Assistant Professor of Sociology
Critics, pundits, bloggers, and just about everyone with a pulse and a social media account have taken to the public sphere to explain how Hillary Clinton, the most unpopular candidate ever to win the popular vote, lost the presidential election to Donald Trump, the most unpopular person ever to occupy the executive branch. Blame was evenly distributed but didn't explain much. Although data indicated that the medium income of the Trump voter was $72,000, it was the fault of the white working class. It was also the fault of anyone without a college education as well as rural whites. Rural whites make up a paltry 17% of the entire electorate. Rural whites haven't supported a Democratic candidate since the south was a one party system and Franklin Roosevelt was president. It was white women’s fault because more white women voted for Trump than Hillary. However, more white women voted for Mitt Romney over Barak Obama four years ago, just as more white women voted for John McCain over Obama in 2008, which means that white women simply voted like white women have in recent elections when the Democrat’s candidate won. It was the fault of blacks because blacks cast fewer ballots in 2016 than in the previous two elections. Republicans managed to suppress minority voters with racist Voter ID Laws and other implicit racist tactics, such as supplying limited voting machines in minority precincts. Only stalwart leftist magazines like the New Republic pointed out that Trump's support was found in the upper and middle class white suburbs, comprised of the very people who thrived after the recession, and were not affected by the last few decades of deindustrialization. On the positive side, it may have been the first time no one blamed black women for an undesirable outcome.
I'm not here to add to the cacophony of the blame game of why Hillary lost. It's not very productive. I am here to advocate for the importance of the body as an independent variable. Bodies have agency in the sense that bodies exert an affect over political outcomes. I've done so elsewhere. I've explained how exercising power over one's body can produce changes in others and how the performativity of protests can fuse protesters with audiences. I've explained how the tension between racially threatening and racially non-threatening bodies continue to hinder struggles for racial equality and how good white bodies are an integral part of the neoliberal project. Others have as well. Marion Klawiter explained how different fields of contention formed around the bodies of breast cancer survivors and breast cancer victims. The events leading up to the 2016 election and waves of post-election protests provide an opportunity think how a network of white bodies formed a racist white public in relation a profaned meta-public comprised of brown bodies, sick bodies, trans bodies, migrant bodies, and the bodies of refugees.
Publics and public spheres have to be created. They do not simply exist, waiting around for us to enter. Judith Butler's recent entry into the debates around performativity and assemblages explains the relationship between bodies and the making of publics. As Butler explained, bodies still come together with the streets to form a public, "No one body establishes the space of appearance, but this action, this performative exercise happens only between bodies, in a space that constitutes the gap between my own body and another’s. In this way, my body does not act alone, when it acts politically. Indeed, the action emerged from the between.” Publics are the means for marginalized groups to get their demands for equality into the broader political agenda. Publics make invisible groups and invisible bodies visible. In turn, Butler notes that the process of making a public "contests the distinction between public and private." Butler, always the eternal optimist, imagines how an assemblage of a public can grant marginalized bodies a political voice. I'm not so optimistic. Marginalized groups have a limited control over how audiences respond to their claims. In the neoliberal era, the visibility of marginalized bodies triggers a white backlash -- especially when racialized and other threatening bodies are visible.
Political audiences and political parties have been segregated since the end of the civil rights movement. In the early 1970s Richard Nixon foresaw the existence of the Voting Rights Act as a political marker that would drive disaffected white voters to the Republican Party. Lyndon Johnson was the last Democratic president to win the majority of the white vote. Real instances of racial integration and the existence of pro-civil rights legislation trigger a white response. Each white response is an additional wave of neoliberal reform. Republican's rallied white voters against the 1993 Motor Voter Act via the myth of fraudulent black voter. Along with strategic gerrymandering, Republicans took control of congress in 1994, setting the stage for banking and pharmaceutical deregulations, and the privatization of social welfare. Obama's presidency set the stage for another potential wave of privatization, austerity, and more tax cuts for the wealthy.
