White Fight (Part One)
This week: White conservatism and the profound fear that somebody with a nose ring and a carefully curated bookshelf might be mocking you
TOP NOTES: It’s been a while! I wasn’t planning on taking the month of November off from White Pages-ing, but here we are. I know this sounds like a line, but I’ve missed you all and hope you’re all right. I’m doing well personally (Busy! Grateful for the Barnraisers cohort that just finished! Finally caught up on Succession!) but, as you can tell below, I’ve spent more time than I’d like feeling distracted (and at least a little despondent) because of All The News.
As was likely clear from the title, this is my first attempt at a two-parter. Let’s see how it goes. Part two will come next week!
Some weeks, you don’t really follow the news. It just swirls around you like a pesky personal derecho. There’s no organized narrative, just a miasma of half-understood headlines and distracting stimuli. Everything is vague and hazy and headache-inducing. It’s not like those moments when time stops and we all watch the coup-or-earthquake-or-horrific-thing-the-cop-did together. You just go about your day knowing that at some point a news alert or an overheard radio broadcast or a viral tweet might emerge from the whirlwind and punch you in the face. Some of the bad or confounding bits disappear, others stick with you. The swirl is the constant.
Maybe I’m the only person who has had a month like that! Maybe not! But it’s been one of those months! There has been a lot!
I’m thinking about the oral arguments in Dobbs vs. Jackson Women’s Health Organization and what looks for all the world like the last days of Roe vs. Wade. We are, it appears, at the tail end of a depressingly successful 50-year political project— one orchestrated by political opportunists who knew the power to be had in melding an ostensible appeal to compassion and theology1 with the two great constants of American politics (racism and patriarchy). Despite the fact that America has spent my lifetime ostensibly debating Roe, that debate never seems to be about how to become a country that truly values women and other Americans who get pregnant. Nor has it been a question about how we might truly value and care for all our nation’s children. Instead, too often, it’s been about which witches should be burned to cleanse our sins.
I’m thinking about how it is 70 degrees in Northern Montana and how the town of Denton— a place that should currently be very, very cold— is instead completely engulfed in flames (a quick aside- here’s the link to the town GoFundme if you’d like to help).
I’m thinking about the various gerrymandering fights happening in statehouses across the country. Minority party rule is a very bad thing, of course, and evil map-making is a particularly craven version of political dark arts. It’s depressing and bad! AND! It’s also weird that the most common response to all this is deterministic fatalism! The smart assumption is that, if a map creates a lot of disproportionally White rural districts, that the residents of those districts are automatically doomed to vote for the most reactionary, conservative candidates. Here in Wisconsin, you’ll hear plenty of complaints from the Democratic Party about the GOP’s legislature’s “anti-democratic” maps. What you won’t hear, though, is much talk about the party’s plans to organize and compete in those districts (even though many of them had a relatively recent history of electing Democrats).
I’m thinking about how we’re two years into a pandemic and there are still roughly 1000 Americans dying a day and we’ve had plenty of time to perform our various scapegoating poses against each other (“It’s all Fauci’s fault!” “If it wasn’t for the unvaccinated Trump Counties, Delta would have never come here!” “The NEA and AFT are child abusers because my kid has to wear a mask in school!”) but none of us seem ready to admit that behind all our bluster we’re really scared that this might never end and we still don’t know what to do.
I’m (still) thinking about Kyle Rittenhouse. Not the trial, not the verdict, but everything about that absolute mess of a summer night in Kenosha. I’m still thinking about how a protest that was ostensibly about the safety and well-being of Black people devolved into a dumb jocular dance between various types of White men with guns. White cops with guns, the same ones that got us into this mess in the first place. White, left-leaning protesters with guns, emboldened with the particular righteousness that comes from believing that because you are one of the good White people, that your guns too must be uniquely cleansed in righteousness. And of course, White conservatives, tough guys whose guns are always especially big, especially dumb and— not surprisingly— especially deadly. I’m thinking about how all this was supposed to be about Jacob Blake but how it ended up being a night where White people yelled at each other and then eventually started shooting at each other.
