Follow-up on ‘Racism or Economics?’

A week or so ago I posted about a question I had seen asked by a lot of people dismayed by Trump’s election – ‘is it really about the economy? or really about racism?’ I claimed that this is really two different questions wrapped together – a social scientific question, of what causes or explains what, and an emotional question, of whether to empathise with anti-establishment rage (even while thinking it misdirected) or not.

Multiple friends have pushed me to recognise that there’s actually more wrapped up in this question, and some of it is can be answered more confidently.

One big issue, perhaps the simplest and most direct, is about condemnation and exculpation. To say ‘voting for Trump is racist’ implies a serious moral judgement on voters. I think sometimes when people say ‘this isn’t really racism, it’s misdirected economic distress’, the subtext is that such a moral judgement is unfair. It’s an attempt to excuse and defend, not just one explanatory hypothesis among many.

But, as a friend of mine pointed out, the explanatory question is actually fairly irrelevant to this question of condemnation. Even if racist sentiment wasn’t the primary motive for an action, the action can still be egregiously racist – can still express and reflect a failure to see non-white people as fully human. And I have to say that I think voting for Donald Trump is an example of such an action.

If some supposedly economy-focused voter, who really just wanted more tax cuts or more infrastructure spending (or whatever Trump was promising that week), was willing to support someone who associated with, promoted, and inspired explicit white supremacists, promised to ban a religion from entering the country, and constantly associated undocumented migrants with a non-existent rise in crime… then they were expressing indifference to the obvious fact that electing this candidate would impose life-ruining costs on millions of non-white people. And that indifference is itself dehumanising and racist.

The other question is what to do. I think for some people saying ‘it’s really about the economy’ is a way of saying ‘what we need to do is reach out to Trump voters with a economically populist, but anti-racist, message.’ For others, saying ‘racism is the driving force’ is a way of saying ‘what would work best is more militancy, more confrontation, more active assertion of our opposition.’ Which of those two stances is correct isn’t a question about why things happened in the past but about what could happen in the future.

While I’m perfectly happy saying that voting for Trump is a racist thing to do, I’m really uncertain about that practical question. In part that’s because both sides can say, with some plausibility, that the other plan has already been followed and failed. Decades of politicians condemning racism in the harshest terms, decades of politicians promising the address the ‘very real concerns’ of anti-immigrant voters, and here we are.

Obviously the question of what is the best political strategies for progressives is an important one, but it’s a daunting one and I’m not going to try to answer it here. I think there’s some value in distinguishing the four different questions noted above, and in recognising their significant independence of one another – in particular, that even if economic factors are the biggest explanatory factor for why people vote for Trump, doing so is still racist.

(I should also note that the question of how progressives should deal with Trump-voters is a different and harder question than how they should deal with Trump and his government, which I think is another relatively easy question: oppose and obstruct it at every possible turn.)

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8 Responses to Follow-up on ‘Racism or Economics?’

  1. Allan Olley says:

    I think it is important to point out that moral culpability has several aspects, for example it is about how motivations are subject to rational debate and issues of freedom and responsibility. If you are about to spill your drink I am not interfering with your autonomy by physically catching the glass to prevent the spill onto your valuable painting since you did not intend to spill the drink, but if you are actually deliberately moving to spill your drink over the painting because you are expressing your aesthetic judgement about the painting then I would be interfering with your freedom of expression to catch the glass. I am however free to make the case for the artistic value etc. of the painting and against vandalizing it. We can imagine further complications; what if I know you don’t own the painting but somehow got a hold of it for this act of vandalism justifying some use of force on my part limiting your freedom and so on.

    Interestingly, if you think Trump supporters are morally culpable you think there is something basically competent about their decision making process even if the end must be opposed whereas to find them not morally culpable is to find their decision making process basically incompetent in some way. Anyway this further elaborates how the debate about these things becomes very different depending on how we understand the motives.

