By Dan Siegel / Original to ScheerPost
Polls and pundits predicted that Joe Biden would beat Donald Trump in an overwhelming landslide and that Democrats would win a majority in the Senate. Susan Collins and other vulnerable Republicans had little to no chance of re-election. But, without minimizing the importance of Trump’s defeat, the Republicans won the election. The Democrats have only a slim chance to control the Senate by winning two January run-offs in Georgia and lost a large part of the House majority they won in 2018. The state legislatures controlled by the Republican Party remain so.
In Texas, where my son Mike Siegel ran a strong campaign for Congress in a gerrymandered seat created for the conservative Republican incumbent, the Democrats lost everything – the Presidential ballot, a U.S. Senate seat, seven Congressional races that the Democratic Party prioritized on its “red to blue” list, and the effort led by Beto O’Rourke to overcome Republican domination of the state legislature. Just prior to November 3, the Democrats were optimistic about their chances in Texas, even predicting that Biden could beat Trump. Instead, he lost by 5.6 percent.
Part of the explanation is that Texas Republicans out organized the Democrats, registering new voters and getting them to the polls to avoid a repeat of their 2018 losses. In Mike Siegel’s race, 405,000 votes were cast for him and the incumbent compared with just 301,000 in 2018. Mike’s vote total easily exceeded his consultants’ win number. The issue was not money. Both parties had plenty.
Within the Democratic Party, some centrists are claiming that candidates’ support for the Green New Deal and Universal Health Care, along with activist calls to defund the police, turned moderate voters against the Democrats. But if that were true, moderate Democrats would have fared better than more progressive candidates in similar races. No evidence supports that conclusion. In California, the Republicans defeated four moderate Democrats elected in 2018.
One columnist actually argued that Trump appealed to white, working-class voters in states like Pennsylvania because they could relate to his fondness for fast food. But the reality is one deeply rooted in 250 years of slavery and 150 more of failed Reconstruction, savage violence, Jim Crow, and modern discrimination. Trump and the Republicans mined the deep vein of white supremacy that has defined U.S. politics since the first Pilgrims began slaughtering the Indigenous people whose land they stole and the first slave ships arrived to enable white planters to create the wealth underlying the success of the American project.
Analysis of the election results in the context of US history confirms this conclusion. The election was close only because Trump won overwhelmingly among white voters, who cast two-thirds of the votes nationally. Trump won 58 percent of the white vote, including 55 percent of white women, a surprise to those who believed that his crude, overt misogyny would doom Trump’s support among women. Biden won 71 percent of the nonwhite vote. Trump even won among young white voters ages 18-29, by 53-44, while Biden won in that age group overall, 60-36.
Education was an important predictor of how people voted. Trump won narrowly among white male college graduates, 51-48, while winning overwhelmingly, 70-28, among white men without college degrees. Family income was less important. Biden won the majority at all income levels, except for those making between $100,000-$200,000 annually. Trump was more successful among people who said they were doing better financially than four years ago.
The key to Trump’s success was his support among white voters who described themselves as evangelicals or “born again” Christians. This group made up 28 percent of the electorate, and Trump won 76 percent of their votes, his largest bloc by far. Biden won among all other voters by a margin of 62-36. In other words, Trump’s near victory was the result of his support by white evangelicals.
Trump won a majority of the votes in 15 of the 17 states where evangelicals make up 21 percent or more of the population, all but Virginia and Georgia. Trump won 53 percent of the vote in the South and 51 percent in the Midwest, the regions where most evangelicals live.
This is not to suggest that all white evangelicals are racists or that white supremacy is the only issue that unites them. Many working class voters throughout the country have suffered economically due to the deindustrialization of the American economy, and Trump was adept at hearing and echoing their resentment of Washington elites of both parties. However, the most striking metrics demonstrating the correlation between voters’ beliefs and their support for Trump compare attitudes on racism and the Black Lives Matter movement. Sixty-nine percent of voters say that racism is an important problem in the U.S. These voters supported Biden, 68-30. The voters who believe that racism is a minor problem supported Trump 84-14. Voters with favorable and unfavorable attitudes about Black Lives Matter split along almost identical lines. The most accurate predictors of who would vote for Trump were (1) identifying as White; (2) membership in evangelical churches; (3) residence in the South or Midwest; and (4) attitudes about the importance of racism.
Race has been the fulcrum of American politics since before the 1830s, when the abolitionist movement began gaining traction. The vast majority of whites in both the South and the North opposed efforts to free the slaves. Their racist views were championed and justified by Southern Presbyterian ministers such as Robert Dabney, who sermonized about the “righteousness” of slavery and argued that opposing slavery was “tantamount to rejecting Christianity.” Pro-slavery ministers included Baptists, Methodist Episcopalians, traditional Episcopalians, and even Methodists, whose founder, John Wesley, condemned slavery. The president of Dartmouth College, Nathan Lord, proclaimed that criticism of slavery was “dishonorable to God, and subversive of his government.”
In this environment it is no wonder that the radical abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who channeled the Old Testament prophets Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the second Isaiah in his speeches for over 50 years, reserved special scorn for the hypocritical Christian churches. Today’s evangelicals are more cautious in their language, but there can be no doubt that the pro-slavery pastors of the 18th century were the spiritual and doctrinal ancestors of today’s Jerry Falwells, Franklin Grahams, and the white evangelicals who provided Trump with almost half of his vote.
