Identity Politics: Krugman Gets One Right

By:    John C. Goodman

Identity Politics: Krugman Gets One Right

I grew up in Waco, Texas. When I was a child, the city was completely segregated – the schools, the churches, the lunch counters, etc. Public buildings not only had separate restrooms for blacks and whites, they even had separate drinking fountains.

I had a nanny who spent a great deal of time with me. She taught me how to make a kite out of newspaper and ply wood and she often took me to the movies. We traveled by bus and because she was black, we had to sit in the back of the bus. At the theater we had to sit in the balcony – just like the blacks in the courtroom in the movie To Kill a Mockingbird. I was the only white person sitting upstairs.

What strikes me as most odd about my childhood experience was the local politics. The mayor, the city council members and everyone else with political power was white. They were also Democrats. Every time there was an election in Waco, most black voters voted for the Democrats — the very Democrats who enforced segregation, who designed its rules and who justified its existence. They never once voted for a Republican.

Over the past half century, the public position of Democratic politicians has changed quite a lot. Think of a spectrum with pure segregation (the kind I experienced) over at one end and affirmative action and racial set-a-sides on the other. Somewhere in the middle is Martin Luther King’s view that we should stop judging people by the color of their skin.

Over many years and many elections Democratic politicians traversed that entire spectrum – from one end to the other. Yet never once in all that time did they ever lose an election to a Republican among black voters in Waco.

What brings all this to mind was yesterday’s New York Times column by Paul Krugman, which made an insightful claim. The coming presidential election, he writes, will not mainly be about ideas. It will be about group identity.

By way of explanation, Krugman points to the contest between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton. Bernie Sanders tried to make the primary an election about ideas. He made bold proposals and tried to draw Hillary out. When Sanders talked about inequality, for example, he said it was something he wanted to end – regardless of race. He promised voters they would reap benefits from his platform – again as individuals, not as blacks or as women or as Hispanics, etc.

Hillary Clinton, on the other hand campaigned for the votes of blacks as blacks. She campaigned for the votes of woman as women. According to Krugman, blacks may have been better off with the platform proposals of Bernie Sanders. Ditto for the women. But they voted for the candidate they identified with.

This makes sense to me. It fits in with what I witnessed in my hometown. Republicans in Waco ran for office the same way they tend to campaign all over the county all the time. They treated voters as individuals and expected people to vote for them based on their ideas.

Waco Democrats, by contrast, campaigned in the black churches. Often they would bring a keg of beer and barbeque to the events. They knew the ministers by name and they knew that what they did for the minister was far more important than what they did for the congregation.

Republican candidates didn’t even know where the black churches were.

You would think the coming election would be a battle of ideas. How could it not be?

The approach to Middle Eastern foreign policy could not be more different. Clinton voted for the war in Iraq and defends the Obama/Clinton foreign policy in the whole area. Donald Trump will have none of that. Clinton represents cold war thinking on national defense – thinking that hasn’t changed in more than 60 years. Trump wants a complete revamp. The Clinton’s are free traders. Trump threatens protectionism (and I hope he doesn’t follow through). Clinton wants to shut down the coal mines to stop global warming. Trump doesn’t believe in global warming.

Yet despite all these policy differences, I think Krugman may be right.

For Democrats, there will be little change from past election cycles. I have written before at this site about the ugly way that Democrats have engaged in blatant race baiting in an attempt to drive angry black voters to the polls. (See here, here and here.) This time around they may have succeeded in creating their own backlash.

When Democrats campaign they inevitably seem to list the voters they want to attract – women, blacks, Hispanics, the whole LBGT community…

If you’re a straight white guy, you have to be really, really dumb not to notice that you aren’t on the list. And in this election, they seem to have found their candidate. I have never heard Trump make a statement that you could interpret as pro-white or anti-black. But for reasons that are not well understood, angry white voters, particularly angry white males are attracted to him.

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