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The Resources of Reaction
Why were the Democrats hammered in the recent slew of elections? Why did Terry McAuliffe, an impeccably establishment Democrat who earned his stripes fighting for Clintonite triangulation both in the 1990s and during Clinton’s presidential primary campaign in 2008, lose Virginia on an increased turnout? It would be one thing for the Republicans to win on a low-turnout election in which demoralisation is the general affect, but that isn’t what happened here. Why has Biden’s job approval rating been falling precipitously since he was elected? Why has the big ‘rainbow’ Democratic coalition been disintegrating since 2008, with a significant decline in support from black, Latino and Asian Americans?
We have to narrow the focus, otherwise we’ll be here forever unravelling the threads. These processes are all happening on different timelines and for different reasons – some structural, some contingent. Let me focus on Virginia. There was an early argument that McAuliffe lost to Glenn Youngkin because of the salience of ‘critical race theory’ (CRT). Put like that, the argument simply won’t wash. The Right has been running countersubversion campaigns against ‘socialism’, ‘cultural Marxism’, ‘Antifa’ and now ‘critical race theory’ since 2008 – in each case, setting up a bogey-scapegoat that resembles no real world entity. This has energised the rightist grassroots, and given combat reactionaries somewhere to point their guns, but it doesn’t seem to have swung any elections for them.
It’s obviously not for nothing that CRT came up in the campaign, that so many American voters hate it without knowing what it is, and that a slew of states have passed laws proscribing its teaching in schools. And that hasn’t happened because of a grifter named Chris Rufo. His fifteen minutes of fame had come and gone before the issue really took off this spring. This is one case where the network of billionaire-funded right-wing think-tanks, foundations and media outlets really did set an agenda. But did they really set the agenda for a major election?
Probably not. The point of the Koch-funded efforts to stimulate a backlash against CRT was not to swing elections per se, nor even to precipitate statewide bans (though Koch money appears to have been used for that, official disavowals notwithstanding). Rather, it was to raise the public profile of demands for market-based deregulation in public schools. This is not the first time they have opportunistically availed themselves of racist panic in order to ease the passage of an unpopular agenda. They were quite happy for their financing of anti-lockdown protests to congeal a predominantly far-right coalition of militia members, neo-Nazis and white nationalists, and for that to segue directly into anti-BLM vigilantism. This doesn’t always work immediately in their favour, but it keeps the shock troops of reaction energised until new opportunities open up. In this case, mentioning CRT seems to have allowed Youngkin to connect with Trump supporters without being publicly associated with him, but it didn’t drive the swing against the Democrats.
As far as I can see, in Virginia the CRT stuff was subordinate to a cluster of other issues. If you listen to those running his campaign, they don’t even mention it as a wedge issue. Instead, they talk about the rising cost of living, and educational ‘standards’. They don’t talk about rousing the lumpen white male voter, the ‘basket of deplorables’ of Clinton’s imagination. Those people obviously matter, they are the white bread staple, but the strategists were thinking about flipping, or turning out, Asian Americans, Polynesians and Latino voters. And if you look at the swing voters, they appear to have succeeded by hammering on their two key issues. The GOP strategist are probably being disingenuous about how Youngkin used CRT to create precisely the panic about educational ‘standards’ that the Republicans availed themselves of. But consider another, very imperfect, source of data.
Danny Barefoot, a Democratic operator, conducted a focus group among women in Virginia who switched from the Democrats to the Republicans. Some of them may have been Never Trumpers, delighted by the opportunity to vote Republican again. They were disproportionately white and, I’d infer, affluent. But their top issues were, not CRT, but inflation, school closures and parental choice in the curriculum. They were anti-Trump, but didn’t buy McAuliffe’s efforts to liken Youngkin to Trump. They blamed unions and the Democrats for keeping schools closed for too long, but weren’t opposed to social distancing. They didn’t care at all about the infrastructure bill, though I don’t doubt that the obstructionism of Sinema and Manchin has contributed to the general dislike of the Democrats. When asked about CRT, most of these voters disliked it. Whether that is because they are racist, or because badmouthing America offends their nationalism, or because they fear ‘woke’ culture running rampant in schools is a menace to the kids, or a combination of these, is unclear. These priorities intelligibly reflect the politically-mediated class interests of a set of middle-class voters. (Working-class voters might emphasis different aspects of ‘the economy’, such as wages and employment, both of which are rising.) Nonetheless, these are also priorities that can reach across classes, since price rises and school closures affect everyone, and aren’t inherently ‘white’ concerns.
