Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Election 2016 / Question 5 / White Dudes

A White Dude.

Mr. Smith (not me) asks, "This may be the last election where white males have power they can leverage as a major demo.  What happens to the demographic from here on out? Do they remain a block or are they broken up?"

This is an interesting question.   To answer it we first have to remind ourselves of a simple truth - there is no question that, for the vast majority of our nation's history white males, particularly protestant or identified as protestant, have held all or most of the political power.  This isn't a matter of contention - it isn't meant to start a debate.  I could go through the history of the United States for you, but for our purposes, let's just remember a few key points - first, for the first time in our history we're on the dawn of a moment when there are more people who are citizens of the United States and not white than there are people who are citizens and white.  Slavery was legal from 1776 until 1865, political discrimination on the basis of race or ethnicity until a century later - we're still dealing with the consequences of that.   Women couldn't universally vote in the United States until the 1920s.  At no point in our history have either women or ethnic minorities been represented in Congress at levels consistent with their proportion of the total population - when it comes to the Presidency the situation is even more dramatic; one Catholic president, one black president, no female presidents.  Add to that income inequality, unequal access to high-quality education, unequal pay for similar work, unfair hiring and loan practices and a host of other structural problems and one thing is true.

White, protestant dudes rule our nation.

Well, they have ruled our nation.  But there are trends that indicate that is changing - women are pursing higher education at a rate higher than men.  The population of the US that is not white will outstrip the white population within a few years.  Four states - Hawai'i, New Mexico, Texas, and California already have higher non-white populations than white populations.  The population of Americans of the Islamic faith is now comparable to the population of those of the Jewish faith.

And here is the thing.  Not only are ethnic minorities voting at higher rates than before, but the suspension of institutional racism has gradually led to steadily more and more empowered men and women who were of categories and classes that previously were political non-persons.

And another thing - Americans who are gay, lesbian, transexual, bisexual, or hold other gender and sexual identities are no longer hiding their identities - they feel politically empowered and are organized and using that power.

This all leads to, well, a lot of fear among those who traditionally held most or all the power in communities across America.  Things are changing and they will continue to change and this has led to a substantial expansion in the number of people feeling imperiled, frightened that their way of life is coming to an end - think of it as a sort of siege mentality and things seem to come clear fairly quickly - the result, as is often the case, a resurgence of support for policies which aim to restrict change and immigration and to preserve existing economic patterns.

Fair enough, but it isn't just about race or ethnicity or gender or religion.  There are other things at work - two notably.   One is the death not of American industry, but of American industry as a major employer of unskilled or semi-skilled labor.   Increasingly mechanization, roboticization and of course the emergence of truly globalized trade have led to these jobs either going overseas or, as is often the case, simply disappearing.  This shouldn't surprise us too much - each stage of industrialization leads to a change in what jobs exist and what jobs provide wages and benefits worth pursuing.  But it is a shock, and a painful one, and one which Americans have long tried to deny was happening rather than undertaking adequate policies to adjust and adapt to the change.  

The effect is further amplified because we are weaker, relatively, than we have been since the end of the Second World War.  That doesn't mean we're weak - we're still the most powerful nation on earth by a leap and a mile.  But we are weaker in that our control over the global economy is far less than it has been in recent decades, relatively - down from around 78% of the total global GDP to about 14% today.  It isn't that our economy has shrunk (it hasn't) or that our infrastructure has disappeared (it hasn't).  No, we're the victims of our own success - we taught the world to be democratic and capitalist and the world has thrived by living up to our standards.  The effect?  We now have to lead the free world, rather than rule it.

Finally, we have been so successful at attenuating and eliminating major wars, the wars between nation-states, creating and policing the Pax Americana, that now most international violence is atypical - not the kind nation-states conduct, but guerrilla conflicts and terrorist attacks.  As a result, we're more likely to get beat up in wars we enter today - not because we're bad at war, but because the wars we enter today are wars of a type that nation-states by definition cannot be good at.  Alas Vietnam!  Alas Iraq!  Alas Afghanistan!

In the end there are two generations of Americans, the War Generation and the Baby Boomers, who remember our relative power and, if they're white, protestant, straight and male, a sense that the world was their oyster.  All this further amplifies the intensity of the siege mentality and amplifies the appeal of Trump whose rhetoric is replete with the notion of making America great again and building a wall, both literally and metaphorically with nationalist protectionism.  

So, here is the thing.  It isn't that white, protestant, male, straight voters, or any combination thereof, are irrelevant.  On the contrary.  It is simply that their relative power is declining.  They're still able to do what they want, are free to be who they are, take part in the collective bargaining that is politics.   This is how American conservatism will reassert itself - when it realizes that fiscal conservatism, religious traditionalism, and concerns about the economic future need not be dichotomous with our heritage as an immigrant, egalitarian nation - at least that is what I see in my Appalachian conservative students, no matter their gender, race, ethnicity, origin, religion, or sexual identity.