Ideas in Action: Political Tradition in the Twentieth Century


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On this view, the capacity of practical reason extends beyond its instrumental role by including within it a power to check our impulses against moral principles. Notice, however, that in this second example, the rule on which our action is based is still given. There is no implicit or explicit claim that practical reason produces the principle. Instead, practical reason passively receives its command and acts within its limits. Political constructivism is a different view altogether.

The various political principles constraining political action are not merely given to us, but rather are the products of thought. They are not products in the sense of being created from nothing, but rather constructed from various resources appropriate to political argument. Apart from these constructions, there are no moral facts or true moral judgments, nor are there ways of assessing the moral worth of a political action. It is only when deliberations are properly constrained that the resulting outcome is a principle against which our actions can be assessed as morally right or wrong.

Notice that while our political actions are assessed against a normative principle, there is no criterion beyond the deliberative process by which the rightness of the principle is assessed; it is authoritative in virtue of being the outcome of a certain kind of deliberative process or a certain form of argument. Consequently, the challenge for constructivism is to explain the appropriateness of the process without appealing to any judgment that is supposed to derive from that process; for if the thought process relied on such a judgment to assess its appropriateness, it would assume the very thing it claims to construct.

It has been argued that constructivism fails to meet this challenge on logical grounds Cohen But others have attempted to meet it, and in turn have created a variety of interpretations. This makes the approach difficult to define and summarize.


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Naturally, a great deal of philosophical debate surrounds the appropriateness of the deliberative process, especially as it concerns the metaethical themes of justification and objectivity. At any rate, despite the extensive literature on the subject, there are two general formulations of political constructivism influenced by two historical accounts of practical reasons.

The first is a deontological account of practical reason that is primarily associated with Kantian ethics. The second is a teleological account of practical reason that is primarily associated with social contract theory. Political constructivism tries to make this idea clear by identifying a compelling form of normative political analysis with easily understood criteria for thinking about political issues.

The hope is that once we are equipped with this form of analysis, we can reason in the light of these criteria and reach agreement in political judgment; and, if not agreement, we can at least narrow our differences sufficiently to secure a just, or fair, or honorable, or decent set of political relations Rawls , This article frames political constructivism as a general way of applying constructivism to the political domain.

It discusses various interpretations in light of the two general formulations noted above—deontology and teleology. Although the various interpretations discussed do not always fit easily within this distinction, it is nevertheless a useful way of examining political constructivism because deontology and teleology straddle a historical fault line for how best to think about practical reason and the justification of political principles.

According to the deontological approach, practical reason is modeled on a mathematical deduction; the aim is to create an argument that should be, so far as possible, a deductive one. By contrast, a teleological account of practical reason has an instrumental form; the aim is to explain how political principles function to realize some end. Examining political constructivism in the light of these formulations exposes the key logical difference between the various interpretations of political constructivism and sets the stage for assessing whether a particular interpretation is more favorable than others.

Reflective equilibrium refers to a strategy for justifying political principles often associated with political constructivism. The important point here is that a natural model views the relation between moral principles and our more intuitive judgments about ethics as analogous to the relation between scientific laws and empirical data.

On a natural model, political theory aims at discovering and describing the normative laws that explain our moral intuitions, not unlike the way natural science aims at discovering and describing the laws of nature that explain our sensory intuitions about the world outside of us. By contrast, a constructive model presents political theory as analogous to legal theory.

On this view, political theory aims at constructing political principles that can account for our moral intuitions by bringing as many of those intuitions into a coherent whole with one another, not unlike a judge who, on deciding a case, constructs a legal principle that brings precedent into a coherent whole with a novel yet plausible interpretation of a legal concept.

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To bring this feature into sharp relief, Dworkin contrasts a constructive model to a natural model, again foreshadowing a move familiar in the literature; for it is often the case that constructivists contrast their positions to moral realism when developing their arguments. Moral realism takes many forms, but a common feature of moral realism is that it frames moral judgments in terms of our detecting moral facts.

