“Progressivism for Whites Only,” Revisited.

Trump’s appointments so far seem increasingly a rehash of old timey Republican cadres. Some “hope and change.”  (yes, I realize that’s the motto from the other guy–but Trump pulled a whitewashed version of the same act.)  Trump could easily be the second coming of old Southern Populist leaders like Tom Watson or Pitchfork Ben Tillman.  Southern Populism was ultimately destroyed by a betrayal of its leaders, who were mostly drawn from the upper crust of the Southern society interested mainly in taking advantage of the angry poor folk for their own political careers.  The early success of the Southern populism was built on cooperation across the color lines, with the ex-Confederates and former slaves willing to join hands, in interest of shared economic interests, but the seeds of its eventual failure were planted in the unease behind their cooperation.  In the end, the poisoned deal that people like Watson (who was, as a Populist leader, was willing to cooperate with the freedman) and Tillman (who was at least honest enough to never hide his racism) got for their followers was something derisively called “Progressivism for Whites Only,” or not a whole lot of “progressivism,” but plenty of Jim Crow.  (Indeed, Jim Crow era began in earnest when the Populist movement, and with it, a serious opportunity for African-American influence on politics in the South, was defeated.)

In a diabolical fashion, “Progressivism for Whites Only” was exactly the kind of heresthetic strategy that could defeat the coalition of ex-confederates and freedmen.  The racist tendencies of the former made them willing to accept a deal just for themselves that offered quite little while abandoning their uneasy allies.  But deprived of the political leverage that their alliance with the former slaves provided, they could not secure even the comparatively little that they were offered.  Once Jim Crow became the prevailing norm in the South, re-creating a political alliance of poor whites and blacks was no longer possible for at least a generation or so, even assuming the latter could vote in most cases.  Normally, the job of the leaders is to anticipate traps like that and refuse them strategically, but Southern Populists had few leaders who were drawn from the poor or even genuinely cared for their interests, only the political opportunists who saw an angry rabble on whose backs they could ride to elective offices–like Watson and Tillman.  Those who don’t hang together wind up hanging separately indeed.

The temptation for the Democrats today, when faced with “Progressivism for Whites Only,” seems to be focusing on the “whites only” part.  I think that’s a mistake.  The working class whites don’t feel too much “white guilt,” if any at all.  This is not to say that they are “racist” (although, to confuse matter, the lack of white guilt itself seems to qualify them as racists in the eyes of many on the left–a big mistake, I think.  Why should people in difficult circumstances feel guilty that there are others in even more difficult circumstances?  Let people who are comfortable feel guilt, they’d say, and they are right.)  They simply need and want “progressivism,” and as long as they qualify to benefit from it, they don’t mind that others are kept out.  (If anything, if their benefits are endangered in attempt to provide for those who are “more deserving” according to people whom they don’t trust, they will fight back–which is why means testing is a dangerous political bomb, and why Obamacare ran into such problems as, deservingly or not, it was seen as a threat to the existing services, or why “keep government out of my Medicare” became such a powerful slogan.)

The best way to fight back against “Progressivism for Whites Only” is to point out that it’s not much of Progressivism at all.  In the end, this is how the politics evolved in the South, especially how the New Deal Progressivism arrived there in 1930s–the real deal, not the old fakery.  Of course, it came at a heavy cost:  many Southern New Dealers played the same racist politics as their rivals.  But in the land of Jim Crow, you need to play the long game–you need political power before you can challenge the Jim Crow.  It was, after all, a young Southern New Dealer who cut his teeth on (somewhat) racist politics of rural Texas that signed the Voting Rights Act (only “somewhat” racist in the sense that the young LBJ was not nearly as much of a race-baiter as others).

I don’t think the Democratic resistance to Trumpism needs to be that long in scope.  He has not yet “won.”  Jim Crow is not written into the laws of the land, so to speak, yet.  Rather, the fight is in the early stages, where the promise of “Progressivism for Whites Only” is being offered to the masses.  That promise needs to be called out for being not much of Progressivism.  The “whites only part,” while odious it may seem to the Democrats, is a trap.  My suggestion isn’t so much that the Democrats can only win when they accept the “whites only” premise but that socio-cultural concerns are orthogonal to the economic fight, irrelevant for many voters who can be won over by better Progressivism on the economic matters.  Better political leaders than Watson and Tillman would have bargained for a better Progressivism while maintaining the alliance between poor whites and blacks.  This is the goal that Democrats should pursue today, if they wish to fight Trump seriously.


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