The key site of political struggle in the contemporary public and public sphere has increasingly shifted from a discursive struggle to a corporeal one. The body appears prior to a movement's claims for equal citizenship. The body is a form of communication at the visual and affective level that simplifies complex political and economic policy into simple ideological categories of liberal and conservative. The body communicates political meanings, narratives, and myths, and in turn, connects audiences with distinct publics. Audiences read publics as sympathetic, dangerous, or subversive; as sacred or profane; as good or bad. In the current digital age of rapid news feeds made up of staged photo-ops, selfies, memes, gifs, scrolls, likes, and swipes -- talk is downplayed. The importance of corporeal politics has increased in the digital age.
The question is not just how embodied performances create publics. But rather, how elites and ordinary citizens bind and fail to bind heterogeneous publics together. The binding of heterogeneous publics illustrates the assemblage of a meta-public. A meta-public is not simply comprised of a network of specific publics. It also captures an outcome, a dependent variable if you'll have it, which is the current political climate.
To give a contemporary example of how bodies lead to the assemblage of a meta-public in the US, let's consider the elite and middle class white response to the increased visibility of brown bodies since Obama's second term. I define brown bodies as Arab bodies, black bodies, latino/a bodies, and Muslims bodies. In every case, the brown body serves as the focal point to influence the audience response to the public. Depending on the audience, a public of black bodies protesting police brutality can be a demand for reform or a riot. As the collection of local anti-racism and anti-police brutality groups assembled under the tag line #Blacklivesmatter, whites responded with their own tag line: #Bluelivesmatter. #Bluelivesmatter was not just a defense of the police. It was an affirmation of white supremacy, of racial discrimination, of legitimating the state violence against marginalized brown bodies.
The brown body provided a figurative focal point for middle class whites' to link their own domestic anxieties with global and economic changes. The brown body is always nomadic -- a stateless actor -- that threatens white borders and steals white jobs. The visibility of Arab and Muslim bodies define the terrorist public that threatens whites' sense of security. White Christian terrorists, white men and their guns and homemade bombs, are responsible for the overwhelming number of domestic terrorist acts. Yet, whites do not demand deporting other whites, they do not criminalize Christianity, and they do not place restrictions on easy gun access. The visibility of latino/a bodies connects legal and illegal immigration with global economic insecurity. Deindustrialization, driven by a combination of increased use of robots and automation in manufacturing, federal tax policies that supported relocation of firms from the northeast and great lakes region to right to work states in the south, the recent popularity disruptive business practices, and the privatization of social welfare since the 1980s, has eroded the value of real wages in the United States. It was not Mexican immigrants. But bodies carry mythologies that are more potent than data driven facts when influencing political ideology.
Brown bodies create different publics than trans bodies. Trans bodies subvert and undermine the gendered world order. The bathroom is reconstituted as a public as trans bodies come together to demand open access and equal use of a facility designed simply to relocate bodily wastes to a sewer treatment facility. The social conservative response to visibility of trans bodies was to assemble a new anti-gender equality public dominated by the bodies of heteronormative white men. The new anti-gender equality public linked with other publics: anti-black, anti-immigration, and anti-Arab. It was the affirmation of patriarchy via men's ownership of women's bodies. When pro-trans activists hold signs that read "It was never about bathrooms" I have a feeling the social conservatives concur.
Does the process of assembling a meta-public exist on the left? Clinton jammed the various racist, neo-nazi, sexist, and homophobic publics into a single alt-right public, or basket of deplorables. But the left has been unsuccessful in linking the alt-right with neoliberalism, which in my humble opinion must be done. This may indicate how the left's inability to think of an alternative political and economic project to neoliberalism leaves them unable to create links with other publics. Or it may indicate that elite whites in the Democratic Party who've benefited from neoliberalism over the years aren't as liberal and progressive as they think they are. It's an empirical question.
In short, publics don't just exist, but once they are created and a link is forged between publics, a pathway is created for the actor to take a stroll through the various publics. The stroll may be voyeuristic. It may be life affirming. But the connections that are made and not made involved eyes interpreting bodies. Not all is bad. In urban areas where whites tend to be more liberal, they are willing to create coalition districts with minority groups and vote for minority candidates. However, states with a large minority population and a republican governor were also more likely to pass laws to limit minority votes, such as Voter ID laws. In any case, I hope my brief blog post highlighted one way that the body as an independent variable can be used to study politics. I think body and embodiment scholars have still only begun to scratch the surface on the potential contributions that an embodied perspective adds to our understanding of social movements, collective behavior, and political sociology.