On Thursday night, thousands of people gathered in the streets of Minneapolis, and other cities across the country, to protest the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who was killed by a Minneapolis police officer. Outside the Minneapolis Police Department’s Third Precinct, the protests turned violent, as people looted businesses, threw projectiles, and set the station house on fire; police in riot gear fired rubber bullets and sprayed tear gas at the crowds. On Friday, Derek Chauvin, the officer who killed Floyd, was taken into custody by Minnesota’s Bureau of Criminal Apprehension and charged with manslaughter and third-degree murder.
I spoke by phone, on Friday afternoon, with Omar Wasow, a professor of politics at Princeton, who studies protest movements and their effects on politics and elections. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed which tactics worked best in the civil-rights era, what violent protests have meant, historically, for Democrats running for office, and whether Donald Trump is a figure of order or disorder.
How would you summarize your work on the political effects of protest?
I would say that nonviolent protests can be very effective if they are able to get media attention, and that there is a very strong relationship between media coverage and public concern about whatever issues those protesters are raising. But there is a conditional effect of violence, and what that means, in practice, is that groups that are the object of state violence are able to get particularly sympathetic press—and a large amount of media coverage. But that is a very hard strategy to maintain, and what we often see is that, when protesters engage in violence, often in a very understandable response to state repression, that tends to work against their cause and interests, and mobilizes or becomes fodder for the opposition to grow its coalition.
What we observe in the nineteen-sixties is that there was a nontrivial number of white moderates who were open to policies that advanced racial equality, and were also very concerned about order. The needle that civil-rights activists were trying to thread was: How do you advance racial equality, and capture the attention of often indifferent or hostile white moderates outside of the South, and at the same time grow a coalition of allies? And over time the strategy that evolved was one of nonviolent protest, which actively sought to trigger police chiefs like Bull Connor [in Birmingham, Alabama,] to engage in spectacles of violence that attracted national media and would, in the language of the nineteen-sixties, “shock the conscience of the nation.” So it isn’t just nonviolence that is effective, but nonviolence met with state and vigilante brutality that is effective.
The interesting thing to me that came out of this research was that civil-rights leaders were picking Birmingham and Selma specifically because they had police chiefs with hair-trigger tendencies toward violence. So there was this strategic use of violence by the civil-rights movement, but it was to be the object of violence, not the instigators of violence. At the same time, what was very hard about, with that strategy, is that you had images of people observing their kinfolk being brutalized on television, and that helped fire up a more militant wing of the civil-rights movement, which endorsed violence in self-defense and was much less committed to tactics of nonviolence. When we observed a wave of violent protests in the mid- to late sixties, those white moderates who supported the Democratic Party after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 defected to the Republican Party in 1968. So, when the state was employing violence and protesters were the targets of that violence, the strategy worked well, and when protesters engaged in violence—whether or not the state was—those voters moved to the law-and-order coalition.
What did you find in your research, specifically about the 1968 election?
There has been a debate in social science for a long time about whether there was a backlash to the waves of violent protest in 1967 and 1968. Commonly, people will say “riot,” but I am using “violent protest” and “nonviolent protest” as the two categories. I looked at a hundred and thirty-seven violent protests that followed Martin Luther King, Jr.,’s assassination, in April, 1968. There is a bunch of evidence that protests are sensitive to weather, and when rain happens it is much less likely people engage in protests. And so we should expect that when there is more rainfall there is less likelihood that people will engage in protest, and when there is less rainfall there is more likelihood. So we get a crude natural experiment—it’s as if some places were randomly assigned a violent protest and some were not.
And what I find is that, in the week following King’s assassination, when ninety-five per cent of those violent April protests occurred, if your county was proximate to violent protests, then that county voted six to eight percentage points more toward Nixon in November. But maybe there was something correlated with rainfall driving this result, and so to address the possibility of a confounding factor, like geography, I also looked at rainfall in periods where we should expect no effect of rainfall on voting—e.g., periods before and more than a few days after the assassination. This is called a placebo test. It is only rainfall in the one week after the assassination that predicts this conservative shift in November, and, in the absence of a plausible alternative story for why rainfall in April was predicting voting in November, the most obvious explanation is that the violent protests were the cause. And so we can then claim a causal relationship between violent protests and the shift away from the Democratic coalition.
What protest tactics would you recommend for people concerned about police brutality today? On the one hand, these current protests were already sparked by state violence, so they don’t need to incite more of it. On the other hand, we have had these viral videos of police brutality for years, and it is not clear all that much is changing.
If you are an activist and there is this outrageous incident (like a knee on a neck) and you say, “How can we advance our interests?,” it might be that both violent and nonviolent protests are legitimate—but it still might be more effective to employ nonviolence, if we get everything we would from a violent protest, plus we don’t splinter a coalition that favors change. One puzzle is, if you are an activist, are nonviolent tactics going to get you more of what you want, or are violent tactics? And what I found from the sixties is that nonviolent protest achieved many of the same sorts of outcomes that the more militant activists were fighting for without splintering the Democratic coalition. There was a pro-segregation media at the time, and there were all kinds of state and federal repression—and, despite all of that, the nonviolent wing of the civil-rights movement was really able to move the country from tolerating Jim Crow to breaking Jim Crow.
