After Donald Trump won the presidential race in 2016, lots of writers weighed in on what cost Hillary Clinton the election and how to win back White working-class voters to the Democratic coalition. The most common prescription seemed to be to forswear “identity politics” — politics that aimed to advance the needs of particular oppressed social groups — and either move to the right to appease the Trump base or promote a generalized economic populism that would benefit people of color without specifically talking about racism.
In “Merge Left,” Ian Haney López disagrees with either prescription. For one thing, he writes, all politics are “identity” politics. The way people vote is generally more influenced by their image of their own identity than by direct self-interest.
In a previous book, “Dog Whistle Politics,” Haney López had warned that the Right was using coded racist messages to push policies that were destroying the middle class. For this book, he decided to go past theory based on anecdotes and investigate what would make headway against the coded racist messages of the Right. He used results that are in a report called “Race-Class Narative,” based on surveys and focus groups across the country, including in crucial swing states. The report showed what effect various anti-racist or race-neutral messages would have on what he calls “persuadables” — both White and non-White voters who are neither solidly part of the progressive coalition nor part of Trump’s loyal base. What he found was both encouraging and surprising, though it provides some cautionary advice for the Left.
Haney López first warns against trying to play to the Trump base. Much of that base, he says, is not so much the White working class as an overlapping group: White evangelicals. Cynically watering down progressive programs to reach those voters is not likely to win many votes in any case.
But, he says, there are a vast number of people in the middle who are both Whites and people of color. They do not see themselves as racists, but they respond to Trump’s coded racist messages that characterize undocumented immigrants as criminals, gang members, rapists and worse, or that complain that people on food stamps are milking the system. Trump exploits their reactions to spark feelings of victimization in his base. Politically aware progressives understand these messages as racist, but politically inactive people, even ones who aren’t White, don’t necessarily pick up on the covert racism and often are swayed by the overt message.
What kind of messages can combat coded racism? Simply calling it out, as many have been doing, is often counterproductive, sparking defensiveness among people who do feel fear about immigration or resentment about welfare spending. But does that mean that progressives should stop talking about race? Haney López doesn’t think so.
Researchers used focus groups to test out possible messages. One message was basic economic populism, avoiding discussion of race. Another added a “racial justice” message that appealed for social programs benefiting people of color on moral and historical grounds. Finally, they tried out a “race-class” message, which acknowledged racism but promoted the idea that unity between working people of all races for economic security and advancement will help everybody, and that racism is cynically being used by the rich to divide people and advance their own agenda.
These messages were given to a variety of focus groups across the political spectrum, with the addition of a racial-fear message. Trump voters, not surprisingly, responded most to the racial-fear message; progressive voters, also not surprisingly, rejected the racial-fear message and responded almost equally to the racial-justice and race-class messages, and somewhat less to the economic-populist message. But people in the middle responded least to the racial-justice message. The racial-fear message and the economic-populist message that didn’t mention race did equally well. In other words, the groups split down the middle in their response, but the race-class message did better than the others.
Haney López concludes, “It’s true that those in the middle — most Whites and most people of color, too — filter the world through stereotypes and racist ideas. It’s also true … that they simultaneously hold progressive racial ideals.
The job ahead is not to start from scratch in educating the broad middle about racism, but to speak to the anti-racist convictions they already embrace. ... The Left can build a cross-racial movement for racial and economic justice by convincing the broad middle that voting their racial ideals rather than their racist phobias will help them[.]”
It’s easy, in the current climate, to despair about the direction of the country, because the Right has been successful at mobilizing a minority through the use of fear. And it’s frustrating that so many people are turned off by straight talk about racial justice. But if Haney López is right, the majority of Americans will respond readily to positive messages about social solidarity across racial lines, preferring those to negative messages pandering to racial fears. It may not start with the wholesale rejection of White privilege that many of us would like to see, but it’s a beginning.
Read the full Jan. 8-14 issue.
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