We discover these moral facts not unlike the way we discover the color red—we passively receive the datum. Moreover, these entities are simple in that they cannot be analyzed any further; there are no fundamental elements brought together into a set of consideration from which political principles are formulated. Constructivism differs with moral realism on these various points. In contrast to realism, constructivism holds that actions are judged as right or wrong by measuring those actions against principles that are themselves constructed, not detected. Moreover, these principles are justified in virtue of being constructed from more fundamental elements through an appropriate thought process.

The aim of A Theory of Justice is to defend precisely these constructive criteria. He writes:. Kantian constructivism holds that moral objectivity is to be understood in terms of a suitably constructed social point of view that all can accept. Apart from the procedure of constructing the principles of justice, there are no moral facts.

Whether certain facts are to be recognized as reasons of right and justice, or how much they are to count, can be ascertained only from within the constructive procedure, that is, from the undertakings of rational agents of construction when. This suggests a two-step process: 1 constructing a social point of view acceptable to all, and 2 constructing principles of justice from within that point of view.

When explaining political constructivism, Rawls clarifies what he takes to be constructed:. First, in this form of constructivism, what is it that is constructed? Answer: the content of a political conception of justice. No: it is simply laid out Rawls , The two-step construction noted above is now reduced to one step, namely, constructing the principles of justice.

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The social point of view from which the construction takes place is not constructed, but simply laid out. While each variant lays out a social point of view and defends competing principles, they have in common the basic idea that the appropriate set of political principles is the outcome of an appropriate form of thinking. Moral judgments are correct when they conform to these principles. The task of political argument is to join together all the relevant elements into one unified scheme of practical reason, that is, a social point of view, so that the deliberations constrained by that scheme arrive at—or construct—the proper principles of justice.

Absent this scheme, there are no criteria for guiding political action or justifying our institutions. And so, in , constructivism begins to take shape as a distinctive approach to moral and political theory. The publications of T. The central idea behind political constructivism is that an appropriate set of political principles is constructed from suitably formed deliberations.

These deliberations assemble fundamental elements—such as attitudes, concepts, ideals, beliefs, values and precepts, along with their application to certain problems or contexts in which our normative deliberations take root—into a set of reasons from which principles are formulated. This is an abstract idea that needs to be filled out with some content if it is to be fully understood.

Justice as fairness begins with a simple idea: the most appropriate conception of justice is one that people would choose in a fair situation Rawls b, A fair situation is a hypothetical choice procedure called the original position. It organizes various concepts, considered judgments, and precepts into a procedure that frames deliberations. Anyone deliberating within this procedure will reason according to these elements of rationality and reasonableness.

In other words, these building blocks provide the raw material from which principles of justice are constructed. What are these starting points? They include common precepts of rationality, such as: If one desires a particular end, it is rational to follow the means for achieving that end; if the end can be realized in more than one way, it is rational to choose the less burdensome way; if agreements between parties are mutually beneficial and each party can be given full assurance that the other will abide by the terms of the agreement, it is rational to enter into the agreement; if times are uncertain, it is rational to rank alternatives by their worst possible outcome and then pick the alternative with the least worst outcome.

These precepts of rationality are guided in their application toward a particular set of ends called primary goods. In addition to these precepts of rationality and their related ends, the original position attempts to model precepts of reasonableness. Reasonable people are ready to propose principles as fair terms of social cooperation and to abide by them willingly, even at the cost of their own interests in particular situations, provided that others accept those terms.

The precepts of rationality and reasonableness are modeled as a thought procedure anyone can enter into at any time. In A Theory of Justice , Rawls argues that anyone deliberating from within the original position will arrive at the same conclusion—they will choose the same two principles of justice. As a result, the original position realizes the general aim of constructivism by bringing together abstract precepts of rationality with a conception of persons and society in a set of reasons that supports a particular set of principles.

For example, some describe the constructivist as a hypothetical proceduralist. The works of T. Scanlon deepen the characterization of constructivism as a form of proceduralism, and critics have further solidified this interpretation by fixing on various weaknesses of procedural arguments. The combined effect is that proceduralism has become the default interpretation of political constructivism. Proceduralism has taken many forms since the publication of A Theory of Justice. Since these conceptions are informed by the shared public values of a democratic society, the starting points of construction are more substantive than those identified by A Theory of Justice.

