As a historical sociologist, one faces many choices. Among these is whether to stretch the analysis to speak to the present political moment. If, like me, you simply cannot help yourself, then there are in my experience certain unspoken rules. One must be speculative and only gingerly suggest that something in the past may be related to the current situation. In a book, such speculation should live in a paragraph in the introduction and/or perhaps in a parting rhetorical flourish in the conclusion. Add a substantive chapter or two on the 21st century, and someone will no doubt pop up to say that while so-and-so has done a fine job on the historical case, they are on much shakier ground when speaking to the present. The message is polite but firm: “Dear Historical Sociologists, stay in your lane.”
The problem with this point of view, of course, is that the past and present are not so easily separable. Reflecting on the contemporary resurgence of white nationalism in the United States, the writer Edward Ball observed that the legacy of white supremacy is like an underground river beneath our feet that occasionally erupts in a geyser. He is right.
In this essay, I make three arguments. The first is that American sociology is presentist and methodologically individualistic in orientation, not least on voting behavior. This is due to the dominance of voter studies, which originated in the 1940s, and which today continue to collect individual-level survey data and snapshot the salient social cleavages in the mass electorate. The second argument is that such studies do not capture the underground river of white supremacy beneath our feet. American politics has from its inception entailed the articulation and re-articulation of racial capitalism–that peculiar combination of genocide, slavery, and exploitation that has made the United States the richest country on Earth. My third argument is that the 2020 election takes place amidst the crisis of racial capitalism’s most recent articulation—postracial neoliberalism. As such, the election is a choice between two institutional paths out of crisis and one noninstitutional path: (1) the Caesarism of President Donald J. Trump; (2) the reconsolidation of postracial neoliberalism represented by Joseph R. Biden, Jr.; and (3) the path of direct action and mass mobilization represented by the Movement for Black Lives and the #RedForEd strike wave.
The Presentism and Methodological Individualism of American Sociology
American sociologists were founders of modern polling. The credit for that distinction goes to Paul Lazarsfeld and the Columbia sociology department. Lazarsfeld was originally interested in the determinants of consumer choice but, having failed to secure sufficient funding for that project, he turned instead to explaining why an individual votes for one candidate over another. In his breakout study of the 1940 U.S. presidential election, Lazarsfeld and his team interviewed a sample of voters seven times from the beginning to the end of the campaign. They found, first, that the overwhelming majority of voters did not change their minds from the first interview to the last. Second, they found that their respondents’ demographic information had the highest correlation with vote choice. From this, Lazarsfeld and his team constructed an “index of political predisposition” consisting of three variables: socioeconomic status, ethnicity, and rural vs. urban residence, which, they held, accounted for most of the variation in vote choice. Perhaps the most famous sentence from that study, published in 1944 under the title The People’s Choice, became the calling card of the emerging “sociological approach” to political behavior: “a person thinks, politically, as he is, socially. Social characteristics determine political preference” ( 1948: 27).
My point here is not that these characteristics – class, ethnicity, or rurality – are intrinsically presentist or individualistic, but rather that in the hands of these pioneering survey analysts they became (a) contemporary snapshots in time of (b) individual preferences. Further, these preferences were said to aggregate, scale up, and decisively shape the politics of the nation. Lazarsfeld’s sociology told an eminently democratic story in which every person, no matter their background, wields the power of the vote. That presentist, methodologically individualistic, and indeed triumphalist approach continues to influence how polling is done today. One need only turn to one’s smartphone to read about how white, Black, and Latinx voters are sizing up the presidential candidates to witness Lazarsfeld’s enduring influence.
Nor has this become the sole province of pollsters – professional sociologists continued to employ Lazarsfeldian survey analysis long after the first voter studies. In 1999, Manza and Brooks published Social Cleavages and Political Change, which found that the much-heralded decline in class voting since the 1970s had been greatly exaggerated. When one updates measures of class to reflect the more complicated class structure of post-industrial America, they wrote, survey data reveals that liberal professionals have left the Republican Party to become the second largest Democratic constituency, unskilled workers have moved to the proverbial center, and self-employed individuals have become more Republican (1999: 5; de Leon 2014: 27).
Sociologists were also important combatants in the “polarization debates” of the 1990s and 2000s, with political scientists generally insisting that the American electorate was becoming more divided and sociologists finding quite the opposite. Drawing on General Social Survey and National Election Studies (NES) data, DiMaggio, Evans, and Bryson (1996) found that on most issues, there was more convergence than divergence among American voters. In a similar vein, Baldassarri and Gelman (2008) use NES data to argue that while American voters tend to be more partisan today than in the past, it is not because they have developed internally consistent belief systems where, for instance, someone who is pro-labor is also anti-racist or pro-immigration.
