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Economic Inequality and Racism Are This Election's Crucial Issues

Most Americans are financially struggling to stay afloat—people of color more so than whites—and corporate elites are laughing all the way to the bank

Florida gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum, a Democrat running what his team calls "the most progressive campaign for Florida Governor," speaks with supporters in this still from a recent campaign spot. (Photo: Andrew Gillum / YouTube)

Unprecedented amounts of money have flowed into the 2018 midterm elections, and voters are being bombarded with TV commercials and mailers that use misleading and fear-based language. President Donald Trump and the Republicans, in particular, are sending a strong message to Americans that the economy has never been better, and that the GOP will protect us from all the “other” people looking to take away our rights and earnings: immigrants, LGBTQ Americans, Muslims, Black Lives Matter activists and more.

But if one clears away the confusing barrage of messages, there is one narrative that has the strongest bearing on reality, and that is that most Americans are financially struggling to stay afloat—people of color more so than whites—and corporate elites are laughing all the way to the bank as politicians blame vulnerable communities for the ills facing whites.

Obscuring this reality through his virulently racist messaging, the president has been effective at using the propaganda playbook of authoritarian leaders to rally his resentful base. In the past few weeks, we have seen a confluence of the predictable outcomes of his racist scapegoating. A Republican man and ardent Trump supporter, Cesar Sayoc, threatened many of Trump’s favorite targets of vitriol, from former President Barack Obama to Rep. Maxine Waters, using crudely made pipe bombs. A white man named Gregory Bush tried to enter a predominantly black church in Kentucky, and when he couldn’t, he killed two African-Americans at a supermarket, remarking on his way out to another white man that “Whites don’t kill whites.”

And of course, the worst act of anti-Semitic violence in U.S. history took place last week at the Tree of Life synagogue when a white man, Robert Bowers, whipped into a frenzied confluence between anti-immigrant and anti-Jewish sentiments, gunned down 11 people. Protesters in Pittsburgh rightly laid the blame for the synagogue attack on Trump’s hate-mongering, saying, “Words Matter” and “It’s Your Fault.”

Meanwhile, the Republican Party is in deep trouble because it has continued to obscure its long-term underlying racist messaging while promoting the same policies that Trump has pushed: kickbacks for the wealthy through tax cuts couched in “middle-class relief,” a weakening of public protections through deregulation explained as an economic driver that will somehow create jobs, and nativist attacks on immigrants that claim they are a drain on the economy. Voters love Trump for expressing their base instincts in clear language—instincts that were honed for years through Republican dog-whistling—but now care little for Republican lawmakers, who appear weak and contradictory in comparison with Trump.

A recent New York Times article attempting to explain voter attraction to Democrats in the Rust Belt concluded that “Mr. Trump still has extraordinarily high approval ratings among those who voted for him. The problem for the Republicans is that Mr. Trump made these Rust Belt voters into Trump voters, but he never made them Republicans.” Meanwhile, Republicans are left desperately trying to defend their signature legislation—the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act—to voters who have very little practical evidence to show for the riches they were told they would reap.

Within this framework, Democrats could be effectively harnessing public anger at the deadly deeds Trump’s racist messages have unleashed. Or, they could cleverly expose the Republican Party’s hypocrisy in celebrating a tax reform law that is a windfall for the wealthy, disguised as tax relief for ordinary Americans. But as in 2016, Democrats are casting themselves as “not Trump” rather than selling voters on a vision that could offer an alternative to Trump. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) website has a simple message, “Defeat Trump’s Republican House,” instead of something on the order of “Build an Economy for All, End Racism.”

So it has fallen to progressive activists to spell out what is most needed in the nation. Sister Simone Campbell is one of 30 Catholic nuns who toured the nation, from California to Florida and many states between, in a large painted bus bearing the words “Nuns on the Bus.” She told me in an interview that her goal was to “Let the nation know that the tax law is bad for our nation because, rather than caring for the 100 percent of our people, it shifts 83 percent of all the benefits to those at the 1 percent or 0.1 percent.” She critically emphasized that taxes are “how we care for our people,” and that tax revenues are “the money that our nation has to spend on our needs.”

Some of the newer, insurgent Democrats looking to remake their party are offering their own visions for a future that is both anti-racist and economically just. A large number of people of color, and women of color in particular, are running on bold progressive platforms, several of them even identifying as “Democratic Socialists.” Some progressive members of Congress have formed a “Medicare for All” caucus, something that would have been unheard of a few years ago.

Even just a handful of people claiming that socialism could be good for America has Trump and the Republicans on the defensive. Trump published an op-ed under his name slamming Medicare for all, which, he said, “would end Medicare as we know it and take away benefits that seniors have paid for their entire lives,” an utterly ridiculous assertion that is hard to even dignify with a response. The White House recently published a bizarre document, “The Opportunity Costs of Socialism,” produced by the Council of Economic Advisers, that attempts to undermine socialist ideas. “People who know anything about socialism will laugh at this report,” said economist Richard Wolff in an interview last week.

A slew of ballot measures in cities and states around the country are attempting to address inequality by going directly to voters. In California, Los Angeles residents want rent control through Proposition 10 and San Franciscans want a progressive tax on big corporations to fund homeless initiatives through Measure C. In Missouri and Arkansas, voters are hoping to pass modest minimum wage increases. In all those places the billionaire class has poured its wealth into convincing voters that they will be the losers if these measures pass.

Those swimming in riches are using their wealth to try to convince the rest of us that they have our well-being in mind. They want us to blame immigrants, and our brown, black, Muslim or Jewish neighbors. They have poured unprecedented amounts of money into the midterm races, hoping that we will allow their proxies in Congress to decide how we are taxed, how our taxes are spent and who should benefit. What these elites fear most is that we will exercise our democratic rights to sweep away inequality and dismantle racism (and sexism, homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia and so on). It is precisely that fear that we must exploit to the fullest extent on Nov. 6 and beyond.

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Sonali Kolhatkar

Sonali Kolhatkar
Sonali Kolhatkar is a columnist for Truthdig. She also is the founder, host and executive producer of "Rising Up With Sonali," a television and radio show that airs on Free Speech TV (Dish Network, DirecTV, Roku) and Pacifica stations KPFK, KPFA, and affiliates. She is the former founder, host and producer of KPFK Pacifica’s popular morning drive-time program “Uprising." She is also the co-director of the Afghan Women's Mission, a U.S.-based non-profit solidarity organization that funds the social, political, and humanitarian projects of RAWA. She is the author, with James Ingalls, of "Bleeding Afghanistan: Washington, Warlords, and the Propaganda of Silence" (2006).

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