All workers lose out
With the Democrats going downhill fast, Daniel Lazare looks at the role played by ‘critical race theory’
By late 2020, US Democrats seemed to have had it made. The country was coming apart at the seams under a Republican president who was widely despised and was making a long list of problems worse - everything from a growing crisis due to a refugee influx on the US-Mexican border to relations with old and trusted allies in Europe and beyond. Sure, the candidate they chose to head up their ticket was not the most dynamic guy on earth. But as long as his name was not Donald Trump - or, for that matter, Bernie Sanders - what could go wrong?
The answer 12 months later is: plenty. Not only is Joe Biden’s polling scraping the bottom, but, at 59%, his disapproval rating, according to a recent survey, is higher than Trump’s was even after sending a raging mob onto Capitol Hill last January. This month’s off-year elections were a particular shock. Democrats lost a gubernatorial race in Virginia - a state that Biden had carried by ten points - and came within a hair’s breadth of losing another in New Jersey. Local races were also bad, especially for the party’s progressive wing. A ‘defund the police’ initiative went down in defeat in Minneapolis, the city where cops killed George Floyd in May 2020, while self-proclaimed socialist India Walton lost to the incumbent mayor of Buffalo NY, after he waged a triumphant come-from-behind write-in campaign following his loss to Walton in the Democratic primary in June.
The outlook could not be bleaker as a consequence. As things stand now, the party will likely lose control of both houses of Congress in 2022, leaving Biden crippled for the second half of his term, and likely to lose the presidency as well two years later. Conceivably, the Dems still have time to turn things around. But it is hard to see how someone as underwhelming as Biden can pull it off, while vice-president Kamala Harris will likely prove even worse if she takes the helm in 2024, since her polling figures are even more abysmal. Humpty Dumpty will not be put back together again for a long, long time.
All of which proves two things. One is that, after fighting off Sanders in 2020, the Democratic establishment has keeled over from exhaustion. The other is that you cannot fight Trump-style authoritarianism with weak-kneed liberalism, especially one as shambolic as the Democratic variety. Not only are Democrats pitching downhill as a result, but small-d democracy is doing so as well.
Not that the United States is the only country under stress these days. In France, rightwing TV talk-show host Éric Zemmour is challenging Marine Le Pen’s neo-fascist National Rally from the right, while the Fratelli d’Italia are doing the same to Matteo Salvini’s Lega in Italy. The ultra-right Vox party now ranks third in Spain, while Sweden’s far-right Democrats are also continuing to advance.
But the United States is in a class of its own. After reaping the benefits of global hegemony, the ‘indispensable nation’ is now paying the price in the form of a double-barrelled structural crisis. Imperial policy is in disarray following last summer’s chaotic Afghan withdrawal, even as Washington continues to seek out new enemies in the western Pacific and the Black Sea. A combination of weakness and belligerence cannot end well, with the US growing more and more over-extended.
But a parallel crisis at a national level is no less threatening. America’s great constitutional meltdown - a process underway since at least the 1990s - continues to intensify, as the atmosphere on Capitol Hill grows more and more poisonous. So bad has the problem grown that even The New York Times has taken notice. “Our political system - it’s almost completely a failure,” it recently quoted a 65-year-old Floridian named Carla Haney as saying. “I don’t see it getting better at all.” As another Florida resident told the Times, “There’s so much hatred. You can see it in the schools, the diet, our lifestyle, the stress ... It’s a mystery that life has become so much worse in the US.”1
The paper even published a special section entitled ‘Snap out of it, America!’ An admission that constitutional decay is reaching a breaking point, it features an essay by historian Daniel Immerwahr asking, ‘How did politics get so sclerotic?’, and seven proposed constitutional amendments by various journalists and academics guaranteeing the right to join a union, among other things, and banning abortion by confirming that even unborn foetuses in the first stages of development have full political rights2 (the Times likes nothing more than even-handed bipartisanship). But since such proposals have zero chance of passage, thanks to the dysfunctional amending clause set forth in the constitution’s article five, the section wound up confirming what everyone already knows: the US is in a deep impasse with no way out.
Then there is the two-party system, the oldest such system in the world, which is caught up in a sub-crisis all its own. While the Republicans are not fascist in the classic sense, their devotion to Trump is taking on distinctly Mussolini-esque overtones. Instead of a programme, they are in thrall to a lider máximo whose ideology boils down to raw anger - at the world at large for taking advantage of America and ripping it off; at the Democrats for stealing the 2020 election; and at the press and the Deep State for hyping the ludicrous Russiagate conspiracy theory back in 2017-20. (The last has a good deal of validity, since Russiagate was a classic CIA destabilisation campaign aimed at driving Trump out of office. But the other two are dangerous nonsense.)
Race and class
But, as bad as the Republicans are, the Democrats in some ways are even worse. They are also in thrall - not to Trump, of course, but to an absurdly idealised version of Franklin D Roosevelt’s New Deal and to every fad emanating out of Hollywood and academia. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal was an example of the first, while the MeToo movement - which burst on the scene in October 2017, when The New York Times and The New Yorker published exposés of sexual abuse by movie producer Harvey Weinstein - was an example of the second. A growing furore over something called ‘critical race theory’ (CRT) typifies the third, and it is causing the Dems more grief than ever.
