Trump supporters at a campaign rally in Las Vegas last week. Credit: Doug Mills, The New York Times.
Moderates and progressives have a lot to lose by ignoring each other on this crucial question.
Can Democrats diminish the bigotry that Donald Trump has unleashed in this country?
Stung by the success of Trump’s anti-immigrant, racist campaign themes in 2016, left-of-center advocacy groups — think tanks, unions, progressive academics and Democratic consultants — are developing tools this year to counter the continuing Republican assault on liberal values, based on the optimistic assumption that the reservoir of white animosity is not so deep that Trump is assured re-election.
These efforts on the left challenge the long history of Republican success in exploiting race and a host of ancillary issues — crime, welfare, social disorder, family breakdown, homelessness — a history that includes Richard Nixon in 1968 and 1972, Ronald Reagan in 1980, George H.W. Bush in 1988 and Donald Trump in 2016.
That history points to the relentless power of racial resentment in American politics. Despite polling that shows greater acceptance of racial equality, this issue is as potent a source of political strength for Trump today as it was for Nixon a half century ago.
There are myriad studies, as I have noted (along with many others) that show the continuing effectiveness of race and immigration as wedge issues. These studies continue to appear at an alarming rate.
Take “The Trump Effect: An Experimental Investigation of the Emboldening Effect of Racially Inflammatory Elite Communication” published earlier this month by four political scientists.
We find that exposure to racially inflammatory statements by Trump caused those with high levels of prejudice to be more likely to perceive engagement in prejudiced behavior as socially acceptable.
In other words, if the president of the United States denigrates Muslims, or Hispanics, or African-Americans, then anyone can.
Significantly, Newman, Merolla and their colleagues determined that
“the magnitude of this effect is enhanced when exposure to inflammatory speech by Trump is coupled with information that other political elites tacitly condone his speech,” as leading Republicans have done through their continuing acquiescence.
While Trump’s rhetoric improved his prospects in 2016, Merolla wrote by email, in 2020 the result may be mixed:
When individuals experience feelings of anger in relation to the political environment, they are more likely to participate in politics so I suspect that it did help drive increased turnout. However, his rhetoric has also led to increased anger on the other side of the aisle, so it has also likely driven higher turnout on the left, especially during the 2018 midterm election.
A forthcoming paper by Desmond King and Rogers M. Smith, political scientists at Oxford and the University of Pennsylvania, “White Protectionism in America,” makes a strong case that Trump, unlike his Republican predecessors in the White House, has gone far beyond rhetoric and token gestures to substantively address the concerns of his anti-immigrant and socially conservative supporters.
King and Smith catalog in great detail Trump’s success putting in place policies
favored by racially conservative Americans but with a new focus on active white protection, rather than simply colorblind efforts to constrain positive governmental actions. Trump has fanned the anger of many white supporters convinced that post-1970 federal policies have unjustly favored people of color.
Trump has fueled this anger and solidified his support among “his anti-immigrant and socially conservative supporters,” combating this “alleged white victimization,” King and Smith argue, by requiring:
protectionist measures including tolerating racial profiling in policing and reversing some extant civil rights policies; subverting others through deregulation or neglect; and favoring measures which go beyond colorblindness, such as stop-and-frisk practices and demands for identification triggered by racial and ethnic identities, as well as anti-Muslim immigration restrictions.
In an email, Smith wrote that he and King “can’t estimate how effective the white protectionist message will be for Trump,” but
You don’t need to specialize in quantitative analyses of elections to know that the cult of personality Trump has inspired means that he is a far more effective voice for this view than anyone else in American politics. Having him at the top of the ticket this time around has to help in advancing white protectionist messages and policies successfully.
Now let’s look at some of the Democratic and liberal thinking focused on undermining Trump’s divide-and-conquer strategy.
On Wednesday, for example, the liberal Century Foundation issued a lengthy study, “How Progressives Can Recapture Seven Deeply Held American Values.”
Working-class Americans do not want to be lectured about what their motivations are, and ascribing misogyny or racial animus to any group of potential voters is not a winning strategy for building a coalition.
One of the authors’ central arguments is that liberals have ceded to conservatives a monopoly on such themes and values as faith, family, country and law and order. They have done so because Republicans have “added a meanspirited twist to these mainstream values” as a way of attacking women’s and gay rights, blacks, antiwar protesters and single mothers.
