This essay first appeared as part of the Democracy Endgame series hosted by Protect Democracy.
As a practical matter, at the present moment the survival of democracy in the United States hinges upon the electoral success of the Democratic Party. Given the radicalization of the Republican Party, there is little prospect that democracy endures unless Democrats win enough elections to remain in control of the federal government.
Major hurdles facing the Democratic Party include the disproportionate power of rural states, gerrymandered districts, voter disenfranchisement, the composition and rules of the Senate, and other factors. But chief among these challenges looms identity politics — the success of the right’s identity politics, and the tendency of Democrats to engage in identity wars with each other.
The Democratic Party is famously bad at communicating a unifying story about its vision for society. Indeed, Democrats all too often campaign as if their opponent is another faction of their own party rather than the Republicans. And then, with each new loss (or distressingly narrow victory), Democrats take aim at each other anew, further strengthening the sense that their brand is disarray.
Many factors contribute to conflict among Democrats. But nothing hamstrings the Democratic Party’s power to define itself and its mission as much as the right’s strategic racism. The GOP’s embrace decades ago of racial dog whistle politics has turned Democrats against each other. One Democratic faction believes with every fiber that white racism must be directly confronted, though this alienates white voters and loses elections. The other side insists that the best strategy is to mainly ignore racism — though this leaves unchallenged the Republicans’ main electoral strategy. Democrats are thus two Titanics, steaming in opposite directions. From their respective decks, each can see the iceberg in the other’s path, but not the jagged teeth beneath their own bows. For democracy itself, whatever hope there is depends on both these Titanics turning.
Dog Whistle Politics
In 1961, Barry Goldwater represented an insurgent faction within the Republican Party that opposed the New Deal consensus that government should work for working families, asserting instead that private enterprise and lightly regulated capitalism were the surest engines of national progress. Understanding the widespread popularity of the New Deal, Goldwater’s wing proposed pursuing their class agenda by pandering to white backlash. Using folksy language, the Arizona businessman argued that Republicans “ought to go hunting where the ducks are.” Goldwater meant in the South, where many whites, traditionally allied with the Democratic Party, were increasingly aggrieved by civil rights. But precisely because of the civil rights movement’s success, Goldwater would not speak in the plain language of white supremacy. Instead, he adopted dog whistles, coded terms like “states’ rights” designed to give a neutral veneer to racist sentiment.
For Goldwater himself, the racial strategy failed. His opponent Lyndon Johnson won in a landslide, based on campaign promises for activist government to end poverty. But Johnson, it now turns out, was the last Democratic candidate for president to win a majority of the white vote.
There are two points directly relevant to our current situation. One is that in 1964, white voters by a landslide supported a sweeping progressive agenda they understood as akin to prior New Deal programs — which is to say, government programs designed to help them. Likewise, modern polls show high levels of support for redistributive policies. There’s nothing inherently conservative about American voters, nor even white voters more narrowly, at least in terms of economic issues. The “conservatism” of the voting public, rather, is driven by race. The second point is this: over the last six decades, dog whistle politics has completely remade U.S. electoral politics, bringing us to the cliff’s edge of authoritarianism buttressed by racially-aggrieved populism.
Much has been written about the recent radicalization of the Republican Party. Most of its elected officials now adopt dangerously anti-democratic positions, from the big lie about stolen elections to support for insurrection, from efforts to disenfranchise whole swaths of voters to encouraging vigilante violence against other Americans. Less often emphasized is that racial politics is the prime driver behind this transmogrification.
“It’s a mistake for the party to accept the beliefs of Sen. Barry Goldwater and write off the negro vote.” In 1962, Richard Nixon issued that caution, from his vantage as a moderate Republican and a former vice-president. “If Goldwater wins his fight,” Nixon foretold, “our party would eventually become the first major all-white political party.” But by 1968, Nixon had decided to join the Goldwater’s duck hunt, adopting what was then called the “Southern Strategy.” Nixon understood its ugliness. But he also concluded that he had no choice but to employ coded racism if he was to triumph.
Like Nixon, generations of GOP candidates have made the same Faustian bargain, employing racial demagoguery to win election. Some, likely, have genuinely hated people of color. Most, one suspects, have been more directly motivated dog whistling’s power to win elections. Yet racial demagoguery is not a weapon easily holstered. It remains a loaded gun lying around, easily picked up by someone else willing to go just a bit further — and not just in competition with Democrats, but as a strategy to use against other Republicans. As a result, for six decades the Republicans have been, and remain now, locked into a radicalizing cycle. New cohorts win as firebrands, and then lose as RINOs. Over the decades, we’ve seen the Silent Majority, Reagan Democrats, the Gingrich Revolution, the Tea Party and Freedom Caucus, and then Trumpism. And even Trumpists now find themselves overtaken by the apocalyptic storm of QAnon. More than anything else, it is racial demagoguery and the radicalizing cycle it drives that has brought us to the precipice of democratic collapse.