    It also goes to what kind of action is required to correct the behaviour. If I believe that a harmful action is done out of ignorance, misapprehension or some kind of negligence then presumably all I have to do is sort of introduce the actor to the proper perspective and they will enthusiastically do the right thing, whereas if they are guilty of willful malevolence then I have to completely reorder their desires and priorities etc.

    However as you suggest behaviour done out of ignorance, negligence etc. may well do as much harm (be racist etc.) as willful action directly involved in the objectionable goal (ie where the harmful racism is the end not just a means to the end). Indeed given the exigencies of our life where outright malevolence is often subject to more active resistance from individuals and social institutions, ignorance and negligence may be the more harmful motives.

    Further ignorance and negligence etc. may be more durable mental properties than outright malevolent hatred or the like such that actually blaming misdirected anger would require much more forceful correction then more culpable feelings, despite the lack of willful intent.

    Of course if you are Socrates there is only one virtue knowledge and one vice ignorance, but this is not a popular position…

  2. lukeroelofs says:

    Yeah, it’s definitely complicated. And what’s particularly complicated is that I think with beliefs or decisions that are held in a socially-conscious way (i.e. in the awareness of who else holds or doesn’t hold them), the distinction really blurs between an issue of beliefs, to be solved by ‘introducing the proper perspective’, and having to ‘reorder their desires and priorities’. When I hold a belief that I know a lot of people I like also hold, and a lot of people I dislike reject, my attachment to it is based on that as much as on evidence. (I’m partly working off reading articles like this:

  3. Greg Horne says:

    Interesting commentary Luke! I’ve been wrestling with this question – racism or economics? – since the election as well. It seems central to understanding the Trump/Brexit/LePen movement, and to informing future strategy for of the left. I have seen some interesting data trends that point in opposite directions – for example, wealthy and super rich white voters significantly favoured Trump, suggesting the racist explanation holds more weight than the economic explanation, at least for them; however many poor voters who voted twice for Obama in 2008 and 2012 then voted for Trump in 2016, suggesting the economic explanation is relevant, at least for those folks.

    However, ultimately I think the question may have no real overall answer, and I think that’s a good thing in terms of strategy.

    The reason I think it has no real answer is that we are not perfect rational agents, and political decisions are highly emotional messy psychological processes where myriad motivations cannot be disentangled. It’s well known that material and economic stress makes people, and other animals, more likely to fight each other, and to scapegoat those deemed weaker. When you can’t feed your kids or are hungry yourself, you are way more likely to start finding some “other” to blame your problems on. It’s not certain that people will take this route, research shows that sometimes adversity actually fosters extra cooperation, such as neighbourhood solidarity after some natural disasters like hurricane Katrina, but in many cases people are more likely to slide into confrontation after some time of challenge. There is ample psychological and sociological evidence showing this. It’s no question that the US, Canada, and all other nations built out of European colonialism are literally direct products of racism and xenophobia – slavery and indigenous genocide were foundation stones of these nations. Thus there is no question that racism, while often explicit, always lays at least latent throughout white communities. Material scarcity is fertile ground for it to flare up. And it will flare up more for white men than for anyone else, since white men have always believed they have a birthright to the opportunity for material success, while other folks have never had this luxury. All this leads to crowds of angry Trump voters frothing at the mouth.

    Now, what really drove their vote… racism or material scarcity? Both. While I’ve heard some Trump voters in interviews disentangle these issues, the vast majority I have heard don’t parse these forces. If they don’t, then it might not make sense for anyone to try. In your useful framing, their anger is both legitimate – at being screwed by neoliberal economic inequality – and illegitimate – at blaming refugees, immigrants, non-white people, etc.

