Coming out of the midterm elections and looking ahead to the 2020 presidential race, many pundits and strategists are once again urging Democrats to devote more time, energy, and resources to talking to white, working-class, and rural voters. Professor Joan Williams, a leading advocate for wooing white people, distilled this point of view in a recent piece in The Atlantic when she wrote, “If Democrats were to focus more attention on economic issues, they just might be able to win back the non-elite white voters they’ve been bleeding for half a century.”
Talking to those voters is a logical thing to do, especially since there are a lot of white people in America, and the majority of them almost always vote against Democrats. The question is not whether to talk to them, but what to say to them at a time when the president of the United States is quite effectively preying upon the fears and anxieties that fuel racism and sexism in America.
A threshold question is whether one accepts the premise that racism and sexism are fundamental to modern American life, and not just peripheral issues perpetuated by a few bad actors. The president and his political party accept that premise, and actively work to fan the flames of racial division by attacking immigrants, Muslims, and African-American football players protesting police brutality. Many Democrats, on the other hand, hope and believe that you can gain greater white support simply by changing the subject to “pocket book” issues such as economics, taxes, and trade.
Speaking as somebody whose family was initially blocked from buying a house in a white neighborhood because we were black, I’m not so sure you can overcome white racial fears about the consequences of an influx of brown-skinned people by simply talking up the advantages of lower mortgage rates. That doesn’t exactly address concerns about who’s going to date your daughter or take your job.
If we do accept the reality of the racially polarized times we live in, then there is an effective approach we can take toward a solution… and there is an ineffective one. You can summon white people to their highest and best selves, or you can pander to their lowest and basest instincts. You can defend Colin Kaepernick, or you can bear-hug Brett Kavanaugh.
The recent election was instructive on this front.
In the Texas Senate race, Beto O’Rourke had to confront the highly charged issue of football players protesting police killings of unarmed African Americans. When, during a town-hall meeting, a white, male voter decried players’ kneeling during the national anthem, not only did Beto confront it head-on, he went on to educate and illuminate by explaining the history of racial discrimination and oppression in the country. The candidate defended a tradition of “peaceful, nonviolent protests, including taking a knee at a football game to point out that black men, unarmed, black teenagers, unarmed, and black children, unarmed, are being killed at a frightening level right now, including by members of law enforcement, without accountability, and without justice.”
Not every Democratic candidate followed Beto’s lead.
In Tennessee, the state’s former governor Phil Bredesen, the Democratic nominee for US Senate, displayed the opposite approach to a flashpoint of discrimination and oppression that cried out for courageous leadership. During the searing national debate about whether a man credibly accused of sexual assault should be placed on the United States Supreme Court, Bredesen—in the face of a year’s worth of #MeToo revelations roiling the electorate—sought to pander to the worst instincts of voters, saying that, if he were in the Senate, he would vote to confirm Kavanaugh.
The subsequent electoral trajectories of O’Rourke and Bredesen are instructive. Beto’s candor and courage rocketed him into contention in a once-solid-red state, and captured the imagination of activists across the country. His campaign was showered with small-dollar donations, helping him raise more money than any congressional candidate has ever raised in US history. And Beto received more votes than any Democrat who’d ever run for office in Texas, coming within three points of winning—the strongest showing by a Texas Democrat in decades (previous candidates routinely lost by 800,000 votes; O’Rourke cut that gap to 219,000).
By contrast, Bredesen—who had statewide name recognition and was considered popular—went the opposite direction, plummeting in the polls, languishing in fundraising, and losing by double digits on Election Day.
Their respective performances among white voters is also telling. In the 2016 presidential contest, just 26 percent of white voters in Texas supported Hillary Clinton, but O’Rourke increased that level of support by nearly a third, garnering 34 percent of the white vote. In Tennessee, however, Bredesen’s capitulation did little to move the needle among the white voters he coveted, with white support among Democrats moving just a blip, from 34 percent in 2008, to 36 percent this year.
What Beto proved is that you have to first acknowledge the realities of racism before pivoting to the economic issues that the vast majority of people of all races have in common. Ten years earlier, Barack Obama modeled the effectiveness of this approach when addressing the controversy stemming from the racially provocative rhetoric of his former pastor Jeremiah Wright. In his now-famous 2008 “race speech,” Obama spoke at length about the underlying validity of the concerns of those speaking out against racial inequality. “Many of the disparities that exist between the African-American community and the larger American community today can be traced directly to inequalities passed on from an earlier generation that suffered under the brutal legacy of slavery and Jim Crow,” the then–presidential candidate said. He next explicitly acknowledged the concerns of whites living through profound demographic changes. “Most working- and middle-class white Americans don’t feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race,” said Obama. “They are anxious about their futures, and they feel their dreams slipping away.”
After facing head-on the fact that people of color have legitimate grievances about widespread inequality, and acknowledging whites’ understandable trepidation about the implications of far-reaching social change, Obama then challenged Americans of all races to find common ground by emphasizing the unifying core economic concerns: “We can come together and say, ‘Not this time.’ This time, we want to talk about the crumbling schools that are stealing the future of black children and white children and Asian children and Hispanic children and Native American children.” That speech turned the tide of the contest, and helped propel a black man into the White House for the first time in US history.
What Obama and Beto did not do was ignore the issue, hoping it would go away. And they certainly didn’t pander to the sentiments of those more concerned about the consequences of fostering equality than about the underlying and persistent inequality itself.
Yes, Democrats should talk to white people. If they have the courage to face the facts of the persistence of racism in America, then they will also know what to say.