So I think there is a lot of evidence that nonviolent tactics can be effective. You saw this on the first day in Minneapolis, where the police showed up with an excess of force, and you had these images of children running away and police dressed like stormtroopers. There are a set of narrative scripts in the public mind, and I think we interpret the news through those preëxisting narratives. And so a nonviolent protest where we see state excesses is a very powerful and sympathetic narrative for the cause of fighting police violence. And as soon as the tactics shift to more aggressive violent resistance—and, to be clear, as best I can tell, police were shooting rubber bullets and there was tear gas. It seemed like an excessive police response, and so in reaction protesters escalated as well. That has an unfortunate side effect of muddying the story. Instead of talking about the history of police killings in Minneapolis, we are talking about a store going up in flames, and the focus in reporting tends to shift from a justice frame to a crime frame. And that is an unfortunate thing for a protest movement. It ends up undermining the interests of the advocates.
Your answers are making me think about the Régis DeBray line that “the Revolution revolutionizes the Counter-Revolution.” Because whether intentional strategy or not, firing rubber bullets and police violence against protests may have the effect of making the protests more violent, and thus hurting the cause.
It’s a great question, and, in cross-national studies, that has definitely been shown to be a strategy. We definitely observe politicians in other countries ginning up ethnic conflict before an election, to try and heighten people’s sense of in-group identification before they vote. The evidence in the United States I have seen points more toward a kind of racialized incompetence, where the police chief in Los Angeles can behave with a certain disregard—I am thinking of the uprising in 1992. [The authorities’] response was so ham-fisted and hands-off that it allowed something to escalate to an epic scale. And I suspect most of what we saw in Minneapolis was not a strategic effort to inflame protesters, but an idiotic and incompetent over-response that also had the effect of inflaming protesters.
And it was an idiotic and incompetent response tinged by race. You don’t see these kinds of overreactions to the armed white militias. So I don’t have evidence about these being strategic efforts. I do think there is a lot of evidence that there are overreactions when the protesters are black, and that this excess of force is deployed in ways that have precisely the opposite effect of what a police chief is intending. Instead of trying to bring order, they create more chaos.
Trump has run as a law-and-order candidate, and today repeated the looting-and-shooting comment that was made by the Miami police chief Walter Headley, in 1967. At the same time, it seems like Nixon was fundamentally selling stability, and Trump often tries to destabilize situations. How do you think this will or won’t have political ramifications?
On the first part, I have looked at polling data from the sixties, and the numbers are really surprising. It was something like eighty per cent of Americans said that law and order had broken down. We had King’s assassination, and two Kennedys assassinated, and these waves of violent protests. So it was more than just urban unrest. There was a sense that the social fabric was tearing, and I think Nixon was clearly appealing to voters for whom that was an anxiety. And I also found that, in the 1966 gubernatorial election in California, Democrats who thought Pat Brown, who was the Democratic governor at the time, had handled the Watts riots poorly were hugely less likely to support him. [Ronald Reagan defeated Brown by fifteen percentage points.] So it really was pivotal in the nineteen-sixties.
What’s often hard for people to see is that there are these white moderates who are part of the Democratic coalition as long as they perceive there to be order, but when they perceive there to be too much disorder they shift to the party that has owned the issue of order, which is the Republican Party. For some people, the idea that there are these swing Democratic-minded voters is hard to grasp, but there is pretty strong evidence that in 2016, and in 1968, that was an important and influential niche of voters.
You are absolutely right that Trump, to a lot of people, is an instigator of chaos rather than a restorer of order, so I think that potentially works against him. But if you are this white moderate, and perceive the disorder to be coming from African-Americans in cities, then turning to Trump, even if you see him as a rough character, is appealing: He’s a street fighter, but he is our street fighter. So the real danger for advocates of reform in Minneapolis trying to get better policing, and for those trying to pursue racial justice nationally, is that there are people who are turned off by Trump but who have a strong taste for order, and so if they are more concerned about racial disorder, then Trump is their racial order.
Yes, essentially, to view Trump as a figure who will bring order, in any rational sense, is to have a racially tinged view of order. The only kind of order he promises—even if he can’t actually deliver it—is an order based on racial issues. This is a guy who cheers on protesters showing up with automatic weapons to state capitols.
That’s right. There was a tweet that said something like, “Who could want four more years of this?” It’s got a sort of Rorschach-like quality. If you are exhausted by Trump’s chaos, you think about who could want four more years of Trump. But it could also be that, if this is how you perceive Democratic governance—letting a police station go up in flames—then who could want four more years of disorder and lawlessness, particularly if you are someone who has a bunch of stereotypes about African-Americans and Democrats in cities.
