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The Imaginary Liberal Consensus


Jamelle Bouie’s response to the silly James Traub article is brilliant:

What’s striking, in all of this, is that Traub is building toward a conclusion—that liberals, in the future, should tread carefully as it regards the rights of racial (and other minorities)—which he won’t say outright. But rather than make the point directly, he hedges around it, letting readers make the implication. “Trump voters also may have reason to feel that something precious is being taken from them. Maybe it behooves today’s Democrats to take those grievances more seriously than they’re inclined to.”

Whether you grasp that implication depends on whether you understand what Traub means when he says “something precious.” It’s connected to an earlier point in the essay, where he writes that “Once the Great Society began to confer rights and privileges on black people beyond the Jim Crow South, whites who, whatever the truth of their behavior, had no consciousness of having kept blacks down began to feel that their abstract commitment to the cause of civil rights carried a very real cost.”

The cost and the object are the same: white racial hegemony. And far from having no consciousness of keeping blacks down, by the 1960s, northern whites had a recent history of anti-black policy and practice reinforced by anti-black violence. Traub depicts whites outside the South as largely innocent actors pushing back against liberal overreach. But the segregation that made busing necessary—which he attributes to blacks and whites simply “living far apart”—was built just decades earlier by white bankers, realtors, and homeowners, who enforced rigid racial lines with every tool at their disposal, backed by local, state, and often federal authorities.

None of this is apparent in the piece. Indeed, the argument depends on not having a sense of the depth of commitment to white racial dominance among many white Americans, a commitment so deep that the decades after the 1960s would see millions of whites abandon cities and other public spaces rather than back or accept integration. To counsel sympathy for this commitment and behavior, as Traub does, is to acquiesce to dynamics of racism that entrench disadvantage, increase inequality, and weaken the movements that aim to ameliorate both.

Read the whole etc.

As I’ve said before, there’s one more crucial point here. The general Democratic dominance of Congress from 1932-1980 has caused way too many pundits, center and left alike, to assume that these were consistent liberal majorities. Instead, there were two brief, punctuated eras of liberal policymaking in a sea of a Congress controlled by a coalition of conservative Republicans and Democrats. The New Deal era was a test of the proposition that ignoring civil rights would produce consistent support for liberal economic policies, and the answer was “no.” It’s not like Truman was ramming the Fair Deal through Congress before Humphrey opened his big mouth. Not only is Traub offering an immoral compromise, there’s no reason to believe it would even work on its own terms. Donald Trump is offering unabashed plutocracy, and that’s not going to send whites skeptical of civil rights back into the Democratic coalition.

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