Can Democracy Survive Racism as a Strategy?
- July 9, 2021
By Ian Haney López
This essay is part of Protect Democracy’s Democracy Endgame series, in which leading thinkers were invited to offer their own views on possible paths out of the United States’ democratic crisis. This essay reflects solely the viewpoint of its author and not of his affiliated institutions or of Protect Democracy.
As a practical matter, at the present moment the survival of democracy in the United States hinges upon the electoral success of the Democratic Party. Given the radicalization of the Republican Party, there is little prospect that democracy endures unless Democrats win enough elections to remain in control of the federal government.
Major hurdles facing the Democratic Party include the disproportionate power of rural states, gerrymandered districts, voter disenfranchisement, the composition and rules of the Senate, and other factors. But chief among these challenges looms identity politics — the success of the right’s identity politics, and the tendency of Democrats to engage in identity wars with each other.
The Democratic Party is famously bad at communicating a unifying story about its vision for society. Indeed, Democrats all too often campaign as if their opponent is another faction of their own party rather than the Republicans. And then, with each new loss (or distressingly narrow victory), Democrats take aim at each other anew, further strengthening the sense that their brand is disarray.
Many factors contribute to conflict among Democrats. But nothing hamstrings the Democratic Party’s power to define itself and its mission as much as the right’s strategic racism. The GOP’s embrace decades ago of racial dog whistle politics has turned Democrats against each other. One Democratic faction believes with every fiber that white racism must be directly confronted, though this alienates white voters and loses elections. The other side insists that the best strategy is to mainly ignore racism — though this leaves unchallenged the Republicans’ main electoral strategy. Democrats are thus two Titanics, steaming in opposite directions. From their respective decks, each can see the iceberg in the other’s path, but not the jagged teeth beneath their own bows. For democracy itself, whatever hope there is depends on both these Titanics turning.
Dog Whistle Politics
In 1961, Barry Goldwater represented an insurgent faction within the Republican Party that opposed the New Deal consensus that government should work for working families, asserting instead that private enterprise and lightly regulated capitalism were the surest engines of national progress. Understanding the widespread popularity of the New Deal, Goldwater’s wing proposed pursuing their class agenda by pandering to white backlash. Using folksy language, the Arizona businessman argued that Republicans “ought to go hunting where the ducks are.” Goldwater meant in the South, where many whites, traditionally allied with the Democratic Party, were increasingly aggrieved by civil rights. But precisely because of the civil rights movement’s success, Goldwater would not speak in the plain language of white supremacy. Instead, he adopted dog whistles, coded terms like “states’ rights” designed to give a neutral veneer to racist sentiment.
For Goldwater himself, the racial strategy failed. His opponent Lyndon Johnson won in a landslide, based on campaign promises for activist government to end poverty. But Johnson, it now turns out, was the last Democratic candidate for president to win a majority of the white vote.
There are two points directly relevant to our current situation. One is that in 1964, white voters by a landslide supported a sweeping progressive agenda they understood as akin to prior New Deal programs — which is to say, government programs designed to help them. Likewise, modern polls show high levels of support for redistributive policies. There’s nothing inherently conservative about American voters, nor even white voters more narrowly, at least in terms of economic issues. The “conservatism” of the voting public, rather, is driven by race. The second point is this: over the last six decades, dog whistle politics has completely remade U.S. electoral politics, bringing us to the cliff’s edge of authoritarianism buttressed by racially-aggrieved populism.
Much has been written about the recent radicalization of the Republican Party. Most of its elected officials now adopt dangerously anti-democratic positions, from the big lie about stolen elections to support for insurrection, from efforts to disenfranchise whole swaths of voters to encouraging vigilante violence against other Americans. Less often emphasized is that racial politics is the prime driver behind this transmogrification.
“It’s a mistake for the party to accept the beliefs of Sen. Barry Goldwater and write off the negro vote.” In 1962, Richard Nixon issued that caution, from his vantage as a moderate Republican and a former vice-president. “If Goldwater wins his fight,” Nixon foretold, “our party would eventually become the first major all-white political party.” But by 1968, Nixon had decided to join the Goldwater’s duck hunt, adopting what was then called the “Southern Strategy.” Nixon understood its ugliness. But he also concluded that he had no choice but to employ coded racism if he was to triumph.
