This article appears in the Fall 2017 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here.
Americans often look back to the mid-20th century as a time when the country was cohesive and unified, unlike today’s bitterly divided society. That image of mid-century America was always incomplete, but insofar as there was a culture of consensus, it was not a wholly spontaneous development. Much of the country’s leadership and national media from the 1930s through World War II and the early postwar years made concerted efforts to foster unity across social and religious lines in the face of threats from abroad and at home to America’s stability and survival.
The United States is surely different today—the lines of cleavage have shifted, the media have fractured into separate worlds, and we have a president who acquired power with explicitly anti-immigrant and racist appeals. But the mid-20th century experience nonetheless offers instructive lessons for confronting the divisions that endanger America now.
National unity in the mid-20th century, as the historian Wendy L. Wall argues in her book Inventing the “American Way,” was a political project that came in several different varieties. While Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal promoted a pluralistic and economically inclusive vision, corporate leaders championed free enterprise and class harmony as “the American way,” a phrase introduced into the political lexicon through an advertising campaign by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in the late 1930s. Rather than question whether there was an American way, other groups sought to appropriate the idea. In a world with anti-Semitism and other hatreds on the rise, interfaith groups promoted the American way as the ability of people with different religious beliefs to live together. The fall of France to the Nazis in 1940 was widely interpreted as evidence of the danger of a divided society, and when the United States entered the war, it became a national imperative to encourage mutual tolerance and cooperation. A month after Pearl Harbor, FDR warned: “Remember the Nazi technique. ‘Pit race against race, religion against religion, prejudice against prejudice.’”
Wall points out a key difference between the elites who promoted civility and tolerance and others, including those on the left, who put equality at the center of their vision. The former ignored power imbalances, while the latter “tried to use the language of consensus to correct them.” As Wall says, the efforts to define a national consensus “gave religious, ethnic, and racial ‘outsiders’ a powerful lever with which to pry open some doors of America’s mainstream culture.” White ethnics made considerable progress in getting through those doors; African Americans, not so much, at least not in the New Deal, which to its great shame perpetuated black exclusion and disenfranchisement.
Overcoming that failure became the concern of the civil rights movement and liberal reforms of the 1960s, which in turn gave rise to the politics of white backlash that we have been living with ever since. The pattern isn’t new; every advance African Americans have made since slavery and Reconstruction has generated a backlash. America seems forever caught in a racial loop, in which efforts to escape from racism repeatedly expose how deep it runs and set off new bursts of hatred. Other groups also face prejudice, but the situation of African Americans is historically distinct. Racial slavery was a singular evil lasting more than two centuries, and overcoming its long aftereffects poses singular demands for tenacity in the struggle for justice. As frustrating as the reversals in that struggle have been, we have surely come too long a way to make Donald Trump’s election a final verdict on America’s possibilities.
The renewed growth and tremendous diversity of America’s immigrant population, another development dating to the 1960s, add to the challenge of America’s racial legacy. While the new immigrants have enlarged the nonwhite base of Democratic support, they have also intensified the politics of white grievance and backlash. Faced with right-wing xenophobic attacks on immigrants, many of us are drawn to a general defense of all the foreign-born in the country. But distinctions are necessary. The young Dreamers who grew up here and know no other country ought not to be confused with those who may have come recently as adults and overstayed their visas. To be in favor of protecting Dreamers and providing a path to citizenship for the long-resident undocumented does not imply an indiscriminate forgiveness, much less support for “open borders.” America owes all people within its jurisdiction certain fundamental human rights, including due process of law, but its primary obligations are to its citizens. No political party can expect to win majority support if it fails to make clear the primacy of those obligations.
Since Trump’s victory, Democrats have been arguing about how to win back a majority, a discussion that has focused on attracting white voters, especially working-class whites. The attention to whites makes some progressives and African Americans uneasy, as it suggests deemphasizing racism and such issues as police accountability. Their concern is understandable. From the Constitutional Convention to the end of both Reconstruction and the civil rights era, black interests were sacrificed in the name of national unity and political expediency. So this much must be clear: The cause of racial equality is too central to liberal values to be sacrificed again.