And so, to your point, I think it is exactly right that there are different kinds of chaos people are weighing in their minds. I might say the pandemic and economic dislocation are my top priorities, but if you are someone who has deep-seated anxieties about an unsettling of the racial hierarchy in America, about an egalitarian society where you might lose some status, or a society where there isn’t enormous state capacity brought to bear on controlling out-groups, then you might say, “I want Trump because he is promising to maintain the racial hierarchy. I want someone who is tough on crime. Those are my top priorities.”
Race has been a defining issue in American politics since before the country formally came into existence, a dividing line marked by generations of struggle and conflict. Today the issue is back at the center of a national debate, this time amid shifting attitudes and heightened expectations that are demanding more than sympathetic rhetoric and safe steps from political leaders.
Two unexpected events acted as the catalysts that produced this moment. The coronavirus pandemic has disproportionately killed black Americans and exposed a broader range of inequalities that persist in black communities; the recession that accompanied the pandemic has highlighted similar inequities. And the brutal killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis has prompted many people to acknowledge that the lives of black Americans are profoundly different than those of white Americans — and that racism is part of that lived experience.
The protests that followed the killing of Floyd have been described as an inflection point for the country. That conclusion may be premature, given how deeply embedded structural racism is in America’s history and culture and the fractured and polarized political system.
A series exploring the political dynamics surrounding the crises facing America.
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But when two in three Americans now say they support the Black Lives Matter movement; when thousands upon thousands of Americans march in the streets of big cities and small towns; when the National Football League reverses its position on players’ kneeling during the national anthem; when Mississippi eliminates the Confederate symbol from its flag; there seems little question that for now, this is a materially different moment.
What will come of the gathering call for action? The civil rights movement produced landmark legislation, but blacks continued to face discrimination in many facets of life. Economic gains for many black Americans are undeniable, yet huge disparities in jobs, housing, income and wealth still exist.
The killings of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Eric Garner gave rise to the Black Lives Matter movement but did not stop the use of deadly force by police against unarmed black people. Nor did the election of the nation’s first black president result in any healing. Quite the opposite.
Under President Trump,who has used racist messaging continually as president and before, Republicans are ill-positioned to respond fully to the moment that has arisen this summer. The party is captive of his rhetoric and actions, which exacerbate rather than reduce tensions. A part of their coalition has moved in a more progressive direction on issues of race, but overall the party is on the wrong side of public opinion and stymied as to how far it can go.
Democrats are more unified and eager to show they hear the chants from the streets. But they also face more intense pressure from black Americans, who are the party’s most loyal constituency. A significant gap remains between the activist community — especially young activists — that has led the protests and pushed public opinion, and a Democratic establishment, now led by former vice president Joe Biden, that has been cautious in its commitments beyond police reform.
Across the country, institutions, corporations and other organizations are moving to implement new policies on diversity and inclusion and to eliminate as much as possible the scourge of discrimination. Forced by public opinion and the marketplace, they are removing symbols that have caused pain to black Americans for generations. Meanwhile, the political power structure in Washington has been caught up in predictable partisanship and paralysis.
Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) said he is confident that strong policing legislation that has been stalled in Congress will eventually pass, and that the protesters are laying the foundation for bigger changes beyond that — but only if politicians absorb the spirit of what they’re saying.
When the Black Lives Matter movement first began, he noted, the reaction of establishment politicians was to run from it, to say that all lives matter. Today, the same is happening with some of the issues that are part of that movement, whether calls to defund the police or demands to address the issue of reparations.
“If we trip over the language itself [and] we can’t get to the substance, to the heart, to the truth of which they speak, then we will miss an opportunity,” Booker said. “And I think there is a tremendous opportunity here.”
This has been a time of awakening, but in the end, there is a question of whether the movement will be strong and sustained enough to produce more than small steps and symbolic gestures from Washington.
“It doesn’t take a lot, nor does it cost a lot, to protest the torture and killing of a man on video,” said Vincent Hutchings, a political scientist at the University of Michigan, adding that resolving “the original sin of racism is going to take a lot more than condemning murderous police officers.”
Race reshaped the two political parties
American politics has arrived at this moment of racial reckoning deeply polarized and with a party structure shaped profoundly by the politics of race. Ideology, religion and culture are a part of the polarization, but over the past half-century, race has been at the core of the sorting out.
The story of how the Republican Party, the party of Abraham Lincoln, became almost entirely dependent on white voters, and how the Democratic Party, once the party of southern segregationists, became the political home to black Americans and other minorities has been years in the making.
Historian Jill Lepore has observed that at an earlier point in the country’s history, there were in essence three political parties — Republicans, Democrats and millions of black Americans denied the right to vote. Those who could vote first began to move from the Republican Party to the Democratic Party during the New Deal of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
But even as the allegiance of some black voters was shifting, the two major parties were perceived more or less equally in their capacity to address issues of race, and many black voters continued to side with the Republicans. In his reelection campaign in 1956, President Dwight D. Eisenhower received around 40 percent of the black vote.
