Sever the Link Between Populism and Racism

David Brooks is a very clever and gifted writer. But his latest New York Times piece repudiating the role of race in the vitriolic backlash against Obama just doesn't pass muster.

At the core of Brooks's argument, which attempts to draw lessons from American history, is a false dichotomy between racism and populism. The backlash to Obama, he asserts, falls within a "populist tendency" ("for the ordinary people and against the fat cats and the educated class; for the small towns and against the financial centers") with roots in Jeffersonian and Jacksonian democracy.

While there may be some truth to this, in no way does this negate race as a factor. Jeffersonian democracy involved slavery. Jacksonian democracy involved anti-black racism and Indian "removal." We could add that FDR's New Deal coalition bound together white supremacists and civil rights advocates.

In fact, Brooks's core idea in support of a non-racial reading of the Obama backlash -- "free labor is the essence of Americanism" -- is itself bound to the history of racism. The writings of Theodore Allen, Alexander Saxton, David Roediger and a whole slew of others make this more than clear.

Throughout history, white workers and other non-elites have defined "freedom" in racial terms. When African American, Asian American, and Latino workers -- be they enslaved or free, immigrant or American-born -- were waging their struggles for freedom, did these white "free laborers" find common cause with them? Sadly, white workers and small farmers could be found far too often on the wrong side of history. They believed that the only way they could remain free was to exclude and degrade people of color they associated with savagery and dependency. Their pursuit of democracy in America sought to narrow and confine the scope of citizenship based on race. As a result, the historical concept of "free labor" is scarcely more race-neutral than is the idea of "states' rights."

Did elites play a major role in using racism and nativism to divide the working class? Of course. Did white workers choose the wrong course in every case? Certainly not. There are heroic tales of cross-racial solidarity readily found in books like Howard Zinn's People's History of the United States. But there's no question that regressive forms of white populism played a substantial role in maintaining Jim Crow, bans on Asian immigration and naturalized citizenship, and ongoing xenophobic reactions to Latino immigrants.

Now let's recognize that overt forms of racial hatred and knee-jerk antipathy based solely on skin color have dramatically diminished in the aftermath of the civil rights movement. (Brooks makes this point via an anecdote about white tea party protestors listening to rap music at a black family reunion.) If that level and form of white racism still existed in America, Barack Obama would have never been a serious candidate in the Democratic primary let alone the general election. So old screeds protesting racism won't suffice.

But there remain within American culture a wide variety of fears, anxieties, and prejudices that intersect with conscious and unconscious forms of bias and xenophobia. We won't be able to move towards a truer concept of freedom until we overcome the contradictions inherent in the American populist tendency. We can't have a united effort to contest entrenched corporate power, when some Americans victimized by the oligopoly banks see bailouts as the expedient response of a progressive president taking what appears (wrongfully, IMHO) to be a pragmatic step while others see bailouts as an Obama scheme to impose Nazi fascism upon "real" Americans.

One need not look hard to see these types of contradictions flaring up within the right-wing backlash. Many of the policy positions are downright incoherent -- e.g. "don't let a government takeover of health care destroy Medicare." Beyond that, the backlash continues to be fueled more by fears than fact (death panels, birthers). These resemble less measured political responses and more spastic responses to cultural change -- what Glenn Beck calls, a fear of losing "the America I know and love."

We could poke further holes in Brooks's reasoning. He calls "hard work" "the moral backbone of the country." But for many up in arms about immigration, respect for "hard work" never translates into respect for the humanity of undocumented janitors, dishwashers, and gardeners.

And was Glenn Beck's attack on Van Jones mainly about stirring up populist resentment of the urban elite? Did Beck focus more on Jones being a Yale Law School graduate or a "black nationalist," "revolutionary," and "ex-con"?

Brooks is smart enough to know the right, or I should say, correct answers to these questions. But the real matter before those of us working to build a better future is getting beyond the rear-guard fights with rump members of a party tied to a dying social order. The old racial populism can't claim the allegiance of anything close to a majority today.

The long-term solution -- beyond the immediate policy debates over the merits of split the difference bipartisanship or what to do about blue dog moderates -- is to construct a new coherent political majority that will correspond to an already emerging multicultural majority. This means resisting self-righteous excesses, struggling to transcend narrow partisan interests, and finding some way to mold common values even with those whose sincere populist concerns are surfacing through highly warped expressions.

This was the promise and hope of candidate Obama that inspired the "yes, we can" millions to take grassroots action. He said true change would require difficult struggle. He said no one person could do it alone. He said real transformation comes not from Washington but from the bottom-up.

Those realities ought to be sinking in pretty deeply by now.