Indeed, many of the debates and criticisms of a procedural formulation of political constructivism center on whether the starting points should be more universal and objective, as in A Theory of Justice , or more local and substantive, as in Political Liberalism. The procedural interpretation of political constructivism is by far the most common, but it is not the only one. Korsgaard , On this formulation, justice as fairness is justified if it solves the conflict between freedom and equality in a democratic society.

If it does not solve the problem, it is unjustified. This second account of constructivism might be called the practical formulation of constructivism. Together with the procedural account, political constructivism reflects two great traditions of moral and political thought—Kantian ethics and social contract theory. Like the procedural formulation of constructivism, Kant employed the Categorical Imperative to determine whether subjective maxims are universalizable and thus objectively valid.

This scheme guides deliberations so as to construct correct moral judgments. By contrast, the social contract tradition identifies the state of nature as a structural problem in need of rectification.

It is the nature of the problem that frames deliberations on the content of the contract. Once the contract is established and agreed upon, it places new obligations upon the contracting parties, thereby constructing a moral order that had previously not existed. The development of constructivism over the past three decades reflects these two traditions. Sometimes the particular variant of constructivism emphasizes one tradition over the other; sometimes it trades on both. In any case, a critical division between the variants concerns whether the constructed set of principles are formulated and justified independently of any conception of the good those principles might later realize, or whether the constructed set of principles are formulated and justified in relation to the good those principles might later realize.

The former is deontological; the latter is teleological. Procedural formulations are typically deontic in that they are fashioned on mathematical proofs that move from widely acceptable axioms to more substantial political theorems. Practical formulations tend to be teleological insofar as the practical analysis is guided by the good that would be realized should that problem be resolved. The procedural and practical formulations of constructivism serve as two entry points for understanding how political constructivism has been applied and might further be developed.

Whether one formulation proves more successful depends on whether one can make more sense of the idea that the best political action is an action conforming to a normative law we give ourselves out of reasons we all can share. Or, absent the ambitious goal of actually settling disputes on reasons we all can share, the successful variant should at least fix the point at which political disagreements arise by bringing out into the light of day the reasons why people arrive at political judgments that are not only different but are in fact incommensurable.

One way to describe the procedural formulation of political constructivism more thoroughly is to recall that constructivism can be characterized as a view about the nature of political argument or analysis, especially as it pertains to justification and objectivity. If political principles are to be justified as obligatory and morally authoritative, it is insufficient to derive them from a social point of view without also explaining why that social point of view is also authoritative; for absent a defense of the point of view, the purported justification of principles will appear wanting.

In the course of time since Dworkin introduced the term, political philosophers have developed three general strategies for defending the elements of a procedure. They include reflective equilibrium, narrowing the scope of the investigation, and, at its most ambitious, elucidating the demands of practical reason from which normative political principles can be established. Reflective equilibrium refers to a back and forth process that seeks coherence among the different parts of a conception of justice. These parts include the principles of justice, the conditions of the hypothetical procedure, and the firm moral judgments we make in everyday life.

Once equilibrium is achieved, the different parts of the theory are justified in terms of their mutual support. Accordingly, the fundamental elements comprising a hypothetical procedure are justified in virtue of their supporting and being supported by the match between the outcome of the procedure the principles of justice and our firmly held moral intuitions, which Rawls calls considered judgments.

Critics have raised tough questions about a coherentist justification of political principles; for if our intuitive moral judgments form part of the justificatory process, then the resulting principles cannot serve as independent standards against which those same judgments can be assessed and found wanting Hare , ; Nagel , ; Sandel , The risk of circular reasoning slips into the process and thus undermines its justificatory force. To strengthen the critical dimension of the resulting political principles, procedural constructivists have tended to move in either one of two directions. The conditions of the original position are therefore conditions already accepted by members of a liberal democracy, or conditions such members could be made to accept because of their implicit presence within the public culture of a democratic society they share.

The hope is that by localizing practical reason to a particular kind of political tradition one can simultaneously strengthen the justification of the argument for that audience. There is no attempt to provide a comprehensive normative political argument true for all peoples at all times. Instead, the program is much more modest, relying on values already at home in the subject addressed.

