance.