Race and progressivism
By Scott Sumner
Pat Buchanan used to complain about imports from Asian and Hispanic economies, but was strangely silent about our large trade deficits with mostly white northern Europe. Donald Trump makes similar complaints. Now Kevin Williamson says that Bernie Sanders likes to complain about imports from Asian and Hispanic countries, but is strangely silent about our large deficits with northern Europe:
Like most of these advocates of “economic patriotism” (Barack Obama’s once-favored phrase) Bernie worries a great deal about trade with brown people — Asians, Latin Americans — but has never, so far as public records show, made so much as a peep about our very large trade deficit with Sweden, which as a share of bilateral trade volume is not much different from our trade deficit with China, or about the size of our trade deficit with Canada, our largest trading partner. Sanders doesn’t rail about the Canadians and Germans stealing our jobs — his ire is reserved almost exclusively for the Chinese and the Latin Americans
Perhaps that’s because when asked about their views on socialism, Sanders’ supporters often point to the Nordic economies, even though these countries are actually highly capitalist economies with large welfare states. They didn’t get rich with the sort of autarchic economic policies now fashionable on the American left. They relied on privatization, deregulation, free trade, large private multinational corporations and relatively low taxes on capital income.
Like the Occupy Wall Street movement, Sanders’s supporters are mostly white. Matt Yglesias has an excellent post on the tension between progressivism and minority rights:
The bad run-ins with #BlackLivesMatter activists that Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley had at the Netroots Nation conference were in part verbal gaffes, failures to identify in a linguistically appropriate way with the specific claims about racial justice that BLM activists are trying to advance.
But Julia Azari, a political scientist at Marquette University, points out that there’s a deeper tension between economic populism and the cause of racial justice.
“Populism,” she writes, “identifies elites who are to blame for oppressing the masses” and generally “calls for majoritarian processes to alleviate the problem.”
. . .
Obviously, you can be for criminal justice reform and also for raising taxes on the rich or whatever else.
But what you can’t plausibly do is cram the issue of structural racism in the criminal justice system into a frame that’s about the perfidy of economic elites. Prosecutors, cops, and correctional officers aren’t economic elites, they’re hard-working middle-class Americans who often enjoy the labor union protections and collective bargaining rights that populists want to stand up for.
It’s not just the racial specificity of BLM that is tough for populism, it’s the focus on institutional reform. BLM charges that public sector institutions — in this case, specifically the ones focused on law enforcement — can perform poorly for reasons that are not explained by underfunding or by “revolving door” corporate capture. If that’s true of police departments, then maybe it’s true of schools and mass transit systems and any number of other public agencies.
That’s a very perceptive point about the internal contradictions of American-style (left) liberalism. If we abolished all corporate influence and let unions run the show, where would we end up? Here’s one indication:
Although opponents of legalization initiatives typically have not managed to raise much money, Kampia thinks California might be different. “First of all, the opposition tasted victory in Florida,” he says. “Also, California’s the only state that’s consistently had major opposition to its serious criminal justice reforms. The narcotics officers and the prison guards in California have real money, and they’re willing to spend it.”
Hundreds of thousands of black and brown prisoners languish in jail because their freedom is less important that the economic well being of our mostly white criminal industrial complex. (Didn’t we used to have an agricultural system run on that principal?)
I’m always bemused when white American liberals regard libertarians as “conservatives.” It shows you where their priorities are. Apparently those liberals view economic issues like campaign finance reform, Dodd-Frank and net neutrality as being more important than hundreds of thousands of unfairly imprisoned blacks and Hispanics, or minorities getting shut out of jobs by occupational licensing laws, or millions of poor people being shut out of the US by our immigration laws. I suspect that there are lots of black and brown people all over the world that have different priorities. Perhaps that partly explains the racial make-up of Sanders’ crowds.