How Things Changed
by Sanford Schram
February 14, 2021
This interview with Sanford Schram, professor of political science at Hunter College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, was conducted and condensed by franknews.
Sanford | Among progressives, there is widespread concern about poverty and about other hardship in our increasingly unequal economy — an economy that proven implacably resistant to change. And, you know, one of the things that I've been thinking about lately is just how much things have changed.
For one, the Democratic Party, as a whole, has changed. Somebody on Facebook yesterday posted this meme of all the things Eisenhower stood for when he was running for reelection, and it was to the left of the Democratic Party today. There has been an asymmetric polarization: the Republican Party has moved radically to the right, and the Democratic Party has grudgingly moved to the center in order to try to stay competitive. That has made us, as a country, far less able to address these issues of poverty, inequality, social adversity, and economic hardship.
On top of that, the left has changed — it has fractured. A real division has emerged between whether we need to prioritize identity politics over an economic kind of change, or race over class, or vice versa.
And, finally, the right has proven to be much more aggressive in using their wealth, their money, and their influence over the mass media than I ever imagined. They have this willingness to put their resources into malicious lying and create a bloodsport politics that makes it very difficult for us to address any issues.
The right rules by using plutocratic populism. The elites gaslit the public into thinking that outgroups: immigrants, Muslims, African-Americans are the cause of their problems, allowing the elites to avoid accountability and maintain power. The elites, even as a minority, have been able to hang on to power by generating support and then rigging the rules of the game through gerrymandering, undermining access to the ballot, and changing campaign finance laws.
All of these things have enabled minority rule to remain ascendant in our, supposedly majoritarian, system. The result is an undermined faith in our political system and in The Constitution itself. We are facing a crisis as a country.
This idea that went around in the sixties about how we were going to end poverty in our lifetime, seems so quaint now.
frank | Historically the Democrats have been the party of the working class. Why do you see such a disagreement among the party about what sort of coalition to build?
Take the recent news about how McConnell is using every trick in the book to cling to power. Republicans have lost the presidency, lost the Senate, and still don't have the House, and he is trying to issue edicts that he's still in charge. He is trying to keep the filibuster in place. That is part and parcel of this anti-majoritarian strategy.
Meanwhile, Democrats are falling over each other as trying to figure out the best response to an extremely effective right-wing mobilization. The right has concentrated its resources in order to rewrite the rules so that they stay in power, and Democrats, Clinton and Obama, and maybe now Biden, fail to mobilize the left and liberals towards a progressive agenda.
Why? Because Democrats are worried that if they allow the left to have too much of a say that they'll get repudiated. Over time, the Democratic Party has come to be populated with a lot of people who are very cautious in that way. Rep. Spanberger, when the House lost seats, excoriated AOC and “The Squad” for bringing up all these "left-wing" proposals. They are worried that if they are too liberal, they'll lose the support of suburbanites.
Our politics is increasingly focused on suburbanites and it's very disconcerting and very debilitating.
Byrd Williams Family Photography Collection (AR0769), University of North Texas Special Collections.
The correlation between economic pessimism and out-group hostility and support for Trump and declining support for democracy is actually stronger in the suburbs and among middle-class people than among lower-income whites. I think that's a story that needs to be discussed more. That's why Rich Fording and I argue in our new book Hard White: The Mainstreaming of Racism in American Politics that if we want to really beat back this reactionary politics, it should be more about combating white racism that is energizing the right rather than focusing on hoping to get people to come over to the Democrats based on economic issues.
[Neighborhood on a Sunny Day], photograph, Date Unknown; (https://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth202022/m1/1/?q=neighborhood: accessed February 14, 2021), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, https://texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Museum of the Gulf Coast.
I guess the question becomes does one identify more with race than class, and then what do your “best interests” really look like? Maybe the Republicans are serving them.
We discussed this at great length in our new book. The question of what we do know that white racism has been mainstreamed by a fearmonger like Donald Trump is a complicated one. This, of course, started way before Trump. The Tea Party created an opening for a resurgence of white racial extremist views in mainstream electoral politics, in large part, as a reaction to the first non-white president of the country, Barack Obama. Trump built off of that.
The white working-class has been leaving the Democratic Party for a long time — for about 20 some odd years, depending on how you define working-class voters. But, as we argue in our book, the overwhelming majority of poor people voted against Trump, both in 2020, as far as we can tell, and definitely in 2016. The fact of the matter is, most poor people still don't vote Republican. Trump disproportionately got his support from the suburbs. That really is the key battleground. A lot of the racism that's associated with Trumpism is not poor whites, it's white people who were moderately well off and disappointed in things beyond economics, including cultural change and a loss of white privilege.
Racism is not overwhelmingly coming from the great unwashed, dispossessed living in a landscape of despair, being resentful of deindustrialization.
That's a good story. And though there's an element of truth to that, I think that we have mischaracterized this resurgence of racism in that way. It's more a product of suburban, white people who are resentful of cultural change and racial diversification, including attempts to build an inclusive multi-racial democracy, than they are concerned about the economics.
