The Times columnist Tom Edsall called a bunch of academics to ask them for their take on why last Wednesday’s insurrection at the Capitol happened. His column about it is here. Excerpts:
There is evidence that many non-college white Americans who have been undergoing what psychiatrists call “involuntary subordination” or “involuntary defeat” both resent and mourn their loss of centrality and what they perceive as their growing invisibility.
Andrew Cherlin, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University, wrote by email:
They fear a loss of attention. A loss of validation. These are people who have always had racial privilege but have never had much else. Many feel passed over, ignored. Trump listened to them and spoke their language when few other politicians did. He felt their pain and was diabolical enough to encourage their tendency to racialize that pain. They fear becoming faceless again if a Democrat, or even a conventional Republican, were to take office.
Cherlin pointed to the assertion of a 67-year-old retired landscaper from North Carolina who joined the Trump loyalists on Jan. 6 on the steps of the Capitol: “We are here. See us! Notice us! Pay attention!”
There is a learning opportunity here. Remember all you on the Left who said that the riots last summer meant that the rest of us needed to listen to black America talk about its sense of pain and grievance over racism? Well, apply that logic to this. (And remember all of us here on the Right who were told that by the Left last summer? If what this white working class man is quoted saying resonates with you, then should we not revisit what the Left was saying about black grievance?)
The point is not that grievances — held by black people, white people, or any group — are objectively true. They might be, or might not be, or somewhere in the middle. The point is that if members of the group experience them as real and true, then they will act on that belief — and there could be violence.
Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology at Berkeley, agrees in large part with Anderson, describing the fury and disappointment contributing to the takeover of Congress as concentrated among whites who see their position in the social order on a downward path. In an email, Keltner wrote:
The population of U.S. Citizens who’ve lost the most power in the past 40 years, who aren’t competing well to get into college or get high paying jobs, whose marital prospects have dimmed, and who are outraged, are those I believe were most likely to be in on the attack.
When pressed to give up power, he added, “these types of individuals will resort to violence, and to refashioning history to suggest they did not lose.”
This is a useful analysis, but here, from the same column, is an example of it taken too far by the Left:
Jane Yunhee Junn, a professor of political science at the University of Southern California, was outspoken in her view:
People of color in political office, women controlling their fertility, L.G.B.T.Q. people getting married, using their bathrooms, and having children go against the state of nature defined by white heteropatriarchy. This is a domain in which men and white men in particular stand at the apex of power, holding their “rightful position” over women, nonwhites, perhaps non-Christians (in the U.S.), and of course, in their view, sexual deviants such as gay people.
This is what the riot looked like purely through the eyes of hardcore identity politics. Framed that way, the rioting whites have no moral standing, and are nothing other than menaces to the moral community. One of the less hotheaded academics pointed out that the almost entirely white DC mob attacked Congress, a predominantly white institution. (In fact, some were going through the Capitol chanting not “Hang AOC!” but “Hang Mike Pence!”, a white-haired white guy who is the creme filling of the whiteness Twinkie.
Here’s the thing: it really is true that whites, especially white men of the working class, really are losing power and status (you might say, with Chris Arnade, “dignity”), relative to their fathers and grandfathers, and relative to non-white groups. There is a temptation among people on the Left to say “suck it up, whiner, you had your day in the sun” — which ignores the fact that such a statement is unjust. (I grew up in the rural South, where white intergenerational poverty is a real thing.) To be fair, when non-whites complain about low power and status, many of us whites on the Right are often quick to dismiss their concerns as unfounded. Anyway, this is a social fact, one that has to be dealt with if we want to live in a peaceful society.
These white men — and all whites, especially the working classes — are bombarded constantly with the message that they are bearers of privilege by virtue of their “whiteness”. As I wrote here recently, in the San Diego public schools, all the teachers are being put through a propaganda course that compels white teachers to confess their whiteness, and to commit to teaching about the wickedness of white people (e.g., how white people “spirit murder” black and brown people). This kind of thing is normalized in liberal discourse now. What do you expect white people to think?