There is always bad news. There is always cruelty and isolation and electoral math that won’t add up and court decisions that sting. There is always someplace on fire. There is always a Go-Fund-Me. What has me particularly stymied lately, though, isn’t the mere existence of bad news. It’s my deep fear that we’re about to chase good politics after bad, that our collective response to this moment will be to make the same mistakes we’ve been making for generations now.
When I say “we,” I mean White people, a group that still holds disproportionate power over American politics, media and culture. I’m interested in our particular brand of political stuckness not because I believe that we should continue to be the primary drivers of American history. Goodness knows America doesn’t need salvation delivered from our hands. I do believe, however, that the particular preening, self-conscious way that we’ve been slap-fighting each other and calling it politics is actively harming any hope of positive forward progress for our country.
I’ve hinted around the edges of this concern in plenty of newsletters in the past, but there’s something about this moment that makes me feel like it’s time to let it breathe a bit more. So, this is new for me! A two-parter! Next week, I’ll talk about leftie White people (like me! and many of you!) and what we’re doing to keep us in this mess. This week, though, let’s talk about the Cain to our Abel: Bring on the White conservatives!
I’ve been haunted by the 1970s lately. Yes, this is because of the book (it’s coming along well, by the way— thank you for asking!). It’s just that every time I try to excavate how we got to our particular political moment, I find another root leading back to the various ways that White people puffed themselves up in opposition to one another during that decade. This isn’t to say that the idea of American White people squaring off and dueling was invented whole cloth sometime between the release of Led Zeppelin III and In Through The Out Door (we had a whole war and everything a century previously! a big one!), but some very real precedents for our current moment were set 50 years ago.
It was inevitable that the 1960s— a decade marked both by at least a modicum of societal change (the passage of both the 1964 and 1968 Civil Rights Act) and (probably more importantly) a lot of bluster and performance that passed for social change— would inspire a conservative White backlash. White people behaving badly as a reaction to Black progress is one of our nation’s most storied traditions. Reconstruction leads to Jim Crow. The rise of affluent but segregated Black enclaves leads to the Red Summer of 1919. The “racial awakening” of 2020 leads to whatever it is we’re doing now (Hot School Board Melee Fall?).
Many elements of the conservative White backlash in the 1970s followed familiar patterns. Nixon and Reagan’s appeals to Law and Order echoed those of the Jim Crow Bourbon Democrats, just as the White protestors who opposed Boston busing were merely a tamer update of the White death mobs of 1919. What is notable in the 1970s, though, was conservative White America’s anger at their potential loss of station at the hands of Black and Brown people, but their growing obsession with real or imagined condescension and derision from the White Left.
Again and again, conservative activists throughout the decade discovered that the quickest path to successful White organizing was by evoking the bogeymen not of Black Power but of a disdainful, hippie-adjacent White establishment. Phyllis Schlafly successfully rallied a nation of Nice White Ladies against the Equal Rights Amendment by painting her feminist opponents not merely as bra burners but as hate-filled Communists who looked with scorn at the lives that conservative housewives had spent a lifetime building. As Schlafly put it decades later, “the feminists don't believe in success for women… [but] I believe that American women… can do anything they make up their minds to do.” Similarly, when Alice Moore and her Concerned Citizens launched their crusade against multicultural books in Kanawha County (WV) Schools, they did so by depicting the opponents (in this case, more cosmopolitan teachers and school board members) as “giants who mock [us] dumb fundamentalists.” While their campaign never attracted majority support in that county’s urban center (Charleston) it succeeded because of mass strikes and boycotts on the part of rural families (many of them actively affiliated with the United Mine Workers).
It should come as no surprise that “hey, there is a group of people who you’d think should look up to you— younger White people— but actually, they hate you and think you’re stupid” is a resonant political message. Rallying a crowd against a disdainful enemy may be the easiest pathway towards in-group formation, but that doesn’t make it any less effective (at the end of the day, we are all just Robbers Cave boys). That’s not the only reason why the proto-culture wars of the ‘70s were so effective though. White conservatives won with sweat and shoe leather— by paying attention to and organizing communities that the Left was ignoring— non-college-educated stay-at-home moms, rural blue-collar workers, etc. They ran up the score because (as we’ll explore more next week) they were the only game in town.
