White panic is the secret behind the right-wing takeover of the Republican Party. It is a dynamic that began as far back as Nixon’s Southern Strategy, when in a historical blink of the eye the region flipped from overwhelmingly Democratic to solidly Republican. It was Southern white retaliation against the party that backed civil rights.
Lyndon Johnson’s choice of principle over political opportunism was a big step toward bringing American reality closer to the nation’s ideals, but the political costs became evident over the next few years. Southern white retaliation against the Democrats for the party’s stance on civil rights had momentous consequences for everything from welfare policies to electoral politics. It was the first step in the GOP’s decades-long transformation from a right-leaning party to a radically reactionary one. It culminated with the election of Donald Trump in 2016.
A recent public opinion poll found that the issue on which there is the biggest gap between Republican and Democratic voters is immigration. Moreover, the gap, as reflected in variables like views on building a wall on the Mexican border, has grown in recent years. Xenophobia has joined resistance to Black empowerment as a leading marker of Republican identity. In turn, xenophobia and racism are the leading edge of a broader Republican rejection of difference as evidenced in a new wave of homophobic laws and policies in Republican states. The Republican crusade to roll back changes like Roe versus Wade, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the new Third World immigration resulting from the 1965 immigration reform, and LGBTQ+ rights has tended to unify Democrats against the agenda of the Republicans to “make America great again” by returning to the past. This is clearest in the mantra of opponents of overturning Roe versus Wade: “We won’t go back.”
Restoring everything progressives thought we were on the way to overcoming—patriarchy, white supremacy, xenophobia, plutocracy, homophobia—is at the core of the GOP trajectory. The Republican Party is often criticized for not proposing but merely opposing. But what could it do? The past is not a program.
Republican hopes for the return to power of Donald Trump in 2024, elected despite losing the popular vote in 2016 and soundly beaten in the popular and Electoral College vote in 2020—a defeat he has never had the grace to concede—reflects the backward leaning mindset of the party and the lack of dignity and grace of its main man. It takes realism, decency, and nobility to accept a setback; almost to a person, top Republicans, and many of their followers lack these qualities.
As Democrats and democrats, we must resign ourselves to the fact that Republicans, finding it increasingly difficult to win fair and square even in states like Georgia, will drop fair play. We should anticipate the spitball, the blow below the belt, the trip, and every other dirty and illegal move. How to counter all that without surrendering or sinking to the level of the GOP is one of the main challenges for Democrats. Unfortunately, there are few referees in politics, and the existing ones have been hijacked by the Republicans. Case in point: the Supreme Court.
Despite partial exceptions like John Roberts and shining stars like Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, the Supreme Court today is mainly a collection of the pious, the prejudiced, and the twisted. You figure out who the shoes fit. One thing is clear. Put end to end all the shoes of the fellows put on the Court by Republican presidents and they would not be big enough to fill those of Thurgood Marshall, Ruth Bader Ginzburg or Steven Breyer.
White panic is a clear and present danger. How strong is it as a political and social force? Very strong. Consider that white panic more than any other factor propelled Donald Trump to the White House—as unqualified, bigoted, uncouth, and dishonest a man as ever served as Commander-in-Chief. Now think that after four years of lies, cruelty, needless deaths, and recklessness, millions upon millions of Americans, most of them afflicted with White panic, want him back.
There is no vaccine or natural immunity for white panic. Most of those who had it in 2016 will still be infected in 2024. They are using the time between now and then for erecting barriers against the political participation of those of us who reject their politics of fear and hate. Let’s break down every barrier, go over them, around them, and finally pulverize them.