Don’t get me wrong: the Capitol Hill riot was absolutely wrong; those who broke into the Capitol should be punished to the full extent of the law, Trump should be impeached for his role in this, etc. Many of those people gave their minds over to insane conspiracy theories — something that is their own fault. But in our effort to deplore the Deplorables, we don’t dare forget that Trump, bad as he is, came from somewhere — that he came to power because he was responding to something real. As I wrote in that piece last week:
I was texting with a Democratic friend earlier this week. We were talking about the massive demographic changes America is now undergoing, and how conservative whites really are losing power relative to other demographic groups. The UK political scientist Eric Kaufmann talks about this in his book Whiteshift. He did an interview last year with Isaac Chotiner of the New Yorker about his thesis. Excerpts:
You write, “If politics in the West is ever to return to normal rather than becoming even more polarized, white interests will need to be discussed. I realize this is very controversial for left-modernists. Yet not only is white group self-interest legitimate, but I maintain that in an era of unprecedented white demographic decline it is absolutely vital for it to have a democratic outlet.” Can you say a little bit more about what specifically you’re arguing for?
Yes. Part of this comes from a view that what’s ultimately behind the rise of right-wing populism are these ethnic-majority grievances, particularly around their decline, and that ultimately this is about nostalgia and attachment to a way of life or to a particular traditional ethnic composition of a nation. Wanting for that not to erode too quickly is the motivation. I think the survey data show that it’s much more about that than about material things, for example, or even fears. It’s about attachment to one’s own group rather than hatred of other groups. This is an important distinction. The survey data from the American National Elections Study show that whites who feel very warmly toward whites are not any more cold toward, say, African-Americans, than whites who aren’t very warm toward whites.
When you say that “white interests” will need to be discussed in politics, I presume you acknowledge that the interests of white people are generally taken into account as much as any group, if not more than other groups. Do you mean explicitly discussed?
There should be an equal treatment of groups in the cultural sphere. There’s no question whites are advantaged economically, politically. I’m not going to dispute that. But in the cultural sphere, on immigration, the group whose numbers have declined, or who experienced a more rapid sense of change and loss due to migration, are the white majority. If, for example, they’re saying, “We would like to have a slower rate of change to enable assimilation to take place,” I think that’s actually a legitimate cultural interest. It doesn’t mean that it should drive policy. I think a moderate group self-interest is fine.
This is seen as toxic, as expressed by a majority group, but when minorities express these interests, that’s seen as quite normal. I think that when it comes to white liberals, there tends to be a double standard, as there is with white conservatives, by the way, when it comes to groups expressing their self-interest.
Are you saying that it is in the “self-interest” of white people to have lower immigration rates, or are you saying that if white people perceive that it’s in their interest, they should be able to express that without being shamed for being racist? Or both?
I’m saying that for the conservative members of the white majority who are attached to their group and its historic presence, I think that sense of loss and wanting to slow down that sense of loss is an understandable motivation. The problem is when you bar that from the discussion. It then gets sublimated and expressed in what I think actually are more negative ways, when it comes to racism. I think it’s not very different from African-Americans in Harlem not wanting Harlem to lose its African-American character. It’s a similar cultural loss-protection argument, which is actually not that different from wanting to preserve historic buildings or ways of life. The problem is that then they go toward fear of criminals and terrorism, and immigrants putting pressure on services, and all the things which there’s very little evidence for, and I think are more negative because they actually stigmatize an out-group, which is closer to the definition of racism than simply being attached to one’s own group. Not that that doesn’t carry some risks as well, but I think that it’s more problematic to suppress it for the majority and not for minorities. I think that’s creating a quite negative situation.
In his column today, Edsall speaks generally to this fact in this excerpt:
Bernard Grofman, a political scientist at the University of California, Irvine, put it this way in an email:
We would not have Trump as president if the Democrats had remained the party of the working class. The decline of labor unions proceeded at the same rate when Democrats were president as when Republicans were president; the same is, I believe, true of loss of manufacturing jobs as plants moved overseas.
President Obama, Grofman wrote,
responded to the housing crisis with bailouts of the lenders and interlinked financial institutions, not of the folks losing their homes. And the stagnation of wages and income for the middle and bottom of the income distribution continued under Obama. And the various Covid aid packages, while they include payments to the unemployed, are also helping big businesses more than the small businesses that have been and will be permanently going out of business due to the lockdowns (and they include various forms of pork.
The result, according to Grofman, was that “white less well-educated voters didn’t desert the Democratic Party, the Democratic Party deserted them.”
