The Color of Politics

By Brenner, Aaron | Monthly Review, September 1998 | Go to article overview

The Color of Politics


Brenner, Aaron, Monthly Review


The idea that the United States is an exceptional nation is as old as the country itself. Most variants of this concept trumpet the special uniqueness of America. Chauvinists from Hector St. John de Crevecoeur to Alexis de Tocqueville to Theodore Roosevelt to Louis Hart to Newt Gingrich have portrayed America as an expansive and inclusive democracy, an efficient and flourishing economy, and a superior and exemplary civilization, alone in a world either corrupted by Old World aristocracy, blighted by uncivilized hordes, imperiled by totalitarian Communism, stifled by big government, or contaminated by miscegenating multiculturatism. In every case, a supposedly exclusively American trait - diversity, religiosity, local democracy, individualism, liberalism, social mobility - has set the nation apart from, and above, all others.

Of course, variants of American exceptionalism exist on the left, too. Here, America is unique not for what it is, but for what it lacks: a socialist tradition, a labor party, and/or a strong labor movement. Many of the characteristics that chauvinists celebrate as evidence of American greatness are precisely those that left critics lament, and cite as the reasons America has no socialism - the lack of a feudal past, individualism, liberalism, religiosity, the frontier. Yet the left often adds another item to its balance sheet of American exceptionalism: race. The argument is straightforward: the American labor and socialist movements have been crippled by the racial divisions within the American working class. It seems undeniable, yet few explanations of American exceptionalism (why there is no socialism in the United States) have made race so central to their analysis as Michael Goldfield's The Color of Politics: Race and the Mainsprings of American Politics.

For Goldfield, racial division has been the Achilles' heel of the American left, "the key to unraveling the secret of American exceptionalism." (p. 30) Indeed, race has been "much more." "Race has been the central ingredient, not merely in undermining solidarity when broad struggles have erupted, not merely in dividing workers, but also in providing an alternative white male nonclass worldview and structure of identity that have exerted their force during both stable and confrontational times. It has provided the everyday framework in which labor has been utilized, controlled, and exploited by those who have employed it. And race has been behind many of the supposed principles of American government (most notably states' rights) that are regarded as sacred by some people today." (p.30)

To make his case for the centrality of race in American political development, Goldfield reinterprets American political history as a series of crucial turning points, historical intersections at which race set the direction of politics and from which the system of racial domination was created and perpetuated (albeit in continually altered form and content). These turning points were the late seventeenth-century creation of racial slavery, the American Revolution, the Civil War and Reconstruction, the "System of 1896," and the Great Depression and the New Deal. Heightened class conflict characterized each turning point, creating real opportunity and often real progress for black and white workers. Yet, in every case, racial division determined that the ruling classes would ultimately triumph over the working classes.

Throughout his retelling of U.S. history, Goldfield places the interplay of race and class at the center of his story. In his introduction, he critiques attitudinal, psychological, and cultural explanations of race, and insists upon "the class and economic roots of racial formation and systems of racial oppression." Then, as he works through the history, he tries to expose these roots and the poisonous fruit they ultimately sprout. He does a magnificent job sketching the class context - the balance of class forces - in which each of his critical political struggles take place, setting each successive contest within the race and class configuration left by the previous struggle. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

The Color of Politics
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen
Items saved from this article
  • Highlights & Notes
  • Citations
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Search by... Author
    Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.