Like Nixon, generations of GOP candidates have made the same Faustian bargain, employing racial demagoguery to win election. Some, likely, have genuinely hated people of color. Most, one suspects, have been more directly motivated dog whistling’s power to win elections. Yet racial demagoguery is not a weapon easily holstered. It remains a loaded gun lying around, easily picked up by someone else willing to go just a bit further — and not just in competition with Democrats, but as a strategy to use against other Republicans. As a result, for six decades the Republicans have been, and remain now, locked into a radicalizing cycle. New cohorts win as firebrands, and then lose as RINOs. Over the decades, we’ve seen the Silent Majority, Reagan Democrats, the Gingrich Revolution, the Tea Party and Freedom Caucus, and then Trumpism. And even Trumpists now find themselves overtaken by the apocalyptic storm of QAnon. More than anything else, it is racial demagoguery and the radicalizing cycle it drives that has brought us to the precipice of democratic collapse.
Not infrequently, political professionals dismiss “stories” as superficial, even trivial, because they’re seen as cheap words rather than practical policies or concrete outcomes that directly improve people’s lives. “It’s the economy, stupid,” is the classic formulation. But it’s not the economy, or at least, not directly. Axios reported that after the widespread condemnations of the January 6 insurrection, consumer confidence among Democrats rose nearly 4 points while it fell by 5.6 points among Republicans. The trigger? Not any change in the economy, of course, but rather a shift in the evaluation of whether Donald Trump would actually leave the White House. Similarly, many pundits initially attributed Trump’s 2016 victory to economic hardship, only to have more sober analysis demonstrate the power of racial resentment to shape perceptions regarding the state of the country, including the economy. More generally, pollster recognize that with each switch in the party controlling the presidency, big partisan shifts occur in how people regard their economic situation. It’s not that hardship doesn’t matter. Economic distress and anxiety make people more prone to accepting volatile ideas, including the need to dramatically alter course. Still, though, it’s the frame that people use to understand their lives, more directly than the conditions themselves, that drive how they participate in politics.
Look at the GOP’s catastrophic pandemic politics. Republican officials have enacted policies that discourage mask-wearing and vaccination, with predictable outcomes of illness and even death. Even so, their base rewards them. Here’s Republican House member Lauren Boebert at the summer 2021 Conservative Political Action Conference, applause resounding as she strides the stage with fiery rhetoric: “We’re here to tell government, we don’t want your benefits, we don’t want your welfare, don’t come knocking on my door with your Fauci ouchie. You leave us the hell alone.” We can hear Boebert angrily link vaccinations to “government,” “benefits,” “welfare,” and wanting to be left alone. This is not policy talk, it’s identity politics, and racial identity politics in particular (even though the pandemic would seem to have nothing to do with race).
There’s a “Chicago welfare queen” with a “tax-free cash income . . . over $150,000,” Ronald Reagan repeatedly said on the campaign trail in the 1970s and 80s. The welfare queen as a Black woman on a government-subsidized binge is now widely recognized as a racial dog whistle, making the term an effective starting point for understanding the right’s basic story. On the most obvious level, this story centers race, conjuring ugly stereotypes about African Americans. They are supposedly irresponsible and lazy. They could work if they wanted, but they prefer handouts over honest labor. More than shiftless, they’re thieving. They are not just receiving welfare; they’re ripping off the system. In short, African Americans abuse rather than deserve welfare.
To hear this story as only about race, however, misses the most important political work it performs. This story endeavors to give a negative racial cast to liberal government itself. Reagan promoted a zero-sum frame in which government efforts to help Blacks come at the expense of whites. Reagan was communicating to white voters that they were the opposite of Blacks: dutiful not irresponsible; hardworking not lazy; law-abiding not criminal; self-reliant not dependent on handouts. They were, to retrieve other dog whistle terms, the Silent Majority, the real Americans, America’s heartland and its patriots, the makers rather than the takers. Thus, government was not just misguided in its efforts to provide routes of upward mobility. It became a threatening force in the lives of whites. Liberal government, Reagan insinuated, took crucial dollars in the form of unfair taxes from the pockets of hardworking, decent, financially struggling whites, so that welfare queens could tool around in Cadillac splendor.
