The Democratic nomination contest is at a pivotal point, especially for the left. Progressive issues are ascendant, moderate candidates are vote-splitting, Bernie Sanders tops the polls, and Elizabeth Warren just had a very strong debate performance in Nevada. And yet despite the tantalizing proximity of progressive victory, there remains a glaring hole at the heart of the left’s strategy: the failure to prioritize the fight against white nationalism and racial resentment—the sources of this president’s power, and the cornerstones of capitalism’s structural inequality.
If the structural change that Warren espouses and the political revolution that Sanders champions don’t explicitly address the racial realities that lie at the heart of this country, then their movements could fail to inspire the kind of transformation the candidates say they want. My research has found that nearly half of Democratic voters are people of color, and a dramatic drop-off in African American turnout in 2016 was a principal factor in Hillary Clinton’s defeat. Conveying the urgency of the fight against white supremacy could be critical to propelling the kind of turnout that will help Democrats win in November.
Donald Trump is obviously unlike any president we have seen in a long time. Trump, who famously said he could “shoot somebody” on New York’s Fifth Avenue and not lose any voters, seems to defy the laws of political gravity. But many fail to appreciate what has kept him afloat.
White identity politics are at the foundation of the United States—enshrined in slavery starting in 1619 and codified at the nation’s conception, with the passage of the 1790 Naturalization Act restricting citizenship to “free white persons.” Typically, political appeals to white racial resentment have come in more implicit and coded “dog whistles,” such as Ronald Reagan’s demonization of black “welfare queens.” It has been a long time since someone with Trump’s stature openly and unapologetically embraced the racist right wing; many might have assumed it would be political suicide to brand Mexican immigrants “rapists,” enact bans on Muslim immigration, or whip up a xenophobic mob chanting, “Build the wall!” Trump’s speech and policies have unleashed deep wells of racial resentment, and myriad academic studies—most of them ignored by Democratic consultants and leaders—have shown that this is a motivating factor for many of his supporters. (I have started a list of these studies here.) The engine driving the Trump machine is white supremacy.
Despite this, the most progressive candidates in this race have spent far more time critiquing other, more moderate candidates and supposedly race-neutral aspects of Trump’s time in office, such as his tax cuts for the rich, than they have fighting white nationalism. (Ironically, moderate Joe Biden may be the only one who has directly refuted Trump on this point: One of his early campaign ads challenged the president’s 2017 defense of the white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia.) Warren and Sanders are correct to decry the rise of corporate interests within the Democratic Party. It’s admirable to fight for a higher minimum wage, universal health care, and aggressive action to save the planet from climate catastrophe. But in doing so, both progressive voting groups and candidates like Warren and Sanders are missing the strategic and moral imperative of reframing this election.
With upcoming primaries in the more diverse states of the South and Southwest, candidates are starting to bump up issues pertaining to voters of color. Yet none of the remaining candidates have made Trump’s drive to make America white again a centerpiece of their campaign. This would go beyond talking about issues that resonate with communities of color. It would require ably and enthusiastically countering Trump’s vision of a white America with what it really is: a proudly multiracial country. When progressive candidates fail to call out Trump’s appeals to white racial resentment—or to match the force with which he makes them—they’re allowing him to reap the benefits, without paying the price.
The default playbook for too many Democrats is to talk around white supremacy, usually for fear of turning off white voters. But there is compelling evidence that the best way to blunt racist dog-whistling is to call it out. In her 2001 book The Race Card, Princeton political scientist Tali Mendelberg revealed how Republicans’ use of coded racial messages, and their impact on voters, lost power when the implicit was made explicit. In studying voluminous survey data on the 1988 presidential elections when George H. W. Bush used ads about Willie Horton—an African American who committed a crime after being released from prison—Mendelberg noted that Democrats feared that “if they [spoke] explicitly about race they [would] lose crucial white votes.” But her research found the opposite to be true: “when campaign discourse is clearly about race—when it is explicitly racial—it has the fewest racial consequences for white opinion.” Even Trump usually prefers to talk about a border wall than about the pro-white immigration agenda advanced by Stephen Miller, one the White House’s most enthusiastic white supremacists.
The through line between this November’s election and the long-term goal of transforming this unequal nation should be an agenda that speaks to the pain so many Americans feel: the pain rooted in the racial wealth gap. The average white family now has more than 10 times the wealth of the average black family, and 7.5 times that of the average Latino family. That is a direct consequence of centuries of public policies that have sanctioned white wealth creation by seizing land from indigenous people, importing Africans to do backbreaking unpaid labor, and exploiting Mexican and Central American farm workers—topped off by government-sanctioned racial discrimination in housing and hiring.
Although it’s not widely discussed, Republicans are, in fact, experiencing some blowback from Trump’s actions—especially from white-collar suburban voters who gave Trump a chance in 2016 but defected to the Democrats in 2018, contributing to the Democratic takeover of the House and seven previously Republican-held governors’ offices. Groups and leaders on the left have an opportunity, and an obligation, to push their preferred candidates to lead on the fight over America’s racial identity. Warren’s and Sanders’s speeches are replete with references to Wall Street, big corporations, and corruption in Washington, DC. Although both have been critical of Trump’s deportation policies and ICE, they have not distinguished themselves in a field of candidates who tiptoe around the issue of immigration—even though children are still in cages at our nation’s border—and dance away from reparations, ignoring the gargantuan racial wealth gap that cleaves the fabric of our society. None of the candidates onstage in Las Vegas on Wednesday even mentioned immigration until late in the evening. It was clearly not top of mind, even in a state as Latino as Nevada.
It is still not too late for these candidates to course-correct. There are at least three concrete steps that progressives could take to make a meaningful difference:
Forge a united front to demand that the Democratic nominee choose a person of color as their vice presidential pick. For all the appeal of hoping Sanders and Warren would team up, an all-white ticket is not what will inspire and mobilize the most racially diverse electorate in the history of this country. None of the current candidates have been willing to make this commitment, and a chorus of voices from the left on this issue could push them do so.
Create a common war room to drive the narrative about this administration and its enablers’ white-supremacist priorities. Progressive and left groups could each dedicate staffers to this joint effort, which could provide tools, information, and coordination for activists. This could lead to creative, attention-getting actions in cities across the country, exposing both the presidential reelection campaign and key Senate elections as the referendums on whiteness that they are.
Launch a joint petition to demand a Democratic campaign budget and plan that reflect the actual demographics of the voters they need to reach. The default focus of much Democratic spending remains on running television or digital ads targeting white swing voters. The organizations and committees in the Democratic ecosystem typically spend significantly more than $1 billion in a presidential election year; a coalition of progressive groups could demand that half of those funds go toward organizing and turning out the vote in communities of color.
The black Marxist author Manning Marable wrote in 1985 that at the heart of the American experience is “a series of crimes”: the violent theft of the land itself, the violent theft of millions of people from Africa and their subsequent bondage as chattel, the bloody conquest of the Southwest from Mexico, and the government-sponsored war on Native Americans. That series of crimes has created the conditions which the left is now working to transform. But during this campaign, they have done it wearing racial blinders. That could lead them to failure. The resurgent progressive movement could both win this election—and lay the foundations for a better society—by tackling the existential threat that white supremacy poses to this country’s social contract and democratic institutions. It is not too late, but the clock is ticking.