How we got here, how we get out
Yes, the problem is racism. But we knew that, and just naming it again won't be enough.
Here is what we know right now:
The Presidential election is still undecided. On one hand, it looks like Biden will likely win (perhaps even quite convincingly!), but only after we all run some long, dumb, litigious gauntlet together. On the other hand, late last night the President made a speech where he gave “ending the election through rhetorical coup” a whirl. That sentence only sounds Fascistic because…well… that’s pretty much how you do Fascism.
There are forecasts and projections and needles and some states count their absentee ballots first and others count them later and such and such percentage of Wayne County and Alleghany County and Clark County are still outstanding and there is a pandemic going on and it is all a real mess.
There is also the Senate. That seems like a mess as well!
What is clear, though, is that when all is said and done there will be tens of millions of Americans who once again voted for Donald Trump for President. Trump will do much better than polls were predicting (again!). This will be in spite of all the preventable-deaths-by-pandemic-mismanagement and the constant stoking of racism fires and the general inability to even feign concern for anybody who isn’t Donald Trump.
The fact that there will be no giant repudiation of Trumpism, the fact that a Trump victory is still very much possible, the fact that polls are being proven wrong, etc., etc., etc. is giving a nation of progressives/liberals/leftists distinct and painful 2016 flashbacks, except this time with the added shame of having devoted the past four years to the single-minded hope that we would not be back here again.
Amidst the wailing and the gnashing of teeth and the Refreshing of The Websites, the question I’m hearing most frequently is “how can so many people keep voting for somebody so loathsome, so preternaturally bad at being a decent human being, so obviously disdainful of so many of his fellow country-people?”
This is a good question.
It is also one that we’ve asked enough these past few years to be able to parrot back a familiar litany of answers. We tell ourselves that it is because white America is racist and male America is sexist and rural voters are fearful and we actually don’t know anything about Latino voters because that’s a socially constructed category into which we’ve stuffed a whole bunch of different people of Iberian and African and Indigenous descent and also because there is so much disinformation and there is Fox News and Facebook and the Boomers are weird. We tell ourselves that if this particular candidate had run a more effective campaign or had policies that better align with the policies we personally like that it would have been different. We correctly identify that the Electoral College is a big dumb racist albatross.
Some of those theories are overly simplistic, but many of them are extremely correct. All of them, however, are presented in a way that is a hair too cute and trite. In progressive circles, we know that the best right answer will be to say, once again, that the problem is white supremacy. And we aren’t wrong. My fear, though, is that after all the Very Correct Proclamations are laid down, that we’ll go back to the same tired well as to what to do about it. We’ve spent four years being mad that millions of white Americans are comfortable with racism and white supremacy and yet our only consistent, scalable idea has been to either yell at them or ignore them. Not surprisingly, the Great American Unfriending has not resulted in liberation.
Here’s why all the yelling and the ignoring hasn’t worked, and why we can’t do it again.
When the dust settles, we will again find a very small percentage of Trump voters who consciously believe that their vote was motivated by racial antipathy. And though intent doesn’t matter when the result is the protection of white supremacy, I’ve spent enough time with enough Trump voters to believe them. What is undeniable, however, is that the average Trump voter did make a conscious choice to support the candidate who asks the least of them, whose individual pitch is that there are “elites” who hate you- in Washington, yes, but also in your state’s center of commerce and power. They were willing to ignore his shortcomings if he forgave them theirs.
This is shallow and rage-inducing, sure, but what percentage of the Democratic base has not been wooed with a different but equally self-gratifying, individually narcotizing pitch? A vote for Biden, we’ve been told, was a vote for “normalcy,” for not being personally embarrassed by your President, for not having to pay too much attention to politics because you need not fear that your President will do anything uncouth.
Liberals (in particular white liberals) too often treat politics as an Embarrassment Cleanse, a means of connecting your Correct Beliefs to easily observable Correct Actions which in turn ensures continued acceptance into Correct Social Networks. We either yell at or cut off the limited number of Incorrect People in our lives so as to avoid the stain of second-hand embarrassment. Those people then, in turn, seek solace in news sources and social networks and eventually political saviors that allow them to process that rejection as merely the product of the other side’s intolerance, not as any cause for self-reflection.
We got here because all of us— yes, the most reactionary of us, of course, but truly all of us— are inheritors of our country’s national orientation to self rather than community. Ours is a nation that has always made short-sighted, individualistic promises: First to white men from Western Europe (whose desires to not challenge one another’s slave-holding “liberties” was what saddled us with the Electoral College in the first place), then conditionally to both a progressively larger and larger swath of other European immigrants (Irish, Italians, Jews, Eastern and Southern Europeans) and then to white women. We have all, at different points in history, been offered a politics that would ask as little of us as possible as long as we don’t rock the boat.