[Aerial View of SeedTec], photograph, 1988; (https://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth10868/m1/1/?q=factory: accessed February 15, 2021), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, https://texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Deaf Smith County Library.
The correlation between economic pessimism and out-group hostility and support for Trump and declining support for democracy is stronger in the suburbs and among middle-class people. I think that's a story that needs to be discussed more. That's why we argue that if we want to really beat back reactionary politics we see today, it should be more about combating white racism than hoping that by stressing economic issues Trumpists will decide to join the Democratic Party.
How do you even begin to combat white racism?
Over the past couple of years, we have seen just how hostile people are, how resentful they are and how implacably resistant they are to compromising. You can't reason with those people. Trump became dominant by mobilizing the inactive nonvoters. He didn't win so much by getting people to switch their votes. There were very few Obama to Trump voters. He won by mobilizing those who were resentful.
I think the left has to learn a lesson from that.
We have to do the same thing. We have to mobilize racially liberal people, who support multi-racial democracy and bring them in. In the last chapter of our book, we show that that's exactly what the “blue wave” was about. We present empirical evidence that the “blue wave” was driven by racial liberalism, and it was successful because it mobilized a lot of non-voters. And I think this happened effectively in 2020, especially in Georgia.
And then once you've done that, you're forcing the Republican Party to pay a price for aligning itself with the racists, and they will have to realize the electoral penalties of that strategy. Then, we can start to go further down the road of working towards an inclusive multi-racial democracy that lifts everybody up, including the working class, which is, I think it is important to add, disproportionately nonwhite.
A concern with progressive liberals is that you can’t detangle issues from each other – to tie the working class to The Green New Deal for example may be a deterrent.
Basically what it comes down to is what I always say to people on the left, “Why can't we just be like Denmark?” And they go, “Well, Denmark's a capitalist country.” For god's sake, get a life. They are a capitalist country, yeah, but everybody gets health insurance, everybody gets paid family leave, they have extra benefits for the father to stay home to encourage gender equity, everybody gets to go to college for free until you're 26, you can get unemployment benefits for six years. I have friends on the left that say that's not good enough. If we were like Denmark, a lot of our economic concerns would start to go away.
It starts to seem like people really aren't interested in solving the problems of inequality and poverty and social and economic hardship. They're interested in improving who's more virtuous or who's smarter, and who's more critical on the left. As I get older, it has made me more inclined to be disaffiliated. Like, I don't want to be a leftist anymore. I just want to be Danish, I guess. I don't know.
I think the same is true with leftist media. It breeds this sort of resentment that could make Glenn Greenwalds of us all.
You're absolutely right. It comes to be about your relationship to the people you're talking to, rather than about improving people's lives and wellbeing.
On the left, it's a competition for who's smarter or more virtuous and on the right, it's a competition for who's more outrageous or who's more enraged. Neither of those really connect with people's real lived experience.
[Demonstrators Outside a Republican Rally], photograph, February 28, 1992; (https://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth279487/m1/1/?q=republican%20rally: accessed February 15, 2021), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, https://texashistory.unt.edu; crediting League City Helen Hall Library.
There's a new encyclopedia coming out called Encyclopedia of Critical Political Science, and I've been asked to write a lead essay based on my memoir Becoming a Footnote. In this very post-modern way, I have to reflect on my reflecting. I don't know how I am going to pull this off, but I have to ask all these sorts of questions. Who am I? Am I a leftist? What are we trying to do here?
That’s heavy. Have you come to any conclusive thoughts?
I've always identified as blue-collar. My father didn't graduate from high school. He was a letter carrier and the president of our local letter carrier union. I was a letter carrier in that union. My mother was a bookkeeper. We weren't poor, you could do fine back then in those jobs. Now you couldn't.
I've always had this uneasy relationship with the left. I feel like, for a lot of them, their relationship is not to the letter carriers, it's to the people they're arguing with. And that's always been, I think, a little bit of a chip on my shoulder. Like, well, you try delivering the mail for a week, and then you wouldn't have these debates about whether or not it's good enough to be Denmark. Right? Damn right it's good enough to be Denmark. That's sort of how I come at it.
TGT Workers, photograph, 1947; (https://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth117442/m1/1/?q=blue-collar: accessed February 15, 2021), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, https://texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Cleveland Historic Society.
Political science nowadays is very much focused on political theory and much less focused on empirical work. That is the problem: the left has become too academic and it's become too theoretical. The left, even if it is appropriately critical of the existing structure of power, is disconnected from ordinary people’s struggles.
This becomes a problem of the Democratic Party. The Democratic Party is increasingly dominated by professionals and educated people who have really good policies, but they don't really understand who ordinary people are and what they need.
People are just looking to have a decent life, and a lot of these policies fail to give them that.
But things are up in the air at moment with the defeat of Trump, the persistence of Trumpism and the success of Democrats in gaining a foothold on power. While I am not yet convinced, given that Joe Biden has created an inclusive coalition, this could open the door to policymaking that actually serves the needs of ordinary people. Maybe better times are coming, especially for people on the bottom of the social order. Here’s hoping.