In the spring of 1956, two years after the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which ordered an end to school desegregation, the Gallup Poll asked which of the two major parties was seen as best able to handle the issue of segregation. Twenty-eight percent said the Republican Party, 26 percent said the Democratic Party, 22 percent said both parties and 24 percent had no opinion.
By the summer of 1964, a seismic shift in perceptions of the parties was underway. That was the summer when Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Not long after, Gallup asked people which party would do the best job “of handling relations between the whites and the Negroes.” Rather than a near-even split, 50 percent said the Democrats while 18 percent said Republicans.
“It starts in 1932 but ends in 1964,” said Andra Gillespie, a political science professor at Emory University. “That’s where the perceptual advantage becomes clear. It was [then-president] Lyndon Johnson’s embrace of civil rights [that] signaled that the Democratic Party was going to be more aggressive in pursuing issues of civil rights.”
But it was more than Johnson’s advocacy of landmark civil rights legislation that reshaped perceptions and ultimately the parties’ coalitions. Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater, who lost in a landslide to Johnson in 1964, had voted against the Civil Rights Act that year, though a majority of Republican senators supported it.
Former president Richard M. Nixon, elected in the tumultuous year of 1968, embraced the infamous “southern strategy” that was designed to bring white conservatives from the South, repelled by a northern Democratic Party’s position on race, into the GOP coalition.
The racialization of politics continued over several decades as the party coalitions sorted themselves out. Many voters in the South continued to identify themselves culturally as Democrats — identity being hard to shake — though increasingly they were voting for Republicans, beginning at the presidential level and moving down the ballot over time.
“Until the mid-1960s, Republicans were more liberal on race and conservative on economics and the Democrats the reverse,” said James Campbell, a political scientist at the University of Buffalo. “The staggered realignment from the mid-1960s to mid-1990s reconfigured the parties and the issues so that Republicans were more conservative on all issues, including racial issues, and Democrats more liberal on all issues.”
But race was always at the core of the divisions and soon became a weapon in political campaigns. Republicans used race issues, explicit or coded, as a wedge to splinter a Democratic Party that itself was becoming culturally more liberal. To go along with their southern recruits, Republicans began to pick up the support of more and more of the white working-class Democrats in the North — Reagan Democrats as they became known in the 1980 election.
To win back the presidency for his party, Bill Clinton sought to navigate through that politically charged political minefield as a New Democrat who could appeal both to the party’s black constituency while mitigating the concerns of white working class voters.
His efforts were seen as brilliant politics and proved highly successful electorally, sweeping Clinton into the White House in 1992 and to reelection four years later, though some critics then and now see some of the policies he embraced as a candidate and president, among them the 1994 crime bill that led to mass incarcerations, as having hurt the black community.
One of the principal authors of that crime bill was then-Sen. Joe Biden, and that history continues to dog the former vice president and now presumptive Democratic presidential nominee as he seeks to energize black voters — especially those under age 40 — this November.
Obama’s election was a turning point
The election of Barack Obama in 2008 shattered a barrier many people thought they might not see in their lifetimes. His victory appeared to herald a new chapter in relations among the races.
Gillespie was doing political commentary that night for a local television station. “I remember that the Republican officials who were in the room that day, when it happened, said quietly that this is probably for the best,” she recalled.
That was a widespread interpretation in the days and weeks after his election but it was wrong. Instead Obama’s presidency moved polarization to another level. As the most visible face of the Democratic Party, Obama’s presidency brought even more clarity to the question of which party stood with and for black Americans and with it more division.
Obama’s election produced a backlash, one that gave rise to a tea party movement fueled by antigovernment sentiment but also by racial resentment. In that same time, what also took root was a birther lie that claimed that Obama had not been born in America, a conspiracy that eventually was shared by a sizeable minority of Republicans.
“A lot of people didn’t know or couldn’t place the Democrats to the left of the Republicans on racial issues or immigration issues — until Obama,” said Michael Tesler, a political science professor at the University of California Irvine. He added: “As the Obama presidency goes on, you start to see him hemorrhaging these racially conservative, lower-educated voters. . . . It was ripe for someone like Trump to pick up.”
“When we have an increasingly racially diverse Democratic Party, the priorities of the party begin to change, and that further makes clear what the party is for and it changes even more,” said Lilliana Mason, a political science professor at the University of Maryland.
Trump had long picked at the divisions over race. As a businessman, he called for the death penalty for the wrongly convicted Central Park 5 and has never apologized for doing so. In 2011, he enthusiastically embraced the birther lie until Obama shut him down by producing his birth certificate from Hawaii.
As a candidate in 2016, Trump attacked Mexican immigrants and Muslims and used illegal immigration as a wedge to stoke resentment. In office, he had a shocking reaction to the white supremacist march in Charlottesville in 2017 that resulted in violent clashes and the death of a young woman. He said there were “very fine people” on both sides.
Trump has argued that his policies have helped black Americans, from the lowering of black unemployment (until the coronavirus pandemic drove the economy into a recession) to the passage of a criminal justice reform bill. But his presidency has been marked by more racial antagonism and more public expressions of white supremacy. His party has been stamped indelibly in the eyes of black Americans — and others — by his actions.
If unexpected events this spring and summer combined to create this new moment in politics, it was not wholly accidental that it would happen. The past decade or more helped create today’s climate.
“Changes in our political structure have made it possible for Democrats to be more open [about race],” said Daniel Gillion, a political science professor at the University of Pennsylvania. “That empowers protesters to go out and ask for change. If there had not been growing polarization after Obama’s election and [the creation of] the Black Lives Matter movement, it would be harder for people to accept this.”
National attitudes about race have become more progressive over decades but in the past half dozen years, some of the most dramatic shifts have taken place among white Democrats. As the Democratic Party has shed racially conservative voters and as violence against blacks has continued, white Democrats have become more like black Democrats in their perceptions of racism, discrimination and policing.
The General Social Survey at the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center has asked a series of questions about racial matters for several decades that highlight the shifts among white Democrats from the months just before Obama was elected until 2018, after he left office.
In the 2008 survey, 29 percent of white Democrats said the nation was spending “too little” on assistance for blacks. By 2018, a majority of white Democrats — 57 percent — said too little was being spent. In 2008, 37 percent of white Democrats said the nation was doing too little to improve the condition of blacks. By 2018, that view was held by 67 percent of white Democrats.
In 2008, there was a 25-point gap — 53 percent to 28 percent — between black and white Democrats on the question of whether discrimination was mainly the reason African Americans have worse jobs, income and housing than whites. By 2018, the gap was just 5 points — 67 percent to 62 percent.
A recent Washington Post/Ipsos survey showed that 95 percent of black Democrats and those who lean Democratic, along with 89 percent of white Democrats and leaners, said the country needs to continue to make changes to give blacks equal rights with whites. A majority of Republicans disagreed.
As Christopher Stout, a political scientist at Oregon State University, put it: “Wading into racial politics energizes Democrats.”
Protest politics force politicians to act
The protests have forced the country and its political leaders to react, but the coming debates are likely to be long and difficult, especially in the absence of pressure from the outside.
“What happens when whites in the protest movement go back home?,” said Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, a professor of sociology at Duke University. “Do they go back to . . . a segregated life? And secondly, and more importantly . . . what will happen once the movement collapses, once it dissipates? Will whites return to whiteness as usual, or will the changes that we see today in attitudes remain a permanent feature of their souls?”
Beyond the issue of policing and police reform, there is no agreement on a broader agenda to address structural racism and inequality. “Policing is just the focal point,” said Christopher Sebastian Parker, a political scientist at the University of Washington. “It’s a point on which we’re focusing now. But for black people, it’s much deeper than that.”
From calls to defund the police to the issue of reparations to ideas for more race-conscious policies designed to address inequities in education, health care, hiring or housing, particularly for black Americans, the possible agenda to address racial issues is expansive and challenging — and potentially still more wrenching — than the country is prepared to address.
William Darity Jr. and A. Kirsten Mullen argue the case for reparations in a book published in April — “From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the Twenty-First Century” — and others now see the possibility for a serious examination of the issue by Congress in the near future.
“This doesn’t mean you’re going to get reparations,” said Trevon Logan, a professor of economics at Ohio State University. “But at least these are not ideas that are immediately laughed at when they’re suggested.”
Advocates of change see a bias in the public debate. Race-conscious policies designed to alleviate discriminatory policies often become political flashpoints and villainized. But policies that perpetuate discrimination or are racially biased — whether in policing or education or health care — are not. Would there be a different reaction to the coronavirus if whites were disproportionately affected rather than people of color?
“It’s easy to say transformative change should happen inside of an institution that doesn’t impact your life,” said Megan Ming Francis, a political science professor at the University of Washington. “So a lot of people who have never been incarcerated, never been stopped by police, say, ‘Oh my God, this is crazy.’ But what about the systemic racism in education? What about the systemic racism in housing policy? What about the systemic racism in the workplace?”
Claire Jean Kim, a political science professor at the University of California at Irvine, defines the condition as one of structural antiblackness rather than structural racism, a distinction that puts a particular spotlight on the long struggle among black Americans in particular.
“We have learned a narrative of U.S. exceptionalism, which tells us slavery was the original sin but we’ve moved toward the promised land, that time itself brings a resolution of our race problems,” she said. “It’s hard to make an intellectual adjustment to see the continuities in black subordination that have existed for centuries. People prefer to be in denial about that.”
Republican elected officials, clearly mindful of the public reaction to the Floyd killing and repelled by the video images of his death, have been scrambling to blunt criticism that their party is indifferent or even hostile to conditions faced by black Americans, advancing their own legislation to reform policing.
Overall, however, they are constrained, torn by the new politics of race that are emerging and the politics that come with an older, white constituency that is out of step with public opinion on these issues and with a history of having sought to weaponize race in political campaigns.
Democrats have fewer constraints, given that their coalition is now more closely united and the politics of race have shifted. Kevin Mumford, a political scientist at the University of Illinois, said Democrats will have to go further than they’ve been willing in the past.
“The old complaint is that the Democratic Party takes black voters for granted,” he said. “They can’t speak to black voters in one breath and white voters in another. They have to have some courage and say, ‘This is our stand.’ ”
But there are doubts that Democratic leaders are prepared to fully engage. Biden disappointed many black activists when he quickly distanced himself from calls to defund the police and advanced proposals that would increase funding by $300 million for law enforcement.
Mainstream Democrats who feared any embrace of the slogan “defund the police” would give Trump a weapon in the presidential election saw Biden’s move as politically sensible. To activists and their allies, it closed off a discussion they see as important — the allocation of resources to law enforcement versus to other social and economic policies in the black community.
“I think that there is this sense of possibility,” said Adom Getachew, a political scientist at the University of Chicago. “The question for me is whether Democrats are going to listen and take it up in any meaningful way. . . . Much of the leadership of the party seems really stuck in the ‘90s, honestly . . . and perhaps aren’t sure this will be the thing that yields political results for them.”
Young black Americans remain alienated
Another obstacle is the disenchantment among young people, particularly young black Americans, have toward traditional politics. Cathy J. Cohen, a professor of political science, oversees the GenForward survey research project that is associated with the University of Chicago and also works with the independently organized Black Youth Project.
“This is a generation that has grown up with deep political alienation,” she said. “They don’t believe leaders in government care about them. They don’t believe the Congress believes in them. . . . These young people recognize that in many ways there is systematic failure and they can’t rely on government and they have to press the issue and to do that they’re going into the street.”
In surveys she has conducted, Cohen has asked young people what they see as the best vehicle for producing progress. For young people of color, the most popular answer is organizing in communities. For young whites, it is community service and volunteer action. Federal elections fall well down the list.
Many of the cities that saw protests, some of which turned violent, have black mayors, elected leaders grappling with their own personal emotions about being black in America at the same time they were responsible for protecting their cities economic infrastructure from possible violence and destruction.
“For other generations [of young black Americans],” Cohen said, “the argument was, ‘We weren’t represented.’ But this generation has seen black elected officials . . . and lived through the election of the first black president and seen the limits.”
Trump has tried to use the protests and sporadic violence to resurrect the law and order message he advanced during his campaign in 2016 — and that Nixon used as part of his successful 1968 election.
Omar Wasow, a political scientist at Princeton University, studied the connections between the violent protests that erupted after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in April 1968 and the vote in November of that year. He concluded that, because of the riots, there was enough of a shift among white voters to make Nixon president.
Whether Trump can be successful with the law and order message is questionable, especially if there is minimal violence through the summer. “We’re seeing some broad, long-term trends that this isn’t just going to be a replay of ’68,” Wasow said, “because there are more people looking at what is happening and not responding with a taste for repression but with sympathy or empathy.”
Those emotions create conditions for change but the removal of Confederate monuments or the renaming of schools and institutions to eliminate vestiges of racism in the end go only so far to materially change the lives of black Americans.
Police reforms are likely, whether at the local or federal level or both, but election-year realities could stall immediate action. Anything more ambitious will await the outcome of the vote in November. By then, there will be a better sense of the staying power of the movement that has arisen.
“Politics is always going to be a part of this, and it is a blood sport,” Logan said. “But when it comes to these issues for which there now is broad consensus, what we see now is still a lack of governance . . . These things continue to persist as problems because we have not decided to actually govern and move forward and find solutions.”
The protests have been described as a cry of outrage that has resonated widely, seeming to open up opportunities that have not previously existed. But history offers sobering lessons about the ultimate power of protests. A country built for moderate change is also one that leaves frustration it its wake. Perhaps this time, the political leaders, prodded by a new generation of activists, will write a different script.
A series exploring the political dynamics surrounding the crises facing America.
Why the United States chose to taint the debut of North America’s celebrated new trade deal by threatening fresh tariffs against Canadian aluminum, only President Donald Trump and trade emissary Robert Lighthizer can say for sure.
But industry insiders point to a convergence of disparate factors: COVID-19, international metals arbitrage, presidential politics and $16.3-billion worth of the stuff from Russia, the world’s second-largest producer.
Aluminum is one of the elemental components of the Canada-U.S. trade relationship, a bond forged in the blast furnace of the American war effort. Experts say smelters on both sides of the border stand to benefit from the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, which took effect Wednesday and imposes new requirements for regionally sourced metals.
Jean Simard, president and CEO of the Aluminum Association of Canada, is at a loss to understand why his industry is being targeted by the White House for the second time in two years. The U.S. has nowhere near the capacity to meet growing demand.
“It doesn’t make sense,” Simard said. ”It’s like an oxymoron. It’s so contradictory to the spirit of USMCA.”
The answer may lie in how aluminum production works around the world, and how traders and marketers profit from it.
