It is clear, at least to me, that many people are fighting desperately right now for our democracy. They are organizing in their communities, supporting politicians who reflect their values, and working diligently to transform the social and political institutions of this country. Many recognize that our politics have gone off the rails, and that something dramatic has to happen if we are to save the nation from ruin. The recent midterm elections were just one correction, but much more is required of us.
It would be folly to believe that elections alone can solve our current malaise. The rotation of political elites or the absence of one-party rule is just the surface. The source of the torpor and bewilderment of Americans goes much deeper. Trump’s rhetoric has legitimized and emboldened what seems to be a pervasive sense of “aggrieved whiteness.” Some of our fellow citizens believe they are losing ground because the nation (along with the political party that aids and abets this reality) has turned its back on them. That sense of betrayal takes the form of an intense identity crisis. This has resulted in a virulent reassertion of whiteness, and an increased sense of vulnerability among those of us who are the objects of its scorn.
With the good news of the “blue wave” came the more ominous realization that the country is even more divided than ever, and that this division is tightly bound up with race. John Sides, a political scientist at George Washington University and co-author of Identity Crisis: The 2016 Presidential Campaign and the Battle for the Meaning of America, maintains that the divisions that drove the 2016 elections (for example, education and rural-urban divides, both of which correlated with views of race and immigration) evidenced themselves in the recent midterms as well. Trump, in addition to politicians across the country who ran alongside him, sought to exploit and divide the electorate by appealing to cultural issues with the hope of exciting his base and offsetting any Democratic surge. What should be unsettling is that this strategy worked with a large number of Americans.
At this point, we must go beyond simply noting this racial divide while not saying anything about the root of it all. Whether we are talking about rural-urban divisions, differing education levels, or class and regional divides in the electorate, each serves as a proxy of sorts for a cascading crisis around white identity. The problem in our politics isn’t black and brown people, or “illegal immigration,” or George Soros and liberal Jews. The problem rests with an idea of whiteness that distorts and disfigures our democracy today, as it has since the founding of this country. This (rather than the usual suspects of so-called identity politics) gets in the way of any serious talk about the deepening divisions within the country that are driven by abject greed.
Part of the work of fighting on behalf of democracy in this moment involves confronting, honestly, without recourse to our mind-numbing rituals of evasion and absolution, the ugliness of the idea of whiteness and the harms it exacts. How we respond to it all will say a lot about the future of our democracy and about who we take ourselves to be. Or, as James Baldwin once put it, “Only when we have passed through this moment will we know what our history has made of us.”