    In terms of strategy going forward, you ask, “…how should left-leaning people relate to it – as something to be redirected, or simply rejected? Is it psychologically or sociologically possible to do ‘a bit of both’?” I think it is not only possible, but necessary to do both at the same time. We know that people will feel more open to other people and perspectives when they feel their concerns are being listened to. No one wants to listen if they feel they consistently aren’t being listened to. So we listen to their anger, and validate it as real, and yet reject it’s direction onto minorities whilst redirecting it onto real economic and social structure issues. Offering real solutions to people’s anger gives them hope. I’ve heard the argument that this tactic is disrespectful, or based in magical thinking, because it doesn’t take Trump voters at their racist word. I disagree with this argument totally, and actually think it’s disrespectful not to follow this tactic. The reason I think this is that racist explanations of hardship – immigrants stealing jobs, refugees plotting terrorist attacks – are almost totally untrue propaganda promoted by those in power to keep people fighting amongst themselves, while economic explanations of hardship – a global capitalist economic system that hyper-concentrates wealth in the hands of the 0.1% – are largely accurate. These latter explanations are also systematically suppressed by those in power. I think we owe it to each other to explain to one another that it isn’t other people of the 99% that have stolen your job opportunities, closed your factories, foreclosed your house, made college too expensive for your kids to attend, lost your investments into the pockets of bankers in the form of billion dollar bonuses, and created a war on drugs that has flooded North America with deathly fentanyl created in Chinese bathtubs. Ban immigrants, and none of these things will improve. Restructure Wall Street, free-trade deals, taxation structure, and corporate regulations, and they may.

    Laying wait within this deeply divided situation, there is an incredible opportunity for the 99% to unite together – under the banner of economic redistribution AND anti-racist social justice – against the forces that keep us all down. That’s the leftist movement Bernie was tapping into, and Indivisible is now picking up on, and that I hope only grows. This is a tall order to make it work, as it means uniting folks traditionally on the left and the right under a set of common goals, but this is just what has happened in many past revolutions. I just read an article about how the labour movement in Norway reached out to would-be fascists in the 1920s and this helped avoid electing a Nazi equivalent there. The fact that many Bernie supporters voted Trump is evidence that the left and the right might have more in common that the mainstream media supposes. The middle is what has given away. The right and the left are both gaining traction. The real threat to the centrist status-quo power holders – exemplified by Hilary – is the left and the right finding their common ground and rising up together.

    I think I disagree with you when you say, “both sides can say, with some plausibility, that the other plan has already been followed and failed. Decades of politicians condemning racism in the harshest terms, decades of politicians promising the address the ‘very real concerns’ of anti-immigrant voters, and here we are.” I don’t think both sides can say this. The first group can – ever since the globalist neoconservative movement won out over the old right after WWII, politicians from both sides of the aisle have been condemning racism, xenophobia, and protectionism. The second group can’t – since Reagan and Thatcher replaced in the 1980s the up-to-then accepted economic policy of Keynesianism (Even Nixon said, “We are all Keynesians now”) with Neoliberalism (privatization, deregulation, and rentier capitalism), the economic concerns of working and lower class people have been thrown under the bus by both parties. For the past 15 years, all major parties in every western country have accepted global neoliberalism, built on the back of investor-protecting free trade deals, as the only game in town. Some parties tweak this consensus a bit, but no one presents real alternatives. The result is the greatest wealth and income inequality since the 1920s, where the world’s 8 richest men own as much as the bottom 3.5 billion people. Obama was the one to bail out the banks. The folks getting screwed – working class folks, and all of the 99%, really – are the frustrated voters who finally had enough and voted to smash the establishment. For white folks in the rust belt interior fly-over states, the establishment parties don’t even pretend to take their concerns seriously. Your jobs have been lost because your factories closed due to automation and globalization? Well go retrain for a new career. Oh college is too expensive? Sorry, here’s a welfare check that doesn’t even cover your bills. They’ve been screwed by both parties for ages. No wonder they are raging and scapegoating everyone – elites, foreigners, minorities, etc. It’s a classic and justified tantrum after being ignored for a long time.