Because they traffic in white-hot liquid metal, aluminum smelters can’t simply shut down when demand for the product dries up, which is what happened to Canadian producers — who provide the bulk of the metal to U.S. markets — when the pandemic forced auto manufacturers to idle their assembly lines.
Smelters pivoted away from the specialized premium products demanded by the auto sector and instead produced the more generic primary aluminum known as P1020, shipping it to the only storage warehouses that are cost-effective, Simard said: facilities in the U.S., which is where the lion’s share of the North American aluminum market is located.
The ensuing “surge” in Canadian imports caught the attention of the U.S. trade representative’s office — or more specifically, the two U.S. producers that raised a red flag: Century Aluminum and Magnitude 7 Metals, which together comprise a Trump-friendly lobbying effort known as the American Primary Aluminum Association.
“The surge of Canadian metal has a caused the price to collapse and is endangering the future viability of the U.S. primary industry,” the association wrote to Lighthizer in May.
“Action — real action, not mere monitoring, and endless discussions in multinational fora — is needed now if the United States is to save what is left of its primary aluminum industry.”
A separate group — the Aluminum Association, which represents dozens of U.S. and international producers — disagrees, calling Canadian suppliers an integral element of the North American supply chain and a key component of the industry’s success.
Politics is undoubtedly a factor: two of Century’s four smelters are in Kentucky, while Magnitude 7 operates in Missouri, two states vital to Trump’s electoral fortunes.
“These are the states that keep campaign managers up at night,” said Gerald McDermott, an international business professor at the University of South Carolina.
A spokesman for the American Primary Aluminum Association did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday.
Glencore Plc, a metals trader and producer based in Switzerland, holds a 47 per cent stake in Century. Magnitude 7, founded by a former Glencore aluminum trader, operates a single Missouri plant that won a new lease on life after Trump’s first round of tariffs in 2018, but which warned in February it was on the verge of shutting down.
And Glencore holds the exclusive rights to sell Russian-made aluminum in the U.S., having agreed in April to spend $16.3 billion over the next five years on up to 6.9 million tonnes of the metal from Rusal, the second-largest aluminum producer in the world.
Glencore is also a major player in the world of metals arbitrage — buying commodities at the lowest price possible, then shipping and storing them before selling on a futures contract in hopes of a higher price. The pandemic has fuelled a global collapse in the price of aluminum, Simard said, while the threat of tariffs has had the opposite effect.
“What do the traders do? They buy the metal at a very low price because the crisis is what brought you to pivot to this position, and they warehouse it when interest rates are very low because it’s a crisis,” Simard said.
“The key player over and above everybody else is Glencore.”
Rusal, once controlled by the Russian billionaire oligarch Oleg Deripaska, was subject to U.S. sanctions since Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 — sanctions that were lifted in January 2019 as part of an extensive restructuring that saw Deripaska relinquish control of the company. Glencore was involved, too, swapping shares in Rusal for a direct stake in its parent company, En+.
The USTR and the Trump administration ”cannot be unaware of the corporate structure around Rusal and Glencore. I would doubt it very much,” said Simard.
A spokesman for Glencore declined to comment Friday.
The Canadian aluminum industry, the bulk of which is located in Quebec, owes its origins to soaring American demand for the metal in the months prior to the U.S. entry into the Second World War — a partnership that cemented Canada’s role in the continental military industrial base. Is the Trump administration trying to end that relationship?
“It’s worth raising the question,” Simard said.
Trump’s disdain for Canada and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has long been an open secret — “Trudeau’s a ‘behind-your-back’ guy,” former national security adviser John Bolton’s explosive new book quotes the president saying — and with an uphill battle for re-election looming, he may be looking to score political points, McDermott said.
“Why is the Trump administration doing what it’s doing? The short answer is it’s in a free fall,” he said.
“It’s got to show that it’s doing something for these Midwestern manufacturing states, and that means getting tough with non-U.S. people. What better thing, then, to piss off the Canadians?”
The Canadian Oxford Dictionary defines paranoia as “a tendency to suspect and mistrust others.” It is a fairly common mental health disease routinely treated by psychologists and psychiatrists. In some cases it can lead to a profound sense of insecurity. In others it can be a motivator for violent reactions. In recent years, it has come to the fore in the politics of major nations. Leaders have exploited it to defend themselves and to advance their agendas. This has been true in the United Kingdom, France, Russia, China and the United States.
U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson rose to fame and political power in the course of the Brexit referendum campaign of 2016. In the course of that campaign, he shamelessly played on the paranoia of certain segments of the British electorate. One point of his appeal was to suggest that Britain was under threat from the faceless bureaucrats of the European Union based in Brussels. According to him, these officials were bent on depriving Britain of the last vestiges of its sovereignty and to reduce a once proud and powerful nation to a servile position in a European federation. The other part of his appeal was to portray Britons as being the victims of a political establishment of privileged people totally detached from the concerns of ordinary citizens. It was in pursuit of this that he chose to cast Prime Minister David Cameron and his associates as a group of upper class “toffs” who had never experienced the travails of the working class. (This was all a bit rich coming from a quintessential establishment figure who was a graduate of Eton and Oxford and who had worked as a journalist for conservative newspapers.) Using both of these tracks, Johnson managed to win a thin majority in the Brexit referendum and three years later a majority in the House of Commons. Exploiting paranoia certainly paid off for him.
