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Will Racism Kill Social Democracy?

Sean McElwee

Over the weekend I read Lane Kenworthy’s Social Democratic America, a fantastic book that touches on a broad range of material in an academic, but brisk and readable fashion. It also has an extensive bibliography for anyone who wants to dig deeper into the issues he discusses. I want to dig into one objection that Kenworthy subtly misunderstands: how racial heterogeneity could hamper social social democracy.

Throughout the book, Kenworthy dismisses the importance of racial homogeneity in the Nordic countries which he frequently cites as examples of successful social democracies. In his recent Foreign Affairs article he writes,

Some observers, even many on the left, worry about the applicability of Nordic-style policies -- which have succeeded in the context of small, relatively homogeneous countries -- to a large, diverse nation such as the United States. Yet moving toward social democracy in the United States would mostly mean asking the federal government to do more of what it already does. It would not require shifting to a qualitatively different social contract.

Before diving into the implications for the U.S., it’s worth noting that racial animosity is already threatening social democracy in Nordic countries. Reuters reports that,

Consensus around the post-war Nordic model of high taxes and generous welfare was long sustained by a homogenous society. But immigration, global competition and fear for jobs have put that ideal of equality based on civic trust under strain… Rising immigration has been coupled with economic troubles that have seen iconic Nordic companies such as Ericsson and Nokia shed jobs. Worries about the affordability of welfare have put the once taboo subject of immigration high on the agenda.

The Economist reports that,

High immigration is threatening the principle of redistribution that is at the heart of the welfare state. Income inequalities in the Nordic countries are generally lower than elsewhere… but Matz Dahlberg, of Uppsala University, reckons that immigration is making people less willing to support redistribution.

All of this is worrying if you believe, as Kenworthy does, that social democracy is inevitable. Last week I noted how increasing inequality tears at the social fabric and causes a decline in support for universalistic welfare programs. But as the Nordic countries shows, there’s another factor at work, and our newest fellow Ian Haney Lopez has a book about it: dog-whistle politics. Lopez’s book is specific to America, and traces dog-whistle politics from Wallace, through Goldwater and Nixon to its apotheosis with Reagan. Lopez shows how racial prejudice undermines universalistic welfare programs. Here’s a short excerpt showing how the right, particularly Reagan, used racial prejudice to attack poverty:

Reagan also trumpeted his racial appeals in blasts against welfare cheats. On the stump, Reagan repeatedly invoked a story of a “Chicago welfare queen” with “eighty names, thirty addresses, [and] twelve Social Security cards [who] is collecting veteran’s benefits on four non-existing deceased husbands… Beyond propagating the stereotypical image of a lazy, larcenous black woman ripping off society’s generosity without remorse, Reagan also implied another stereotype, this one about whites: they were the workers, the taxpayers, the persons playing by the rules and struggling to make ends meet while brazen minorities partied with their hard-earned tax dollars.

Here we see the trick to undermining any universalistic program: creating an “us against them” narrative. The program thereby loses its universality and therefore its support. That being said, to a casual observer, and particularly a white one, this narrative may seem like a weak collection of anecdotes, rather than a trend. But as Republican political consultant Lee Atwater famously admitted,

You start out in 1954 by saying, "N-, n-, n-." By 1968, you can't say "n-" — that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states' rights and all that stuff. You're getting so abstract now [that] you're talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I'm not saying that. But I'm saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me — because obviously sitting around saying, "We want to cut this," is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than "N-, n-."

He actually admitted that. But politicians and strategists don’t talk that way anymore (for the most part; see below). So the the second objection to this narrative is that it’s not nice to throw out the race card. “The Republicans aren’t racists,” we’re told, “so don’t bring it up.” And most aren’t. They are not “racist” in the vein of late-Wallace or Lott or Thurmond. Rather, they refuse to acknowledge the structural racism in our society. They don’t notice the fact that the mainstream media shows poor blacks when it talks about welfare cheats and poor whites when they talk about the “working poor.” They don’t know that all of those great New Deal programs were designed to keep out blacks.

I noted in my last post how our belief in a “just world,” causes us to impute negative qualities on the poor. Our history is not one that is particularly just. From exterminating the native population to enslaving another to colonization and neo-colonialism we have failed to uphold our values. But instead of critically examining our past and how it shapes our future, we make excuses. Frances Fox Piven explains how that works in a segregated society:

When a racial group is kept at the bottom of the labor system and excluded from its social and political and political institutes, the result may be to create, or at least to nourish, the racist popular culture that is then said to be the cause of labor market and political discrimination.

That is why this melding of race and poverty is one of the most sadly durable memes in U.S. politics. It cropped up numerous times in the 2012 campaign, and has been expanded to include other out-groups, such as Hispanics (implications that “illegal immigrants” take from the welfare system).  As Lopez told me in our interview, “Dog-whistle politics is not fundamentally about race. It’s fundamentally about attacking liberal government, attacking New Deal government, which is good for the country as a whole, but bad in the perception of some of the very rich.”

There is also empirical support for Lopez’s thesis. A 2005 study by Woojin Lee, John Roemer and Karine van der Straeten finds that, “the conservative economic agenda has been given new life because of racist and xenophobic views of polities.” In the UK, France, and Denmark they find a similar trend, but the effect is not as strong.

Kenworthy’s book is valuable, if for no other reason, it explodes an argument recently put forward by Kevin Williamson in The National Review that, “the fact is that as a practical matter we are running out of ways to spend money on the needy.” If Williamson truly believes this, Kenworthy will serve as an antidote. But creating social democracy will not be easy, nor should it be considered inevitable.

Kenworthy’s proposals will require the government to take in more than 10 percent of GDP in increased revenues; not an easy task in the current political climate. The past two years have brought vicious attacks on some of the most important (and successful) parts of our weak social democracy, often in the guise of racially-charged language. It’s unlikely those will abate in the future. Nevertheless, Kenworthy shows that it can be done, if we just get the political will to do it.