    It’s distinctly the second part of your comment – politicians offering solutions to the “very real concerns” of anti-immigrant voters – that has not happened and needs to! I think it now represents the greatest opportunity to unite more of the 99% together. There are some very cool and promising ideas out there that propose radical and helpful economic reform while also focussing on social justice, all in the face of rising automation and global interconnectedness. The Universal Basic Income is one such idea that is gaining steam, and supported by both folks on the left and right. And while it’s a legitimate critique of the UBI to say that it is supported by Ayn Rand Libertarians only because it would allow the right to justify cutting all other social programs, thus making things worse, it can be coupled with other powerful ideas to bring far more structural changes to the distribution of wealth, and therefore power, in society. One such idea is an amalgam of socialism and capitalism that was proposed by a couple of Russian economists just before the fall of the USSR, where capital markets are socialized, yet the economy is not centrally planned. The idea was to unite the best of socialism: the public ownership of land, labour, and capital – and the best of capitalism: the freedom for individuals to choose their economic activities free from state planning control. United with a UBI, a Socialized Capital Market is a proposal for massive economic redistribution that would help alleviate the conditions in which bigotry, racism, and xenophobia breed. Read about it here: So far, no serious political parties anywhere in the West have put these kind of ideas on the table, and the time is ripe!

    Anyway, that’s my two cents! Thanks for writing this ~

    • lukeroelofs says:

      Thanks Greg, a lot to chew on here. I’m very sympathetic to the idea of uniting everyone behind a democratic socialist proposal, and insofar as that’s possible, it would be fantastic. But it’s certainly also easier said than done.

      Perhaps I can play devil’s advocate for a moment? Aren’t the following at least possibly true:
      -Implementing major redistributive, Keynesian, or socialist policies will be an uphill battle, politically, and may take a long time and face many setbacks;
      -Defending or advancing an actively multicultural centrist liberalism would be much easier to mobilise large numbers of people around in the short-term;
      -During the time it would take to get all these economic measures passed (10 years? 50 years?) right-wing populist governments would actively and to no benefit ruin thousands or millions of POC lives by deportation, police brutality, tolerance for hate crimes, whatever, which would not be thus ruined if those governments were instead run by multicultural centrist liberals;
      -There’s some kind of political trade-off between recruiting conservative-leaning members of ‘the 99%’ to the slowly-building movement for socialism, and mobilising left-leaning people against right-wing populism – the more ardently one is done, the less successful will the other be.

      I don’t know if these things are all true, but if they are, then there does still seem to be a practical dilemma: uniting the ‘99%’ behind a progressive economic program requires tolerating the continued political dominance of white nationalism. Like I said, I don’t know if these things are all true (I hope they’re not), but they seem like live possibilities. In particular, I wonder about the question (supposing we think they’re not true): if they *were* true, what evidence would we expect to see, that we’re not in fact seeing?

      • Greg Horne says:

        Are you working under contract to the devil for that kind of advocacy? 😉 Here are some thoughts on your useful points, with an eye to trying to see “what evidence would we expect to see” if your points were untrue.

        -Implementing major redistributive, Keynesian, or socialist policies will be an uphill battle, politically, and may take a long time and face many setbacks;