By the end of the 1970s, campaigns like Schlafly and Moore’s offered the blueprint for an era of conservative institution building. Led by indefatigable culture warriors like Paul Weyrich (who spent decades studying American left-labor organizing tactics in order to co-opt them) and funded by the Coors, Bradley, Mellon and Koch families, conservatives built out networks of discourse-setting foundations and “grassroots” organizing campaigns. The whole thing was held together by aggressive direct mail campaigns, all with the same message: America’s elites were White, liberal and filled with spite for working people. By contrast, good White conservatives were rag-tag “revolutionary idealists being hunted down like dogs by a vicious and [perenially] active liberal prosecution.”
You know how the story ends. The right seeded a nation of White culture warriors and then created and maintained the media apparatus and local political organizing networks necessary to weaponize their energy. In both victory and defeat, they’re always poised to win. Barack Obama begets the Tea Party, just as Donald Trump’s victory begets a million Fox News soundbites. Regardless of which party is in power, it is always the condescending elites secretly in control, and always heartland White people who are under attack.
"What I would say is that clearly voters are mad at the establishment and have contempt for the establishment. But the establishment has greater contempt for voters," he said. "If you think your average Trump voter in Ohio hates Washington, you should see what Washington thinks about the Trump voter in Ohio."
One of the most fascinating studies of what life looks like a half-decade downstream from Weyrich’s direct mail operation comes in University of Wisconsin Political Scientist Kathy Cramer’s 2016 book The Politics of Resentment, which documents years of field research with rural White Wisconsinites. As the title belies, Cramer’s interviewees are a resentful bunch, but in ways that are specific and deeply regional.
Interestingly, the White loggers and farmers and retirees with whom Cramer spends her time don’t talk much that much about Black and Brown residents in big cities, nor even the White elites in Weyrich or Carlson’s Washington. Cramer’s interviewees are angriest at what they identify as a lazy, well-healed network of condescending academics and politicians concentrated in Madison (home to the state’s Capitol, flagship university and largest concentration of loafish undergraduate radicals, all of whom are imagined to have piercings and iconoclastic haircuts) but fanned out across the state. Even public school teachers in their own towns are often implicated in the cabal; after all, in many communities, that group’s relatively modest salaries and benefit packages place them on the top of a very small local economic hierarchy. Communities of color show up not primarily because of any direct crimes of commission, but due to the belief that Madison big-wigs are viewed as being more likely to toss aid, attention and largesse Milwaukee’s way than anywhere north of Highway 29.
The fact that “anti-elite” discourse on the part of White conservatives is made up and ridiculous isn’t a novel discovery of course. All of this— from Weyrich to Limbaugh to Trump to JD Vance— is well-documented territory. What matters here isn’t that the message is contrived— it’s that it has worked so frustratingly well and for so long. Sadly, it’s been the most effective organizing effort in modern American history, not because its targets (White conservatives) are stupid, gullible marks, but because of what the White American Left has and hasn’t been doing in the meantime.
You can’t have a circular firing squad without somewhere for all parties to stand. And while American White Conservatism has spent my lifetime squaring up its position on Capitol Hill and a strong majority of U.S. Statehouses, the White Left was staking out a spot far away from any real political influence, but visible enough to provoke the ire of our obsessive rivals on the right. The implications of those choices- both the one we’ve made and the one we consciously avoided— have been massive and devastating.
That’s to say…. It takes two to tango, and a whole lot of White people to get us stuck in this mess. We’ll get to that next week, though! Thanks for sticking with Part One!
This week’s songs : “Against the 70’s” by Mike Watt and “I Believe The South Will Rise Again” by Tanya Tucker
I’ve shared this when I’ve written about American anti-abortion politics in the past, but I’m very fortunate to have a number of readers and friends whose religious beliefs drive both their anti-racism work as well as their sincere belief that life begins at conception. As always, I’m glad you’re here and still reading! Thanks for giving me the space to reflect on what I find dangerous about the ways that anti-abortion politics has metastasized in the States.