This strategy has been criticized on a number of grounds. If practices such as constitutional democracies or global free trade regimes are not inherently unjust, then this could be an attractive path to pursue, since the fundamental elements from which principles are constructed are contained within the practice itself. Provided the description of the practice is accurate and generally acceptable, the argument in favor of a particular set of principles should be authoritative to that practice.

The concern is that a state-centric global order or peoples-centric global order lends itself to certain injustices because there are no overarching institutions that can foster trust and cooperation among nations. The Law of Peoples fails to shed light on the unwelcomed incentives created by a state-centric order, since it assumes from the beginning that the practice is normatively innocuous and, as a result, risks justifying an unjust, or less than fully just, status quo.

In order to avoid this outcome, one would have to either attach the fundamental elements of construction to the good realized by the practice in question, or move in the opposite direction by recovering the more abstract features of practical rationality. The former option shifts the grounds of justification toward a teleological structure of justification, which is associated with a practical formulation of constructivism discussed in the next section.

These elements help frame the question: What principles can a plurality of agents of minimal rationality and with varying degrees of dependence live by? The elements of construction therefore help us construct principles of obligation prohibiting those actions that undermine the capacity for agency. She believes every rational person can understand and accept these fundamental elements and thus can agree on the obligations constraining their actions. Rawls suggests something similar in A Theory of Justice. The ambition reflected in these works concerns the derivation of substantive principles from formal premises through a kind of rational choice bargaining game.

Together with the more descriptively rich practice-based variant suggested by James, the procedural formulation of constructivism can be characterized as moving in either an abstract, more universal direction, or a substantive, more localized direction. Some have tried to bridge the two ends of the spectrum by suggesting various levels of construction. For example, Peri Roberts argues that primary constructions start from bare concepts of persons and society and formulate general principles of justice with universal scope Roberts However, once armed with these bare concepts and general principles, the constructivist can thicken the concepts in a secondary procedure by drawing on the ideals and values of a particular society.

What is common to each of these arguments is their form. Each aims to construct an argument modeled on a mathematical demonstration. The hope is to move from generally weak and broadly acceptable axioms to more substantial political theorems via a procedure of construction. The strength of this form of constructivist argument depends not only on the plausibility of the procedure, but also on whether the appropriateness of the procedure can be specified without appealing to the kinds of normative judgments the procedure is supposed to produce; for if the appropriateness of the procedure depended on such judgments, it would assume the very thing it claims to construct.

This is a logical argument. If it is correct it strikes a notable blow against the constructivist position; for if the procedure reflects factual considerations, as they often do, then Cohen can maintain that anyone affirming a principle resulting from the procedure must also affirm a more fundamental principle surviving denial of those same facts. These fact-insensitive principles are the valid principles of justice; they are logically prior to the principles generated by a procedure and thus are not themselves constructed. The general idea, already reflected in a number of other criticisms of constructivism, is that the process of constructing substantive normative principles relies upon unarticulated, non-constructed principles.

Consequently, the constructivist cannot maintain the view that all political principles are constructed. Describing A Theory of Justice as a rational choice theory is less common than it used to be. A rational choice characterization of A Theory of Justice views the participants of the original position as engaged in a bargaining contract concerning political principles.

The failure to establish an agreement returns a person to her position or holdings prior to any cooperative arrangement, and this position is called the noncooperative baseline. Now, it is assumed that the parties are rationally motivated by their own self-interests to move beyond the noncooperative baseline and arrive at a mutually advantageous arrangement. In rational choice theory, the most mutually advantageous series of outcomes is referred to as the Pareto Frontier.

The deliberations within the original position represent a move away from a noncooperative baseline to a specific point on the Pareto Frontier. Rawls would later regret having described his theory as part of a rational choice theory, calling it a very misleading error Rawls b, Nevertheless, what is particularly interesting about a rational choice characterization of A Theory of Justice is that it reflects, to some extent, the two different formulations of constructivism.

