May 26, 2017

Economic Scene: After the Election, a Nation Tinged With Racial Hostility

Consider the challenges ahead for the nation. The next administration will face rampant inequality and persistent poverty, decaying infrastructure, and mediocre and segregated public education. It will have to deal with one of the most expensive, least effective health care systems in the industrialized world. And one way or another, it will have to address climate change.

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Mr. Trump’s mobilization of the frustration of aging white Americans without a college degree, who believe they are losing their country to a more ethnically diverse future, is not going to make this any easier.

Racism is hardly new to America. It lies behind the United States’ knottiest paradox: Millions of white Americans who would benefit from a more robust government are steadfastly against it, at least partly out of a belief that minorities would gain at their expense.

That racial polarization — fed by Mr. Trump’s overt racial appeals that began with his false claims that Barack Obama was not born in the United States — has intensified since Mr. Obama took office. In many ways, that is the biggest obstacle to the development of any sort of national project.

Consider health care. In 2007, 69 percent of the public said it believed that it was the responsibility of the federal government to ensure that every American had health care coverage, according to a Gallup poll. By last year, support for such government intervention was down to roughly 50 percent.

Republicans’ relentless attack on the Affordable Care Act certainly contributed to changing opinion. So did the botched rollout of the federal government’s health insurance marketplace, healthcare.gov, and rising premiums.

But that doesn’t fully account for the fundamental shift. In “Post-Racial or Most-Racial: Race and Politics in the Obama Era,” (University of Chicago Press), Michael Tesler, an assistant professor of political science at the University of California, Irvine, argues that “the declining support for government health insurance during Barack Obama’s presidency was driven by racially conservative defections.”

Drawing from the 2012 American National Election Study, Professor Tesler found that only one-fifth of the most “racially resentful” whites (measured by their responses to questions about the causes of racial inequality and discrimination) supported health insurance provided by the government, compared with half of the least racially resentful.

Much of the opposition is set off directly by President Obama’s race, Professor Tesler says. In similar surveys from 1988 to 2008, before Mr. Obama became president, support for government health insurance among racially resentful whites was considerably higher.

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Opposition is also fueled by the sense that blacks would gain more; 56 percent of respondents to a poll in 2010 commissioned by Stanford and The Associated Press said the Affordable Care Act would “probably cause most black Americans to get better health care than they get today.” Only 45 percent said the same thing about whites.

The dynamic doesn’t apply just to health care. Professor Tesler finds similar racial patterns in support of raising top marginal tax rates and in favor of the fiscal stimulus package of 2009. Fewer than 20 percent of the most racially resentful whites thought the stimulus was a good idea, compared with more than 60 percent of the most racially liberal.

Mr. Obama’s race probably intensified such misgivings, but they have been there all along, shaping politics and policy for a very long time.

It has been half a century since the Democratic Party lost much of the Southern white vote, after the Johnson administration pushed the Civil Rights Act through Congress. John E. Roemer, a professor of economics and political science at Yale, notes that to this day “the white Southern vote is the reason that the Republican Party remains a player in U.S. national politics.”

The racial divide remains the main obstacle to building a robust American state — entangling the debate over taxes and spending in a zero-sum calculation over “us” versus “them.”

In a paper published a decade ago, Professor Roemer and Woojin Lee, now a professor of economics at Korea University, estimated that voter racism reduced the top income tax rate by 11 to 18 percentage points. The magnitude, they wrote, “would seem to explain the difference between the sizes of the public sector in the U.S. and Northern European countries.”

What does the current election portend for the American project? If Mr. Trump wins, all bets are off, of course. As Mark Zandi of Moody’s Analytics describes it, Mr. Trump’s policy wish list, if actually carried out, would probably foster an economic disaster.

Who knows what, exactly, a Trump administration would do? For starters, he would have to deal with House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, a canonical Republican who doesn’t naturally share Mr. Trump’s hostility toward trade or immigration.

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Still, win or lose, Mr. Trump will have exposed the United States to the depth of its racism. That is perhaps his most important legacy.

Tuesday’s results are likely to prove even more racially lopsided than in 2012, when nonwhites amounted to 45 percent of President Obama’s voters but just 10 percent of the Republican Mitt Romney’s. The Republican Party’s reliance on less-educated white men and women is likely to intensify. Racial mistrust will remain a powerful political lever to exploit.

Under these circumstances, an ambitious policy agenda to combat climate change or battle income inequality and persistent poverty seems like a pipe dream. Repairing decaying infrastructure and improving public education will most likely also remain out of reach.

The next progressive era will have to wait until the political system figures out how to build bonds of solidarity across racial and ethnic lines. Perhaps America’s growing diversity will ultimately lead to a more generous society. But based on the campaign that just ended, it’s not looking good.

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Article source: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/09/business/after-the-election-a-nation-tinged-with-racial-hostility.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

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