There are many permutations of the welfare queen story. There’s also an entire genre of dog whistles that focus, not on government programs, but on physical threat, for instance from “criminals,” “illegal aliens,” or “terrorists.” Even in the threat context, however, the racial story is designed to directly impugn government: it’s liberal government, allegedly, that refuses to control these menacing others, for instance by handcuffing the police or by throwing open the border.
What are the basic building blocks of identity politics? At root, these are the most important questions asked and answered by identity politics: who we are, who threatens us, and who will fight for us. Who we are is a question of status. Are we valued, respected, welcome, even superior to others? The right elevates white people as the true heart of the nation, the patriots, job creators, and makers, those who are law-abiding and innocent, deserving and righteous. It does so in code that gains powerful subconscious validation from centuries of white supremacy that finds contemporary expression in much of American culture as well as our nation’s concrete reality — cities and corporate headquarters, rural areas and places of worship, public schools and Ivy League universities.
As to the source of threat in people’s lives, the right warns voters that they’re beset not only by people of color but even more so by liberal government, which betrays white people by siding with minorities. The message is simple and oft-repeated: everyone is on their own, endangered by other Americans and traitorous government, and must largely fend for themselves and their families. On the level of physical safety, this rhetoric encourages buying a gun (gun sales have recently surged, with 2 out of 5 households now owning guns). In terms of the economy, it implies working as hard as you can in the marketplace. When you believe that you’re threatened by people who look different than you rather than by the bosses and the financiers, you shun building power with other workers, whether through unions or politics.
And who will fight alongside you, against the looming dangers? First and foremost, it’s your own narrow community. In demagogic politics, fear of others is used less to foment complete social atomization than a sense of connection with those who might offer mutual defense — the unity that comes from joining forces against the barbarians at the gate. Self-identified white evangelical Christians comprise the demographic cohort most likely to support Republican candidates. Voters in white, rural communities are trending in that direction. The New York Times reported that in 2021 many such communities in Virginia voted for Glenn Youngkin, the victorious Republican candidate for governor, at rates surpassing 70 and 80 percent. The paper also noted that “in interviews with a dozen white, rural voters who backed Mr. Youngkin, policy was less important than grievance and their own identity politics.” Youngkin’s closing argument to voters stressed his opposition to the teaching of critical race theory in public schools. Karen Bass, who voted for him, was persuaded to support Youngkin because, she said, white children “are no longer allowed to be kids, we’re treating them like little monsters.”
As for which politicians will be seen as allies, shared identities matter, for instance along the lines of race and religion. But even more important, voters who accept the right’s narrative support politicians who endorse their worries about dangerous others. Biden’s genuine religiosity and personal integrity mattered less to the vast majority of Republicans than Donald Trump’s supposedly bold truth telling about Black Lives Matter protesters, Latin American immigrants, and Muslims. In Virginia, voters not only elected Youngkin, a white man, but also a Black woman, Winsome Sears, as lieutenant governor. Her being Black was raised as a defense against the charge of GOP racial pandering. But Sears, too, campaigned against the fabricated threat of racial indoctrination in schools, for instance claiming “if Critical Race Theory means that telling a child that once you emerge from the womb you are a racist and a colonizer and whatever else, that’s not going to be good.” Sears had also served as national chair of Black Americans Making America First, a coalition that promotes Donald Trump and defends him after racist comments.
The Race Left
Half-a-century ago, Democrats recognized that the GOP had found a tractor beam to pull working class whites out of the New Deal coalition. But they struggled to find an effective defense. George McGovern, campaigning against Richard Nixon in 1972 in Little Rock, Arkansas, assailed Nixon for “playing to racist emotions.” In San Antonio, Texas, McGovern said there is “no question that [the Nixon] Administration is playing to racist emotions in the country — the President has done that from the very beginning.”
McGovern lost in a landslide that left him with support from less than one in three white voters. Other factors contributing to McGovern’s defeat included early opposition from the Democratic establishment and chaos around his initial vice-presidential pick. But his denunciations of Nixon’s dog whistle politics as “racist” played an important role.
