Wokeness makes it harder to pass policies that actually help Black people

This is from a couple weeks ago, but far too damn good to just let it slip into quick hits.  This Eric Levitz take is just so spot-on, “Avoiding White Backlash Is a Racial-Justice Issue.”  It starts with a re-hashing of the English/Kalla findings (race framings hurt Democrats) versus Lopez (no, not if you do it right).  Consult Edsall or read all of Levitz if you need a refresher.   Anyway, Levitz goes on to make, what I think, are truly critical points in contemporary American politics:

Progressives should do everything they can to persuade moderate Senate Democrats to make Congress more representative of the national electorate. But the default assumption must be that no democratizing reforms will be passed. In that scenario, there will be no path to passing progressive federal legislation unless Democrats increase their support in places that voted for Donald Trump.

Thus, few questions are more pertinent to the project of racial justice in 2021 than, “How can Democrats advance policies that aid nonwhite people without triggering white backlash?” If our goal is to fend off reactionary rule and make life easier for disadvantaged communities, then we must not stigmatize open inquiry into that question…

López, and others who favor race-conscious messaging, have a coherent theory for why their approach is optimal: In the real world, major policies that disproportionately advantage nonwhite people will be racialized no matter how Democrats talk about them. The right will make sure of that. Given this reality, getting ahead of such racial demagoguery — by recasting racism as a tool of elite domination, or else, directly challenging white identity itself — will be more effective than pretending there is no racist elephant in the room. Moreover, even if tiptoeing around the prejudices of white swing voters were expedient in the short-term, such a strategy would leave the barriers to thoroughgoing reform in place. White supremacy has always been the chief obstacle to social democracy in the United States. And its legacy does not disappear when Democrats close their mouths about it.

But there is a coherent, alternative view. David Shor, and other so-called “popularist” progressives, have a theory that goes (roughly) like this: Democratic politicians have little ability to change the views of voters who are not already strong Democratic partisans. The median voter in the race for Senate control is a 55-year-old, non-college-educated homeowner who pays only a little attention to politics, and voted for Trump at least once. Joe Biden is not going to change this person’s fundamental beliefs about race or the nature of American society. Rhetoric about how the rich use racism to divide working people is too abstract and ideological to register with them; they just don’t think about politics in those terms. To the extent that Democrats can win them over, it’s by telling them, in simple language, how the party’s policies will make their lives easier. If this voter is thinking about Medicare and stimulus checks when they head to the ballot box, Democrats have a chance; if they’re thinking about race or immigration, all is lost. Therefore, Democrats must exercise message discipline and work to heighten the salience of their most popular economic ideas — because, for the most vulnerable in our society, the costs of allowing Republicans to retake power are immense. And we are at a point in history when progressives have no choice but to play some defense. Eventually, demographic churn will erode the GOP’s structural advantages and the grip of white supremacy on American society. But until the boomers’ share of the electorate falls to a safe level, we face a real risk of right-wing authoritarianism. The left’s avant-garde should pursue long-term public-opinion change by writing op-eds and propagandistic TV shows; Democrats should tailor their rhetoric to the tastes of unenlightened white people.

Both these views seem facially plausible to me, and I think there may be ways to reconcile some of their respective insights. To the extent that Democrats must choose between them, however, that choice should be dictated by evidence. The Race-Class Narrative is an intriguing strategy. But the publicly available evidence for its potency appears to consist of studies conducted by the concept’s proponents, using outdated methodologies.

Some progressives reject the enterprise of polling and message-testing on epistemological grounds; they contend that political reality is too complex — and Democratic messaging choices, too irrelevant to political outcomes — for such research to be of much use. I think this view is quite reasonable, if suspect in its ideological convenience (if message-testing is dead, everything is permitted).

But those who believe that there are more and less effective ways for Democrats to communicate with the public — and that polling can tell us useful things about which is which — must favor methodologically rigorous studies over ideologically pleasing ones. To do otherwise is to put one’s own comfort above the well-being of the marginalized groups who have the most to lose from reactionary rule.

Super-short version: far and away the most important way to actually improve the lives of minorities in the United States is to have Democrats, rather than Republicans in power in Congress and the presidency.  Whatever makes it most likely you get there is what actually helps Black lives; not ideological purity tests.  Facing substantial structural headwinds (e.g., huge over-representation of rural whites in the Senate and electoral college), the simple fact is that for Democrats to get the majorities they need they are going to have to appeal to decidedly unwoke white voters.  Hey, if appeals about racial equality and helping Black people would do that, I’d be all for it.  But, the best evidence is that they decidedly do not.  Obviously, Democrats should not campaign on racist dog whistles or any such things Republicans regularly use.  Nor should Democrats ignore commitments to the civil rights of LGBT people are any marginalized groups.  But, it is fairly safe to say that Democrats are going to get the national majorities they need by appealing to the broad, economic concerns that resonate with working class people of all stripes; not by appeals to “Latinx” voters and an emphasis on minimum wage as a racial justice issue, etc.  

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

One Response to Wokeness makes it harder to pass policies that actually help Black people

  1. R. Jenrette says:

    Same old story: the more people that benefit from a policy, the more likely it is to pass and be sustained. As I said before, FDR knew he could not make Social Security just for the very poor. It had be for all to have sustainability.

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