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The economy, identity politics and the collapse of neoliberalism

On Life

Ruminations and provocations.

The economy, identity politics and the collapse of neoliberalism

Stephen H. Provost

Back in August of 2015, activists with the group Black Lives Matter disrupted two rallies in Seattle for Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. The group succeeded in keeping Sanders from speaking about his agenda.

The surreal part of all this is that the agenda in question wasn’t some far-right attempt to marginalize African Americans. It was just the opposite: It included such proposals as free college education and a $15 minimum wage – proposals that, if implemented, would have helped poor and working class African Americans more than anything the other major candidates were suggesting.

As of 2010, the poverty rates for African Americans were 27.4 percent, the highest among any racial or ethnic group. Yet despite this, African Americans overwhelmingly preferred Hillary Clinton over Sanders in the Democratic primaries, 76 percent to 23 percent. Some of this might have been chalked up to name recognition, and Clinton certainly had a stronger ground game among black voters.

But on policy, it’s hard to argue that Sanders’ proposals wouldn’t have done more to lift African Americans out of poverty than Clinton’s.

Meanwhile, Sanders actually won a slightly greater proportion of the white vote than Clinton did, appealing to many of the same working-class white Americans whose votes Donald Trump used as the touchstone for his victory over Clinton in the general election.

Where neoliberalism went wrong

So, what happened? Why did poor and working class blacks vote so overwhelmingly for Clinton in the primary, while poor and working class whites turned out in droves for Trump in the general election.

The answer seems obvious, although it won’t be popular among some of my readers: People on both sides of the racial divide have emphasized that divide to such an extent that racial identity has become more important in defining political allegiances than actual policy - even if that policy might help both sides.

Who benefits? Anyone wishing to maintain the economic status quo … which isn’t really a status quo at all, because the wealth gap between rich and poor has continued to grow. And it’s done so with both a Republican (George W. Bush) and a Democrat (Barack Obama) in the White House.

Before anyone yells “false equivalency” – an increasingly common and often fallacious rejoinder that’s intended to shame people into shutting their mouths – I’m not equating Bush’s catastrophic economic policies with Obama’s efforts, which did succeed in bringing the unemployment rate down substantially and stimulating an economic recovery. Few people would (or should) argue that even a sluggish recovery is better than the worst economic downturn since the 1930s, but neither should anyone turn a blind eye to the increasing wage gap and unabated downturn in quality of life for poor and working class Americans of all races.

Yet that’s precisely what the party regulars on both sides did. Jobs continued to be shipped overseas. Mainstream politicians on both sides of the aisle all but ignored the economically fueled Occupy movement. Everything was business as usual.

Going on the defensive

This might not have been surprising from the right, which has long taken a pro-business, anti-labor stance. What is more surprising is that the left hung working class America out to dry. Tired of being branded “socialists,” they stopped defending unions and started to look more and more like proponents of what might be called trickle-down light.

Then, when Sanders drew a large following not just despite but because of his self-identified socialism, they ignored it. And when Trump took up a populist tone in the general election, they tried to ignore that, too. Neither candidate fit into their preconceived notions about how Americans should behave.

Those preconceived notions originated with their decision to abandon the struggle for equality in favor of a struggle for identity. In doing so, they put a premium on lip service to various racial, ethnic and other groups while putting economic concerns on the back burner – even though it was those very concerns that could have united poor and blue-collar blacks, whites, Latinos, LGBT individuals, women and anyone else struggling to make a living.

The result? Low-income black voters weren’t comfortable with Sanders because, even though his policies would have benefited them more than Clinton’s, he didn’t speak the language of identity that the Democratic Party has spoken for more than two decades now. Low-income whites, meanwhile, were turned off by Clinton’s rhetoric precisely because it did put a premium on identity, rather than addressing their concerns about how to put bread on the table.

