Rotary Peace Center at Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, Thailand

Reagan 2.0? Broken Bridges & Political Opportunism in Black & White

If you had asked me even ten years ago if I would see a black U.S. President in my lifetime, I would have wondered if you’d just arrived from another planet.  And yet, in 2008, eight years ago this month, I watched in shock and tears as President Barack Hussein Obama was sworn into my nation’s highest office.  Edward Azar’s ideas about protracted social conflicts developing within a nation-state (as explored by Tom Woodhouse) was intriguing and, I believe, helps provide insight into both President Obama’s victory and the ascendancy of current Republican front-runner Donald Trump.  In most applications of western-initiated frameworks/models, the lens is pointed at ‘developing’ countries only.  I would like to place a mirror within this frame and turn it back upon one of the most powerful of nations, my own: the United States.

Our nation state emerged in the late 1700s in response to British rule.  We sought sovereignty from England and embarked upon creating a nation that incorporates scores of races, ethnicities, religions, and cultures.  The most challenging relationship among those has been that between blacks and whites, due to the heritage of chattel slavery.  As the U.S. has pressed forward over the centuries since to develop itself economically and to become a massive world power, the identity needs of its people periodically boil over—allowing profound insights into the power structure behind this massive state power.  For a while, after World War II ended and until the technology advances in the late 1970s/early 1980s unleashed an era of massive capital movement and globalization, the U.S. managed to give its working-class whites a very comfortable life.  My dad came of age during that time.  Like many of his peers, he never had a chance to earn a college degree, but he earned a good living throughout his life (he retired in the late 1990s), allowing him to support a family, to buy a house, and even to own a small vacation trailer.  We had a good life.  Our black counterparts were much less likely to own homes that tended to appreciate considerably in value over the decades, earned less, and did not, on average, enjoy small luxuries like travel trailers.  Moreover, many blacks struggled for basic civil rights such as equal access to decent schools and voting booths, and thus concentrated their many of their energies there.  Whites had the luxury of not having to face such discrimination.

After a period of expanding civil rights during the 1960s and ‘70s, U.S. voters turned inward again and elected Ronald Reagan, who’s campaign slogan implored: ‘make America great again.’  In particular, many white working-class peers of my father turned to Reagan, deserting the Democrats in 1980.  Many of these white working-class men were feeling squeezed out from the economic success they had been enjoying for decades.  Notably, this is the same slogan that Mr. Trump has elected to use—and the same demographic to whom he tends to appeal.  Images from President Reagan’s campaign alluded to the dangers of black gangs and, indeed, his presidency oversaw the huge amping up of the War on Drugs in the U.S.  Black Americans felt the worst brunt of this war with no end and no defined goal, which further marginalized them from mainstream economic success pathways.

If we think of these broader social groups playing out their interests and concerns via political actors, an interesting picture emerges: President Obama appealed to a black population that had long felt marginalized, but his election (twice!) activated the energies of a large portion of the white population who increasingly feels marginalized and unheard—cut out from both the political process and the economic opportunity structure.  Many white liberal elites aligned themselves with the Obama presidency.  His style and values resonated with them.  But most of this group neither understands or particularly empathizes with the white working-class—and with its men, in particular.  Yet this is no small population and forms a significant voting block.  Enter Mr. Trump.  He is what Azar might call an ethnic activist and is certainly a political entrepreneur.  Though he is exactly the sort of person who has most marginalized the white working class, rendering them a shell of their formerly economically-vibrant selves, he appears to ‘get’ them.  His rhetoric suggests that it is immigrants and this black president that have ruined the country for the white working guys.  In fact, it is tycoons that take more and more of the wealth for themselves that have most driven the working class to become the working poor.  But blaming the ‘outsiders’ seems more compelling when the guy telling you the story seems like an ‘everyday’ white guy like you.

For the politicians inclined to race-bait the citizens of my nation, Obama has provided them a target so that instead of talking about drug gangs and ‘crack babies,’ they can focus on this one specific president.  I think this strategy represents much less their true thinking about this president and more of an opportunity to engage race in a way that allows them not to look overtly racist.  We are not talking about ‘bad’/’lazy’/’drug-addicted’ black people; we are talking about the policies of this single president.  Really, though, they are talking the same talk I’ve heard all my life.  And much to my disappointment, many of my white working-class peers—alienated as they have been over the last thirty years from the political and economic opportunity structures—seem willing to buy into this sort of rhetoric, which is so avidly espoused by Mr. Trump.  A third way might have been paved via dialogue facilitated by the left-leaning, more educated liberal whites, but they long ago dismissed working-class whites (in particular, the men) as racists—which has, unsurprisingly, alienated them from these working-class men and cut off a pathway to a bridge that might have enlarged the middle ground.  The focus of too many well-educated whites, albeit well-meaning, has been focused upon correcting ‘improper’ (racists, sexist) language rather than to make space for different groups to explore this language, why they use it, and how it frames how they view the world.  Is it too late to try to construct a bridge that would move us from these citadels?  I’m not sure.  But, I would rather try than face another era of Reagan-like racial policies enacted through another “war” on an undefined enemy.  All but the most elite will lose under that outcome.

Suzanne Lea, USA
Rotary Peace Fellow
January 2016 Session

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