I am often drawn to thinking about how history will record what has happened to the United States in the early stages of the 21st century. While it is important to chronicle the details of what happens on a daily basis, we don’t tend to pay enough attention to the bigger picture of how they all fit together and the fact that one event paves the way for the next.
An article by Jeremy Peters titled, “Democratic Embrace of Diverse Candidates Collides With Barbed Politics of Trump Era” got me thinking about the big picture.
Democratic nominees for governor include three African-Americans, two of them in the old Confederacy, a prospect that not long ago would have been unthinkable. Record numbers of women are competing in congressional races. Elsewhere, Muslims, gays, lesbians and transgender people will be on the ballot for high-profile offices.
That diverse cast is teeing up a striking contrast for voters in November at a time when some in the Republican Party, taking their cues from President Trump, are embracing messages with explicit appeals to racial anxieties and resentment. The result is making racial and ethnic issues and conflicts central in the November elections in a way that’s far more explicit than the recent past.
My first reaction to both the title and the piece was to note how careful someone like Peters still feels the need to be with his language. In an era when it has become hard to find any daylight between the president and white supremacists, he still hedges by using the more subtle language of “barbed politics” as well as “racial anxieties and resentment.” I am reminded of the fact that Adam Serwer, in response to another article in the New York Times, wrote very eloquently about this tendency in a piece titled, “Just Say It’s Racist.”
But overall, Peters is pointing to the big picture of what is going on. While we’ve been talking a lot about the record number of women running in the midterm election as Democrats, we are also seeing a lot of historical markers when it comes to African Americans, Muslims, and LGBT candidates. I would add that the same thing is true for Native Americans and Latinos.
At a time when the most xenophobic man to have ever occupied the White House is inspiring mini-me’s to come out of the closet in droves on the Republican side, the diverse grassroots of the Democratic Party is stepping up in a way that is surprising a lot of people.
If we take a short-term view of what is happening, we can assume that all of this is simply a defensive response to the election and presidency of Donald Trump. I’m not going to pretend like that hasn’t played a big role. But it ignores events from the past that brought us to this point. To highlight just a few of those, let’s take a look at some things that happened following the Civil Rights Movement:
- Affirmative action programs opened the door for women and people of color. For just one example of how that has impacted the playing field, if not for those efforts, we probably wouldn’t have the first Latina sitting on the Supreme Court, leading to countless young women being inspired by Sonia Sotomayor.
- Those affirmative action programs were at least partially responsible for changing the way African Americans conceived of their role in politics, as Matt Bai chronicled back in 2008 when he wrote, “their ambitions range well beyond safely black seats.”
- The fact that African Americans were moving towards running “beyond safely black seats” contributed to the election of this country’s first African American president, Barack Obama.
What happened next is best captured by this description of “fusion politics” from Rev. William Barber.
Just as we saw when fusion politics emerged after the Civil War and again after the Civil Rights Movement, the kind of coalition Barber describes always creates a backlash from those who want to maintain the white patriarchal status quo. Donald Trump, who entered the national political scene with his birther lies about Obama, launched his presidential campaign by calling Mexicans criminals and racists, and won despite the fact that he bragged about sexually assaulting women, was merely the spokesman for that backlash. Here’s how Rebecca Traister identified what was going on:
The public spectacle of this presidential election, and the two that have preceded it, are inextricably linked to the racialized and gendered anger and violence we see around us…
Whatever their flaws, their political shortcomings, their progressive dings and dents, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton mean a lot. They represent an altered power structure and changed calculations about who in this country may lead…
This is our country in an excruciating period of change. This is the story of the slow expansion of possibility for figures who have long existed on the margins, and it is also the story of the dangerous rage those figures provoke.
The collision that Jeremy Peters describes is the next event in this battle between fusion politics and the backlash it created. The media’s desire to cast Democratic candidates as being either Clinton or Sanders acolytes trivializes what is happening. On the other hand, when people like Donald Trump, Tucker Carlson, Laura Ingraham, and their white supremacist followers suggest that the changes we should be afraid of have to do with immigration, they are doing the same thing. What we are watching has been building for a long time and is much bigger in scope. Finally, the ubiquitous attempts to cast around for who will emerge as the 2020 presidential nominee are a huge distraction from how this collision is shaping up at the local level from the ground up.
At every point in this country’s history when fusion politics emerged to challenge the status quo, we’ve witnessed dramatic changes, but the backlash has been sufficient to maintain the dominance of white patriarchy. When I watch candidates like Stacey Abrams, Andrew Gillum, David Garcia, Sharice Davids, and Ilhan Omar, I have a lot of hope that we’ll get it right this time.