Neoliberals aren’t entirely to blame for this. Bigotry plays a huge role. African Americans face troubling issues that most white voters don’t have to deal with: social prejudice; police profiling; unjustly harsh sentencing and disproportionately high incarceration rates. The list could go on. Where neoliberalism has failed is in reacting to bigotry defensively, through identity politics, rather than going on the offensive to improve the lives of those targeted by the bigots.

Clinton and the neoliberal Democrats have spoken to these issues – all the while ignoring the economic issues that facilitate prejudice as much as anything else by locking people on the lower rungs of the economic ladder. As mentioned earlier, African Americans constitute the highest percentage of those at the bottom.

As economic status solidifies, so does social prejudice. Just look at the rigid Hindu caste system if you want to know where this process ends up.

Identity vs. behavior

Putting identity over equality is, of course, an attractive message to people who have been discriminated against based on the color of their skin, their gender, their sexual orientation. But there’s a difference between standing up for a specific group of people and standing up against bigotry, no matter how it manifests itself.

This is a crucial distinction. The former course, pursued by neoliberals, focuses on defending identity, while the latter focuses on ending bigoted behavior that targets people because of their identity, regardless of how or against whom it manifests itself. Ultimately, it’s not anyone’s identity that is – or should be – the issue, it’s the behavior of the bigot.

So, while the neoliberals have been preoccupied with defending something that shouldn’t need to be defended, guess what? The bigotry that’s been condemned for decades has become normalized. It’s still hard for me to imagine that the American people were so willing to elect a candidate such as Trump, who expressed such unapologetically prejudiced views. But even when the Democrats pointed this out, they were viewed by many as doing so not because they were against bigotry, but because they were trying to enforce the identity politics of political correctness. They came across as playing politics, rather than trying to further the cause of struggling Americans.

Voters, not candidates

Trump and Sanders had one thing in common, as pundits have frequently pointed out: They’ve branded themselves as populists, champions of ordinary, struggling, roll-up-your-sleeves Americans. Sanders lost in the primary because he was competing in a party that long ago abandoned its working-class roots for the sake of embracing identity politics. Trump won the general election precisely by repudiating this gospel of identity and focusing on the economy.

He cast himself as St. George, eager to the dragon of politics as usual, and the millions of voters believed him.

Yes, Clinton won the popular vote, but I’ve had yet to hear anyone argue that she did so by presenting a hopeful message to working-class America. The message she did spread in that regard was largely borrowed – reluctantly and less enthusiastically, it seemed – from Sanders. More likely, Clinton won the popular vote not because of her economic proposals, but because of Trump’s glaring deficiencies in experience, character and common decency.

Without these issues to contend with, it’s a fair guess that any candidate without Trump’s monumental flaws who succeeded in addressing working class concerns would have won the election in a landslide. Party be damned.

Not all Trump voters are bigots. Most of them aren’t. But they’re so concerned with an economic situation they actually share with many Democrats that they overlooked the unprecedented divisiveness of Trump’s campaign to vote for him. By the same token, not all Democrats are tone-deaf to the idea that fighting for equality is more important than clinging to the divisiveness of identity politics. If they were, more than 43 percent of the party wouldn’t have voted for Sanders, who remained in the hunt for the nomination into the summer. (This despite being a virtual unknown who lacked national recognition at the outset of the campaign, not being taken seriously by the media for months and facing active opposition from the party apparatus.)

The sad thing about all this is that bigotry and identity politics have succeeded in dividing Americans with shared economic concerns by pitting both ends against the middle. I have no doubt that, had Sanders won the Democratic nomination, he would have won many of the same voters who supported Trump in the general election, not because he and Trump are anything alike, but because so many voters who backed both men shared the same concerns.

If the 2016 election taught us anything, it’s that the candidates themselves don’t matter nearly as much as the concerns of the voters. We ignore them at our own peril.

As a nation, we can recognize that inequality is an issue that concerns us all. Or we can continue to be pawns in a game of divide-and-conquer that sustains both bigotry of the far right and the identity politics of neoliberalism while accomplishing little to address the shared concerns of those who are struggling.

The choice is ours. I hope we make the right one.