        I think that it may not be such a long and uphill battle. We are on a precipice, I think, where the old centrist liberal status quo (that which, economically, means Neoliberalism) has essentially lost viability in the majority of people’s minds, and now people are looking for alternatives on the left and the right. Sanders had a huge grassroots following that grew up in a manner of months essentially without any corporate, media, or elite support, and was nearly successful in taking over the DNC under a socialist banner. Clinton defeated him, by malicious means or not, but in the general election garnered significantly less votes than Obama did in 2008 or in 2012. Trump also got less votes than the RNC got in 2008 or 2012. It was only the fact that the DNC lost more votes than the RNC lost that Trump won. And in the end, Clinton still ended up winning the popular vote. The overall voter turnout was the lowest in 20 years, suggesting that when people have a choice between the failed status quo, and a right-wing demagogue, that most people are deeply uninspired by both and will stay home. One can chalk the apathy of those who didn’t bite the bullet and vote Clinton just to defeat Trump as a moral failing on their part, or one can take it as yet another sign of how badly the status-quo has failed huge numbers of people. The counterfactual that we simply didn’t get to observe was Sanders vs. Trump on the ballot. Many people think he could have won it. It may appear now that the US has had a massive shift to the right, driven by a politically awakened white middle class or something, but this appearance may simply be hiding the fact that a greater number of centre-left people have been awakened and want significant change to the left. That’s all speaking to the political possibility of electing a fairly radical left government. As far as how long it would take to implement major redistributive changes once such a government is in, I think with politicians with integrity and tenacity, that could happen very quickly as well. People want change now and fast. The deep reforms to Wall Street that Ackerman describes in his article, which would go a long ways towards a socialized capital system, could essentially be completed with an executive order. Other sweeping changes, like $15 minimum wage, full employment, funded eduction, funded childcare, a reduction in military interventions, and even a UBI, could also be enacted quickly, but many would require, in the US, Congress in addition to the presidency. The DNC retaking Congress will require a lot of grassroots organizing across the country, in the way the Tea Party movement did since 2009 to get to win the huge RNC majorities in 2016. This is a longer road, but there’s already a massive decentralized anti-Trump movement only 3 months post election. Indivisible is one budding banner folks are getting really organized under, including by resuscitating proven labour organizing tactics from the 1930s like the town hall filibusters happening all over the place.

        -Defending or advancing an actively multicultural centrist liberalism would be much easier to mobilise large numbers of people around in the short-term;

        I disagree. That’s exactly the platform Clinton ran on, and lost the election by getting far fewer votes than Obama did in 2008 or 2012. Again, if Sanders had been on the ballot, with his much more radical socialist agenda, he might be president. It’s simply untrue that getting large numbers of people to mobilize around centrist liberalism is a realistic possibility right now. The center has failed people, and they want to go left or right.

        -During the time it would take to get all these economic measures passed (10 years? 50 years?) right-wing populist governments would actively and to no benefit ruin thousands or millions of POC lives by deportation, police brutality, tolerance for hate crimes, whatever, which would not be thus ruined if those governments were instead run by multicultural centrist liberals;

        This is a bit puzzling Mr. Devil! 😉 Surely the only way that any of the leftist economic measures could be passed is if a left wing government is in power, which means that right-wing governments won’t be. Again, politically, I think the way to keep right-wing populist governments out is by running left-wing populist candidates against them, not status-quo centrist candidates. Thus, there is no need to tolerate the continued political dominance of white nationalism while a left-wing movement builds. The movement is already there, it just needs to run and elect leaders.

        -There’s some kind of political trade-off between recruiting conservative-leaning members of ‘the 99%’ to the slowly-building movement for socialism, and mobilising left-leaning people against right-wing populism – the more ardently one is done, the less successful will the other be.

        I see your point on the trade-off here. But I think it’s only relevant to an extent. The left doesn’t need to win many Trump supporters back (maybe just the ones who switched from Obama to Trump) in order to win elections again. It was a pretty close election. Indeed, the left might not even need ANY Trump voters, as if simply more left-wing people who stayed home in 2016 came out to vote for an inspiring left wing progressive, that would beat the Trumpers. Now, one complication with this is that the right has gerrymandered the electoral map to make it very hard for the left mostly concentrated in urban centres. To win the electoral college as it is currently structured would require the DNC winning over a lot of rural ridings that were traditional DNC strongholds, specifically in the swing states of the rust belt mid west. Again, Sanders was polling huge numbers in exactly these places, so it’s very possible. In the larger picture, one of the central failings of the DNC and the left in general since the rise of Reaganomics has been a total dissolution of the labour movement. Organized, and often militant, labour has been the mainstay of the left in the US for 200 years. It’s a totally different scene today, where Trump somehow appealed to way more working class folks than did Clinton. Upside-down world. I think there are two reasons for this. The first, as I’ve talked about above, is that Clinton offered only the status quo neoliberal economic agenda. The second is the changing nature of work due to technology and globalization. The world is simply producing way more stuff with far fewer workers than ever before. The old idea that those in power need workers to keep the machine going is fading. Workers are becoming less necessary to the elite. Given this, many people see the potential of radical ideas like the UBI and Socialized Capital (both of which embrace the idea that we don’t need to work as much when we have automation and income shouldn’t depend on work) as potentially joining or even someday replacing a strong labour movement as the leftism of the 21st century.

