Danielle Allen is a political theorist at Harvard University and a contributing columnist for The Post.
The landscape of the 2016 election is seismic. Deep beneath the surface of our daily lives, three tectonic plates have collided, and a tsunami now pounds us. The names of those plates are income inequality; “overcriminalization and excessive punishment in the U.S. Code,” to quote Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan; and demographic transition.
On the first two, right and left are actually, weirdly enough, experiencing a meeting of the psyches, or something of the sort. But the third issue casts everything in the light of racial questions and makes the strange fact of latent bipartisan agreement almost impossible to see.
Income inequality began its remarkable climb in the early 1980s, and the income share of the top 10 percent now exceeds the level of the 1920s. In the summer of the 1992 party conventions, as I remember it, commentators had noticed that income inequality was rising, but it was too early to tell whether the curve would descend again. The arc of history didn’t turn, and now income inequality is at historic heights. Much of the United States is suffering from wage stagnation, and the money-soaked presidential campaign is largely being funded by a very small number of Americans.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Donald Trump are both tapping into these issues. Both disavow super PACs and promise, with quite different degrees of moral seriousness, to reverse the decline experienced by lower-income segments of the population. Sanders wants to reverse that through redistribution. Trump appears to have placed a gambler’s bet on something of a racial protection racket. He stands ready to make his largely white crowds “great again” by protecting them from a variety of intruders and competitors, generally of different ethnic backgrounds, while he asks for a nice fee in the form of a hefty tax break for the wealthy.
As to overcriminalization, mass incarceration also began its remarkable climb in the early 1980s and has now reached globally historic levels. The Black Lives Matter campaign against police violence has turned our phone cameras on fundamental issues of race, yes, but not only on those issues. It has also focused our eyes on clear examples of an excessive growth of state power, well-exemplified by the war on drugs. Perhaps surprisingly, the effects of the growth of the penal state ramify well beyond city streets, all the way, for instance, to the Gulf of Mexico.
Kagan criticized overcriminalization and excessive punishment in a Supreme Court decision that reversed the felony conviction of John Yates, a commercial gulf fisherman who was accused of throwing 72 undersize grouper overboard when caught with them by a federal agent. On the basis of Sarbanes-Oxley, a law meant to rein in accounting shenanigans, Yates was charged with “destroying, concealing, and covering up undersized fish to impede a federal investigation.” That is, he was thought to be guilty of “tampering with any physical object that might have evidentiary value in any federal investigation into any offense,” an act that exposes you to a possible 20-year prison sentence. In other words, until the Supreme Court intervened, throwing grouper overboard could be life-altering.
Every Republican candidate has raised the issue of governmental overreach as a major problem to be tackled in this election.
Now if you are following me, you’ll notice that I just did something very strange. I just suggested that the Black Lives Matter campaign and the motley cast of characters seeking the Republican nomination are on the same page on something. I’ve proposed that they share a concern for excessive state power. As if the activists from Ferguson, Mo., might now be thinking, “Where was Ammon Bundy when we needed him?” As if Trump fails to see potential allies in the Black Lives Matter protesters who turn up at his rallies.
Why don’t these voices on right and left sing in harmony? Because of race.
This brings me to the third seismic issue, the remarkable demographic transition underway in this country. It also brings me to rancher Cliven Bundy, Ammon’s father, notorious for saying in 2014 that he wondered whether African Americans weren’t “better off as slaves.”
The United States’ days as a home to a white majority are, for all intents and purposes, done. Children born in 2011 are members of this country’s first majority-minority birth cohort. And children who entered kindergarten in fall 2014 were on track to be the first majority-minority school cohort. We may be no more than a dozen years from the entrance of majority-minority age cohorts into our voting ranks.
These facts are forcing upon us, at long last, the question of what will become of the remarkably long-lived tradition in many parts of this country of white social and political control. As a Trump supporter was quoted in a recent Post article as saying, “Something has to be done because we’re shrinking, we’re being taken over by people that want to change what America is.” She added, “You can’t say it nicely.”
The deep question here is whether we will pursue the politics and policies of something like apartheid South Africa or complete, at last, the dream too long deferred of a racially egalitarian democracy. The Republicans are, at best, split on this question. The Democrats are certainly for the latter, but they have been able to avoid engaging too deeply on the issue because they consider the voters who agree with them to be firmly in their camp already.
In other words, with regard to income inequality and concerns about excessive growth in state power, right and left are rubbing up against each other in ways that are awkward, embarrassing and uncomfortable for everyone. That’s one thing that this election season is teaching us, and that’s why the potential effects are seismic.
But here’s the other thing it’s teaching us. The question of our racial future divides us utterly, and this third issue makes it impossible for us to see the potential points of solidarity that the political quakes have cast upon our shores.
Riding high on the crests of this tsunami are some fundamental matters that we must certainly face and about which we may, stunningly, but quite possibly, agree. Yet the danger from the quake is none the less for that, and the challenge of figuring out how to master this moment is nothing if not thoroughly daunting.
If only we could do it together, despite our racial history.
A Princeton PhD, was a U.S. diplomat for over 20 years, mostly in Central/Eastern Europe, and was promoted to the Senior Foreign Service in 1997. After leaving the State Department in order to express opposition to the planned invasion of Iraq, he taught courses at Georgetown University pertaining to the tension between propaganda and public diplomacy. For many years he shared ideas on the theme "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United" with Eurasian/European delegates participating in the "Open World" program.
Brown’s articles have appeared in numerous publications. A recent piece is “Janus-Faced Public Diplomacy: Creel and Lippmann During the Great War” (published in Nontraditional U.S. Public Diplomacy: Past, Present, and Future; now online).
He is the author (with S. Grant) of The Russian Empire and the USSR: A Guide to Manuscripts and Archival Materials in the United States (also online). In the past century, he served as an editor/translator of a joint U.S.-Soviet publication, The Establishment of Russian-American Relations, 1765-1815.