It’s 2020, and Democrats Still Don’t Understand Their Voters

I realize left-ish Twitter has moved on to arguing about why Biden shouldn’t sign one executive order–abolishing government-held student loan debt–that would reward part of his political coalition (it’s Democrats, though, so that’s to be expected. But I’m old enough to remember when people were caterwauling about how a bunch of votes for Trump meant horrible things about racism and the future of progressivism (construed broadly).

What said caterwauling tells me is, after four years, too many Democrats still seem unable to comprehend that a significant fraction of bigoted people, somewhere between one-third and one-quarter depending on how you measure it, vote Democratic in spite of and in opposition to their bigotry. I find a cautious hope of sorts in that, since it means Democrats can win over bigots without having to be bigoted ourselves. Because if Democratic bigots don’t turn out, never mind switch, we lose. So, do we want them to vote in support of or in opposition to their bigotry?

Rather than repeat myself, I’ll just re-up this post from 2017, “The Thing Democrats Need To Understand”:

It is this (boldface mine):

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)… 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.

I wrote that less than two weeks after the 2016 election, which might be why it went over like a lead balloon about this polling result:


Turns out new data support this finding (boldface mine):

The biggest yawning gap between Democrats and Republicans is on the issue of motivation and will power. The GSS asks whether African Americans are worse off economically “because most just don’t have the motivation or will power to pull themselves up out of poverty?”

A majority — 55 percent — of white Republicans agreed with this statement, compared to 26 percent of white Democrats. That’s the biggest gap since the question was first asked in 1977 — though the gap was similar (60-32) in 2010.

This isn’t some sort of hidden bias, it’s just pretty fucking racist. And then:

The survey also asks people to rate the races on how hard-working or lazy they are, which allows us to compare whether people rate some higher than others.

In this case, 42 percent of white Republicans rated African Americans as being lazier than whites, versus 24 percent of white Democrats.

Pretty racist. Finally:

In this case, 26 percent of white Republicans rated African Americans as less intelligent, compared to 18 percent of white Democrats.

Pretty much defines racist.

If you haven’t already blown a gasket, I’m not going Full Metal Ron Fournier and claiming ‘both sides do it’: clearly, one side does it much more than the other. Moreover, the Republican Party is dog whistling, not to mention air-raid sirening, to racists, while the Democratic Party openly espouses anti-racist policies (always could do more, but there is a difference in kind here).

If the Democratic racists stayed home, Democrats would be hard pressed to win 100 House seats (out of 435), and maybe control governorships in five states (no way Democrats reach ten). Of course, if all racists stayed home, Democrats would run the table on Republicans. The point is not to pander to the racists, but figure out why they are voting Democratic in spite of their racism. As Ezekiel Kweku put it (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.

While much of the discussion often revolves around presidential dynamics (I’m guilty of this too), it’s the states where often the most retrograde policies are enacted. To win back states and thereby help Democratic strongholds, Democrats have no choice but to convince these voters to show up (or at least not vote Republican).

Finally, one more point: often the argument is phrased as ‘appealing to racists’, as if this doesn’t happen. Democrats already do appeal to some racists, in spite of their racism. Yes, I would like the scourge of racism to be eradicated, but that’s kind of a long-term project–think pulpits, not politics, for that. In the meantime, the question is do we want racists to vote for or against their racism?

The question pretty much answers itself.

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