Focus groups are, of course, hugely overrated. Swing voters are not representative of the whole electorate, which in Virginia is very polarised. Nor do they represent the new voters from the affluent suburbs who strongly backed Youngkin, and who were disproportionately rural and conservative, and whom anecdotal reporting suggests were galvanised by ‘culture war’ issues. Nor does it follow that if polarisation on an issue like schools, Covid or race is going against you that you can dodge or triangulate the issue, as Barefoot appears to think. And there are questions that need to be asked of why and how the Right is proving to be so good at turning new voters out, even as it struggles to suppress turnout in general.
This isn’t a new trend. Even in last year’s presidential election, which Biden won with a record turnout, Trump added over ten million votes to his total, raising the Republican vote share in Democratic areas like Miami-Dade county in Florida, in the Rio Grande valley in Texas, in deserted, declining and depopulated parts of the rustbelt, and in deep blue counties containing big cities like Milwaukee, Detroit and Philadelphia. Trump increased his vote in counties with the highest rates of unemployment, and among every demographic but white men, including Muslims, Latinos and black men. Some of that was perhaps due to Trump’s particular charisma, but some of it was due to advanced Republican mobilisation efforts in states like Wisconsin. Certainly, the least we can say is that the extravaganza of Republican craziness last year wasn’t actively off-putting to those voters, and may have been part of the draw. In the same way, the ‘storming’ of the Capitol, and the GOP’s efforts to protect Trump, doesn’t appear to have hurt the Right in any fundamental way. The swing voter data doesn’t necessarily help us understand that.
Nonetheless, along with the exit polling and anecdotal evidence from the state, the focus group data underlines a few points. The Democrats can’t rely on Trump to keep polarising people in their favour. A lot of what right-leaning voters disliked about Trump was, not his policies, but his affect, his boorishness, his undignified bearing, his laziness, his incompetence, and his belligerence. Now that he’s not the candidate, and has been purged from the social industry, he isn’t keeping them awake at night. Policy doesn’t mobilise people as much as issues do, and the Republicans were extremely adept at parsimoniously agitating over their core issues. Most importantly, while the identitarian project of ‘whiteness’ proves to be versatile, and capable of being worked into the grooves of a range of political projects, reaction has many more strings in its bow.
Given this, what are the ramifications for socialist strategy? If the CNN liberals are mis-stating the role of moral panic over critical race theory, and therefore understating the various resources of reaction, then how would socialists respond differently? Is the problem that the Left, under the intellectual leadership of that bogey-scapegoat, the ‘professional middle-class’, simply prioritises the wrong issues?
That is the argument of Jacobin’s recent report on building ‘common sense solidarity’. This is electoral guidance, starting from an attempt to explain why progressive candidates have done poorly among working-class voters. The report, based on surveys of voters conducted in collaboration with YouGov, makes the case for abandoning ‘woke messaging’ and ‘group based appeals’ in favour of ‘universal’ language. It says that working-class voters are not especially progressive, and it adds that the non-voters among them are not particularly waiting to hear the right progressive message. There are some key economic issues which appeal to them, especially ‘blue collar’ workers, but beyond that the Left has no monopoly. This, it says, doesn’t mean abandoning issues like ‘ending systemic racism’, but rather addressing them within a ‘populist framework’ emphasising ‘bread-and-butter economic issues’. In relation to Virginia, their analysis would imply that the centrist Democrat lost because he lacked that focus, and instead offered the thinnest, fluffiest version of bourgeois ‘woke’ rhetoric.
If I’m going to argue with this, I have to grant the authors their predicates. I’m not going to criticise them for not designing a strategy for social movements, for a militant labour movement, or for a revolutionary challenge to capitalism. Nor am I going to join the chorus of those calling their class methodology Weberian because they use education as a proxy for class. They are quite clear that they also used other proxies and measurements (income, ‘routine’ versus ‘creative’ work, Wrightian class analysis), and found ‘few statistically significant differences’. Perhaps none of their approaches captured the ‘real’ working class, but I would still be unsurprised to find that American working-class voters – atomised, disorganised and pulverised for decades – especially the most politically apathetic non-voters, are not particularly waiting to hear the right progressive appeal. I’m also not going to take up my disagreements with the Chibberism informing Jacobin’s analysis, except to say that class is not the only basis for universality. I will come back to that.
