May 1, 2013, by Harry Cocks

Angry white men?

Have you ever wondered why the political beneficiaries of the current crisis tend to be right-wing populist parties such as UKIP in Britain, the Tea Party in America, or the Five Star movement in Italy?  With UKIP now contesting 73 % of seats in the local council elections in Britain on the 2nd May, as opposed to 25% in 2009, and making advances in almost every poll you care to mention, it might seem that economic difficulties naturally lend themselves to ‘none of the above’ conservative populism led by a kind of anti-politician like Nigel Farage or Beppe Grillo. However, a new article by Dr Joe Merton, a specialist on post-war America here in the History Department, shows that this is not always the case.  He even offers some hope, and perhaps even a model, for the liberal left.

As Dr Merton argues, the success of conservative populism often has a racial element – evidence of which is the centrality of immigration in UKIP’s platform.  This was especially true in the US during the late 1970s – a time of similar economic uncertainty and political paralysis.  At that time, they key manifestation of this conservative racial populism was the development of a cultural politics of ‘white ethnic’ difference, disadvantage, and racial grievance amongst the white working class. Angry about rising crime and taxes, spiralling welfare rolls, and what they thought of as the appeasement of black and minority groups, whites mobilised around their cultural resentments to form an integral part of Richard Nixon’s ‘Silent Majority’ or the ‘Reagan Democrats’ of the 1980s.

But was this an inevitable turn to the right? That is where Dr Merton offers hope for liberals, arguing that conservative populism is not always the default response to a social crisis.  In fact, ‘white ethnic’ identity was employed in a variety of liberal and progressive causes, and the ‘white ethnics’ were not the angry, racist reactionaries that populate liberal nightmares. In cities such as Newark and Cleveland, white activists on the liberal Left developed a “new urban populism” and formed multiracial coalitions to counter urban decline and racial polarisation. One of the most successful of these was Geno Baroni’s National Center for Urban Ethnic Affairs, an organisation that lobbied Presidents and policymakers and shaped public policy in areas such as gender equality, multiculturalism, and urban revitalisation.

Dr Merton says that an aggrieved white working class does not automatically gravitate to right wing politics.  Instead, this group contains the possibility of an ideological alternative.  In the 1970s, an era (much like today in the West) defined by political vacuum and the dithering of mainstream leftist parties, populism retained considerable appeal and utility to liberal as well as conservative causes, and progressive ideas still burned brightly in local politics. Perhaps, given a more effective leadership, the political history of the late twentieth century United States might have turned out rather differently had this brand of white ethnic populism emerged successfully from the 1970s. And perhaps there is a lesson in there for Labour and others on the left in Britain and Europe, one that demands a bolder appeal to these nascent forces.

Joe Merton, “Rethinking the Politics of Ethnicity in 1970s America”

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post by Harry Cocks, Associate Professor of Modern British History




Posted in Politics