“Because progressives appropriately reject the harsh right-wing interpretations of these values,” Greer and Kahlenberg write, many progressives have “stopped talking about these ideas altogether, sticking to a discussion of public policy solutions and an array of facts, rather than the powerful values that underlie them.”
In support of their argument, they cite research by two sociologists at Stanford, Jan G. Voelkel and Robb Willer, who argue in “Resolving the Progressive Paradox: Conservative Value Framing of Progressive Economic Policies Increases Candidate Support,” a paper that was published last year, that voters are less concerned with candidates’ specific policies than with the values they espouse:
We found that a presidential candidate who framed his progressive economic platform to be consistent with more conservative value concerns like patriotism, family, and respect for tradition — as opposed to more liberal value concerns like equality and social justice — was supported significantly more by conservatives and, unexpectedly, by moderates as well.
Voelkel and Willer conclude by citing the “progressive paradox,” that Americans “support many core progressive economic policies at high levels, yet rarely elect progressive candidates, a paradox widely discussed in academic and popular literature.”
They argue, however, that
when progressive candidates frame their policies as consistent with conservative, as opposed to liberal, values, they receive greater support from conservatives and moderates.
Notably, they add, “there was no backlash to conservative framing among liberal participants.”
A second study of possible shifts in Democratic messaging strategies includes a set of relatively moderate proposals that are less challenging to the left wing of the party, but which still ran into opposition from more vocal liberals.
The Race-Class Narrative Project, a 2018 report, has become a strategic blueprint for many of the Democratic Party’s allied organizations, especially organized labor.
It’s based on the research of Ian Haney López, a law professor at Berkeley and the author of “Merge Left: Fusing Race and Class, Winning Elections, and Saving America,” who worked closely with Anat Shenker-Osorio, founder of ASO Communications.
The Race-Class project, which was sponsored by Demos, a progressive think tank, argues that 59 percent of the electorate is neither reliably liberal nor reliably conservative, but in the middle, cross-pressured on issues of race. These voters are “persuadables.”
For Democrats, winning over a large share of the persuadable electorate in no easy task, according to the authors.
On the plus side for Democrats, persuadables agree
on ending racial discrimination, on the negative impact of divide and conquer tactics, on the value of working together, on the reality that African Americans face greater obstacles than whites.
On the negative side of the ledger, according to the report, these middle ground voters “have concerns about ‘reverse racism’ and discrimination against whites;” a sizable majority agree “focusing on race doesn’t fix anything and may even make things worse;” and “persuadable adults believe that people of color who cannot get ahead are mostly responsible for their own condition.”
In other words, these persuadable voters provide fertile ground for conservative appeals to racial resentment.
The Race-Class narrative makes specific recommendations on the language candidates should use when taking on issues of race.
Politicians, according the report, should say “our opponents point the finger for our hard times at blacks, new immigrants and Muslims” instead of saying “our opponents are racist against blacks, new immigrants and Muslims.” Why? “Framing scapegoating as tied to economic concerns allows audiences, including whites, to see that their well-being is tied to rejecting racial resentment.”
How effective would adoption of the recommendations in the Race-Class narrative report be?
One place where the Race-Class strategies were tried was in the 2018 state and federal elections in Minnesota. The results — a series of Democratic victories, some in the face of explicit Republican attacks on immigrants and urban crime — suggest that there may be significant value in the report.
Shenker-Osorio, noting the need “to be cautious about making unprovable statements about how any intervention can be credited,” wrote by email:
We won big in the state — flipping the Minnesota House, winning five of seven Congressional races, two State Senate seats, all of the state executive races and boasting the highest turnout of an election with noteworthy participation nationally. The coalition behind Greater Than Fear did impressive work, I say admittedly without objectivity.
Under the banners of “We Are Greater Than Fear,” the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, liberal interest groups and the candidates themselves explicitly rejected Republican attempts to capitalize on fears of Somali immigrants and claims that Muslim Democrats fostered terrorism.
In an ad shown during halftime at the 2018 Super Bowl, Tim Walz, the successful Democratic candidate for governor, praised the racial and ethnic mix of the state, the “immigrant farmers, lumberjacks and miners, champions of freedom and refugees, and people who’ve been here all along, the Anishinaabe and Dakota.”