Since the late 1930s, the Democratic Party has relied on African American voters to win elections. By the 1960s, the party’s national leadership was committed to supporting wide-ranging civil rights even in the face of massive resistance and open racism in the South, including in places like Little Rock. But this commitment to frontally opposing white racism did not translate well into a response to dog whistle politics.
“The machinist’s wife in Dayton may decide to leave the Democratic reservation,” the liberal pollsters Richard Scammon and Ben Wattenberg warned in their 1970 book The Real Majority. “If she thinks the Democrats feel that she isn’t scared of crime but that she’s really a bigot, if she thinks that Democrats feel the police are Fascist pigs and the Black Panthers and the Weathermen are just poor, misunderstood, picked-upon kids, if she thinks that Democrats are for the hip drug culture and that she, the machinist’s wife, is not only a bigot, but a square, then good-bye lady — and good-bye Democrats.” The crux lay in the code used by dog whistling. Those stampeded by talk of thugs, law and order, forced busing, and the silent majority did not understand themselves as racists. Rather, they experienced their reactions as commonsense concerns about crime, their children, and being heard, and they deeply resented the implication that they were prejudiced.
Dog whistle politics is often misunderstood as a secret handshake between a politician and voter when both are closet racists. But in fact, dog whistling is so powerful because it hides the underlying racism even from the voters most agitated by the racist prods.
In the summer of 2020, I ran a project with Way to Win as well as Lake Research to measure the persuasive power of Trumpist dog whistling. We asked almost 2,000 eligible voters to react to a message ripped from Republican rhetoric. It advocated “fully funding the police, so our communities are not threatened by people who refuse to follow our laws,” and declared that “our leaders must prioritize keeping us safe” and that “taking a second look at China, or illegal immigration from places overrun with drugs and criminal gangs, is just common sense.” Since it drew upon GOP language designed to activate white racial anxiety, it’s no surprise that the majority of white respondents found this message convincing. Here’s the shock: at identical levels, so too did the majority of African Americans. And Latino respondents were convinced at rates that were just slightly higher than the white cohort.
African Americans and Latinos are not as likely as white voters to support Republicans; partisan messages never operate uncontested, and Black and brown voters identify with Democratic messages even more highly than with the right’s frame. Rather, the point is that dog whistle politics is still, well, dog whistle politics. It is not, as is now commonplace to announce among liberal political professionals, a blaring sound truck, a shrieking train whistle, or a klaxon of open white supremacy. Rather, the overwhelming majority of voters — including majorities of Latinos and African Americans — interpret racial dog whistles not as bald racism but as common sense.
And yet, like McGovern, one side of the Democratic Party continues to campaign by denouncing white racism. Consider this language, also from our study: “There’s been a horrible explosion of hate in this country. Certain politicians promote xenophobia, racism, and division. And it’s not just their words. It’s their policies, too. We see it in how they rip families apart at the border. And in how the police profile, imprison, and kill Black people, and use excessive force against people marching for justice.”
Akin to how we assembled a dog whistle message to test, we put this language together by drawing from the rhetoric of race-focused Democratic activists and politicians. Call this side the Race Left — those Democrats convinced that the party must directly confront white racism. Compared to the dog whistle message, the Race Left language was far less persuasive to white voters, and also lost, though not quite so badly, among persuadable voters of all racial groups. It was also the least persuasive Democratic message to African American and Latino audiences.
Why does a story stressing white racism perform so poorly? Recall the core questions of identity politics. To the question of who you are in this society, the Race Left’s condemnations of Republican racism effectively say that you’re a bigot — at least, that’s what you are if you’re worried about illegal immigration, drugs and criminal gangs, and supporting the police. Yet that’s the majority of Americans, white, Black, and brown, who feel such fears are reasonable.
On a deeper level, condemnations of widespread white racism communicate to white voters you’re part of the problem, part of the group that originated, perpetuated, and still benefits from injustice. Racially progressive white voters are willing to see themselves that way. But the vast majority recoil. They are the contemporary versions of Scammon and Wattenberg’s machinist’s wife from Dayton.