Paranoia is also central to the politics of two movements in France. On the one hand, there is the National Front led by Marine Le Pen, who shamelessly exploits the fears of those French citizens who are hostile to the presence of immigrants in their country. She is particularly attuned to the concerns of those who see a threat emanating from the Muslim minority in France. For them, the Muslims are out to destroy French society and its Christian culture. She has built a political career on this and has managed to parlay it into a second-place finish in a recent presidential election. On the other hand, there is the rather inchoate “gilets jaunes” movement, which disrupted normal life in France for over a year. The members of this movement are convinced that France is run by a small cabal of graduates of the Ecole Nationale d’Administration for their own benefit and that of their friends. They feel discriminated against by this elite and vent their anger in often violent protests. Both the National Front and the “gilets jaunes” have done much to undermine rational political dialogue in France.
Then there is Russia, where President Vladimir Putin has fostered anti-western paranoia in his efforts to stay in power. Threats emanating from the West are, of course, a reality in Russian history. In the 18th century, Russia was invaded by the forces of Charles XII of Sweden, in the 19th by those of Napoleon Bonaparte of France and in the 20th by those of Adolf Hitler of Germany. Memories of that last devastating invasion in which 20 million Russians died are still very much alive today and are deliberately rekindled and exploited by Russian leaders. But it is more recent events that are also used by Putin to further his political goals. The eastward expansion of NATO in the past 25 years is portrayed as a direct threat to Russia. So, too, are western efforts to support democracy in Georgia and Ukraine. Putin puts himself forward as the only leader capable of resisting this western onslaught against Russia and its interests. And it has certainly helped to solidify his brand in the eyes of the Russian electorate.
In China, President Xi Jin Ping has also played on his people’s fears of the United States and Japan. In the rhetoric of the Communist party, the United States is portrayed as being bent on “containing” China, much as it did with the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Preventing China from becoming a highly successful country capable of challenging the primacy of the United States in world affairs is seen as a nefarious plot engineered by American decision-makers. Added to the mix is the United States’ friendship and support for Taiwan that the Chinese regards as an intolerable interference in their internal affairs since they consider Taiwan to be an integral part of the People’s Republic. Chinese leaders also evoke the memories of Japan’s brutal occupation of their country during the Second World War to foster hostility towards modern-day Japan, as part of a campaign to promote Chinese nationalism. Promoting fear of both the United States and Japan has become part of the stock in trade of modern Chinese leaders.
Firstly, there is that supreme practitioner of paranoia politics, U.S. President Donald Trump. From the very start of his political career, he has been engaged in promoting fear. During his election campaign in 2016, he made headlines by claiming that immigrants from Mexico were rapists, murderers and drug dealers and that they posed a threat to security and well-being of Americans. He then went on to promise to build a wall along America’s border with Mexico to keep out these undesirables and to have Mexico pay for it. When this promise was met with derision on the part of the Mexican government, Trump kept on repeating it, to the delight of his redneck supporters in southern states.
When evidence began to emerge of Russian meddling in the presidential election, Trump chose not to blame the Russians but to launch attacks on the credibility of the United States’ intelligence and security agencies. He began to portray organizations such as the FBI and the CIA as being part of some “deep state” out to undermine his administration. Without any evidence to support his contentions, he repeatedly sought to undermine the credibility of the U.S. intelligence community, whether in connection with his dealings with Russia or his failed rapprochement with North Korea.
Trump’s ceaseless campaign against the mainstream media has also been an exercise in fostering paranoia. Describing the media as purveyors of “fake news” and as enemies of the people, Trump has played to the basest instincts of his often ill-informed and ill-educated supporters. Depicting the media as part of a liberal elite that has no sympathy for the plight of ordinary Americans, Trump has promoted his image as a populist leader under attack.
Trump’s relations with the Justice Department merit particular attention. Shortly after coming into office, he fired the acting attorney general because she refused to implement his unconstitutional and very obviously Islamophobic decree banning entry into the United States of immigrants or visitors from some Muslim countries. He then launched a very public campaign against Jeff Sessions, whom he had appointed as attorney general, because Sessions had recused himself from involvement in the inquiry into Russian interference in the election campaign. He then went into overdrive to attack the Mueller inquiry, which had been established by the Justice Department to look into the matter. Repeatedly describing the inquiry as a “witch hunt,” he portrayed himself as the victim of a hostile and out of control Justice Department.
Depicting themselves or their followers as victims of supposedly hostile forces has allowed leaders in many countries to enjoy a degree of political success to which they are not otherwise entitled. It is a rather sad commentary on the state of world politics today.
Louis A. Delvoie is a retired Canadian diplomat who served abroad as an ambassador and high commissioner.
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