“Democrat Savages,” President Trump recently tweeted, are driving the impeachment against him. When he then named in particular two Jewish congressmen and four congresswomen of color — Jerry Nadler of New York, Adam Schiff of California and the quartet that includes Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York — the racist connotations of the “savage” slur buzzed.
Among other tactics, Mr. Trump is fighting impeachment by defaulting to his go-to electoral strategy. The stock defense among embattled politicians in general — and Mr. Trump in particular — is a story of “us” harassed by “them.” For Mr. Trump, this often means painting his antagonists in racist and anti-Semitic hues.
How should Democrats, on and off the debate stage, respond to Mr. Trump’s political weaponization of racism? There is now good evidence that the best response involves adding class to race. Note that this does not involve sacrificing the concerns of people of color to win over white voters. Indeed, though this approach is by design popular with white voters, it holds even greater appeal to voters of color.
After Mr. Trump’s election, I co-founded a research project to figure out how to counter the campaign tactics he used. These tactics were familiar to me because I had just published “Dog Whistle Politics,” a book detailing the 50-year history of Republican efforts to exploit coded racial appeals. I knew operatives in the Republican orbit used focus groups, polling and careful testing to hone their racial messages. So we enlisted union activists, racial justice leaders, pollsters and communications specialists to employ the same tools to better ends.
To understand the power of the racial rhetoric frequently used by Republican Party candidates, we cobbled together and solicited reactions to this statement:
Taking a second look at people coming from terrorist countries who wish us harm or at people from places overrun with drugs and criminal gangs is just common sense. And so is curbing illegal immigration, so our communities are no longer flooded with people who refuse to follow our laws.
When we polled 2,000 people representing a cross-section of voters, we found that 72 percent of Republicans rated this message as convincing. Yet so did a slim majority of Democrats, at 52 percent. Perhaps even more surprising, there was also broad agreement with this rhetoric across racial lines. Virtually an identical number of whites (61 percent) and Latinos (60 percent) said they found it convincing, as did 54 percent of African-Americans.
What was interesting here was that a majority of those who responded positively to warnings about “people coming from terrorist countries,” “illegal immigration” and “criminal gangs” did not seem to recognize its racist elements. Instead, these evocative phrases triggered deeply internalized stereotypes that frame people of color as inherently criminal. But by avoiding any direct reference to race, this subliminal racism comes across to a majority as merely common sense.
In other words, Mr. Trump’s dog whistles play to unconscious biases that most of us hold. This does not mean that vast swaths of Democrats, Latinos and African-Americans are about to start voting Republican. But it does mean that a majority of Americans see some merit in Republican warnings about immigrants, Muslims and criminal gangs. Merely dismissing these concerns as “racist” is unlikely to give a majority of Americans a compelling reason to vote for Democrats. Indeed, my own research, as well as independent social science data, indicates that calling the Republicans “racist” alienates many voters, including some who might otherwise vote for a Democrat for president in a tight election.
There’s a more effective way to defang dog whistling that emerges from recognizing that playbook involves far more than racial pandering.
Dog whistling is a racial strategy. It started as an effort to shatter the New Deal coalition by pulling the white working class away from people of color and liberal elites. And it remains a technique for winning support from white voters in particular.
But dog whistling is also a class weapon. From its inception, dog whistling included an effort to undermine not just the New Deal coalition but some of its core commitments — the premise that government should serve working families by redistributing wealth downward, while ensuring that the marketplace provided a reasonable chance of upward mobility. By fostering racial division, the Republican Party sought to break popular support for government policies that taxed the wealthy and favored workers over bosses.
Our research shows that highlighting the class agenda behind the constant racial provocations provides the best antidote to dog whistling.
Listen to this message:
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 hard times at poor families, Black people, and new immigrants. When we reject their scapegoating and come together across racial differences, we can make this a nation we’re proud to leave all of our kids — whether we’re white, Black, or brown, from down the street or across the globe.
In our national poll, we tested nine different versions of this race-fused-to-class message. No surprise, the progressive base, which we measured as 23 percent of the national sample, preferred all nine race-class messages to the racial fear message. But so, too, did the almost three in five voters who fell into the “persuadable” camp. This is the cohort Democrats must carry in big numbers to win elections. And this group found all of the race-class messages more convincing than the racial fear frame.
Is “persuadable” simply shorthand for white working-class voters here, in a way that just makes this one more strategy for winning back those voters? The Democrats have a sorry history of seeking to persuade white swing voters by adopting approaches that disregard communities of color.
It is certainly true that the race-class fusion seeks to appeal to a broad segment of white voters. By merging the issues of racism and economic inequality, this approach reframes racism away from a conflict between warring groups and presents it as a tool of division wielded to divide and distract us. Doing so opens up space to add more whites to the Democratic coalition.
It says to white voters that they are not the enemy, but are instead important allies against the true threat, the powerful elites who sow division for their own profit. This is a “we are the 99 percent” message. But it is expressly race-conscious, stressing that racism is the principal weapon used against most of us and emphasizing that whites, too, stand to benefit as members of a multiracial coalition.
The merged race-class approach does not sacrifice people of color on the altar of the white working class. On the contrary, our research shows that the race-class message resonates within communities of color. It identifies the importance of economic reform and it lifts up the possibility of nurturing a broad multiracial alliance that can push to get government back onto the side of working families.
On top of that, the class element clarifies for people of color why whites might join a multiracial alliance. Politicians routinely extol unity without plausibly explaining the shared interests that would impel people to clasp hands across racial lines to march together. In contrast, the race-class story makes clear that dog whistling against people of color threatens the interests of many white people, too. If white working families want government back on the side of their own families, they’re going to have to do that in common cause with people of color.
Among whites, the race-class messages we tested were the most effective antidote to the Republican’s racial fear rhetoric. This was true among African-Americans and Latinos as well. The merged racial and economic messages were in fact more popular among people of color than among whites.
Naming racism as a class weapon also offers a promising means to advance racial justice. It may seem counterintuitive, but adding class may make achieving racial justice more, not less, likely. Many Democratic candidates promise to address the over-policing of people of color, brutal immigration practices on the border and the systematic governmental neglect of communities of color. As they do so, they should consider the origins of those policies. Politicians exploiting racial fear to win elections are among the principal culprits behind this violence.
The terrifying messages promoted by dog whistle politics have not been limited to the campaign trail. Scaremongering about “thugs,” “illegals” and “welfare” have bled into policy and have helped fuel mass incarceration, mass deportation and deep cuts to the safety net. Ending these forms of government violence against communities of color will be much easier when politicians can no longer win elections by promoting dog whistle lies.
If the past is prelude, the candidates on the Democratic debate stage will most likely again condemn Mr. Trump for being a racist, a supporter of white supremacists, a president who wants to “make America white again.” The impulse is understandable because all of that is true.
But denouncing him in these terms misses the president’s larger strategy and does little to defeat him. As much as he is a bigot, Mr. Trump is also a con man sowing racial division to grab power for himself and other economic titans. When Democrats denounce him in those terms and call for Americans to come together — whether we’re white, black or brown, whether we were born down the street or across the globe — they have a winning strategy.
Ian Haney López (@IanHaneyLopez), a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, is the author of “Merge Left: Fusing Race and Class, Winning Elections, and Saving America” and “Dog Whistle Politics.” This blog post was first posted as an opinion piece in the New York Times.