By Ian Haney Lopez and Anat Shenker-Osorio
Since Donald Trump’s ascension to the White House, various political insiders have warned Democrats not to talk about race issues or what they term “identity politics” — a phrase that intentionally downgrades a raft of critical concerns.
In an op-ed last year, for instance, Mark Penn, a former consultant to both Bill and Hillary Clinton, and Andrew Stein, a former New York City Council president, said Democrats had lost support among “working-class voters” (read: white working-class voters) because their politics were “mired too often in political correctness, transgender bathroom issues and policies offering more help to undocumented immigrants than to the heartland.”
In New York magazine, Briahna Joy Gray argued that “identity politics, despite its benefits, has the potential to be most dangerous.” Even Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) cautioned after the election that “it is not good enough for somebody to say, ‘Hey, I’m a Latina. Vote for me.’ . . . One of the struggles that you’re going to be seeing in the Democratic Party is whether we go beyond identity politics.”
If they want to stay relevant on the ballot and win back centrist voters who defected to Trump, these critics say, liberals should avoid identity politics and focus on economic concerns.
They’re wrong. In empirical testing, we found that Democrats can prevail by telling a story that ties together race and class, calling out the right’s exploitation of racial anxiety as a tactic to divide and distract. To win this fall, Democrats shouldn’t shy away from race. They should talk about race together with economic issues — at every opportunity.
Trump and his supporters use racially charged language constantly and even boast that this is a way to sink Democrats. The president called African American former aide Omarosa Manigault Newman a “dog.” He told a British tabloid that, because of immigration, Europeans “are losing your culture” — a reprise of xenophobic themes, from calling Mexican immigrants “rapists” to decrying “shithole countries” to characterizing gang members tied to immigrant communities as “animals ” who “infest” our country. He signed executive orders that restrict the entry of Muslims into the country. He’s reportedly considering restructuring social safety net programs into a new federal department with the word “welfare” in the name, hoping, no doubt, to evoke Ronald Reagan’s infamous “welfare queen” dog whistle.
Over the past year, in partnership with Demos Action, a progressive advocacy organization, we queried thousands of Americans about how they see race, class and government. Overwhelmingly, people across color and political lines are deeply worried about worsening racial divisions. To test whether a combined race-class message could overcome standard Republican tropes, as well as prove more effective than colorblind progressive populism, we developed brief vignettes that described race as a strategic weapon and called for cross-racial unity to achieve racial justice and shared prosperity. Here’s one version:
“No matter where we come from or what our color, most of us work hard for our families. But today, certain politicians and their greedy lobbyists hurt everyone by handing kickbacks to the rich, defunding our schools, and threatening seniors with cuts to Medicare and Social Security. Then they turn around and point the finger for our hard times at poor families, Black people, and new immigrants. We need to join together with people from all walks of life to fight for our future, just like we won better wages, safer workplaces, and civil rights in our past. By joining together, we can elect new leaders who work for all of us, not just the wealthy few.”
Through focus groups, four state studies and an online survey with a nationally representative sample of 2,000 adults, we examined how each race-class narrative held up against other vignettes, including a right-wing story line and a standard left-of-center, race-neutral approach. We found that addressing race and class together beat both alternatives.
Among the progressive base, the race-class formulation earned us a mean positive dial rating — think the tool used in cable news focus groups to measure approval or disapproval during debates — of 73 out of 100, where the most effective formulation of economic populism garnered 68. In terms of propensity to share the message with others, this narrative rated 77 to colorblind populism’s 68.
We defined the “base” as those who held progressive positions on racial justice, economic equality and a positive role for government. This cohort made up 23 percent of the national sample and was 56 percent white, 19 percent African American, 18 percent Latino and 5 percent Asian American. Compared with the total sample and, indeed, the adult U.S. population, this means whites were underrepresented and people of color clustered in this group, as we’d expect.
Perhaps more surprisingly, persuadable adults also strongly favored narratives that linked race and economics over both other approaches. This group, roughly 3 in 5 of those we surveyed, encompasses the broad middle in American politics that finds merit in both progressive and conservative views, tending to toggle between them. Its demographics more closely match the nation’s adults, at 63 percent white, 16 percent Latino, 12 percent African American and 6 percent Asian American.
Among persuadables, our race-class narratives outperformed colorblind economic populism across the board. The example cited above, for instance, was not even the most popular race-class permutation among persuadables but nevertheless garnered a mean dial rating of 67 to the class-only message’s 64 and to the right-of-center narrative’s 66. The most popular message for persuadables, at 70, was a slightly different race-class approach.
We also put short progressive statements head to head against conservative ones. The same pattern emerged: Overt mentions of race outperformed colorblind statements in rebutting conservative talking points. In one example, respondents considered this language: “We need elected leaders who will keep us safe from terrorists, secure our borders and prevent illegal immigrants from taking advantage of our country.” They weighed that against one of two progressive statements.
