An Inconvenient Truth About (Many) Democratic Voters

Ezekiel Kweku draws together some ideas that were rattling around in my head (boldface mine):

I have good news and bad news: America is pretty much the same country it was in 2008 when it elected Barack Hussein Obama as president of the United States. Electing the first black president did not signal that we had entered a post-racial era, it did not expunge our long record of racism, and it did not uncouple our future from white racial resentment. American politics has always revolved around the concerns and interests of white people, and most white people are not heavily invested in the safety and humanity of black and brown people. Some of them, in fact, see maintaining white domination of the political, cultural, and economic spheres as being very much in their self-interest. Donald Trump won the election by playing on this fact; Obama was able to win two elections in spite of it. Crucially, Obama didn’t pull this off by convincing white people not to be racist, he did it by convincing them to vote for him anyway, by crafting a message that appealed to their self-interest.

…The lesson we should draw from Clinton’s loss is not that white supremacy is unbeatable at the polls, but that it’s not going to beat itself. White people are not going to instinctively recoil from racist appeals, and neither are people of color going to flock to the polls to defeat them. If the Democratic Party would like to keep more Donald Trumps from winning in the future, they are going to have to take the extraordinary step of doing politics….

In the aftermath of the election, we seem to have been drawn into an argument about whether people who voted for Donald Trump “are racists,” and whether Democrats should reach out to racists or cut them off. I find this argument mystifying because it has no real political application.

Donald Trump won the election, and if the Democrats don’t want him to win the next one, they must either convince some of the people who voted for him not to do so again, or convince some of the people who didn’t vote at all to vote for the Democratic candidate. The question of whether people in either group are racist seems to me to be irrelevant to both of these tasks. The practice of pigeonholing voters into the categories of “racist” and “not racist” is counterproductive. A more useful frame is to decide which voters can be persuaded to vote for Democratic candidates and which can’t. Certainly there’s a swath of people so wedded to white supremacy that they will not vote for a party committed to racial justice no matter what, but Democrats do not need to win those voters to win a presidential election. As Obama’s election demonstrates, some of the voters who land in the “persuadable” category will hold racist views. This time around, there were also black people who chose to stay at home, and Latinos who aren’t engaged in national politics, and white women who carried a grudge against Hillary Clinton for whatever reason (and there’s plenty more to be said about the role misogyny played in this election, too). The Democrats are going to have to reach some of these people in order to win the next election.

This is not to say, as some on both the left and the right have argued, that the Democrats must compromise or sideline their substantive (or even rhetorical) commitment to justice for marginalized people, or stop doing “identity politics.” The Democrats should not, for instance, disavow Black Lives Matter or abandon criminal justice reform. Instead, as Obama did, they must appeal to their traditional base in the working and middle class (not just the white working class) in a way that addresses the self-interest of these groups.

As the kids used to say, read the whole thing.

Eugene Robinson makes a similar point (boldface mine):

Another lesson, perhaps the most important one, is that the Democratic Party cannot hope to succeed by relying solely on its ability to win the popular vote in presidential elections.

Democrats have won the popular vote in 1992, 1996, 2000, 2008, 2012 and now 2016. That’s six out of the past seven presidential contests. Yet the Republican Party is running the country, or at least most of it.

The Democratic Party cannot just wait for the next Barack Obama to come along. The president is a unique political talent of the kind that appears only once in a great while, when the stars magically align. Instead, Democrats need to do what Republicans did, which is to build from the ground up and start winning state and local elections.

A Democratic rebound has to begin with the basics: getting people who agree with you to vote. Less than 60 percent of those eligible to cast ballots in last week’s election bothered to do so. Conservatives who say this is “a center-right nation” may be right in terms of who votes, but they’re wrong in terms of who could vote. Polls show that the country favors Democratic over Republican positions on most issues.

The Democratic Party should put its energy and money into connecting with potential voters at the grass-roots level. Trump made a bunch of pie-in-the-sky promises he can never keep. Democrats need a hopeful but realistic message recognizing that while most big cities prosper in today’s globalized economy, much of the rest of the country suffers.

As I put it recently, national parties should be able to walk and chew gum at the same time–we need to and can unite enough rural, suburban, and urban voters to gain a governing majority. That’s something Obama understood (boldface mine):

Barack Obama raised an eyebrow or two this week, when he had this to say about why the Democrats just lost the White House:

“You know, I won Iowa not because the demographics dictated that I would win Iowa. It was because I spent 87 days going to every small town and fair and fish fry and VFW hall, and there were some counties where I might have lost, but maybe I lost by 20 points instead of 50 points. … There are some counties maybe I won that people didn’t expect because people had a chance to see you and listen to you.”

Ouch. There’s no way to read that except as a stinging indictment of the Clinton campaign’s failure to compete in “lost” territory.

I do want to add one point about the most misunderstood graphic of the whole election:


Democrats dwelled on the most obvious–and politically convenient–part–which indicates that Trump supporters are a lot more racist than anyone else. But this figure also contains an inconvenient truth (to use a phrase). The most optimistic reading of this is that at least one out of five Democrats are racist–and that estimate includes black people (I’m assuming most don’t believe these things; i.e., the denominator should be smaller). I don’t think it’s unreasonable to assume that one in four Democrats is racist–which admittedly is better than Republicans, especially once the Trumpists are factored in. We, too, have our deplorables.

As Kweku notes, however, these racists are still willing to vote for Democrats in spite of and in opposition to their racism. Figure out why they do so, and then do more of that.

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