There’s a new strategy from the political right in Europe and North America. Its goal is to co-opt feminism and mobilize racism and other phobias to build new bases of support. These bases of support are in addition to affluent conservatives seeking tax cuts and social conservatives supporting a theocratic state. There is a previous blog post about it.
Authoritarian populism’s racist edge ‘feels’ anti-system as it clashes with liberalism’s support for diversity. That clash makes authoritarian populism feel like it could be ‘for the people.’ It could be supporting Trump’s forgotten ‘white working class.’ It could be against the elite. Of course it’s not. But what ever it is, it’s certainly not for the liberal elite.
Authoritarian populism is a vile attack on liberal value. And liberalism is failing to stop the growth of authoritarian populism because it often has a very bad analysis of where racism comes from. The most common liberal analysis is that racism is a function of education. This analysis is not only wrong, it undermines the ability to counter the racist appeal of authoritarian populism.
It is simply a fact that many very well educated people are racist. And also true is the inverse – many people without strong educations are not racist. If racism was caused by a lack of education, neither would be true. If education ‘cured’ racism, no educated people would be racist. All “uneducated” people would be.
And this theory leads to other problems. If education ‘cures’ racism, the implication is that racism is somehow essential to humans. And of course, the essentialist argument is exactly the rationale for white nationalism. The argument that education ‘cures’ racism is a gift to the racists who argue that ‘politically correct’ liberal values are inauthentic social engineering. But there is no DNA that causes racism. It’s all garbage thinking.
The common liberal analysis is a gift in another way. A more objectively political way. Those who are not ‘cured’ by education are commonly dismissed by liberalism. They are idiots and morons.
Though Hillary Clinton’s condemnation of the “basket of deplorables” was horribly warped by the authoritarian right, the way in which is was warped is instructive. The weakness of liberalism is that it can be claimed – and some liberals themselves will regularly and openly claim it – that the authoritarian populists are uneducated and irredeemable white trash. It’s an incredibly elitist argument that not only washes the white elite of racism, it suggests liberalism does not value poor and working class white people. It divides the political opposition to racism that needs to be build in all segments of society, including among working class and poor people. It creates grounds for anti-liberal resentment, which can be captured by the authoritarian populists.
If we can’t properly explain where racism comes from we make horrible mistakes about how to get rid of it. Bad explanations lead to arguments that work against themselves and are politically self-defeating.
One of the earliest anti-racist movements was the American labour movement. It was confronted with building a unified democratic movement within a national history of racist slavery and segregation. The labour movement had a simple story as an explanation.
A black worker, a white worker and a boss sit down at a table. There are 10 cookies on a plate. The boss takes eight cookies and gets up to leave. And just as he’s leaving, he whispers to the white worker. “Watch out, that black guy’s going to steal your cookie,” he says.
Racism is created to maintain undemocratic power. The U.S. constitution guaranteed that the new country was for “the people.” Yet many people were enslaved. This required a powerfully racist ideology that denied the humanity of Black people. In Canada, a powerful ideology was needed to justify the exclusion of Indigenous people from voting. There are limitless examples. Racist myths and ideologies are created to continue undemocratic power.
The labour movement’s cookie story can be applied far beyond the issues of CEO compensation and worker pay. ‘The whisper’ is regularly used to cover over the failings of undemocratic power and divide people.
In big Canadian cities, rents and house prices go up far beyond inflation. And until the election in British Columbia last year, the policy of federal and provincial governments has been to cut funding for non-profit housing. In our big cities, poor and working class people are on years-long waiting list for affordable housing. While affluent people get their tax cut cookies now, poor and working class people are waiting in line for their one cookie.
But now – so says the political right – illegal immigrants who break the law and queue-jump to enter Canada are going to steal their cookie. They are going to the head of the line for housing. Toronto mayor John Tory has been quiet funds for new non-profit housing. Suddenly he is demanding attention on the alleged housing crisis being caused by cookie-stealing immigrants.
Authoritarian populists makes the same sort of claims in towns and cities that used to rely on factory jobs. Corporations move manufacturing across the world in search of more profit – more cookies. So authoritarian populists make up talk about job-hiring quotas and exclusion. White men look out, they whisper, it’s women and people of colour who are taking your job.
The ploy is used over and over. Whenever there is a resource shortage – wages, housing, jobs, health care, transit – and the undemocratic elite prefers austerity, the strategy of the authoritarian populists is ‘the whisper.’ It distracts people. And it divides people. It gets people fighting each other. Undemocratic power creates racism – and other divisive phobias – to allow the power of an undemocratic elite to continue.
The liberal celebration of diversity is not an effective counter-strategy. The defense of diversity requires solidarity – and not just solidarity through unions about issues of work. Fighting racism and protecting the values of diversity requires social solidarity that unmasks ‘the whisper’ and all the whisperers.