Simultaneously, this story says to people of color, you’re victimized and hated by the dominant group in this society. Activists and those whose educations have stressed the history of racism in America often accept this self-conception. But many voters of color do not, especially professionally accomplished minorities as well as immigrants. In my focus group conversations last summer with Latinos across the country, many were repelled by anti-racist language that, in their minds, positioned them as hated people and predicted that their children would never fully belong in this society. Using the coded rhetoric of dog whistle politics, they preferred to see themselves as among the “patriots” and “hardworking Americans,” even if this meant accepting that the main threat in their lives came from “welfare queens,” “criminals,” and “illegal aliens.”
From 2016 to 2020, Trump improved his performance with every major non-white racial group, especially with Latino voters. In my research, how Latinos saw their group fitting into America’s racial order was the single most important factor driving partisan affiliation, larger than age, gender, region, or whether one’s family hailed from Mexico or Cuba, Puerto Rico or Venezuela.
For the Race Left, there is a hard truth here: condemnations of white supremacy backfire, losing support from voters across racial lines and thereby making justice for communities of color less likely.
Condemnations of white supremacy backfire because, perversely, the Race Left’s story strongly echoes the right’s racial narrative. Boiled down to its essence, the right says to the American public: our nation is locked into racial conflict, and everyone must choose a side. But that’s what the Race Left is saying, too. There are crucial differences: where the right blames racial conflict on thugs, invading aliens, and terrorists, the Race Left faults bigots, white culture, and systemic racism. Where the right says stand with white communities, the Race Left urges solidarity with communities of color. These differences are huge. But they’re overwhelmed by the larger similarity in the story about America the racial right and left share: we’re doomed to racial warfare and everyone must pick their side. Even apart from the electoral implications for the Democrats, this is a democratically unsustainable way to frame our relationship to each other as members of the same society.
It’s all the more important that the Race Left face this truth as the 2022 midterm elections fast approach, because the right will most likely focus its fire on racial justice activists themselves. The Race Left message I tested in July 2020 performed poorly — and yet, this was actually the highpoint of public support for the Black Lives Matter movement and a “racial reckoning” with white supremacy. Very soon thereafter, Trump and the right began a steady bombardment against racial justice activists, framing protesters as thugs and anarchists who preach a religion of racial hatred. In September, this campaign expanded to include “critical race theory,” an academic discipline studying racism that I’ve long been part of, as well as the 1619 Project, an effort to recenter slavery in American history. The narrative throughline from the right boils down to this: calls for “racial justice” are instead demands for “racial revenge.”
In the face of this new dog whistle, public support for Black Lives Matter collapsed. As the political scientists Jennifer Chudy and Hakeem Jefferson report, “white people have actually become less supportive of Black Lives Matter than they were before the death of George Floyd — a trend that seems unlikely to reverse anytime soon.” They also note that the increased support for Black Lives Matter among Latinos essentially evaporated by early 2021.
This past October, Education Week reported that laws to restrict teachers from teaching about white supremacy, systemic racism, and critical race theory had passed in 12 states, with another 26 states actively considering such bans. In November, the Virginia gubernatorial election ended with the Republican candidate closing his winning campaign with an ad tying his opponent to critical race theory. The dog whistles that dominate in 2022 will most likely focus first and foremost on the race left itself — on CRT and 1619, on calls to defund the police and abolish prisons, on “woke” denunciations of white supremacy and white privilege. How the Race Left responds can contribute to losing — or winning — elections.
The Colorblind Left
So Scammon and Wattenberg correctly understood that denouncing widespread racism among white people was likely to cost the Democrats “the machinists wife in Dayton,” their stand-in for white voters. The intervening fifty years have confirmed rather than falsified their warning. In addition, we now know that the Race Left’s rhetoric also repels significant blocs among communities of color.
But if Scammon and Wattenberg were correct in diagnosing the problem, they were wrong in their proposed solution. For them, and for most of the Democratic Party in the ensuing decades, the solution seemed clear: The Democratic Party had to temper its “pro-black stance.” Debate within the white community and in turn among Democrats had always swirled around how much to push for racial equality. But now this took on a new shape. With the GOP using Democratic support for civil rights as an ax handle to club liberals, and given how denouncing dog whistle politics as “racist” backfired, many liberals concluded they had no choice but to retreat from racial justice. This meant, in practice, that Democrats should (1) resist being baited into responding to Republican dog whistling, and (2) should seek to deny Republicans more ammunition by distancing themselves from civil rights and efforts at racial repair.