Racial Capitalism: A Historical and Institutional Alternative
At this stage, one might reasonably ask, “What’s so wrong with presentism and methodological individualism?” There is nothing “wrong” per se so long as one understands that any poll or voter study captures the political preferences of a sample of people at a given point in time or compares the political preferences of different samples of voters across points in time. They do not and cannot provide direct evidence of the longstanding institutional mechanisms that underpin the singular present or successive “presents” they examine. This is the province of historical sociology. I suggest that the 2020 election represents a moment in the most recent crisis of racial capitalism.
The theory of racial capitalism consists of three-interrelated claims. First, racism is not an embarrassing vestige of “primitive accumulation” or some bygone mode of production as Marx had argued, but rather part of the very logic of capitalist development and expansion from mercantilism and colonialism to industrial and neoliberal capitalism (Robinson 1983 : 2). Second, working class formation in Europe was enabled by racial and colonial dynamics. The enslavement and dispossession of workers in the peripheralized regions of the world facilitated industrialization and the social construction of “white” workers as peasants moved from agrarian to factory work (Du Bois  1992; James  1989; Robinson  2000; Williams  1994). Third, the industrial European working class was not exclusively the historical negation of the bourgeois social order. If anything, their blindness to capitalism’s racialized structure meant that they ignored and were threatened by “the persistent and continuously evolving resistance of African peoples” (Robinson  2000: 4-5, 28).
The system of racial capitalism is vulnerable to crisis due to contradictions both racial and economic. Thus, the U.S. Civil War entailed the struggle between two competing visions for organizing the slaveholding republic. White northern Republicans viewed slavery and white settler colonialism as locked in a deadly zero-sum struggle for survival. They held that slavery could exist in the states where it then existed but could not expand beyond those boundaries lest it monopolize indigenous lands that would otherwise go to poor whites escaping wage dependency in the East. White southern Democrats, by contrast, held that the right to migrate with one’s slaves was part of the very promise of white settler colonialism. Partisan struggle over these two visions of racial capitalism eventuated in a crisis of hegemony, in which the white mass electorate withdrew their consent to be ruled under the existing terms of the Union (de Leon 2019).
The hegemonic political project of contemporary American politics is postracial neoliberalism. That project is animated by two claims: that racial equality was achieved with the Civil Rights Movement and that the surest path to shared prosperity is the free market, unencumbered by state regulation and unions. The two claims were motivated and linked by deindustrialization. To win the votes of whites under conditions of mounting unemployment and inequality, the major parties promised to preserve their privileged access to social benefits. As more white union members lost their old jobs, taking up a greater proportion of welfare benefits and new service jobs, there was a simultaneous push to remove unemployed Black workers from the welfare rolls and labor market. Thus, law and order initiatives from Nixon to Clinton facilitated the mass incarceration of the deproletarianized Black working class (Gilmore 2007; Wacquant 2002).
Though political elites promised to address the deepening contradictions of postracial neoliberalism, they failed spectacularly and instead created the conditions for the Great Recession. The social dislocations of that downturn and the Obama administration’s failure to address them led to insurgent movements and factions, from Occupy Wall Street, the Movement for Black Lives, and the Bernie Sanders campaign on the left, to the Tea Party, birthers, and white ethnic nationalists on the right.
Three Paths in 2020
We are, therefore, confronted with three paths out of crisis, two institutional and one noninstitutional. The so-called “Donald Trump Show,” a Caesarism akin to that of Benito Mussolini, is the first path. It promises to alleviate the pressure of neoliberalism on white people by accelerating the mass deportation of Black and Brown immigrants, canceling or modifying free trade agreements, and keeping in place a law and order strategy in the nation’s Black neighborhoods.
Joe Biden and the mainstream Democratic Party embody the reconsolidation of postracial neoliberalism. Promising to return the country to the “good old days” of the Obama administration, the Democrats, too, offer to safeguard the structural privileges of whites, while reaffirming the juridical rights of people of color to the vote and due process under the law.
The Movement for Black Lives and the #RedForEd strike wave represent the noninstitutional path of mass mobilization. Their notable independence from the party system reflects what decades of research on political incorporation suggests, namely, that activists who play party politics become “captured constituencies,” ignored by their home party and unwanted by the opposition (de Leon 2015, 2019; Eidlin 2018; Frymer 1999; Heaney and Rojas 2015; Michels  1962; Weber  1968). Instead of making party endorsements or phone banking for a given candidate, they have used direct action to demand that the parties defund the police and reverse the decline in public spending.
This brings me to my concluding point. Offering an analysis of the current moment from a racial capitalist lens does not only avoid the presentism and individualism of American sociology. It also clarifies what is to be done. From my position as Director of the UMass Amherst Labor Center, I know I must urge organized labor to pursue a noninstitutional strategy and build a mass movement that is broad, intersectional, yet ideologically coherent enough to replace postracial neoliberalism as the common sense of our times. Such a position cannot be arrived at by learning that 57% of white suburban women plan to vote for Joe Biden. Presentism and methodological individualism urge us to become absorbed in the horse race above ground instead of the river beneath our feet.
Cedric de Leon is Director of the Labor Center and Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
Image JoLynne Martinez via FLickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
This post was republished from ASA’s Footnotes.