Race & Social Movements in America
Transcript for Student Voices
Brian Meeks/Justin Lang
You’re listening to Student Voices, a podcast featuring student-led interviews of Brown University faculty based on the Race & in America panel discussion series, curated by the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America in partnership with the Office of the Provost.
Justin Lang: My name is Justin Lang. I'm a second-year graduate student in the Department of Africana Studies here at Brown, and I'm speaking with Professor Brian Meeks, Chair of the Department of Africana Studies, about the recent panel discussion on Race & Social Movements in America.
I think the first question that I wanted to get into was about your concept of "hegemonic disillusion." So in the talk, you described the concept as part of your earlier studies of the post-Black Power era, particularly in Jamaica. And you described it as a period in which, "no dominant social force has clear control of the intellectual and cultural direction of the society." And you describe in your recent work, you were thinking about how it applies to the US context. You talked about how in one way the Trump response to this has been, rather than trying to think of some type of unifying alternative, to think about almost a type of fracturing or a type of focusing on the minority.
I think if we look at the recent election results, the last number that checked was I think it was like 73 million people voted for Trump as opposed to like 78 million for the Democratic Party.
Basically, as soon as the results were shared, Biden and others were like 'Trump voters are your friends. We are Americans. We have to unite.' And I think a lot of people, particularly in the recent protest movement who shifted energy to voting for the Democrats, felt betrayed by this. Especially as they try to dismiss certain leftist phrases like "defund the police" and etc. And so I think what I'm interested in is, one, how does this response to this hegemonic disillusion from the offer by the Democrats, enable some of the authoritarian elements of Trumpism, as you've been describing it. And I think also related to that, how does a type of left build an actual alternative that isn't just reactive to Trump or even like attempting to unite with Trump in this type of situation?
Professor Brian Meeks: Yeah, well, you know, first of all, I must offer the caveat that I am an outsider looking in. I make no pretensions to be a historian of American history nor a cultural analyst of contemporary American culture, although I'm deeply interested in both. What I'm trying to do is use a sort of comparative lens of the outsider looking in to try to understand what it is that I'm seeing.
And the first thing that hits me in an attempt to answer your question in a sort of roundabout way, is what you've pointed out already, which is the sheer number of people who voted for Trump. One of the lasting complexities, dilemmas, and challenges of the spirit is to understand, as many have said in commentary, after all of the racism, after all of the very close to fascist statements, after the sheer bad behavior of this government, that it should accumulate more votes than any presidential candidate in the history of American elections, bar Biden himself, who actually got more votes.
So there's a majority, it seems certainly, of the voting public which will support the Democrats. But very close behind this is a huge minority, almost half of the American people, who are willing to support a racist president whose policies in many respects are authoritarian, but border on a discussion about fascism, a conversation about fascism, at the minimum. And I think that this is what we need to understand.
And this is what I think that Trump recognizes: that there's an underlying question of race, which fortunately more people now understand than ever before, that allows for people who in other circumstances would abhor his policies and his behavior to silently stick with him. I think this is also the problem that pollsters have been having, because there's a significant fraction of Trump voters who don't want to have knowledge that they support Trump. And that failure to acknowledge is to say, 'look, I'm not a racist. I'm not a fascist.' And if you ask them in a poll whether they -- I don't think this is just a matter of, you know, whether polls should be done by texting or by cell phone or by landline -- I think this is a matter that there is a fraction of the public who are ashamed of voting Trump, but who ultimately will vote Trump. And what trumps it for them, so to speak, is this question of race. That in the Trumpian space, they feel more comfortable that a racial alliance, which is what they understand America was and should be, is maintained. Whereas, you know, as much as Biden speaks about a nostalgic America in which we all work together, which of course was unreal, Trump voters see in his alliance -- which in a sense is Obama's alliance to a certain extent -- whatever that alliance is, they see in it the danger of racial hegemony being fractured.
