The history of America is one of democracy for white male landowners and enslavement for Black people, with the latter struggling for the rights enshrined in the Constitution through protest and bloodshed. As marginalized and disenfranchised groups have fought to broaden the scope of who enjoys the benefits and rights of citizenship, they have been met with blowback and regressive policies, including violence from white America. The rise of Donald Trump and “Make America Great Again” reflects the level of white resistance to progress on the part of Black, Latino and other people. A new study delves into the thought process and political motivations of whites who resist.
In a working paper entitled “White Outgroup Intolerance and Support for Democracy,” researchers Steven V. Miller of Clemson University and Nicholas T. Davis of Texas A&M University suggest the greatest threat to democracy comes from the political proclivities of intolerant white people. Examining data from the World Values Survey from 1995 to 2011, the research found that racial, cultural or ethnic intolerance diminishes white Americans’ commitment to democracy. Further, the authors conclude, such sentiments of social intolerance on the part of white people make them more receptive to “undemocratic alternatives” such as military rule and the elimination of separation of powers in government.
The authors define social intolerance as an unwillingness to associate or fraternize with those whose culture, race or religion differs from one’s group. “White respondents in the United States … who expressed that they would not like to have various outgroups of interest as neighbors (i.e., those from a different race, Muslims, immigrants/foreign workers, Jews, and those speaking a different language) were more likely to support rule of government by a strong leader without legislative or electoral oversight, rule of government by the army, and were more likely to oppose democracy, in general,” Miller said. Miller takes note of the participants in the violent Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, and President Trump’s reaction to the white supremacist event — in which he blamed both neo-Nazis and anti-racist protesters and said there were “fine people on both sides” — as evidence of a “tenuous commitment to democratic principles.”
Miller and Davis believe the Unite the Right rally, which resulted in a murder, and other such demonstrations point to more than mere prejudice. Rather, aggrieved white Americans, in their view, reject equality and democracy because democracy protects the rights of marginalized, up-and-coming racial and ethnic groups that white nationalists loathe.
Despite its reputation as the land of the free and beacon of democracy and human rights, the United States is a place where democracy has proven elusive, and its people are not necessarily fans of liberty and justice for all. “Although prosperous, American citizens have not historically exhibited the sort of lofty, normative commitments to things like equality and tolerance that we might expect from one of the longest-running continuous electoral democracies in the world,” the authors write, noting the tendency of most Americans to apply a double standard in which rights are granted to more popular groups, and rights denied to unpopular groups. Based on current sociopolitical events, they suggest, popular support for democracy is waning in the age of Trump. “In part, a divisive, partisan president may be priming co-partisans to renege on certain civil freedoms or institutional support, but this behavior also corresponds with a growth in nativist and racist sentiments within the mass public more broadly,” they added.
Racial politics is nothing new, as this has been a part of the nation from its origins. Social intolerance and a hatred of diversity, inclusion, integration, and immigration is longstanding. Democracy carries with it an interplay between majority and minority rights, and an allocation of power, as the researchers note. When members of the white majority feel they are under an economic threat, they will retreat from democracy because that system is allowing undesirable groups to accumulate power, presumably at white people’s expense.
White resentment politics has manifested itself over the past five decades with the Republican Party’s Southern Strategy, in which the GOP has won elections by tapping into white racist hatred of Black people and civil rights. This anti-Black sentiment translated into antipathy toward government — resentment over government programs that curb states’ rights and benefit Black people, and a hatred of the first Black president and his signature program, the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare.
Further complicating the political landscape is the inevitable end to America’s white majority, with the election of Trump a symptom of an existential crisis of white American grasp on white supremacy and privilege, and a last-ditch effort out of white racial paranoia to stem the tide of changing demographics. The white supremacist concept of white genocide — that white people are an endangered species and the victims of racial discrimination in education and employment and all facets of life — is reflected in the current policies of the U.S. government. Measures designed to protect against white genocide include a restrictive immigration policy that bars nonwhite people from entering the country, a rollback of civil rights and affirmative action, voter suppression for Black, Latino and other communities, racial gerrymandering, mass incarceration and police violence for nonwhite people.
The practices and policies of the Trump administration provide ample evidence of a rejection of democratic principles and a rebuke of constitutional norms. For example, not unlike a Third World dictator, Trump has hired his family members as his closest advisers and aides, all of them manipulating the levers of government for personal financial gain in violation of the Emoluments Clause. Trump has embraced the use of torture — a violation of the Eighth Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment — and has selected as his new CIA director a woman who oversaw a torture program. Further, Trump has abandoned enforcement of civil rights laws, called for the firing of athletes who exercise free speech and kneel in protest of police violence, and pressured the NFL to adopt a policy requiring that football players stand for the national anthem.
If there is a crisis of democracy which is tied to white racism, then there is little indication this crisis will subside anytime in the near future. After all, the fundamentals of white supremacy — that white people should have all the power at the expense of Black people, and anything less is anti-white discrimination and a cause for white tears to flow — remain intact.