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The Problem of America is the Problem of Whiteness

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White Americans dedication to the privileges of whiteness is the greatest problem this nation faces. It’s the greatest problem this nation has always faced. What is happening right now is the nationalization of the South during the late 19th century, with the violent imposition of a white supremacist social order both coming from the top and from organized and semi-organized violent gangs engaging in intimidate and death. That this is now targeted against white liberals as well as people of color isn’t particularly surprising. These liberals have simply become betrayers of whiteness and thus do not receive its benefits. As we very much may be entering a Jim Crow style era in America, with all the horrors that means, it’s worth being quite aware just how strongly felt this attachment to whiteness is. Eric Levitz has a disturbing piece on this.

One explanation for Republican indifference to such deeds is that Republicans aren’t aware of them: Fox News’s programming and Facebook’s algorithm have simply kept red America blissfully ignorant of the commander-in-chief’s most tyrannical moods. (If a president executes a political prisoner in the middle of Fifth Avenue and no right-wing pundit is inclined to report it, does his shot make a sound?)

But a new paper from Vanderbilt University political scientist Larry Bartels suggests an alternative hypothesis: Many Republican voters value “keeping America great” more than they value democracy — and, by “keeping America great,” such voters typically mean “keeping America’s power structure white.”

In a January 2020 survey fielded by YouGov, a slim majority of GOP voters agreed with the statement “The traditional American way of life is disappearing so fast that we may have to use force to save it.” Nearly three-fourths agreed with “It is hard to trust the results of elections when so many people will vote for anyone who offers a handout.” More than 40 percent agreed that “a time will come when patriotic Americans have to take the law into their own hands.” More than 47 percent concurred with the premise that “strong leaders sometimes have to bend the rules in order to get things done.” And on all of these questions, most of those who did not agree were merely unsure.

In our age of polarization, anti-democratic sentiment isn’t confined to the right. One 2017 survey that asked whether “violence would be justified” if the opposing party won the 2020 election found a slightly higher percentage of Democrats agreeing with that sentiment than Republicans (18 to 13 percent, respectively). Still, there is nowhere near as much open advocacy for illiberalism among Democratic elites as there is among Republican ones. And whether for high-minded or self-interested reasons, there is only one party that routinely seeks to restrict the franchise. For these reasons, anti-democratic opinion among GOP voters is of greater consequence than that among Democrats in the present moment.

Bartels’s study therefore aimed to discern the nature of popular indifference to liberal democracy on the American right. Which is to say: What ideological or cultural forces lead Republican voters to subordinate democracy to their desired political outcomes?

It’s hard to face up to this because, while white liberals certainly themselves have their own fair share of racism, it’s not their central political identity. And it cuts against anything that liberalism stands for. You can’t argue or reason with people this committed to white supremacy. They aren’t going to change their mind with education. When you have whites on their deathbeds saying they would rather die than have Obamacare, what do you do with that? Same with COVID. A lot of us would like to believe that more exposure to the disease would change the minds of these crazy white people. But as Kirk “If I die, I die” Cousins demonstrated yesterday, that just isn’t going to happen. Whiteness gets wrapped up in a whole value system that is very hard to break.

The only way to save this country is to destroy white privilege entirely and start over.

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