Today, similar advice again echoes through the halls of power within the Democratic Party. David Shor has gained considerable attention for advising Democrats to say what’s “popular.” This seems innocuous enough, but as Ezra Klein reports, in practice Shor “and those who agree with him argue that Democrats need to try to avoid talking about race and immigration.” In contrast to the Race Left, we can call this the Colorblind Left — not because they don’t see racism, but because this side urges pretending not to see it. They recognize, correctly, that denouncing white racism backfires; but then, they conclude that the solution is to run silent regarding racial demagoguery while backing away from efforts to foster racial justice.
There’s much one could say about the racial privilege and position of those quick to advocate jettisoning a concern for civil rights and the well-being of communities of color. But set that aside in favor of a cold-eyed appraisal of the Colorblind Left’s proposed electoral strategy. First, it’s never worked. Michael Dukakis tried to ignore the Willie Horton ad depicting, in the words of one gleeful Republican operative, “a wonderful mix of liberalism and a big black rapist.” Over the month when the Horton controversy reached its crescendo with little rebuttal from Dukakis, 12 percent of voters switched their allegiance to the Republican candidate, giving George H.W. Bush the lead and then the presidency. Bill Clinton did not win by ignoring dog whistles, but by imitating them, introducing himself as a new sort of Democrat who would end welfare as “a way of life” and would crack down on “criminals by supporting the death penalty.” Barack Obama and Joe Biden won initial election more in response to chaos and economic calamity under Republican administrations than on the strength of colorblind policy proposals.
However much it is accepted wisdom among Democrats, the run-from-race approach is less an electoral strategy than a last down hail-Mary pass. Viewed through the lens of identity politics, the weakness of the Colorblind Left’s strategy comes clearly into view. To who we are as well who threatens us, speeches on affordable healthcare or tax policy say precious little. Regarding allies, such rhetoric weakly implies that salvation will arrive in the laptops carried by policy wonks. The right is broadcasting Alien v. Predator onto a multi-sensory widescreen. The Colorblind Left urges viewers to tune their radios to PBS NewsHour. In short, the Colorblind Left cedes identity politics to the Right. Identity isn’t everything in elections, of course. But it is the principal rhetorical weapon of the right, and in electoral politics as in sports it’s very difficult to win by leaving the opposing team’s best player unguarded.
Plus, in this era, the colorblind strategy guarantees civil war in the Democratic Party. We are the George Floyd generation. We have stared transfixed and horrified into the business-as-usual eyes of police officer Derek Chauvin as he slowly crushes out a human life. We have celebrated a Black president, and we have seen him replaced by a president cheered on by white supremacists he calls “fine people.” For racial justice activists, Floyd’s murder stands as a bullseye surrounded by thick, concentric bands of racism: the many other police killings of Black and brown people; racialized mass incarceration and racialized mass deportation; spreading Republican attacks on voting rights; the Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, and other armed evangelists of violent white nationalism storming the capitol.
Even for racial moderates like Joe Biden, it’s a new day. As president, he has denounced the “ugly poison” of “white supremacy,” and ordered his administration to repair “the unbearable human costs of systemic racism.” Democrats as a whole, and white Democrats especially, have become much more racially liberal over the last decade. The Democratic Party cannot avoid internecine mutual destruction if the Colorblind Left continues to insist that the way forward is for Democratic politicians to mainly ignore racism.
Race-Class Fusion Politics
In 2020, Joe Biden won with 43% of his total vote coming from Black, Latino and Asian American voters, combined with 53% of his support coming from white voters. In practice, Democrats are already a multi-racial coalition. But this has been more an accident, the product of pursuing votes in various racial communities, than of a purposeful strategy to build cross-racial solidarity. To lean into its de facto identity as the party of multi-racial democracy, the Democratic Party must address racism. And it must bring along as many voters as possible, including white voters as well as voters of color resistant to seeing white people as the problem. Shifting how they talk about racism gives Democrats a way craft a unified — and unifying — story.
