The definition of who qualifies as an American is increasingly a partisan debate. The parties are in open disagreement over the value of diversity in American society. This is a challenge to those who push back against white supremacy. However, this development isn’t as uniformly bad for them as you might think.
The parties are now split on race and group politics
As I explain in my 2018 book, “Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Became Our Identity,” the social makeup of the Democratic and Republican parties has changed remarkably. The Republican Party increasingly represents the white, Christian, male and rural elements of the U.S. electorate. The Democratic Party has moved to represent, in essence, everyone else. Now, votes are not only driven by voters’ policy and economic preferences, but also by their preferences over which groups in American society will “win.”
In prior decades, the interests of the white majority were represented within both parties. Both Democratic and Republican parties provided welcoming homes for those who wanted to legislate in ways that disproportionately helped white America, while hurting black Americans and other communities of color. A tacit racist consensus across parties made other legislation possible, even among racially progressive white legislators.
Now, however, we are seeing a new racial and cultural divide between the parties, not within them. Among white Democrats, for instance, support for the view that the “country needs to continue making changes to give blacks equal rights” grew from 57 percent in 2014 to 80 percent in 2017. A 2019 Pew study asked white Republicans and Democrats whether, “when it comes to giving black people equal rights with whites, our country has [not gone far enough/gone too far/been about right].” Among white Democrats, 64 percent believed the country has not gone far enough. Among white Republicans, 84 percent believed the country has either gone too far or been about right. Pew found similar partisan divides when it asked survey questions about the legacy of slavery and racial discrimination.
It is unprecedented to see one of the two major parties demonstrating this level of support for racial redress. Polling support does not necessarily translate into political action, especially in a country with institutionalized racial bias, but it does make it more likely than before.
This is generating racial grievances
My research draws from sociology and social psychology to explain the inevitable backlash against this process. When the status of a social group is threatened, its members react with anger, defensiveness, bias and action. Political scientist Ashley Jardina, in her book, “White Identity Politics,” described how white Americans who hold strong racial identities responded in these ways. A diversifying nation and the accompanying threat of a shrinking status gap between white Americans and everyone else makes strongly identified whites lash out.
These aggrieved whites are not operating in a vacuum. They have the support of the Republican Party. This means the racial divide in U.S. politics is organized around party lines. Americans can base their votes on whether they believe that systemic racism exists. Those who do not believe it does, or those who believe white Americans are threatened, are able to act on their beliefs by voting for the Republican Party. The result is that U.S. electoral institutions are riven by a fight over American identity and the relative humanity of America’s citizens.
A forthcoming book by the political scientist Nathan Kalmoe describes how U.S. political parties escalated conflict after taking sides on the issue of slavery, resulting in the Civil War. However, today’s electorate is far more racially progressive than the U.S. population in the 19th century. The partisan divide today is less easily drawn on a map. Systemic racism is not as entrenched as it once was.
Instead, the current political divide makes it easier both for progressives to fight against racism more easily and for aggrieved whites to fight back. The political compromise that democracy requires is asking citizens to make concessions to their status in society. It is harder for citizens to compromise on issues that involve their basic national, racial and cultural identities. This entrenches the battle between those who prefer white nationalistic politics and those whose preferences lean toward the future of a diversifying nation.
Other democracies do not have the United States’ legacy of racial violence and intimidation. However, they may also be seeing a similar dynamic, as immigration and refugee crises, and other zero-sum political conflicts such as Brexit, lead to polarization around racial or national identities. Nationalistic, insular politics can gain a foothold when those who depend on whiteness for social status feel their status threatened.
As a largely white set of countries confronts these deep social changes, we can expect our politics, implicitly or explicitly, to become radicalized in defense of a deep-seated social order that is only changing slowly. In the United States, the racial divide between the two parties echoes violent conflicts in the past and signals a continuing white backlash against the emerging forces of change. But it also provides unprecedented political power to those who struggle toward a more inclusive U.S. democracy.
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