At the same time, though, and here I will quote Grofman at length:
More religious and less well-educated whites see Donald Trump as one of their own despite his being so obviously a child of privilege. He defends America as a Christian nation. He defends English as our national language. He is unashamed in stating that the loyalty of any government should be to its own citizens — both in terms of how we should deal with noncitizens here and how our foreign policy should be based on the doctrine of “America First.”
He speaks in a language that ordinary people can understand. He makes fun of the elites who look down on his supporters as a “basket of deplorables” and who think it is a good idea to defund the police who protect them and to prioritize snail darters over jobs. He appoints judges and justices who are true conservatives. He believes more in gun rights than in gay rights. He rejects political correctness and the language-police and woke ideology as un-American. And he promises to reclaim the jobs that previous presidents (of both parties) allowed to be shipped abroad. In sum, he offers a relatively coherent set of beliefs and policies that are attractive to many voters and which he has been better at seeing implemented than any previous Republican president. What Trump supporters who rioted in D.C. share are the beliefs that Trump is their hero, regardless of his flaws, and that defeating Democrats is a holy war to be waged by any means necessary.
It seems to me that if we really wanted to defuse this bomb, we would cease and desist with the identity politics, across the board, return to speaking the language of old-fashioned classical liberalism, and figure out a politics of doing more to ameliorate class differences. Having major corporations now double down on declaring white grievances absolutely null, and punishing those who have any sympathy with them, is only going to fuel the bonfire of rage.
The fact is that working-class white people know that among liberals — including liberal whites — it is permissible to say anything you want about them with impunity. They know that there are double standards in this country. They know how the predominantly black riots of last summer were framed. They know that the professions of shock over how the Trump mob treated lawmakers were not heard last summer when a hostile BLM mob surrounded Republican Sen. Rand Paul on the streets of DC. They know where they stand in this culture, vis-à-vis elite discourse and practices. That is not going away. The Capitol Hill insurrection, and Trump’s big fat mouth, only makes it vastly harder for these people with genuine grievances to get a hearing.
It is not a popular thing to say right now, a week after the shocking violence, but here it is: there are plenty of white people who are hurting and confused, and who don’t support that riot. What about them? Are they bad too? There are plenty of white people who have been seduced by the lies of QAnon and the MAGA extremists — people who aren’t bad, but who have been misled. What do we do with them? This is a moment in which they might be pulled back from radicalism — or driven more deeply into it.
The choice is theirs, above all. But it’s also ours. Both parties have to do more to reduce income inequality and increase opportunity. The Democrats have to surrender the language and policies of identity politics, in favor of old-school liberalism. Yet politics alone can’t solve the problems of decay and dissolution. This is a problem of church and culture. That’s another story… .
UPDATE: Here’s one example of double standards. Writing in today’s Wall Street Journal, TAC’s Helen Andrews recalls how a left-wing riot meant to disrupt the 1968 Democratic Convention has been lionized by the Left. Excerpt:
The Chicago Seven were countercultural heroes in the 1960s. They thumbed their noses through one of the country’s most notorious political trials, taunting the judge and making a mockery of the proceedings with flippant courtroom pranks. Aaron Sorkin wrote and directed a movie about them last year, “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” which will probably win a few Oscars.
One thing people forget about the Chicago Seven is that most of them were guilty. Jerry Rubin admitted as much later: “We wanted disruption. We planned it. . . . We were guilty as hell. Guilty as charged.”
The crime they were accused of was crossing state lines to incite a riot. The defendants believed that Vice President Hubert Humphrey’s 1968 nomination for presidency was illegitimate. Nominations in those days were decided not by primaries but by backroom deals among party power brokers. The antiwar movement believed that a more democratic process would have produced a candidate opposed to the Vietnam War.
The question was whether the violent clashes between protesters and police outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago were an unfortunate consequence of peaceful marching that got out of hand, or whether the organizers intended for things to get violent.
In February 1970, a jury convicted the five ringleaders—Rubin, Abbie Hoffman, Tom Hayden, David Dellinger and Rennie Davis. Peaceful protest is one thing, but attempting to disrupt a legitimate election procedure by violent intimidation is never acceptable. After last week’s incursion at the Capitol, can the rest of us finally agree?
If we can’t, then we are going to continue to have violence … unless the Establishment can suppress it with force and a social credit system.