On the one hand, rational choice models embody the rigor and certainty of mathematical demonstrations insofar as substantive conclusions are thought to derive from premises that, though not formal, are generally weak and widely acceptable. The procedural formulation of constructivism reflects this mathematical model. On the other hand, rational choice models are often described as solutions to problems cast as bargaining games. If the bargaining game concerns the problem of justice—or how the benefits and burdens of social cooperation are to be divided among people conceived as free and equal—then the problem itself contains normative resources for constructing the principles that will serve as the solution.

The practical formulation of constructivism reflects this key idea.

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Notice that the two formulations locate the resources for constructing political principles in different places. The procedural account locates the fundamental elements in generally weak and broadly acceptable ideas and precepts. These building blocks are articulated independently of the good they may help bring about when assembled into principles and applied to the situation.

Conversely, the practical account locates the fundamental elements of construction in relation to the good realized when the principles are applied.

This is because principles of justice are conceived as solutions to problems rather than outcomes of procedures. We begin not with generally weak and widely acceptable ideas about persons and society but rather with particular problems faced by individuals. Moreover, it is in formulating the problem clearly that we are directed to its solution, since the problem contains recourses that will point us in the direction of its solution.

It is with these resources that the practical account of constructivism in part begins. Consequently, the conceptual starting points are in part located in the good realized once the solution is applied and the problem resolved. Christine Korsgaard offers a variant of this formulation by characterizing the concept of justice as a solution to a distribution problem concerning collectively created goods C.

It was and David Duke, the former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, astonished political observers when he came within striking distance of defeating incumbent Democratic U. Senator J.

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Bennett Johnston, earning 43 percent of the vote. To hear more feature stories, see our full list or get the Audm iPhone app. Was it economic anxiety? Bennett Johnston, and those who just wanted to send a message to Washington. What message would those voters have been trying to send by putting a Klansman into office?

These people feel left out; they feel government is not responsive to them. Duke picked up nearly 60 percent of the white vote. He had appealed to voters in economic terms: He tore into welfare and foreign aid, affirmative action and outsourcing, and attacked political-action committees for subverting the interests of the common man. The St. The economic explanation carried the day: Duke was a freak creature of the bayou who had managed to tap into the frustrations of a struggling sector of the Louisiana electorate with an abnormally high tolerance for racist messaging.

People are angry about the jobs. Trump later predicted that Duke, if he ran for president, would siphon most of his votes away from the incumbent, George H. Bush—in the process revealing his own understanding of the effectiveness of white-nationalist appeals to the GOP base. Even before he won, the United States was consumed by a debate over the nature of his appeal. If so, how could Americans, the vast majority of whom say they oppose racism, back a racist candidate? I wanted to understand how these average Republicans—those who would never read the neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer or go to a Klan rally at a Confederate statue—had nevertheless embraced someone who demonized religious and ethnic minorities.

These supporters will not change their minds, because this is what they always wanted: a president who embodies the rage they feel toward those they hate and fear, while reassuring them that that rage is nothing to be ashamed of. Most Trump supporters I spoke with were not people who thought of themselves as racist. Rather, they saw themselves as antiracist, as people who held no hostility toward religious and ethnic minorities whatsoever—a sentiment they projected onto their candidate.

The specific dissonance of Trumpism—advocacy for discriminatory, even cruel, policies combined with vehement denials that such policies are racially motivated—provides the emotional core of its appeal. It is the most recent manifestation of a contradiction as old as the United States, a society founded by slaveholders on the principle that all men are created equal. Nearly a year into his presidency, Trump has reneged or faltered on many of his biggest campaign promises—on renegotiating NAFTA , punishing China, and replacing the Affordable Care Act with something that preserves all its popular provisions but with none of its drawbacks.

But his commitment to endorsing state violence to remake the country into something resembling an idealized past has not wavered. He made a farce of his populist campaign by putting bankers in charge of the economy and industry insiders at the head of the federal agencies established to regulate their businesses. In his own stumbling manner, Trump has pursued the race-based agenda promoted during his campaign.

As the president continues to pursue a program that places the social and political hegemony of white Christians at its core, his supporters have shown few signs of abandoning him. One hundred thirty-nine years since Reconstruction, and half a century since the tail end of the civil-rights movement, a majority of white voters backed a candidate who explicitly pledged to use the power of the state against people of color and religious minorities, and stood by him as that pledge has been among the few to survive the first year of his presidency.

