The Toxic Sludge in America’s Soul: The Tragedy of Systemic Racism

Ted Grimsrud—November 6, 2020

As I write this, Joe Biden nears the number of electoral votes needed to become President of the US.  Donald Trump is fighting all out to prevent that outcome, but at this point seems most likely to fall short. However, enough people did vote for Trump—millions more than in 2016—that the contest is close enough that the possibility of Trump’s success can’t be ignored. Something that troubles me deeply is the question of how the election could have been this close.

I suspect that to answer that question will require, among other things, a deepened awareness of American history. How is it that we have an electorate that would offer so much support for a vicious, incompetent, narcissistic individual whose most remarkable feature might be his utter lack of redeemable characteristics? There is literally nothing to like about Trump—no compassion, no empathy, no sense of humor, no insightfulness, no loyalty, no sincerity, no generosity, and nothing else that is attractive on a human level. Trump gained and sustained power by appealing to the worst aspects of this country’s character and ruthlessly exploiting the many weaknesses of its political system.

The Civil War, white supremacy, and their toxic legacy

As I have been studying the American Civil War and the “peculiar institution” (slavery) that triggered it—and the on-going legacy of both that war and its context of white supremacy—I have been impressed with a sense of this large chunk of the nation that has been resolutely opposed to recognizing the humanity of the people forcibly enslaved and exploited and their descendants. The persistence of that opposition is breathtaking once one notices it—and may in significant ways help explain our country’s current political brokenness.

I gained some insights from a book I recently read by Carol Anderson, a historian at Emory University, called White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Political Divide. I don’t particularly like the title, but there is very little else about the book that I am critical of. It’s a concise, highly readable, and actually quite level-toned summary of the persistent and largely successful ways that the United States as a society has refused to give more than a few inches to the efforts of many over the years to create a more just society. It tells the story of how the US has refused to implement the promise of a nation with liberty and justice for all.

As I read this book, I thought of our current situation where about 48% of voting Americans supported our current president, seemingly regardless of how cruel, destructive, and inept his leadership might be. The reading I have been doing lately related to 19th century America, especially focused on the lead-up to the Civil War, the war itself, and its aftermath, leaves me with a strong sense of a deep-seated intractability of white supremacy regardless of how cruel and destructive it might be. Anderson’s book provides a kind of bridge account, showing how the toxic sludge of 19th century Slave Power never went away.

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Interim reflections on the 2020 election [American politics #7]

Ted Grimsrud—November 5, 2020

As I write this late in the morning on Thursday, November 5, the outcome of Tuesday’s election is still in doubt. Biden does seem likely to win the initial round based on the vote. We’ll have to see about what happens with the Trump-resisting-that-outcome round. Right now, it’s hard to see what grounds there could be to overturn the outcome—but we have little reason to have a lot of confidence in the fairness of the final decision-makers. The Senate looks likely to be 50-48 for the Republicans with two Republican-leaning seats in Georgia set for a run-off.

So, wow! This is not what I expected. It actually seems fairly disastrous. Here are a few interim thoughts.

The effectiveness of the Republican strategy

Clearly, the Republican efforts to repress the vote played a huge role—given that the vote was close. Florida, Texas, and Georgia would all likely have gone for Biden if the voting process had been like, say, Oregon’s where the state actually wants everyone to vote. Even if somehow enough of the remaining undecided states tip to Biden it is far from certain that all of the Republicans’ legal shenanigans won’t overturn such an outcome.

The key here, though, is that the vote had to be close for the Republican strategy to hope to succeed. If the election had gone as the polls seemed to indicate, I suspect Biden’s margin of victory would have been large enough that the Republican tactics could not have turned things around. That leads to a big question—how could this election have been that close?

The hope I allowed myself to cultivate was that a Democrat in the White House and Democratic control of the Senate would have at least one potentially huge effect (pessimistic as I am about the corporate Dems in general). That is, that Congress would quickly pass and (following the Senate eliminating the filibuster) the President sign House Bill #1 from 2019 that would enact significant reforms in the US election processes and make it much more likely that Republican voter suppression would be curtailed and that we could hope for more honest elections. The idea was that Trump’s venal incompetence in face of COVID-19 would open the door for a genuine move toward democracy.

However, the Democrats failed to take advantage of the situation. The day after this election, the US topped 100,000 new COVID-19 infections for the first time. The Republican Party, led by its president, has utterly failed in its responsibility to the country in relation to this pandemic—and yet surpassed all expectations in electoral success. This is the biggest shocker of the election, I think. When satirist Andy Borowitz tweets: “If Trump cared as much about stopping COVID as he does about stopping voting, we’d still be able to spend Thanksgiving with our families,” I think of that truth as a condemnation of the Democrats. How could they allow Trump and his Party to get away with this?

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