Since the 2016 election, there’s been a sprawling debate within the left over whether Democrats should abandon “identity politics” and focus instead on a forward-leaning message centered on economic populism. (Social identity is a central influence on everyone’s political choices, so when we talk about “identity politics” in this context, we really mean identity politics that don’t appeal to straight white people.) The idea is that focusing on issues of ethnicity, immigration status, gender, and sexual orientation risk alienating more of the non-college-educated whites who have moved toward the Republican Party since Obama’s election. There’s also a significant body of data suggesting that racial animus is a key driver of white conservatives’ opposition to redistributive policies and a robust safety net. Implicit in the argument is that people of color and the LGBTQ community would continue to support Democrats if they spent less time focusing on the unique concerns of those groups, both because progressive economic policies should appeal to their interests, in most cases, and because the GOP continues to signal that its “tent” isn’t big enough to welcome them.
But new data suggest that the entire debate poses a false choice, at least as it applies to racial-justice issues. Preliminary findings from Anat Shenker-Osorio (author of Don’t Buy It: The Trouble with Talking Nonsense about the Economy), Ian Haney López (author of Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class), and researchers at the progressive think tank Demos show that a unified message that acknowledges both racial and economic disparities wins over white voters more effectively than an economic message alone. Just as significantly, the researchers found that while race-neutral economic arguments won’t cause voters of color to embrace the GOP, they do make them less enthusiastic about participating in elections. They say that more research on this is coming down the pike.
Shenker-Osorio told me that the “race-class narrative” she and her colleagues are developing “draws a causal link between issues of race and racism and the extreme and growing class inequities that are of course more acute for communities of color.” The project’s goal is to determine whether a message “that combines issues of race and class [can] actually beat both the opposition’s message—which is always the name of the game—and also the kind of color-blind, economic populist message that we’ve come to accept as a progressive standard.”
The results, according to Shenker-Osorio, were compelling. “Every single message that we tested that gave explicit mention of race” performed better with what the researchers defined as the progressive base and was “also more persuasive to the 59 percent of people who fell not in our base, and not in the opposition’s, but in that coveted middle.”
There have been several phases of studies so far. They included a series of surveys fielded in conjunction with Lake Research Partners (a political polling and strategy firm that works extensively with Democrats and organized labor), and a door-to-door canvas of 800 voters in Minnesota—half of them white and half people of color—that was conducted in partnership with a coalition of grassroots groups called Our Minnesota Future.
“Persuadable” white voters, as the studies call them, tend to be torn between two competing narratives: On one hand, these voters said that it’s important to talk about race, and that they care about racial equity. But the same voters also perceived conversations about race as being difficult in ways that tend to pull them “toward racial resentment and conservative fears.” In races against politicians who use racially coded dog whistles to fire up their base, one or the other of these views typically gets “primed,” or activated, by campaign rhetoric, and a race-neutral economic message cedes that contest to the kind of appeals to racial grievance that have long been a mainstay of conservative messaging.