Newsletter Posts

On racists in government and sunlight as a disinfectant

Rep. Steve King of Iowa said some pretty racist things. Again. This time, though, they were both shockingly unambiguous and came after a midterm election where the GOP got shellacked, and where its only hope to regain ground is in appealing to the kinds of people who don’t find racism all that appealing. So his congressional colleagues aren’t just ignoring it like they’ve done so often before. They’re taking action, albeit well short of expelling him.

What struck me about the resulting national conversation is the assumption, sometimes made explicit, that Steve King can’t keep going on like this, not if he wants to maintain his job come the next election cycle. Surely, the reason the fine folks of Iowa’s 4th District have been sending him back to Washington as their representative every other year since 2003 is that they just aren’t aware of how thoroughly he despises anyone who doesn’t look as lily white as they do. (The district is 95.8% white and 0.8% black.) If only the media would make it clearer, or if only they heard about it from other lawmakers in their party, they’d recoil from the man and kick his ass out.

Except I’m not convinced. We like to think America’s mostly moved on from its profoundly racist past, and that, while racism lingers, it’s at the very least underground or confined to tiki torch weirdos or the most thuggish of cops. Systemic racism, structural racism, those remain more widespread, but Steve King’s brand of actually expressed white supremacy, that’s on the outs.

But that would be very odd if true. We’re only a generation or so removed from outright segregation, after all. Only a generation away from lynchings held like festival events, with crowds cheering the strangulation or immolation of innocent blacks. To think racism as consciously believed white supremacy would just not be a thing a mere four or five decades later, when some of the perpetrators of those horrors are still alive, is, well, naive. There are lots of Americans who, while they might not shout it from the rooftops, are still kind of convinced that blacks just aren’t as good–innately, intellectually, morally–as whites, or that people from those odd places outside our borders can’t possibly “share our values” and so are always and everywhere a threat to good white stock.

This is why I suspect that for a critical mass of voters in Iowa’s 4th, Steve King’s racism is a feature, not a bug. They might not admit it, but they’re pretty okay with the stuff he says, even the stuff that appalls the rest of us. I think it’s just too soon to believe otherwise, to believe people like King aren’t expressing the views of a rather large portion of the electorate.

Thus sunlight can’t really disinfect, because for too many Americans, what Steve King–or Donald Trump in more veiled ways–is saying just doesn’t need disinfecting. He could tone it down, but he’s expressing all too widely held beliefs.

We’re just going to have to wait. Racism is in retreat. Racists are in decline. But we’ve still got a long way to go, and racism lives on in our elected bodies because racism–real, unapologetic racism–lives on, probably more than we want to admit, in our electorate.


Why I don’t vote

Your vote counts for something. Just not what you think.

If your vote — not “voting in the aggregate”, not “voting blocs”, but your vote — has no chance of deciding the election or producing a meaningful difference in margins, then reasons against voting don’t have to be terribly strong to outweigh reasons for it.

This isn’t a controversial point, not really. If I’m wondering if I should take an action and the action’s effects will be trivial at best, then if there’s even a small reason not to do it, that’s probably good enough to say “don’t.”

On Tuesday, that’s exactly the situation millions of Americans will find themselves in. Not a single one will decide the election, whether at the national, state, or local level. That’s just math. Which means every American, if presented with just a minimal reason to consider not voting ought to abstain.

Okay, but what’s that reason?

Government is so powerful, big, and inept because we let it be that way. One of the ways we let it is by reducing civic participation to voting. Vote once a year, or every two years, or even just every four years, and you’ve done your part to make government accountable to the people. Which is, of course, crazy. We all know that. But voting enables a narrative of control where there’s little to none. And because so many Americans buy into this narrative, the “Get out and vote” message creates a false sense of legitimacy about the state’s actions. Simply put, the fact that we vote — that we’ve been granted the “right” to vote — does not justify the government’s claimed authority over us. Not even close.

The world would be better if we took the state less seriously and so gave it less power. This is true whether you’re a progressive upset about surveillance and police brutality or a conservative upset about gun control and regulatory intrusion.

By voting, you might move things in the right direction. But probably not. The overwhelming odds are that the world with your vote looks identical to the one without. Yet what you are doing by voting is signing your name to a system that says all those things you despise seeing the government do — hacking emails, bombing kids, crippling small businesses, trampling religious beliefs, driving up the cost of health care, imprisoning the non-violent — are made “okay” and perfectly legitimate because “We” voted on them. They’ll be done in your name.

Why be a part of that? Especially when symbolically signing on to those injustices does just about nothing to make the world a better place.


Marginalizing the Marginalized

There was an argument a time back that said the best way to kill the religious right’s political influence was to let it nominate a presidential candidate and then get creamed in the general election. That’d show that there’s no there there, and then the country could safely ignore their feet stomping. (Instead cosmopolitanism triumphed in the culture war, which was overall good, but has also lead to quite a bit of carrying-it-too-far-ness.)

Could the same thing happen with the segment of the low-education, nationalist, white working class that’s gotten its irrational and childish way with the (probable) nomination of Trump? His campaign looks headed for an epic defeat, and one utterly of its own making. His support comes largely from a shrinking demographic, one the country is slowly leaving behind, for reasons both bad and good.

I’m pessimistic, because this is politics and politics is always a source of pessimism. But the values that represent the core of Trump’s support represent a massive threat to America, to our way of life, our economic future, and the principles at the heart of the country’s founding. If Trump goes down as spectacularly as it appears likely he will, the best that could come of it would be the further marginalization of what increasingly looks like a rightly marginalized voice for a set of beliefs and values America would be far better off without.

Fingers crossed.