Monday, May 15, 2017

An opinion piece... the Times today asks the question, "Was Donald Trump’s surprise victory due to his voters’ racism or their economic anxiety?"

This is probably the biggest question from last November's election and sure to be the subject of many a PhD thesis in the years to come.

The piece goes on to say, "The right answer might be that it was both."

And while I think that's probably the right answer, too, I would put it a little differently: economic anxiety led to voters' racism, which was always simmering just beneath the surface. (I know I've written about this before, but I feel like writing about it again.)

When I was growing up my parents only knew other Catholics -- usually Irish Catholics -- and didn't really want to know anyone else. Like the rest of their friends, relatives and acquaintances, i. e., their "tribe," my parents not only didn't like blacks or Jews, but weren't too comfortable around Italian-Americans, Polish-Americans, WASPs or anyone else. Why? Although they never said so, I'm sure their answer (under truth serum) would have been something like, "Can't trust 'em; they're different from us." No, if you didn't look and act and worship like my parents they just didn't want to know you.

Were my parents terrible, horrible bigots? Not really. Just typical post-war suburbanites. Since they both grew up in "virtual" Irish Catholic "ghettos" in Oak Park and the Austin neighborhood of Chicago, they didn't really know anyone who wasn't Irish or Catholic. As a result, they didn't trust anyone who was outside of their tribe. And I'd say that's actually pretty typical human behavior. You generally fear what you don't know, right? You stick with your own, your "tribe."

But unlike white southerners following the Civil War or Germans after World War I, my parents took part in the great post-war prosperity and thus felt no need to join the Ku Klux Klan or the Nazi Party or anything. My dad was far too preoccupied with his burgeoning career or watching sports on TV to worry about any other ethnic group impinging on his lifestyle. Besides, his lifestyle was great; every year he got a bonus or a raise or a promotion. Sometimes all three!

So when times are good people's fears take a back seat. In fact, they get buried farther and farther into the recesses of their lizard brains. During economic boom times all anyone seems to care about is their next job or promotion or raise and how they're going to spend it. A boat? New kitchen? New house? The possibilities are endless. And when times are good the average person just comes home from work and goes to his kid's Little League game or invites the neighbors over for a barbecue or whatever. What they don't do is get in the car and go to their Congressman's town hall meeting and shout at him about health care policy. (In good times people often don't even know who their Congressman is. Why would they?)

But in the last few decades, as the economy has gotten harder and harder for the white working class "tribe" their members have been searching around for a scapegoat. Political elites in Washington?Economic elites on Wall Street? Bad trade deals with Mexico and China? Immigrants, particularly Latinos and Muslims? Blacks and Jews (always a convenient scapegoat)? There has to be some nefarious reason behind their declining wealth and incomes!

So I'd say that economic anxiety, which is real, led to latent racism coming to the fore. People are scared. But you watch, when things get better (as they always do) the white working class (and everyone else) will go back to watching TV at night and visiting their grandchildren on weekends. Go to a town hall? What for?

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