“We’ve proven that when we come together as one Minnesota we can do anything. I’ve seen it,” Walz told viewers. “In this state we don’t fear the future, we create the future. And when we stand together, we win.”
In the race for state Attorney General, Doug Wardlow, the Republican nominee, running against Keith Ellison, a Muslim, wrote in a fund-raising letter: “As a Muslim, Ellison has hung around radical Islamic groups and defends known terrorists.”
Almost immediately, four religious leaders — Rabbi Marcia Zimmerman of Temple Israel, Pastor Laurie Eaton of Our Savior’s Lutheran Church, Grant Stevensen, a pastor from St. Paul, and Imam Asad Zaman, of the Muslim American Society — denounced Wardlow. Ellison won.
A group of Democratic firms, led by Lake Research Partners in partnership with ASO Communications and Brilliant Corners Research and Strategies, poll-tested various Democratic messages on race for the Race-Class report. In addition to polling, they used focus groups equipped with hand-held dials to register favorable or unfavorable audience reaction to a liberal as opposed to a conservative, Republican message.
The most effective liberal-Democratic message read:
America’s strength comes from our ability to work together — to knit together a landscape of people from different places and of different races into one nation. For this to be a place of freedom for all, we cannot let the greedy few and the politicians they pay for turn what you look like, where you come from or how much money you have into reasons some of us matter and others don’t. It’s time to stand up for each other and come together. It is time for us to pick leaders who reflect the very best of every kind of American. Together, we can make this a place where freedom is for everyone, no exceptions.
The Republican opposition message, in its entirety, read:
Our leaders must prioritize keeping us safe and ensuring that hard working Americans have the freedom to prosper. Taking a second look at people coming from terrorist countries who wish us harm or at people from places overrun with drugs and criminal gangs is just common sense. And so is curbing illegal immigration, so our communities are no longer flooded with people who refuse to follow our laws. We need to make sure we take care of our own people first, especially the people who politicians have cast aside for too long to cater to whatever special interest groups line their pockets, yell the loudest, or riot in the street.
In the polling done for the Race Class report, all the Democratic messages received higher ratings than the opposition message, but there was a clear warning signal. The Demos report found that the opposition message
is very strong with persuadables. Among persuadables the opposition message has the lowest convincing rating, but the average dial rating is higher than several of our messages. Several themes of the opposition message resonate with persuadables including ‘keeping us safe’ and “we need to make sure we take care of our own people first.”
Just as the Greer-Kahlenberg proposals would face opposition from the Democratic left, the same is true of the more moderate messages and themes suggested in the Race-Class narrative.
Ian Haney López, in his book “Merging Left,” noted when he outlined his proposals to various group, he
met rejection from race-focused advocates in my lectures on university campuses. As I came to see cross-racial solidarity as the key to both racial justice and economic fairness, I began delivering the same lecture I gave to the unions at colleges across the country. In those progressive settings, much of the pushback came from the students most committed to racial justice.
That is, the students most committed to racial justice were wary of any alliance with working and middle class whites.
Haney López elaborated in an email:
I’m using the students as a stand-in for the larger community of racial justice activists — people focused first and foremost on justice for communities of color who see the problems besetting these communities primarily through the lens of a racial analysis.
For this constituency, Haney López continued, “certainly one concern is whether a coalition is possible with work-a-day whites.” But, he added,
The deeper resistance of most racial justice activists to the race-class approach is rooted in frustration with the liberal whites who wield most of the power, formal and informal, in liberal institutions, from universities to unions, foundations to the media to the Democratic Party. From these liberal whites, racial justice activists have too often heard that they should wait, that their arguments are divisive and disruptive, that they should subordinate their concerns to larger goals.
For the Democratic Party, race and immigration remain crucially important in terms of both values and policy. The key question is whether the party is structurally capable — under an extraordinary barrage of hostility directed by Republicans at African-Americans and immigrants — of finding politically effective ways of addressing race and immigration. Has the left wing of the party become so discouraged, so defensive — and so embattled — that it now perceives a critical mass of whites as intractably hardened and unswervingly opposed to minority interests? If moderates and progressives are locked in on either side of such a chasm, what will it take to make peace?
This article was originally published by The New York Times.