You know how everybody and her sister are saying that Trumpism (not to mention Palinism and Buchananism, etc.), white nationalism, and the rise of authoritarian movements on the right is all about class? They want us to believe that the racism of the right is just a ruse, that their real agenda is a class agenda, and responding to it as racism is just hollow liberalism.
Don’t listen. They don’t have their eyes on the long game.
Right wing movements have powerful class implications. We should be concerned about those class implications. In fact, politics should be understood as the struggle for the power to determine how resources are distributed. Class is fundamental to all politics.
But, we should remember that race, historically, has functioned as class, leaving us with a legacy of structural racism and internal colonies that we, in an extraordinary act of manipulation masquerading as magnanimity, call “reservations.” You can’t separate race from class in the U.S. They go together, as do gender and race, and class and gender.
But, what most animates movements on the right is not class but culture, and central to those cultural arguments are race, gender, sexuality, religion, and nationality (which is mostly just an idea, but defining nationality is fundamental to winning influence over the nation-state). Movements are about cultural formation and transformation at their core. They are, in fact, cultural phenomena.
Class plays a role in right wing movement formation, but not the most central one. Just look at who constitutes the core base of support for rightist movements and you’ll see what I mean. They aren’t the downtrodden masses, but those immediately proximate to them. Once they get going, they organize downward because they have to, and make a class appeal in order to do so.
Rightist movements are responses to insecurity, fear, and anxiety, which means they’re about power and their perception of being put in the position of disadvantage relative to “undeserving” or “lesser” others. Financial insecurity is often among the things driving fear and anxiety, but it’s rarely, in fact never in my experience, the only thing that causes people to reach for strongmen with authoritarian agendas. If you take a broad historical view, what holds these movements together ideologically isn’t class. It’s something else.
Consider the religious right. Are they a class movement? I argue no. They’re self-described cultural warriors, organized out of a born-again evangelical movement that rose as a response to sudden changes brought about by the baby-boom/free love/civil rights/anti-war/feminist uprising of the mid-last century by leaders who politicized what it meant to be “born-again,” exploiting the conservatism that dominated a cultural movement. During the height of religious right wing attacks against LGBTQ people and abortion, we were in a growing economy. The spoils of that growth may have been hoarded almost exclusively by the top ten percent, but the perception of good times was widespread throughout the middle class, and was demonstrated through the enthusiasm with which so many middle-classers responded to dot.com bubble investment opportunities that went bust. Never has the stock market been such a popular forum for the articulation of “hope” married to individualism than during the tech-bubble 90s.
So let’s get this one straight so that class reductionists don’t steal the real opportunity presented by the fight against the right: class matters absolutely, but the rise of the right isn’t near as much about class as it is about culture, who gets to control it, and what that means about American cultural identity.
I know opponents of “identitarianism” (the term for identity activists who they equate with neoliberals) will hate this, but those of us they’ve labeled “identitarians” include a not inconsiderable faction that understands that identity politics is, maybe, one of the most virulent expressions of anti-intellectualism out there. That’s right, we are able to hold a critique of identity politics while also having the sensitivity to recognize that you have to start with people where they’re at when you’re organizing a popular front for change. It’s an act of walking and chewing gum at the same time that I strongly recommend.
Culture and identity are inseparable. We are cultural animals. This is what makes people distinct from other species. Identity is what holds cultures together. In order to win a more just world, we need to put political change in the context of cultural transformation and acknowledge this reality and not waste our effort trying to wish it away.
The fight with the right should be understood as a cultural war with opposing factions competing over who will determine the meaning of “American,” who gets to be included in that identity group, and what the implications of that are for our relationship with the world. White nationalism is just one of a variety of right wing “proposals” upon which they are attempting to build power.
Putting the “white” aspect of right wing nationalism aside for a minute, nationalism is an ideology. States are earthbound, founded in law, ruled by institutions, and defined geographically. The nation, on the other hand, is, as Benedict Anderson reminds us, an imagined community. It exists in our hearts and minds, and many versions are being articulated through political debates on everything from policing and state violence, to immigration, to same sex marriage (and don’t get it twisted, anti-queer politics is always about race, gender, and power). Our job is to compete for the political position to determine which political faction’s nationalism, whether right, left, or status quo, will win the day and most strongly influence the form of the state.
In these debates, race is always central. Class plays a more peripheral role even if, as I said earlier, class is fundamental to politics. In order to compete effectively, we need to define a vision of the nation that is supported by a critical mass large enough to exercise the power necessary to win the political position necessary to force that vision into mainstream debates. If we don’t, right wing movements will win by default. Just talking about class is a losing proposition in that fight. We need to believe enough in ourselves to think bigger. Nothing else will win the future.