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Their support was enough to win the White House, and has solidified a return to a politics of white identity that has been one of the most destructive forces in American history. This all occurred before the eyes of a disbelieving press and political class, who plunged into fierce denial about how and why this had happened. That is the story of the election. In , he took out a full-page newspaper ad suggesting that the Central Park Five, black and Latino youths accused of the assault and rape of a white jogger, should be put to death.

They were later exonerated. His rise to prominence in Republican politics was first fueled by his embrace of the conspiracy theory that the first black president of the United States was not an American citizen. He vowed to ban Muslims from entering the United States. Trump expanded on this vision in his Republican National Convention speech, which gestured toward the suffering of nonwhites and painted a dark portrait of an America under assault by people of color through crime, immigration, and competition for jobs.

Non-whites can participate in this, but only if they accept the traditional which is to say, white norms of American culture. But both supporters and opponents usually stop short of calling these policies racist. It is as if there were a pothole in the middle of the street that every driver studiously avoided, but that most insisted did not exist even as they swerved around it.

That this shared understanding is seldom spoken aloud does not prevent people from acting according to its logic. They accused Obama of being under malign foreign influence; Trump eagerly accepted the aid of a foreign adversary during the election. They said Obama was a self-obsessed egomaniac; Trump is unable to broach topics of public concern without boasting.

Conservatives said Obama quietly used the power of the state to attack his enemies; Trump has publicly attempted to use the power of the state to attack his enemies. There is virtually no personality defect that conservatives accused Obama of possessing that Trump himself does not actually possess. The nature of that same nationalism is to deny its essence, the better to salve the conscience and spare the soul. The irony is that the Calamity Thesis is by far the preferred white-elite explanation for Trumpism, and is frequently invoked in arguments among elites as a way of accusing other elites of being out of touch.

This explanation appeals to whites across the political spectrum. On the right, it serves as an indictment of elitist liberals who used their power to assist religious and ethnic minorities rather than all Americans; on the left, it offers a glimmer of hope that such voters can be won over by a more left-wing or redistributionist economic policy.

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They were suffering; they had to do something. But the research does not support the conclusions many have drawn from it—that economic or social desperation by itself drove white Americans to Donald Trump. Among voters making more than that, the two candidates ran roughly even. The electorate, however, skews wealthier than the general population. The most economically vulnerable Americans voted for Clinton overwhelmingly; the usual presumption is exactly the opposite. If you look at white voters alone, a different picture emerges.

In other words, Trump won white voters at every level of class and income. He won workers, he won managers, he won owners, he won robber barons. This is not a working-class coalition; it is a nationalist one. White working-class Americans dealing directly with factors that lead to a death of despair were actually less likely to support Trump, and those struggling economically were not any more likely to support him.

But the controlling factor seems to be not economic distress but an inclination to see nonwhites as the cause of economic problems. The poorest voters were somewhat less likely to vote for Trump than those a rung or two above them on the economic ladder. They surged toward the Republican column. In other words, the relevant factor in support for Trump among white voters was not education, or even income, but the ideological frame with which they understood their challenges and misfortunes. During the aftermath of the Great Recession, the meager wealth of black and Latino families declined significantly compared with the wealth of white families.

However, for black and Hispanic families, net worth continued to fall an additional 20 percent in the —13 period, while white families' net worth was essentially unchanged.

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But there was no corresponding radicalization of the black and Latino population, no mass election to Congress of ethno-nationalist demagogues promising vengeance on the perpetrators. Those numbers also reveal a much more complicated story than a Trump base made up of struggling working-class Americans turning to Trump as a result of their personal financial difficulties, not their ideological convictions. The idea that economic suffering could lead people to support either Trump or Sanders, two candidates with little in common, illustrates the salience of an ideological frame. Some Trump voters I spoke with were convinced, for example, that undocumented immigrants had access to a generous welfare state that was denied to everyone else.