We should not be surprised, then, when once again tens of millions of people, disproportionally white, made a damaging and insulting political choice because it offered them the path of least resistance. Their vote for Trump is merely a mirror of the hundreds of thousands of decisions that white people (including millions of Biden voting white people) make every day— decisions about their kids’ schools, about where they live, about where they work, about what they are or aren’t willing to give up for the common good.
There is a story that we tell about the Scandinavian Social Democracies, one which George Lakey punctures so delightfully in Viking Economics. The argument goes that the Nordics were able to create and sustain successful, democratic, collectively-oriented societies because of their homogeneity and innate, mystical knack for humility and cooperation. It’s all a myth though! Well into the late 19th Century, Norway was a scattershot constellation of isolated villages, each speaking its own distinct dialect, all of them having little in common beyond the shared indignity of having been conquered by a foreign ruler. Their eventual transition into a united Social Democratic nation took decades upon decades of tumult. There were general strikes and riots and multiple iterations of Nazis (including the actual German ones, who occupied the country during WWII). Throughout it all, though, they kept building networks of cooperatives. Unions. Village workers’ councils. Folk schools. University newspaper/study groups. Some grew over time, others burned bright and faded. All of them, however, offered local experiments in direct democracy and caring for the common good that connected to one another at the national level. Eventually, those experiments were large and vibrant enough for the Labour Party to win their first majority in the Storting. Even then, the country wasn’t unified around political collectivism— but they had enough popular will to attempt their collective experiments at the Federal level. Those experiments (what we now call the Norweigan Welfare State) then became beloved enough to become a point of national pride.
There are lessons there:
-You don’t get to just wish or hope or even vote your way into being a better country. You have to build it.
-That building happens together— between people who desperately could use a neighbor but who wouldn’t think to naturally turn to one another.
-In the American context, it is those of us who benefit the most from the selfish individualism of white supremacy that most desperately need to turn towards one another: The white Trump voter. The white moderate. The white liberal. The white leftist. We are the ones who collectively created this mess and unless we organize with rather than seek refuge from each other, that mess will only grow larger and larger. This doesn’t mean that we don’t also organize across racial lines, nor that white anti-oppression organizing should be foregrounded in collective liberation struggles. But if we as white people aren’t willing to build something different with each other, we will continue to be the wrench in every other community’s gears.
-I’m pausing here to reiterate this point, as it is the one with which we struggle the most: White people need to spend more time with other white people, especially those whose views we find abhorrent. We need to do so not in order to “find common ground” or to “come together in spite of our differences” but with the end goal of unlocking a version both of the other person and of ourselves beyond white supremacy.
-The organizing we need to do can not merely be about changing how the Bad White People vote. What we all have in common is that, somewhere along the line, there is a tangible step towards equity that we personally are still too stubborn to take. White parents with Black Lives Matter signs in their yard still send their kids to school districts that structurally perpetuate every problem they purport to oppose. Young white Christians still flock towards churches whose Instagram aesthetics are edgy but whose theology is more Imperial than liberatory. Ideologically spotless urban white socialists and abolitionists still remain more interested in debating Gramsci with each other than actually organizing people outside their social circle. If any of us approach this from the stance of needing to fix other white people, we’re going to lose. If we approach it with the rigor of those turn-of-the-century Norwegians though— focusing on a long game of relationship-building and learning together and shared vulnerability as we help each other get over our personal humps— then we have a chance.
-Electoral politics can be one space where we keep organizing. Unions can be another. But because the problem is everywhere, the possibilities are endless. It is time to turn towards your neighbors, your faith community, your workplace, your red-state hometown. If any of those relationships are strained or nascent, then you’ve stumbled upon an opportunity.
-Believe it or not, the work of organizing isn’t the hard part. It’s deciding that you love and believe in people enough to want to organize them. Once you’ve made that choice, there are no shortage of guides and mentors to help (I personally am deeply indebted to the wisdom of Jane Mcalavey and Mariame Kaba and Dave Fleischer). I’m no wise guide or mentor, but I have spent the past four years developing a training and coaching model to help folks like you do this, so if you want some immediate, tangible help, check out The Barnraisers Project and then let’s talk. We’re literally launching as we speak, so forgive a skeletal website.
I want something different for us, you all. I don’t want white identity politics to be shoved in our country’s face every four years. I don’t want to be on pins and needles waiting to know if the outcome will be “the kind of bad things to which we’ve grown accustomed to” or “something much worse.” I don’t want us to be such an unwelcoming, inhospitable, inhumane place. I don’t want each of us to be out for ourselves. I don’t want a knives-out nation.
I want to create something better. And I want to do it with all of you.