Race-class fusion politics frames racial conflict as a divide-and-conquer strategy that threatens us all, people of every race and across the broad economic spectrum. The real enemy we all face, fusion politics says, is those who profit by intentionally stoking racial division. The Trumpist politicians fueling group hatred; the media personalities like Tucker Carlson harping on the “great replacement theory” lie that Democrats seek to displace white voters with ever more people of color; the dark money think tanks that promote attacks on affirmative action, welfare, and more recently critical race theory. These are the real enemies we face. And by naming them as such, Democrats can shift the basic us-them conflict in American politics. The core opposition in American life is not between white people and people of color, fusion politics says. It’s us all, against those who profit by promoting social strife.
(And in electoral politics we do need an enemy. At the most generic level, it’s a basic requirement of effective storytelling. In addition, any narrative without a villain will lose to the right’s constant depiction of people of color and liberal government as predators at the door. But perhaps most importantly of all, things are so desperate right now, people need to know why and whom to blame. True, there’s a danger of sliding into Democratic versions of demagoguery, or even of anti-Semitism with frames that blame “the powerful few.” Democrats have to be specific in the enemies they name. What Democrats cannot do is offer a convincing identity story in which no one threatens us. It’s not narratively compelling, and it’s not accurate, either.)
This is “race-class” fusion politics, race-hyphen-class. It is not “do both.” Almost everyone on the race left also talks about kitchen table issues. And those on the colorblind left episodically challenge racism, especially in response to shock-the-mind displays of white supremacy like the torch-carrying marches in Charlottesville or the hate-motivated murders in El Paso. The point of distinguishing the Race and Colorblind Left is not to suggest that Democrats are neatly split into groups that exclusively talk about racism, or instead completely ignore it. The point, rather, is to highlight how Democrats are at war with each other over how much to emphasize white racism — even as both sides talk about racism and class issues as basically distinct.
On the contrary. Rather than arising separately, the surging economic hardship in the United States is directly tied to worsening racism. This is the connection that race-class fusion politics explains to the country: our fates are linked, no matter our color, because racism is the main weapon in the class war the wealthiest Americans have been winning for the last 50 years. This is class war in the way that the Occupy movement framed it: the 1 percent versus the 99 percent. But where Occupy gave little weight to race, fusion politics centers racism as the immediate threat that keeps working families from effectively fighting rule by the rich. Race-class fusion politics is not do-both. It is not additive. It is a very specific story about race inseparably fused to class.
There’s good evidence the race-class fusion story works. In focus groups and poll testing I and others have done over the last three years, we’ve probed the power of race-class narratives like this one: “we need to pull together no matter our race or ethnicity. We have done this before and can do it again. But instead of uniting us, certain politicians make divisions worse, insulting and blaming different groups. When they divide us, they can more easily rig our government and the economy for their wealthy campaign donors. When we come together by rejecting racism against anyone, we can elect new leaders who support proven solutions that help all working families.”
This message from July 2020 was more convincing to all respondents — white eligible voters included — than the right’s dog whistle fear message. It also performed better than the Race Left and Colorblind Left messages, including among voters of color. In other words, research suggests that a fusion race-class message is the most persuasive political message available today, right or left.
Yet the real strength of fusion politics rests not on how well it polls, but in what it represents to Democrats: a single story that can be genuinely owned by the contending Race and Colorblind sides. Fusion politics addresses the core concerns of the Race Left, directly confronting racism and also speaking in the most convincing frame to communities of color. In addition, fusion politics also satisfies the demands of the Colorblind Left: far from alienating white voters, it’s the most politically persuasive message among white voters (as well as for those voters of color disinclined to see themselves as racial victims).
To be sure, there remains plenty Democrats can debate about how best to bring government back onto the side of working families. Genuine differences in policy preferences will remain, for instance between economic populists like Senator Bernie Sanders and friends of Wall Street like Senator Chuck Schumer. Democrats representing multi-racial, working class cities like the progressive Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez will continue to have different priorities compared to centrists like Abigail Spanberger who represent well-off suburbs.
But what Democrats should no longer divide over is the basic identity story they offer voters. Who are we? We’re people doing our best to take care of our families, communities, and country, no matter what we look like or how long we’ve been here. Who threatens us? Those who intentionally push racial conflict so they can rig the rules for themselves while we’re divided. Who stands with us? Everyone willing to reach across racial lines to forge a common purpose, and especially those leaders who will bring us together to ensure that the American Dream is a realistic possibility for all communities.