Not infrequently, political professionals dismiss “stories” as superficial, even trivial, because they’re seen as cheap words rather than practical policies or concrete outcomes that directly improve people’s lives. “It’s the economy, stupid,” is the classic formulation. But it’s not the economy, or at least, not directly. Axios reported that after the widespread condemnations of the January 6 insurrection, consumer confidence among Democrats rose nearly 4 points while it fell by 5.6 points among Republicans. The trigger? Not any change in the economy, of course, but rather a shift in the evaluation of whether Donald Trump would actually leave the White House. Similarly, many pundits initially attributed Trump’s 2016 victory to economic hardship, only to have more sober analysis demonstrate the power of racial resentment to shape perceptions regarding the state of the country, including the economy. More generally, pollster recognize that with each switch in the party controlling the presidency, big partisan shifts occur in how people regard their economic situation. It’s not that hardship doesn’t matter. Economic distress and anxiety make people more prone to accepting volatile ideas, including the need to dramatically alter course. Still, though, it’s the frame that people use to understand their lives, more directly than the conditions themselves, that drive how they participate in politics.
Look at the GOP’s catastrophic pandemic politics. Republican officials have enacted policies that discourage mask-wearing and vaccination, with predictable outcomes of illness and even death. Even so, their base rewards them. Here’s Republican House member Lauren Boebert at the summer 2021 Conservative Political Action Conference, applause resounding as she strides the stage with fiery rhetoric: “We’re here to tell government, we don’t want your benefits, we don’t want your welfare, don’t come knocking on my door with your Fauci ouchie. You leave us the hell alone.” We can hear Boebert angrily link vaccinations to “government,” “benefits,” “welfare,” and wanting to be left alone. This is not policy talk, it’s identity politics, and racial identity politics in particular (even though the pandemic would seem to have nothing to do with race).
There’s a “Chicago welfare queen” with a “tax-free cash income . . . over $150,000,” Ronald Reagan repeatedly said on the campaign trail in the 1970s and 80s. The welfare queen as a Black woman on a government-subsidized binge is now widely recognized as a racial dog whistle, making the term an effective starting point for understanding the right’s basic story. On the most obvious level, this story centers race, conjuring ugly stereotypes about African Americans. They are supposedly irresponsible and lazy. They could work if they wanted, but they prefer handouts over honest labor. More than shiftless, they’re thieving. They are not just receiving welfare; they’re ripping off the system. In short, African Americans abuse rather than deserve welfare.
To hear this story as only about race, however, misses the most important political work it performs. This story endeavors to give a negative racial cast to liberal government itself. Reagan promoted a zero-sum frame in which government efforts to help Blacks come at the expense of whites. Reagan was communicating to white voters that they were the opposite of Blacks: dutiful not irresponsible; hardworking not lazy; law-abiding not criminal; self-reliant not dependent on handouts. They were, to retrieve other dog whistle terms, the Silent Majority, the real Americans, America’s heartland and its patriots, the makers rather than the takers. Thus, government was not just misguided in its efforts to provide routes of upward mobility. It became a threatening force in the lives of whites. Liberal government, Reagan insinuated, took crucial dollars in the form of unfair taxes from the pockets of hardworking, decent, financially struggling whites, so that welfare queens could tool around in Cadillac splendor.
There are many permutations of the welfare queen story. There’s also an entire genre of dog whistles that focus, not on government programs, but on physical threat, for instance from “criminals,” “illegal aliens,” or “terrorists.” Even in the threat context, however, the racial story is designed to directly impugn government: it’s liberal government, allegedly, that refuses to control these menacing others, for instance by handcuffing the police or by throwing open the border.
What are the basic building blocks of identity politics? At root, these are the most important questions asked and answered by identity politics: who we are, who threatens us, and who will fight for us. Who we are is a question of status. Are we valued, respected, welcome, even superior to others? The right elevates white people as the true heart of the nation, the patriots, job creators, and makers, those who are law-abiding and innocent, deserving and righteous. It does so in code that gains powerful subconscious validation from centuries of white supremacy that finds contemporary expression in much of American culture as well as our nation’s concrete reality — cities and corporate headquarters, rural areas and places of worship, public schools and Ivy League universities.
As to the source of threat in people’s lives, the right warns voters that they’re beset not only by people of color but even more so by liberal government, which betrays white people by siding with minorities. The message is simple and oft-repeated: everyone is on their own, endangered by other Americans and traitorous government, and must largely fend for themselves and their families. On the level of physical safety, this rhetoric encourages buying a gun (gun sales have recently surged, with 2 out of 5 households now owning guns). In terms of the economy, it implies working as hard as you can in the marketplace. When you believe that you’re threatened by people who look different than you rather than by the bosses and the financiers, you shun building power with other workers, whether through unions or politics.
