Notes on the Revolution / Column 15
The USA: A nation divided
By Charles McKelvey
The conflict between a sector of the U.S. political establishment and the Trump administration, now proceeding to an impeachment inquiry initiated by the leadership of the Democratic Party, is a reflection of a nation deeply divided. Fundamental differences within the structures of power, leading to profound differences among the people, are nothing new in the United States.
In the English colonies of North America and in the first seven decades of the Republic, there was a fundamental economic division between the North and South. The slave South was playing what world-system analysts call a peripheral role, that of producing raw materials for export, on a base of forced labor. In contrast, in the English colonies of the North, middle class farmers, medium-sized merchants, and independent artisans were forging an agricultural-based commercial development, which would be the foundation for industrial development and the exportation of manufactured goods.
This difference in economic functions in the world-economy promoted political conflict. The northern industrial elite and the southern planter class were in continuous political conflict over control of the economic policies of the federal government, culminating in both mobilizing their respective populations for the inferno of 1860 to 1865. Following the Civil War and the abolition of slavery, the conflict focused on the question of the rights of the Freedman, with the Northern industrial elite, seeking to once and for all destroy the power the Southern planter class, promoted a Reconstruction of the South on the basis of the protection of the political and civil rights of the freedmen, but not including land redistribution.
A “sectional truce” was agreed in 1877, in which the vital interests of the industrial elite with respect to national economic policies was assured, and the ideology of white supremacy was accepted in the South. The Southern planter class reconstituted itself as a landlord-merchant class, and the great majority of blacks became sharecroppers and tenant farmers on land owned by this reconstituted Southern elite. What emerged was a form of debt peonage sustained by violence. In the late 1890s, there emerged what came to be known as “Jim Crow,” involving systematic denial of black voting rights and the legal racial segregation in education and public housing, enforced through semi-official violence.
During the decades of the sectional truce, there were fundamental differences between the political cultures of the North and South. In the North, although there was racial discrimination in employment and housing as well as de facto segregation in many aspects of life, blacks exercised the right to vote, and there was no legally enforced segregation in public accommodations nor unofficially sanctioned violence.
The issue of African-American rights again divided the nation in the 1950s and 1960s, and the black movement would have the support of the federal government, although hesitant and inconsistent. The racial laws of the South were complicating the U.S. foreign policy initiative to bring the newly independent nations of Africa and Asia on board in a U.S.-directed world-system defined by the independence but not the sovereignty of all nations, and characterized by U.S. economic penetration in accordance with its interests. Accordingly, with the support of the northern political establishment and the U.S. federal government, the United States took a decisive turn with respect to the civil and political rights of blacks and minorities.
But the nation remained fundamentally divided, and an important factor here was that white society never really listened to the voices of the African-American movement, which had formulated a profound critique of the political-economy of the nation from an African-American perspective. As the nation turned to its reluctant endorsement of political and civil rights for all, Dr. Martin Luther King called for a new stage of struggle, defined by an alliance of diverse popular sectors in the quest for the protection of social and economic rights, pertaining to housing, nutrition, health care, and educational opportunity. In addition, Malcolm X had called for black community control of its institutions, in order to facilitate the economic and cultural development of the black community. Both Martin and Malcolm were discerning the imperialist character of U.S. foreign policy, and they were aligning themselves with the demands of the Third World peoples. These discourses by exceptional leaders were forming the political consciousness of the black community, but none of it was heard by white society. In the realm of political consciousness, whites and blacks were living in separate worlds.
As the nation turned to the Right in the 1980s, Jesse Jackson tried to renew the voice of the African-American Movement. He proposed a Rainbow Coalition, a political alliance of all the popular sectors, cooperating with one another in a domestic program for the protection of social and economic rights and a foreign policy of North-South cooperation, leaving imperialism behind. It was a proposal for the nation as a whole, formulated from an African-American perspective. In the 1988 democratic primaries, Jackson received more than 90% of the black vote, two-thirds of the Latino vote, and 12% of the white vote, without a gender gap, or a significant difference between white men and white women. Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan observed that Jesse Jackson had formulated the most moral proposal in the history of U.S. politics, and white society rejected him. In the world of politics, the great cultural racial divide remained.
Nevertheless, a further analysis of Jackson’s white vote shows definite possibilities for the development of the Rainbow Coalition as a viable alternative political project. Reflecting the historic difference between the political cultures of the North and South, Jackson did much better among white voters in some of the non-South states. He received from 17 to 40 percent of the white vote in a number of states, including Oregon, Michigan, Kansas, Maine, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Connecticut, Minnesota, and Massachusetts. In addition, in the South, the high percentage of blacks meant that the Rainbow Coalition was a viable political project in many Southern states.
I was a Jesse Jackson delegate from South Carolina at the 1988 Democratic Convention. Following the Convention, we began the long-term process of developing the Rainbow Coalition as a mass organization, with the intention of educating the people with respect to the necessary road that Jackson had formulated, drawing upon the insights of the African-American movement of 1955 to 1972. However, we were not able to make our hopes real. Although there was widespread verbal endorsement of the idea, there was insufficient commitment in practice, at the base as well as from Rev. Jackson himself.
With the stagnation of the Rainbow Coalition, African-American academics moved toward an identification of subtle forms of racism, emphasizing the survival of white racism, in spite of the gains in the formal protection of civil and political rights; and giving stress to the persistence of social and economic inequalities between whites and blacks. At the same time, the African-American movement evolved to participation in identity politics, stressing the persistent discrimination and exclusion of blacks, Latinos, women, immigrants, and gays.
These prevailing academic and movement tendencies were not effective approaches for overcoming the profound racial divide in the political culture. Both the academic and the movement tendencies implied an abandonment any effort to educate the people with respect to the important insights of the African-American movement, formulated in the context of the struggles of 1955 to 1972, thus giving rise to a collective loss of historic memory. And it implied not proceeding with the development of the Rainbow Coalition as a mass organization, which would have provided an experiential base for overcoming the residual forms of racism as well as the political base for overcoming persistent social and economic inequalities.
In the absence of ongoing dialogue across the racial divide in the context of political practice, white society was unable to understand the concerns of the black community, and the black movement was not able to develop understanding of effective strategies with respect to white voters. Meanwhile, the political establishment became increasingly unconcerned with the needs of the people, both black and white. This is the context that established the possibility for a politician with an anti-immigrant, law and order, militarist, and nationalist discourse to attract a significant portion of white voters.
In addition to the profound racial and regional division in political cultures, other divisions haunt the nation, which we will discuss as we continue these reflections.
This is Charles McKelvey, reflecting on the unfolding global popular socialist revolution forged by our peoples in defense of humanity.
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