Economic Scene: After the Election, a Nation Tinged With Racial Hostility

2016-11-08 19:12:16

 

Economic Scene: After the Election, a Nation Tinged With Racial Hostility

What happened to America’s progressive era?

Eight years ago, voters in the shadow of the financial crisis elected the nation’s first black president, one with the most liberal policy platform since the administration of Lyndon Johnson in the 1960s.

Rahm Emanuel, President Obama’s incoming chief of staff, gleefully pointed out that crises “are opportunities to do big things.” The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board warned its readers of an impending smorgasbord of liberal policy ideas.

Yet by the time the polls close on Tuesday, tens of millions of Americans will have voted for a policy platform that included profiling Muslims, expelling millions of unauthorized immigrants, walling off the nation’s third-largest trading partner and starting a trade war with the world’s next superpower.

Regardless of whether Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton emerges as the victor, though, the intense illiberal passion that emerged in the liberal Obama era to propel Mr. Trump’s candidacy paints a troubling portrait of American society. It is one dominated by racial hostility, which stands above any other consideration, undercutting the very notion that national problems merit a collective response.

Consider the challenges ahead for the nation. The next administration will face rampant inequality and persistent poverty, decaying infrastructure, mediocre and segregated public education. It will have to deal with one of the most expensive, least effective health care systems in the industrialized world. And one way or another it will have to address climate change.

Mr. Trump’s mobilization of the frustration of aging white Americans without a college degree, who believe they are losing their country to a more ethnically diverse future, is not going to make this any easier.

Racism is hardly new to America. It lies behind the United States’ knottiest paradox: millions of white Americans who would benefit from a more robust government stand steadfastly against it, at least partly out of a belief that members of minority groups would gain at their expense.

That racial polarization — fed by Mr. Trump’s overt racial appeals that began with his false claims that Barack Obama was not born in the United States — has intensified since Mr. Obama took office. In many ways, that is the biggest obstacle to the development of any sort of national project.

Consider health care. In 2007, 69 percent of the public believed that it was the responsibility of the federal government to ensure every American had health care coverage, according to a Gallup poll. By last year, support for such government intervention was down to roughly 50 percent.

Republicans’ relentless attack of the Affordable Care Act certainly contributed to changing opinion. So did the botched rollout of the federal government’s health insurance marketplace, healthcare.gov, and rising premiums.

But that doesn’t fully account for the fundamental shift. In “Post-Racial or Most-Racial: Race and Politics in the Obama Era,” (University of Chicago Press), Michael Tesler, a political scientist at the University of California, Irvine, argues that “the declining support for government health insurance during Barack Obama’s presidency was driven by racially conservative defections.”

Drawing from the 2012 American National Election Study, Professor Tesler found that only one-fifth of the most “racially resentful” whites (measured by their responses to questions about the causes of racial inequality and discrimination) supported government-provided health insurance, compared with half of the least racially resentful.

Much of the opposition is set off directly by President Obama’s race, Professor Tesler says. In similar surveys from 1988 to 2008, before Mr. Obama was president, support for government health insurance among racially resentful whites was considerably higher.

Opposition is also fueled by the sense that blacks would gain more; 56 percent of respondents to a poll in 2010 commissioned by Stanford and The Associated Press said the Affordable Care Act would “probably cause most black Americans to get better health care than they get today.” Only 45 percent said the same thing about whites.

The dynamic doesn’t apply just to health care. Professor Tesler finds similar racial patterns in support of raising top marginal tax rates and in favor of the fiscal stimulus package of 2009. Fewer than 20 percent of the most racially resentful whites thought the stimulus was a good idea, compared with more than 60 percent of the most racially liberal.

Mr. Obama’s race probably intensified such racial misgivings, but they have been there all along, shaping politics and policy for a very long time.

It has been half a century since the Democratic Party lost much of the Southern white vote, after the Johnson administration pushed the Civil Rights Act through Congress. John E. Roemer, a professor of economics and political science at Yale, notes that to this day “the white Southern vote is the reason that the Republican Party remains a player in U.S. national politics.”

The racial divide remains the main obstacle to building a robust American state — entangling the debate over taxes and spending in a zero-sum calculation over “us” versus “them.”

In a paper published a decade ago, Professor Roemer and Woojin Lee, now a professor of economics at Korea University, estimated that voter racism reduced the top income tax rate by somewhere between 11 and 18 percentage points. The magnitude, they wrote, “would seem to explain the difference between the sizes of the public sector in the U.S. and Northern European countries.”

What does the current election portend for the American project? If Mr. Trump wins, all bets are off, of course. As Mark Zandi of Moody’s Analytics describes it, Mr. Trump’s policy wish list, if actually carried out, would probably foster an economic disaster.

But even if Mr. Trump loses, the United States must still live with his legacy.

Tuesday’s results are likely to prove even more racially lopsided than in 2012, when nonwhites amounted to 45 percent of President Obama’s voters but just 10 percent of Republican Mitt Romney’s. The Republican Party’s reliance on less-educated white men and women is likely to intensify. Racial mistrust will remain a powerful political lever to exploit.

“Even if Trump fades from the scene, there will be another person that comes along and tries to ignite the same feelings,” Professor Roemer told me.

In these circumstances, delivering an ambitious policy agenda to battle rampant inequality and persistent poverty, and combat climate change, seems impossible. And it will be exceedingly difficult to do more than scratch the surface of such goals as repairing decaying infrastructure and improving inadequate schools.

The next progressive era will have to wait until the political system figures out how to build bonds of solidarity across racial and ethnic lines. If Hillary Clinton wins, perhaps Americans will at least make a start. But based on the campaign that just ended, it’s not looking good.

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