One called for rejecting division and helping working people but did not name race directly: “We need elected leaders who will reject the divide and conquer tactics of their opponents and put the interests of the working people first.” The other repeated the first message, but it ended by naming race: “put the interests of working people first, whether we’re white, Black or brown.” In both cases, the base resoundingly rejected the Trump-esque message, by 79 to 16 percent in one and by 86 to 11 percent in the other.
But among the nearly 60 percent of U.S. adults who are persuadable, we failed to break even with a message that was silent on race: 45 percent preferred the message promoting racial fear to 42 percent for putting “working people first.” In contrast, when we asked about putting working people first “whether we’re white, Black or brown,” the progressive statement won persuadables 48 percent to 41 percent, a 10-point swing in net approval. (Nationally, the margin of error was plus or minus 2.5 points.)
Adding race to financial concerns doesn’t crater support from the middle — it helps turn a losing progressive message into a winning one. And it does so in today’s political context, where hard-line anti-immigrant rhetoric is one of the principal gambits Republicans hope will help them hold Congress and win state offices this fall.
This is especially important given another overwhelming finding of our research: Republicans require dog-whistling to win. In our head-to-head matchups, conservative arguments for cutting taxes and reducing regulations lost by big margins when competing against progressive ones about expanding economic opportunity and investing in people, even among respondents in red states.
In our separate Indiana survey , for example, a progressive economic platform polled 40 points ahead of the conservative economic pitch. (In Indiana, where we had a smaller sample, the margin of error was plus or minus 4 points.) But when the conservative messages we tested included racially coded phrases like “illegal immigrants” or “people expecting handouts,” the reactionary messages beat race-neutral progressive ones among persuadables. Only the progressive race-class theme bested them. In Indiana, for instance, a dog-whistle message scored a positive dial rating of 66 among persuadables, compared with 63 for colorblind economic populism — and 70 for the race-class message, spoken, we would note, by an African American man.
The combined approach also worked beyond the admittedly artificial environment of online surveys. In January, a coalition called Our Minnesota Future (OMF) partnered with us, gauging our story line against classic dog-whistling taken from an actual Republican mailer in the state. OMF canvassed 800 homes, divided equally between white voters and people of color, first showing voters the GOP flier.
Among white respondents, a plurality, 38 percent, initially agreed with the dog-whistle script, which began by stating, “My opponents are demanding more sanctuary cities for criminal illegal aliens.” We then showed them one of two hypothetical Democratic candidates’ fliers. One mailer promoted a populist message that was silent on race, saying: “Special interests are influencing elections to consolidate their wealth. Too many Minnesotans are unable to afford the basics.” The other used our race-class formulation; it led off with: “Minnesotans work hard to provide for our families. Whether white, Black or brown, 5th generation or newcomer, we all want to build a better future for our children.”
When shown the class-only flier and asked which candidate they would probably vote for, most white voters who initially favored the GOP candidate stuck with him, 56 percent to 44 percent for the progressive. But for those shown the race-class message, the numbers flipped. A winning 57 to 43 percent favored the progressive who addressed the issues jointly. The race-class message engendered a stunning 26-point jump in net approval over the class-only script among white voters initially keen on the racially divisive message.
And among voters of color, the race-class message was not only the most popular, but it also increased their stated desire to vote. Voters of color who saw the class-only option were 20 points more likely to indicate they would “not vote in the election.”
Here’s the secret: The race-class message describes racism as a strategy that the reactionary rich are using against all people. By moving away from conversations about racial prejudice that implicitly pit whites against others, the race-class message makes clear how strategic racism hurts everyone, of every race. It signals to whites that they have more to gain from coming together across racial lines to tackle racial and economic injustice than from siding with politicians who distract the country with racial broadsides. “The politicians,” a white guy in our Ohio focus group said, are “telling us you have to hate the black man because he does all the bad stuff . . . They’re dividing us so they can conquer.” A white woman in the group responded, “If we would all come together, the politicians wouldn’t have the strength they have.”
Building support among whites does not require that those focusing on the concerns of minority constituencies take a back seat in the Democratic coalition in the name of winning more votes. At the same time, we found that the Democratic base, which is disproportionately people of color, responds enthusiastically to messages that name fearmongering politicians and insist on common cause across color lines. A strategy that treats race and class separately implies a tenuous coalition of convenience between constituencies that care about different issues. The race-class fusion, in contrast, shows how racial and economic justice are fundamentally intertwined.
For years, the right has scapegoated “welfare queens,” “illegals” and “terrorists,” while the left has feared directly naming race. But except for a die-hard group that stands at just 18 percent of the national sample, even those who hold reactionary racial views recognize that deliberate division is destructive. An honest conversation with voters about how the right has weaponized racial fear to build support for plutocracy can create a new progressive majority, a coalition of economic populists and racial-justice advocates who recognize that economic and racial justice will be won together.