The theory emerged as a major factor in Virginia this fall when a Republican hedge fund manager named Glenn Youngkin seized on it in his gubernatorial campaign to pummel Terry McAuliffe, his Democratic opponent, for ignoring complaints that the schools are force-feeding children with dangerous racial doctrines. Democrats responded in their usual fashion by accusing Youngkin of engaging in “dog-whistle racism” and denying that CRT has anything to do with the schools, since it is exclusively taught in universities.3
But sneering will not make such issues go away for the simple reason that CRT really is pernicious nonsense. While conservatives routinely label the theory as ‘Marxist’,4 it is in fact the opposite, since it elevates race, while all but writing off class. An academic movement that emerged in the 1980s as an outgrowth of the critical legal studies movement that was sweeping US law schools at the time, it does so by arguing that racism advances the interests of white people by definition and that laws can have discriminatory effects even if they are formally colour-blind. As self-evident as this may seem, the implications are deeply problematic, as Marxists like Mike Cole of the University of East London have pointed out.
A singular focus on race, for instance, serves to “homogenise” white people by erasing any difference between workers and capitalists. Endlessly harping on about white supremacy as the motor force of history not only banishes the class struggle, but leaves other forms of racism unexplained, such as anti-Semitism, black violence against Asian-Americans - or, for that matter, the Hutu slaughter of Rwanda’s Tutsi minority in the mid-1990s. Such phenomena do not compute because they do not accord with the CRT notion that racism is something that whites do to others and never the other way around. Not only is the doctrine of race über alles disturbingly reminiscent of certain far-right movements that preached much the same message, but informing economically-depressed white workers that they benefit from something called ‘white privilege’ is a sure-fire way of undercutting socialist ideas, since the only reaction it can elicit from white workers is anger and resentment.5
In the hands of popularisers such as Robin DiAngelo - a corporate diversity trainer, whose 2018 book White fragility was a runaway best-seller - CRT has led to such sectarian gems as:
- “White progressives cause the most daily damage to people of colour.”
- “Only whites can be racist.”
- “Attributing inequality between whites and people of colour to causes other than racism” is itself racist.
- “The past was great for white people (and white men in particular), because their positions went largely unchallenged.”6
So white progressives should not struggle against racism because they will only make matters worse. If they dare disagree with a singular focus on whiteness, they will only wind up confirming their own guilt. History has meanwhile been such a jolly romp for white people that indentured servants must have laughed themselves silly, as they laboured under slave-like conditions in the 16th and 17th century, while white peasants enjoyed the pleasure of being forced off the land by the enclosure movements. What fun children working 12 hours a day in the dark satanic mills of the industrial revolution must have had, as they revelled in their white privilege!
While CRT, as such, is obviously not taught in elementary schools, CRT-inspired precepts have made their way into the curriculum, as any American with school-age children (such as this writer) can attest. Charts distributed to eighth graders in Crozet, a small town in north-central Virginia, inform them that the “dominant culture” in the US consists of “people who are white, middle class, Christian and cisgender” and that examples of racism include such sins as insisting that there are “two sides to every story”, “not believing experiences of POC” (people of colour), “denial of white privilege” and believing that “we all belong to the human race”.7
A rich tradition of interracial solidarity has thus gone out the window. The reaction in Virginia is meanwhile predictable. With Youngkin declaring that he would “ban critical race theory on day one” and McAuliffe retorting, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach”, the Virginia electorate split along racial lines, with six out of 10 whites voting for Youngkin and nearly nine out of 10 black voters going for Terry McAuliffe.8 Instead of echoing Trump’s charges about a stolen election, Republicans found something even better to pounce on - the tautological banalities of CRT.
Why have Democrats stumbled into such a trap? Because their leader is a senile hack, because they have no programme, because they do not believe in anything other than middle class self-aggrandisement - and because the party’s deep conservatism teaches that racism is ineradicable and that liberals must therefore side with anti-white sectarianism, because the alternative is even worse.
The upshot is the same old racist system with the roles reversed. The more the Democrats peddle such nonsense, the more entrenched racism grows and the more workers of all colours wind up losing. It is not pretty, but that is what America’s ongoing structural crisis has wrought.
See TV news host Brianna Keilar’s casual dismissal of such concerns on CNN, as the Democratic Party’s semi-official news source, at: www.cnn.com/videos/politics/2021/11/03/brianna-keilar-kirsten-powers-youngkin-virginia-win-dog-whistle-racism-nd-vpx.cnn.↩︎
S Walton, ‘Why the critical race theory of “white supremacy” should not be dismissed by neo-Marxists’ Power and Education No12, Vol 1 (March 2020): journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1757743819871316.↩︎
R DiAngelo White fragility: why it’s so hard for white people to talk about racism Boston 2018, pp5, 22, 44, 59.↩︎