And who will fight alongside you, against the looming dangers? First and foremost, it’s your own narrow community. In demagogic politics, fear of others is used less to foment complete social atomization than a sense of connection with those who might offer mutual defense — the unity that comes from joining forces against the barbarians at the gate. Self-identified white evangelical Christians comprise the demographic cohort most likely to support Republican candidates. Voters in white, rural communities are trending in that direction. The New York Times reported that in 2021 many such communities in Virginia voted for Glenn Youngkin, the victorious Republican candidate for governor, at rates surpassing 70 and 80 percent. The paper also noted that “in interviews with a dozen white, rural voters who backed Mr. Youngkin, policy was less important than grievance and their own identity politics.” Youngkin’s closing argument to voters stressed his opposition to the teaching of critical race theory in public schools. Karen Bass, who voted for him, was persuaded to support Youngkin because, she said, white children “are no longer allowed to be kids, we’re treating them like little monsters.”
As for which politicians will be seen as allies, shared identities matter, for instance along the lines of race and religion. But even more important, voters who accept the right’s narrative support politicians who endorse their worries about dangerous others. Biden’s genuine religiosity and personal integrity mattered less to the vast majority of Republicans than Donald Trump’s supposedly bold truth telling about Black Lives Matter protesters, Latin American immigrants, and Muslims. In Virginia, voters not only elected Youngkin, a white man, but also a Black woman, Winsome Sears, as lieutenant governor. Her being Black was raised as a defense against the charge of GOP racial pandering. But Sears, too, campaigned against the fabricated threat of racial indoctrination in schools, for instance claiming “if Critical Race Theory means that telling a child that once you emerge from the womb you are a racist and a colonizer and whatever else, that’s not going to be good.” Sears had also served as national chair of Black Americans Making America First, a coalition that promotes Donald Trump and defends him after racist comments.
The Race Left
Half-a-century ago, Democrats recognized that the GOP had found a tractor beam to pull working class whites out of the New Deal coalition. But they struggled to find an effective defense. George McGovern, campaigning against Richard Nixon in 1972 in Little Rock, Arkansas, assailed Nixon for “playing to racist emotions.” In San Antonio, Texas, McGovern said there is “no question that [the Nixon] Administration is playing to racist emotions in the country — the President has done that from the very beginning.”
McGovern lost in a landslide that left him with support from less than one in three white voters. Other factors contributing to McGovern’s defeat included early opposition from the Democratic establishment and chaos around his initial vice-presidential pick. But his denunciations of Nixon’s dog whistle politics as “racist” played an important role.
Since the late 1930s, the Democratic Party has relied on African American voters to win elections. By the 1960s, the party’s national leadership was committed to supporting wide-ranging civil rights even in the face of massive resistance and open racism in the South, including in places like Little Rock. But this commitment to frontally opposing white racism did not translate well into a response to dog whistle politics.
“The machinist’s wife in Dayton may decide to leave the Democratic reservation,” the liberal pollsters Richard Scammon and Ben Wattenberg warned in their 1970 book The Real Majority. “If she thinks the Democrats feel that she isn’t scared of crime but that she’s really a bigot, if she thinks that Democrats feel the police are Fascist pigs and the Black Panthers and the Weathermen are just poor, misunderstood, picked-upon kids, if she thinks that Democrats are for the hip drug culture and that she, the machinist’s wife, is not only a bigot, but a square, then good-bye lady — and good-bye Democrats.” The crux lay in the code used by dog whistling. Those stampeded by talk of thugs, law and order, forced busing, and the silent majority did not understand themselves as racists. Rather, they experienced their reactions as commonsense concerns about crime, their children, and being heard, and they deeply resented the implication that they were prejudiced.
Dog whistle politics is often misunderstood as a secret handshake between a politician and voter when both are closet racists. But in fact, dog whistling is so powerful because it hides the underlying racism even from the voters most agitated by the racist prods.
In the summer of 2020, I ran a project with Way to Win as well as Lake Research to measure the persuasive power of Trumpist dog whistling. We asked almost 2,000 eligible voters to react to a message ripped from Republican rhetoric. It advocated “fully funding the police, so our communities are not threatened by people who refuse to follow our laws,” and declared that “our leaders must prioritize keeping us safe” and that “taking a second look at China, or illegal immigration from places overrun with drugs and criminal gangs, is just common sense.” Since it drew upon GOP language designed to activate white racial anxiety, it’s no surprise that the majority of white respondents found this message convincing. Here’s the shock: at identical levels, so too did the majority of African Americans. And Latino respondents were convinced at rates that were just slightly higher than the white cohort.