American politics has a right wing bent that surpasses any similar tendency in all other comparable developed nations. It has some of the lowest marginal tax rates, the stingiest welfare safety net and the lowest public healthcare of any OECD country. Rather than converging toward the European/Canadian/Australian norm, the USA has drifted further onto the extreme right in recent years with the rise of hardline libertarianism as the raison d’etre of the Republican Party. What could be so different in the United States that makes its social model so radically different to all other developed countries?
In the end it becomes hard to avoid a seemingly simplistic conclusion: race politics. It is a radical distinguishing feature of the United States compared to all other developed nations. The USA is over 30% Black and Hispanic. Most other comparable nations are far more ethnically homogenous. This also explains how the ascent of Barack Obama to the presidency has so radically inflamed libertarian tendencies.
This theory does not suppose that libertarians are racists; nor does it criticise the academic merits of libertarianism. This is instead a criticism of the Republican Party, which sees radical libertarianism as an effective vehicle to drive a wedge deep into the thick of American race relations in the hope of cementing a white majority.
So how do these two disparate concepts relate: ethnic homogeneity and economic policy? My theory is that the resentment the white working class feels about paying taxes toward welfare payments is a manifestation of race resentment. It is difficult to avoid diagnosing this as the problem when listening to the Republican candidate debates. Newt Gingrich, America’s paragon of dog-whistle politics, too often discussed the poor welfare-receiving masses in a way that sounded suspiciously like race baiting. Similarly, it was difficult to figure out how Republican anti-tax hysteria fitted with Michelle Bachmann’s call for the poor to pay “their fair share” of taxes without concluding that she was playing to white resentment of perceived unfairness regarding minorities. Indeed, a majority of Republican primary voters reported that “positive discrimination” toward minority groups was more of a problem than racism when surveyed.
This race baiting signals a shift in perspective whereby whites associate themselves with wealth and minorities with welfare. This works for a few reasons. Firstly, it’s true to a fairly significant extent that America’s minorities are much poorer than whites generally. But it’s very easy to convince people that they are part of a hard-working middle class. Indeed, how many people have you met that aren’t convinced they’re middle class? This narrative of transfers from white to black is the kind of simplistic intellectual junk food that wedge politics feeds off. It also shoehorns nicely into existing prejudices about the nefarious motives of the “liberal elite”.
This bitter racial divide is highlighted in voter behaviour. The Democrats have not won the white male vote since Lyndon Johnson, and in recent times the racial divide in American politics has become ever more stark. The worst example of this was in Mississippi in 2008, where McCain took over 90% of the white vote, with Obama matching that figure for the African-American vote. It should come as no surprise that this particularly extreme figure comes from that old hotbed of racial conflict, the American South. Indeed Republicans have facilitated this process even further in many states by gerrymandering congressional districts for the specific purpose of dividing voters along racial lines.
Viewed through this lens, it’s hard not to become just a bit more bitter about America’s devastatingly shallow and hysterical political conversation. Politics is too often a vehicle for inflaming our basest prejudices.