I can see the value of electoral campaigns, and I don’t think it’s stupid to connect with a popular ‘common sense’ that is well to the right of where socialists are. But how do you change common sense? How do you lead? That’s the question you have to ask if you don’t want to be merely opportunistic. This is where Jacobin’s analysis opens up an area of inquiry beyond their purview. They say that ‘candidates who included ending systemic racism among their key issues were viewed favorably, or at least not unfavorably, across virtually all demographic groups we compared, including across race’. The reason they give is that ‘struggles for racial justice over the past decade have had such a profound effect on contemporary liberal political thinking that discussions of race and racism on the campaign trail are no longer political liabilities among working-class voters.’
The electoral viability of anti-racism depends on non-electoral campaigning: on campaigning, frankly, that often spilled over into riot. It depended on organised minorities taking on unpopular issues. And what’s more, part of their success involved pressuring progressive politicians like Bernie Sanders to adopt their priorities: which he did, rightly, despite the fact that this placed him to the Left even of most black voters. Presumably, if these issues are to become indispensable assets for a campaign courting working-class voters, then more politically risky street campaigning, ever at risk of incurring backlash, is necessary. And socialist politicians will have to take risks with unpopular positions. And what if a similar condition applies to the relative popularity of other policies like Medicare for All, or a Green New Deal? What if the right ideas, the right policies, and the right language, are less important than formative events giving them definite shape and passion, driving them up the agenda, forcing their latent universality into mainstream consciousness? What if there is no way to fight for these priorities that does not potentially alienate ‘an economically progressive but culturally moderate working-class constituency’? What if there is no way to fight without arousing the countersubversive passions of the Right, the entrenched opposition of business and the spite of the Democratic right?
Finally, what if it turns out that reaction is quite capable of persuasively addressing ‘material interests’ and even linking them to its culture war issues? This is where I have to come back to the argument that the Left needs to focus on ‘economic’, ‘bread-and-butter’ issues. One reason why George Floyd became a global figure is because, while not everyone is likely to be murdered by a cop, everyone is susceptible to injury and humiliation. Injustice is universal. It’s always a ‘bread-and-butter’ issue. I need hardly add that there could be nothing more ‘bread-and-butter’, whatever the attitude of workers to it may be at a given moment, than the imperative of ecological survival and the related agenda of environmental justice. It doesn’t have to pass through the lens of class to make it so, though I do think class is both an indispensable optic for examining how these injustices are constituted and an optimal basis for organisation. Reaction has a well-developed strategy for dealing with the potential universality of all of the Left’s demands. As Albert O Hirschman’s study of The Rhetoric of Reaction suggests, reactionaries do not simply say that the Left’s goals are wrong in principle. Indeed, they often claim to share them. Rather, they have tended to say that the Left’s methods will produce the opposite of their intended effect (the perversity thesis), will never change anything fundamental (the futility thesis), and will threaten the good things we already have, like liberty (the jeopardy thesis). They argue that, for all its flaws, the masses have a direct material interest in the status quo, and that attempts to change it will make things much worse for them. This has been convincing enough, for enough people, that at times masses have sided with conservatism, reactionary countersubversion, and even dictatorships against the Left. It isn’t necessarily sufficient to work with the grain of majority opinion. Even India Walton’s campaign in Buffalo, surely impeccable by Jacobin standards, fell to a combination of business, the Right and Democratic opposition. If you polarise on any axis, even one where you nominally have the advantage, you necessarily run the risk of ending up on the wrong side of the polarisation.
The problem with the Jacobin-style answer is not, in my view, that it repudiates ‘woke’ presentation. Nor is it that they pose difficult questions about how to relate to working-class voters and win elections. Nor is it that they suggest prioritising some core economic demands, which might be contingently, contextually sensible depending on what you’re trying to achieve. Rather, it’s that I suspect they’re working in a closed terrain, where of course their version of class politics and ‘bread-and-butter’ interests was always going to emerge victorious. We still need what Stuart Hall called Marxism without guarantees. That includes without the ontological guarantee of a version of class emanating from the most pared down, biologically given, ‘basic needs’.
Richard Seymour is an author, and a founding editor of Salvage. His most recent book is The Twittering Machine (2019). This article was originally published on his Patreon.