"Reverse Political Correctness" Poses Risk for Democrats
As Democrats grapple with how to win back the white working-class voters who flocked to Donald Trump in record numbers, it’s quickly becoming taboo to peg those wayward whites as bigots.
“These are good people, man! These aren’t racists, these aren’t sexists,” said the pride of Scranton, Vice President Joe Biden. Other prominent Democrats offer a similar, if less blunt, warning not to write off Trump voters who support a border wall, criticize Black Lives Matter and embrace a ban on Muslim entry into America. Agriculture Secretary and former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack scoffed, “You don’t need these people?” before counseling that “rural America is 15 percent of America’s population. … We spend a lot of time thinking about that 15 percent [which is non-white] and we should, God bless them, we should. But not to the exclusion of the other 15 percent.”
These are understandable sentiments. Trump won at least some “non-college-educated” white voters who once voted Democratic, and others may have stayed home or voted third-party. Presumably, they could vote Democratic again. If they did, Democrats could rebuild that “blue wall” in the upper Midwest and Northeast. And you don’t win over voters by calling them racist. That’s just smart politics.
You might even call it “politically correct.”
Many conservatives (and some liberals) have long railed against “political correctness” for chilling discourse. For example, if you accuse someone of being a racist, you taint the other person as “deplorable” and shut down the conversation.
But in the aftermath of the election, the roles are now somewhat reversed. Accuse someone of branding people as racists because of their political positions, and you taint the other person as a condescending “coastal elite,” and shut down the conversation.
Conservatives are far from the only ones trafficking in this “reverse political correctness.” Leading Democrats like Biden are doing so as well, just as the party embarks on the traditional post-defeat soul-search. Squelching discussion of race in that process may be “correct” in regard to how best to win lost white voters, but some political incorrectness will be necessary for Democrats to understand what really happened and what their political options are. Without knowing to what degree racial resentments drove the white working-class vote, Democrats can’t know how effective a sharper economic pitch will be; or if they need to rethink their approach to policing, guns, immigration and national security; or if the lost Trump voters can ever return to the multicultural Democratic fold.
There’s plenty of evidence to consider. Exit poll data show nearly three-quarters of Trump voters rejected the premise that the criminal justice system “treats blacks unfairly,” while nearly three-quarters of Hillary Clinton voters accepted it. Political scientist Michael Tesler found that “racial resentment and ethnocentrism — rating whites more favorably than other racial and ethnic minorities — were more closely linked to support for Donald Trump in 2016 than support for Mitt Romney in 2012.”
Tesler also notes that “racially resentful” whites were big supporters of government-provided health insurance -- that is, until Obamacare. Now they are more likely to perceive the program as redistributionist, taking money from whites and giving it to non-whites. (A recent Vox article quoted some Obamacare enrollees who voted for Trump as contending that “the ones getting the welfare and food stamps” and “the people that don’t want to work” get subsidies that they don’t.)
And anecdotal reporting from the New York Times and ProPublica found former Obama voters who soured on him over his handling of racial controversies. One in Iowa was paraphrased as saying that Obama’s identification with Trayvon Martin amounted to the president “choosing a side in the racial divide, stirring up tensions.”
Hillary Clinton arguably leaned in harder to the race debate than Obama. She attacked “systemic racism” by name. She elevated at her convention the “Mothers of the Movement” and the Muslim Gold Star parent Khizr Khan. And she pummeled Trump as a bigot day after day.
It didn’t work. Trump countered with what one aide brazenly deemed “voter suppression” – using social media to sow dissension among blacks about Clinton’s record on race in the 1990s. In turn, African-Americans gave Clinton four percentage points less support than Obama in 2012. (At a “thank-you” rally in Pennsylvania last week, Trump gave a “thank-you to the African-American community” because “they didn’t come out to vote for Hillary, they didn’t come out.”)
At the same time, Trump ran up the score with white non-college-educated voters like never before: His 39-point margin was bigger than Ronald Reagan’s margin among this group in his1984 landslide. Clinton’s “politically correct” strategy proved politically incorrect – alienating whites while failing to rally people of color.
Many Democrats hope that a more sharply populist economic message than what Clinton offered will fix what went wrong. You can’t discount economic factors, as Trump’s broadsides against the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal and Clinton’s Wall Street ties spoke to rural voters who feel left out of the economic recovery.
But Trump also ran fervently against illegal immigration, Muslim immigration, refugees, Black Lives Matter and “political correctness” in general. The possibility has to at least be entertained that Trump forged a cultural bond over non-economic issues that economic populism alone can’t break.
If race is a major hurdle for Democrats to overcome, that would greatly alter their strategy. They might decide they speak sotto voce the next time an unarmed African-American is killed by a police officer (notice how little was said last week when the Michael Slager trial ended with a hung jury) or if and when Trump follows through on his immigration crackdown.
Conversely, if party leaders conclude that sidelining racial issues is unacceptable to today’s Democratic base, they may decide that their 2020 electoral path doesn’t fully run through the largely white upper Midwest. Instead, they could eye the four diverse states where Clinton improved upon Obama’s 2012 performance: Florida, Arizona, Georgia, and – the big enchilada – Texas, where Clinton won 17 percent more votes than Obama and lost by nine points. (Trump reaped shifts of greater than nine points from 2012 in four swing states, so it’s possible.)
Democrats won’t be able to decide if such drastic political measures are necessary without having a candid conversation, based on rigorous analysis, among themselves. They can’t let reverse political correctness cut off the suggestion that race played a role in Trump’s victory and complicates the future pursuit of white working-class votes.
Race has been part of America’s politics since the beginning. Democrats made a historic decision in the 1948 party platform to remedy the past and be the party of civil rights. It’s a decision that has not always served them politically, but it’s a decision that gave the party a moral compass. To carry on as the party of civil rights, and still win elections, Democrats have both a political and moral obligation to look at what happened last month regarding race with clear eyes, and strategize accordingly.