White evangelicals justified their support of slavery with a variety of racist tropes, claiming that enslaved Africans were intellectually inferior, inherently violent, and sexually aggressive. Nothing terrified supporters of slavery so much as slaves learning to read and write, which both disproved arguments about their intellectual inferiority and helped create the basis for Blacks to begin accumulating the financial, social, and political capital necessary to achieve equality.
The Civil War began in April 1861 when southern traitors began their armed effort to secede from the United States. The North fought back, not because it wanted to abolish slavery, but instead to save the Union. The first two years went poorly for the North. Abolitionists led by Douglass insisted that President Lincoln redefine the North’s objectives to include the demand to abolish slavery and to admit Black freemen and escaped slaves into the Union army. Finally, in 1863 Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation to end slavery and welcomed Blacks into the Union Army. By the end of the war, about 200,000 Blacks had fought in the Union Army and Union Navy, about 10 percent of the total Union forces.
The tide of the war turned gradually in the North’s favor after the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863 until its victory in 1865. Congress passed and the states ratified the Thirteenth (1865), Fourteenth (1868), and Fifteenth (1870) Amendments to the United States Constitution, abolishing slavery, proclaiming equal rights for all Americans, and protecting the right to vote. But the momentum for Reconstruction essentially died with Lincoln, whose successor, Vice President Andrew Johnson, was more concerned about reconciliation with the southern states and their treasonous leaders than in protecting the freed slaves. Today’s fights about preserving statutes of traitors like Robert E. Lee and continuing to name military bases after Confederate generals are echoes of Johnson’s efforts at reconciliation.
After Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, the only 19th-century president who attempted to enforce the rights of Blacks to vote and hold office and to punish the Confederate states for their crimes was Ulysses S. Grant. By the time he left office in 1876, the fight was over. Conciliation with the former insurrectionists and rampant political corruption dominated US politics through 1900. Abolitionists like Douglass and elected Black leaders in the southern states fought unsuccessfully to continue Reconstruction until the 1890s, demanding that the federal government protect the former slaves from rampant and uncontrolled mob violence, enforce the right to vote, and provide the resources to educate Blacks and provide them with land and the means to attain more than theoretical freedom. Their efforts were overcome by the system of sharecropping, which tied free Blacks to impoverishment at the same plantations where they had been held as slaves before the war.
The new system of bondage was enforced by Jim Crow laws, which criminalized “idleness” among the former slaves, and especially by the terror of the KKK and other white supremacist gangs. The reign of terror continued unabated to the end of the 19th century. The worst year was 1892, when there were 230 recorded lynchings (161 Blacks, 69 whites), according to the records of Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute. The federal government stood by while the slaughter continued, a practice that continued well into the 1960s when white mobs murdered and brutalized civil rights activists.
Trump and his supporters tapped into the ideology of white supremacy that has always been with us. In the 20th century, the US elected an overtly racist president in Woodrow Wilson; tolerated murderous mob violence against Blacks in cities throughout the country; waged violent resistance to the civil rights movement in the 1960s; and experienced the transformation of the Republican Party, beginning with Nixon’s “southern strategy,” in 1968, and continuing with Ronald Reagan’s successful consolidation of it throughout the 1980s. And now, in the 21st century, despite the gains of the civil rights movement, we experience police killings of Black men on an almost daily basis to say nothing of the discrimination that impacts every aspect of American life, including public education, housing, healthcare, employment, family wealth and income, and even the handling of the coronavirus.
The challenge ahead, not only for the Democratic Party, but for all people who want to see a peaceful, prosperous, democratic United States, is overcoming white supremacy. This is not a simple task with a single answer. As the 2020 election showed, white supremacy is far more than the snarling, threatening wannabes of the militias with their Army surplus camo and AR-16s. Much more importantly, it is present in the hearts and votes of people who appear as kind, hard-working people who love their families, their friends, and their football. The stalemate that currently defines American politics will be broken only when some substantial percentage of the white plurality breaks from its commitment to white supremacy. Of course that is easier said than done. The successes of the civil rights movement leveled the playing field as never before, but we have a long way to go.
The issue has never simply been about prejudice or racism. Again paraphrasing Frederick Douglass, the fight in the South was about economic and political power. Demagogues like Trump have always fanned the flames by appealing to a myriad of prejudices, but the issue since before the Civil War has been resistance to sharing the privilege that attaches to being white. In a period of relative economic decline characterized by the loss of well-paid blue-collar jobs, resistance increases as the pie to be shared shrinks.
Government policies can begin to overcome the economic hardship that fuels some measure of the resentment of white working class and poor voters threatened by equal opportunity for people of color and by immigrants. Education and experience will help as well. I was struck by the story of a Black New York Times reporter who wrote about the expressions of solidarity from whites as he jogged through his middle-class neighborhood following the murder of Ahmaud Arbery. In Oakland, where I live, hundreds of Black Lives Matter signs have sprouted in neighborhoods that are predominantly white. It is not surprising that racism is less a force in places where Blacks and Whites live together, work together, and send their children to the same schools.
As Stacey Abrams, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Mike Siegel, and organizations like Southern Crossroads, an alliance of membership-based organizations working for collective power and multi-racial alliances among poor and working class people in small towns across the South, maintain, the key to change is “deep organizing.” Contrary to the practice of the Democratic Party establishment, hearts and minds will not be won by television commercials and slick mailers. Face-to-face engagement, consistent practice, and hard work are necessary to change America’s political landscape. The alternative is the perpetuation of the current stalemate and continuation of the dynamic that prevents progressive change in the United States.
Copyright 2020 Dan Siegel