But neither can progressives ignore the need to win white voters in the belief that a growing nonwhite population will eventually make lost white support irrelevant. If that day ever comes, it is a long way off, and in the meantime Republicans will use every means at their disposal to stop it from coming at all. Nonwhite voters are also so geographically concentrated that winning more of them will not be sufficient to achieve majorities in state legislatures and Congress anytime soon. So regaining more white support is not optional either for Democrats or for African Americans and other minorities who depend on Democrats for a voice, unless they want to resign themselves to indefinite rule by an increasingly right-wing Republican Party.
Since Republicans have been winning white majorities for some time—Trump only extended the pattern—the challenge may look impossibly difficult. But Democrats don’t have to win a majority of whites, only enough whites to win majorities overall. In that case, some suggest, why not just focus Democratic efforts on more affluent and highly educated whites, many of them in suburban districts that have been trending Democratic? Isn’t the preoccupation with working-class whites just an outdated impulse?
To be sure, Democrats need to win more votes wherever they can get them, but where and how they win those votes will affect the kind of policies they can carry out. Focusing attention on affluent whites will increase internal strains in a Democratic Party that generally supports progressive taxation and other redistributive policies and continues to enjoy more support from lower-income minority voters and unions. If Democrats are going not just to maintain their tradition of economic progressivism but to advocate it more forcefully, they need to devote energy and resources to building support among working-class voters, white as well as nonwhite. And since African Americans benefit when Democrats are able to enact economically progressive policies like universal health coverage, they have a big stake in the success of that kind of coalitional politics.
THE SUCCESS OF THAT politics is vital to future possibilities for the country, not just the Democrats. Bringing America together is as important now as it was in the mid-20th century, but the real question is on what terms. Trump’s terms are clear. The implicit reference in his slogan, “Make America Great Again,” is the America that fully incorporated white, working-class ethnics but not blacks or more recent immigrants. It’s a vision of unity that not only fails to anticipate the future—it doesn’t account for the America that already exists today.
As in the mid-20th century, however, there is more than one alternative for a broadened vision. We can try to bring Americans together on the basis of civility and tolerance, or go further and pursue a more ambitious ideal of equality. Don’t get me wrong: Civility and tolerance are essential in their own right. Without them a good society is impossible. But the unity we need in America ought to be based on more than tolerance; it ought to reflect a commitment to equality, and those who believe in that ideal ought to promote a politics that can sustain it.
To be sure, the old New Deal coalition, with its base in industrial unions, can’t be resurrected. The post-industrial economy, however, breeds its own deep dissatisfactions, and the remedies Trump offers don’t respond to them at all. The growing problems of precarious employment, the hyperconcentration of new businesses and job growth in the largest metropolitan areas, the excessive power of platform monopolies in the new online economy, disparities in income that Republican tax and budget changes will only exacerbate, out-of-control health-care prices—these are some of the items that ought to be on a new agenda for economic fairness and inclusion that the Democrats alone are in a position to take up.
With Trump as president, the Republicans are now fully invested in an aging, almost entirely white electoral base and the politics of white grievance. In what turned out to be a fateful call to the Prospect’s co-editor Bob Kuttner on August 15, Steve Bannon said he would be happy to have Democrats “talk about racism every day. If the left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats.” Of course, Bannon himself has his own identity politics—white identity politics. And his version of economic nationalism would leave displaced coal miners and industrial workers no better off. But Democrats should take Bannon’s words as a challenge to show that they can continue to address racial injustice and still win enough votes from whites by framing a vision of national prosperity and a decent society that all Americans will see as the country they want to live in.
Even at their best, the mid-20th century versions of the American way weren’t fully inclusive, and they couldn’t possibly anticipate the economic and social changes that the next half-century would bring. But they did have one thing right. They encouraged Americans to see themselves as sharing a common culture and common fate. They promoted solidarity. That solidarity now has to reflect a multiracial and egalitarian vision, not a backward-looking exclusive one. A crucial feature of the American way is that it hasn’t been static and unchanging. We have an elastic, living tradition, and we need to make sure it continues expanding to keep up with all the people who make America their home and who must work together for the country to work at all.