But first you have to believe this. The economic-anxiety argument retains a great deal of currency. Rather, racism and nationalism form an ideological lens through which to view suffering and misfortune. It is perhaps too much to expect that people who hope to use Marxist theory to absolve voters of racism cite those Marxist historians whose body of work engages precisely this topic. In Black Reconstruction in America , W. When white laborers were convinced that the degradation of Negro labor was more fundamental than the uplift of white labor, the end was in sight. Overall, poor and working-class Americans did not support Trump; it was white Americans on all levels of the income spectrum who secured his victory.

And the stories of struggling white Trump supporters look less like the whole truth than a convenient narrative—one that obscures the racist nature of that backlash, instead casting it as a rebellion against an unfeeling establishment that somehow includes working-class and poor people who happen not to be white. The nature of racism in America means that when the rich exploit everyone else, there is always an easier and more vulnerable target to punish.

The Irish immigrants who in ignited a pogrom against black Americans in New York City to protest the draft resented a policy that offered the rich the chance to buy their way out; their response was nevertheless to purge black people from the city for a generation. And it was a disgusting moment. But his visceral reaction to the implication that he was racist reflects a peculiarly white American cognitive dissonance—that most worry far more about being seen as racist than about the consequences of racism for their fellow citizens.

That dissonance spans the ideological spectrum, resulting in blanket explanations for Trump that ignore the plainly obvious. Had his racism been disqualifying, his candidacy would have died in the primaries. Equally strange is the notion that because some white voters defected from Obama to Trump, racism could not have been a factor in the election; many of these voters did, in fact, hold racist views. Particularly during the campaign, Obama emphasized his uniqueness as an African American—his upbringing by his white grandparents, his elite pedigree, his public scoldings of black Americans for their cultural shortcomings.

It takes little imagination at all to see how someone could hold racist views about black people in general and still have warm feelings toward Obama.

The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic—you name it. These reactions mirrored those of Trump voters. They are not so much arguments against a proposition as arguments that the proposition is offensive—or, if you prefer, politically incorrect. The same is true of the rejoinder that Democrats cannot hope to win the votes of people they have condemned as racist. This is not a refutation of the point, but an argument against stating it so plainly. But the impetus here is not just ideological, but personal and commercial. No one wants to think of his family, friends, lovers, or colleagues as racist.

And no one wants to alienate potential subscribers, listeners, viewers, or fans, either. Yet nowhere did Clinton vow to use the power of the state to punish the constituencies voting for Trump, whose threats made his own rhetorical gestures toward pluralism risible. Political correctness is a vague term, perhaps best defined by the conservative scholar Samuel Goldman.

What a society finds offensive is not a function of fact or truth, but of power. It is no coincidence that Trump himself frequently uses the term to belittle what he sees as unnecessary restrictions on state force. But even as once-acceptable forms of bigotry have become unacceptable to express overtly, white Americans remain politically dominant enough to shape media coverage in a manner that minimizes obvious manifestations of prejudice, such as backing a racist candidate, as something else entirely. The most transgressive political statement of the election, the one that violated strict societal norms by stating an inconvenient fact that few wanted to acknowledge, the most politically incorrect, was made by the candidate who lost.

E ven before Trump , the Republican Party was moving toward an exclusivist nationalism that defined American identity in racial and religious terms, despite some efforts from its leadership to steer it in another direction. George W. These efforts led to caustic backlashes from the Republican rank and file, who defeated his immigration-reform legislation, which might have shifted the demographics of the Republican Party for a generation or more. In the aftermath of their loss, Republican leaders tried again, only to meet with the same anti-immigrant backlash—one that would find an avatar in the person of the next Republican president.

Ideas in Action: Political Tradition in the Twentieth Century Ideas in Action: Political Tradition in the Twentieth Century
Ideas in Action: Political Tradition in the Twentieth Century Ideas in Action: Political Tradition in the Twentieth Century
Ideas in Action: Political Tradition in the Twentieth Century Ideas in Action: Political Tradition in the Twentieth Century
Ideas in Action: Political Tradition in the Twentieth Century Ideas in Action: Political Tradition in the Twentieth Century
Ideas in Action: Political Tradition in the Twentieth Century Ideas in Action: Political Tradition in the Twentieth Century
Ideas in Action: Political Tradition in the Twentieth Century Ideas in Action: Political Tradition in the Twentieth Century

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