And I think this is the critical underlying factor: that there is no old nostalgic, historic America that Biden can turn back towards. Despite the fact that everybody knows that, they know that he's the best hope that there is for us not to go into the revanchist, dangerous America which Trump wants to take us in, which is the America of white rights and where “white is right.” And I think that is a critical factor here.
So in a sense, why I think hegemonic dissolution makes a lot of sense is that the old hegemony which existed was a hegemony of whiteness. Right? So Biden cannot go back to that. The alliance around Biden -- or for that matter, the alliance around Obama -- has not reinvented a new notion of America, which provides an attractive image for a large majority of citizens, sufficient to break the sort of 50-50 situation which presents. Maybe 51-49, but it is a very close alliance. [It] hasn't been able to present an image that will shatter that alliance and suggest a way forward that will bring people of color, that will bring Latinx people, that will bring a significant plurality of white Americans along with them. And I think what we have at present is an alliance of anti-Trumpers who look at the danger of what Trump is. But it's a very slim alliance and it is not an alliance that is sufficient to constitute a new popular hegemony for the future.
Justin Lang: I think one of the questions, I guess to loop into thinking about the current protest movement, is: is that type of alternative through some type of political party? Or is there something...is there a direction within the a way that popular protests have emerged that could point towards some other way that this hegemonic could come about.
Professor Brian Meeks: Well, you know, it's still the importance of the political system in the game of American social history and in the game of social history writ large in any country in the world. In other words, what this alliance -- however you may want to describe it, of Black people, of progressive whites, of gay people, of some Latinx people -- what this alliance has been able to do is to present another four years of Trump. And we knock wood as we look towards whether he will concede and we will actually have a transfer of power in January. But assuming there is a transfer, [though the alliance] has managed to be sufficiently cohesive to win a presidential election, it has not managed to grow and be sufficiently broad to decisively win the Senate, increase the majority in the House, and present the basis for a new set of policies designing a new mid-term future for American society. [It] hasn't been able to do that, reinventing the judicial system, expanding it, and all of the things that were hoped for at the beginning of this process.
With luck, if the Georgia seats, Senate seats managed to go the right way, there may be some movement forward. But if the Georgia Senate seats go the way they have gone in the past, then essentially we have a gridlock president who will have to rule by executive action -- much like Trump had to do particularly his second...in the latter part of his regime -- and then try to rebuild a new alliance.
The question I think you're asking, though, "is there any future of politics outside the Democratic Party?" And the question would seem to me that there is a future for grassroots organization which operates outside and on the fringes of the Democratic Party. Indeed, this is what BLM, you know, the Movement for Black Lives, has been over the past five years and certainly in this past year in particular. And what it shows is the power of independent organization, which, however, then feeds into political action. So I think there's a huge space for a sort of mutually beneficial politics that operates in and around the Democratic Party, that raises popular awareness, that feeds into electoral politics but also operates outside of electoral politics.
But do I think that, certainly from where I sit, that there is room for an independent third force? I would think that not yet. That is that the danger of that would be the danger, which has always been there, of splitting the Democratic Party in a context where there is no sign that the Republican Party is going to be split anytime in the near future and ending up with an ineffective or a hobbled Democratic Party and a long term Republican majority. And I think that the critical importance of representative constitutional politics is such that that would do irreparable damage to grassroots movements themselves, because with new laws in place that are, you know, anti-Black people, anti-trade union, anti-organizational laws, it would severely hamper the work of organizing at the grassroots level. So, no, I think that the future, the immediate future lies in the sort of work that the Movement for Black Lives does, that the Women's Movement to some extent does, that the LGBTQ Movement has done in the past and continues to do, which is to organize on the fringes of the Democratic Party, but also within it and shift the party from being an instrument of the wealthy and the upper-middle classes to a more grassroots organization.
Justin Lang: Thank you, Professor Meeks, for the conversation. Thanks for joining us for conversation around the Race & Social Movements in America series.
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