        Here are a couple of Noam Chomsky commentaries on Trump which I largely agree with. They are along the lines I outlined above:

        Thanks again Luke, great discussion!

  4. lukeroelofs says:

    Thanks Greg, these are all reasonable points, and sufficient I think to warrant enough optimism to motivate action. But perhaps I can keep advocating for the other side:

    You seem to be pointing to two basic sorts of data point regarding why left-wing movement has reasonable prospects (in the US): the relative success of Sanders, and the relative failure of Clinton. Those shouldn’t be ignored. But: Sanders might be well-placed to energise a hardcore Democrat base and ill-placed to galvanise a wider electoral coalition. This seems, on the face of it, to have been Corbyn’s fate so far: his supporters in the Labour Party are loyal and numerous enough to keep him as leader, but he’s done little to improve the party’s overall fortunes. And: Clinton’s failure might reflect much more specific factors, like 1) it’s hard to win a third term, 2) the economy wasn’t great, 3) the media elevated extremely trivial facts about her to the level of major scandals, etc.

    (In particular, we can’t take Clinton’s results both ways – at times in your comment you seem to point to it as evidence that people are fed up with centrism, but at other times you point out that she did win the popular vote, so there are clearly enough people willing to support her kind of message, just spread out badly. I worry that, since she sort of half-won, that can be spun as either an endorsement or a rejection of whatever we think she ran on.)

    A related data-point (though one that lies a little in the future) is perhaps Macron. Former investment banker, socially liberal but associated with pro-business reforms, he seems more of a Clinton figure than a Sanders figure (though I’m happy to be corrected). The polls suggest that he may beat Le Pen, or that he is at least the leading candidate to do so – of course, trusting the polls seems like a bad strategy right now. But seeing how he does might be a useful test.

    • Greg Horne says:

      Agreed on all your points Luke. The lessons from Corbyn, and from Clinton’s half-win, are important and complex.

      Another interesting comparison is the Muclair NDP in Canada in 2015. Went from polling #1 for months, then presented a more centrist line to try to win votes and maybe form the first ever NDP govt, and ended up losing in a landslide to the Liberals who campaigned to the left of them. People seemed to vote for big change. Suggests the opposite lesson from Corbyn. However, perhaps just reflects the fear of Canadians to elect the NDP. Maybe both.

      • lukeroelofs says:

        Yep, the 2015 result was a big disappointment for a lot of NDP-leaners I think. One other possibility is that they weren’t really being ‘chosen against’ at the last moment on any policy basis, but that a lot of people were concerned not to split the anti-Harper vote, and shortly before the election they all settled on liberal because that’s what they thought everyone else was doing.

        I did like the article you posted to my facebook wall, which I’ll link again here:

        The thesis, as I interpreted it, was that racial animosity actually drives economic policy preferences (in particular, people who don’t identify with the groups they think of redistribution as benefitting are against redistribution), and does so *more* the more economically secure people are.

        (That said, we again can’t have it both ways – if, as the article suggests, rising real incomes in the postwar era led people to care more about cultural issues and less about economic ones, shouldn’t the GFC have led people to focus more on economic issues, which doesn’t seem to accurately capture the recent trend?)

        I don’t know that this is true (so many facts, so much scope to assemble them to fit conflicting hypotheses…), but it does suggest that we can’t be sanguine about racial animosity withering away once we get our preferred economic policies in place.

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