Beyond elected officials, it’s also an important advantage that fusion politics resonates with activists as a compelling analysis of what’s happened to the country. Political messages can be based on intentional falsehoods, as dog whistle racism demonstrates. But Democrats lack propaganda outlets akin to those used by the right to normalize lies through repetition and saturation. There’s no dominant ideological machine to impose message discipline on fractious Democrats; nor close coordination between the Democratic Party and the news media, unlike the synergy between Fox and the GOP. As a result, groups that actively organize people — unions and grassroots-oriented activist organizations in particular — play an outsize role in Democratic politics. These organizers provide a key resource for spreading liberal ideas (in addition to the work they do helping to overcome the right’s disenfranchisement strategies).
But before activists will carry a message, they have to believe in it. For racial justice activists, fusion politics provides a powerful lens for understanding government violence against communities of color. When Nixon won his landslide reelection, for instance, the nation imprisoned roughly 200,000 people. Today, that number stands above 1.6 million. We now know that mass incarceration did not follow trends in crime. But to explain this violence mainly in terms of white rage or the continued shadow of systemic racism is partial at best. The rage is there, and so is the cumulative inertia of past racism. For sixty years and counting, however, the most destructive racial force in our society has been active, strategic racism — the racism that flows from cold political calculation rather than heated emotions. When politicians campaign on themes of law and order, gangs, and super-predators, they govern by building prisons and funding the police to fill them. In other words, mass incarceration reflects first and foremost racial demonization as a political strategy.
Nor is fusion politics new for racial justice activists. On the contrary, it’s the roadmap sketched for us by earlier generations, from Martin Luther King, Jr., and Fred Hampton, to César Chávez and Dolores Huerta, and even earlier, back to W.E.B. DuBois and before him the Fusion Movement that brought together newly emancipated African Americans and poor whites in the post-Civil War South. Some of these freedom fighters were more radical than others, but they all understood that racism is a class weapon and must be fought that way.
Focusing on the class side, fusion politics helps explain the economic calamity engulfing the majority of Americans. My race-class messaging research partner Heather McGhee uses the metaphor of the public swimming pool in her recent best-seller, The Sum of Us. When white voters believe that integration threatens them, they support politicians who drain away government for everyone, themselves included — in the areas of public amenities, but also extending to schools, jobs, the marketplace, healthcare, and the environment. Since the Nixon administration, the top 1 percent of Americans have captured an estimated $50 trillion dollars that would have gone to the bottom 90 percent, had the nation maintained the income distribution created by the New Deal. Instead, after 1974 the very wealthiest prospered, but the broad middle class stagnated, with households holding their position only because women flooded into the workplace. The nation is now marred by levels of wealth inequality not seen since the Gilded Era. Changes in trade patterns and technology contributed, as did other factors. But dog whistle politics was also key. It was the party of big business, after all, that rose to power on the back of coded racism.
SEIU and AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest labor groups, endorse a fusion of racial and economic justice. People’s Action, a national group working with grass-roots activists to organize rural America, carefully tested this approach in 2020 with strong results and now employs fusion politics. Likewise, Rev. William Barber’s new Poor People’s Campaign embodies fusion politics. The Sunrise Movement, activists fighting climate change, also adopt a fusion politics approach, as do Justice Democrats. These groups are to the left of most elected Democrats. No matter. The point is not that the broad left has to come to a single consensus on policy. Rather, the broad left has to tell a single, galvanizing story that brings together as many Americans as possible. The activist groups are indispensable to seeding the fusion story with voters, though ultimately it will be up to elected officials to give fusion politics legislative content.
Can the two Titanics of the Race and Colorblind lefts turn to steer a parallel course? To ask the question this way is to call to mind all of the forces that typically prevent big changes. But even so, their identity is something that Democrats can unilaterally control. Unlike so many of the proposed structural changes to protect democracy that cannot be enacted without either significant cooperation from Republicans or landslide Democratic victories, Democrats right now can begin to tell their own story about who we are to each other, who threatens us, and why we must fight for each other. Democracy, and not just the fortunes of the Democratic Party, hangs in the balance.
This essay reflects solely the viewpoint of its author and not of his affiliated institutions or of Protect Democracy.
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