Elizabeth Nelson argues that white women are at the centre of a race panic in America, and draws other lessons from an extraordinary Senate race in her native USA.
White women, we have a lot to answer for. After a majority of white women of nearly every demographic – urban, rural, college educated and non-college educated – voted for Trump in 2016, a similar pattern has emerged in the voter breakdown from Alabama’s special election this week. The narrow defeat of Republican Roy Moore is entirely down to the African-American community, who came out in strong numbers to overwhelmingly support Moore’s opponent, Democrat Doug Jones.
This result is extraordinary not only because Alabama has elected a Democrat to a Senate seat for the first time in 25 years, but also because it featured an accused child sexual predator during a national moment of reckoning over sexual assault, and because the blowback against Moore and these allegations was apparently still not enough for white women to turn away from the Republican party in this reddest of red states.
In continuing to support a candidate accused of sexual impropriety with teenage girls who also supports the curtailment of women’s basic reproductive rights, white women in Alabama have thrown down a gauntlet for the nation’s politics, and to those who would seek to understand our political moment. In apparently voting against their own interests, white women made clear that this is not about morals, but about race.
White female voting patterns are the canary in the coalmine of this political moment. While the entire American political system is arguably built upon the exploitation of black communities, this racialisation of politics is becoming more overt in the Trumpian era, and it is increasingly breaking down by partisan lines. When a majority of white women (53 per cent) voted for Trump over Hillary Clinton in November 2016 there were a chorus of voices, mostly those of women of colour, pointing out the failure of White Feminism in supporting a candidate accused of sexual assault by 16 women, and who had repeatedly attacked immigrant and Muslim communities during the campaign. By voting for Trump white women were voting to maintain their own privilege.
Fast forward just over a year later, and the proportion of white women voters casting their ballots for Moore was even higher than for Trump (63 per cent for Moore vs 53 per cent for Trump), and arguably more enlightening. In the intervening months there have been high profile exposures of sexual assault and misconduct by powerful men in film, media, politics and more, not to mention the scores of men in less high profile industries that we will likely never hear about but certainly exist (and women in working class jobs are more at risk of being exploited and assaulted, particularly if they are immigrants or women of colour, and yet these experiences are still largely left out of a conversation that focuses on – you guessed it – wealthy white women. But that’s another story for a different day). When the allegations against Roy Moore surfaced in early November it seemed beyond belief that he could maintain his vote share with women, even in this reddest of red states.
So what does this tell us about the political mood of white women, and by extension, the nation? It tells us that this is about racism and internalized misogyny, not about morals. Faced with Trump and then with Moore, white women voted for misogyny. They voted for white supremacy and a continuing and deepening racial divide in America. And as ever, a side conversation about reproductive rights during this election illuminates the dynamics at play.
There were many in Democratic circles advocating ‘big tent’ politics in the wake of the Trump disaster, pushing the idea that the Democratic Party needs to build broader coalitions even with those who don’t share core Democratic values. In practice, this has meant an insistence that an anti-choice candidate can and should be embraced by the Democratic establishment and by the voters as a way of bridging the gap between traditional Democratic voters and those more moderate conservatives turned off by Trumpian politics.
This abandonment of a core Democratic value – bodily autonomy for women and people who can become pregnant – has been loudly denounced by progressive women both inside and outside the party. The idea that women’s rights must be relegated in order to advance electoral prospects or economic socialism is at best insulting and at worst a fundamental misunderstanding of what it means to be progressive, because it makes invisible the needs and struggles of communities of colour and poor communities (which often overlap) who are hit hardest by restrictions on access to abortion. There cannot be progress toward economic equality without also securing and protecting the fundamental rights of all marginalized communities. Democrats pushing anti-choice candidates are making a shallow political analysis with little understanding of or concern for their true base – communities of colour, women and working class communities – instead preferring to continue to focus on that mythical ‘moderate Trump voter’ to turn from the Republican Party.
Democrats do need a broad coalition, but one that begins and ends with communities of colour and women. Outreach to African American communities in the eleventh hour of the Jones campaign was, according to many analysts, a game-changer in swinging this close vote Jones’ way. This is the true progressive coalition along with working class communities and women that the Democrats need to win big in 2018.
Black voters understand this better than anyone. They turned out to support Doug Jones in high numbers, by extension supporting healthcare, education, voting rights and abortion rights, all in a state whose Attorney General has publicly stated his belief that claiming the right to vote should not be ‘easy’ (and against a backdrop of curtailment of voting rights nationwide).
White women need to step up to the plate for this strategy to work. While a majority of white women with a college degree voted for Jones, most white women without a college degree still voted for Moore, a political decision guided by misogyny and racism
One need only look to Moore’s response to the sexual assault allegations to understand this link. His campaign attempted to use abortion as a signifier, a touchstone in the culture wars that, they assumed, would force Alabama voters – particularly conservative women – to choose Moore despite the allegations about his past sexual harassment of minors. Slamming Jones as supporting ‘full-term abortion,’ Moore attempted to deflect from serious allegations that could have potentially derailed his vote share with women. And yet, it largely did not, suggesting strongly that other dynamics are at play.
If women voted for Moore, it was not because he supports women. He obviously doesn’t. But a vote for Moore was a vote for white supremacy, something even poor white women benefit from to a certain degree.
It’s impossible to ignore the racial divide in the Alabama election, and still less possible to ignore the fact that these racial divides are breaking electorally along party lines more and more reliably, and with greater majorities. The same is true of attitudes to abortion; with those against abortion rights now much more likely to vote Republican and those for abortion rights now much more likely to vote Democrat than in the 1970s and 1980s, when opinion was much more varied across party lines.
An attitude of entitlement towards women’s bodies and a perverse abuse of power are not bound by party lines. Al Franken was seen as a strong progressive voice in Congress. Harvey Weinstein donated to liberal causes. And yet by supporting candidates so anti-woman in their outlook, these white women have told us loud and clear: white supremacy is more important than my own rights.
20 December 2017