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How Democrats can talk about race and win

A new project reveals that combining race and class can be a winning message for Democrats in November and beyond.

Participants holding protest signs at the rally in Metrotech... Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images

Democrats face an uphill battle in 2020: An incumbent president with one of the strongest economies and steadiest Republican approval ratings in decades. An Electoral College map that all but ensures winning the popular vote won’t be enough. A slew of close races in tough-to-win states for the Senate majority. Highly gerrymandered House districts. And a federal court system riddled with young, highly ideological conservative judges.

Bernie Sanders might be the only candidate calling for a “political revolution,” but the Democrats surely need something like it to win back control of country this fall.

Yet there is significant disagreement over what this revolution should entail. Should Democrats focus on mobilizing their young, diverse base — or try to appeal to older, whiter swing voters in the middle? Should they explicitly pursue racial justice or tack right on immigration, eschew “identity politics,” and run as economic populists?

For the past three years, Ian Haney López, a law professor at UC Berkeley and the author of Dog Whistle Politics, has been searching for answers to these questions. In 2017, he partnered with the think tank Demos and various polling groups to test how a series of different progressive messages stacked up against right-wing “racial fear” messaging. The “Race-Class Narrative Project,” as it came to be called, tested 11 narratives with more than 2,000 American adults nationwide — along with separate testing in Indiana, California, Minnesota, and Ohio.

The results were shocking, even to the experts who commissioned the polls. As Haney López documents in his recent book Merge Left: Fusing Race and Class, Winning Elections, and Saving America, the Trumpian “racial fear” message outperformed two core progressive narratives, one centered on racial justice and the other on economic populism.

But a new, experimental “race-class” message — one that talked about race and class together with a progressive bent — outperformed all three of the more traditional narratives. The implication for Haney López is simple: If Democrats want to win, they should be talking more about race, but not in the way they normally do.

I spoke to Haney López to better understand these results and, more importantly, what they mean. On one level, this conversation is about an electoral strategy to win back America. But on another, it is about the underlying forces that drive American politics and have driven it for decades, if not centuries. What Haney López offers is a framework for understanding those forces — and a theory for how Democrats can begin to tilt them in their favor.

A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Roge Karma

One of the narratives you tested was a “racial fear” message based on the talking points of Donald Trump. What was this message, and how successful was it?

Ian Haney López

Here’s one example of the racial fear message we tested:

Our leaders must prioritize keeping us safe and ensuring that hardworking Americans have the freedom to prosper. 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. We need to make sure we take care of our own people first.

We asked people in a nationally representative sample of 2,000 whether they agreed with it using a 1-to-100 dial. Unsurprisingly, 72 percent of Republicans found this message convincing [rated it 51 or higher out of 100]. But we found that 52 percent of Democrats found this message convincing as well.

Roge Karma

The proportion of Democrats who found that narrative compelling is interesting in its own right. But what I found even more shocking was how people of color responded to the racial fear message.

Ian Haney López

Yes. Sixty percent of Latinos and 54 percent of African Americans found it convincing, which isn’t much lower than the 61 percent of whites who did.

Roge Karma

That finding seems to go against a lot of our presuppositions about how racism operates in politics. Why was this Trumpian narrative so compelling to everyone, including people of color?

Ian Haney López

The overwhelming majority of the people who respond positively to Trump’s racial messages do not hear them as expressions or endorsements of white superiority in the way that many progressives charge. That’s because Trump’s language is a form of racial dog whistling — using code to interject race into political conversations and trigger racist fears.

It’s very important to understand that Trump is building on a 50-year tradition. Dog whistling starts in the 1960s with language that is transparently supportive of segregation masked in the language of states’ rights. Later it becomes a way of talking about criminals versus the innocent, about lazy welfare cheats versus hardworking people, and citizens versus illegals. Underlying all of that rhetoric is a basic racist story that becomes widely accepted as a form of political common sense, even among many Democrats and people of color.

[Dog whistles] have become such a basic part of the American political and cultural fabric that they no longer operate like a “secret handshake” [as they did in the 1960s] in which Donald Trump says something racist and his supporters know he means something racist but publicly deny it. Dog whistling today is like a used-car fraud. Donald Trump is peddling a story that he pretends is about common sense and patriotism and taking care of deserving people. And people don’t know that what they’re buying into is a racist story.

Roge Karma

There’s a debate on the left about how to respond to the right’s dog-whistles. One side thinks Democrats should stay silent on race and focus entirely on progressive economics to avoid alienating white voters. The other side thinks Democrats should frontload issues of racial justice to mobilize people of color and revive the Obama coalition. You tested messages associated with each of these approaches. How did they benchmark against the dog-whistle narrative?

Ian Haney López

Between the race-silent economic populism approach and the racial justice approach, the economic populism approach does work better, but it’s not enough to win. The progressive message of economic populism is slightly less effective than a conservative message of racial fear.

Roge Karma

You also tested a fourth narrative, what you call the “race-class narrative.” What is that narrative, and how did it fare against the others?

Ian Haney Lopez

The race-class narrative relies on a paradigm change in how we think about race. Today, the right and the left have settled [on] a similar conception of racism as a problem in American life. The right-wing version is that people of color threaten whites. The left-wing version is that white racism oppresses communities of color. But both the right and the left understand racism as group conflict that pits whites against people of color.

The race-class narrative moves away from thinking about racism fundamentally as a conflict between whites and people of color. Instead, it says racial conflict is real but it is funded and fueled by a very small class of economic titans for their own benefit; the real conflict we face is not between whites and people of color, but between an economic few and all the rest of us. Here’s a version of that political message we tested:

No matter where we come from or what our color is, 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 cutting Medicare and Social Security. Then they turn around and point the finger for 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 workspaces, 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.

This is a message of race fused to class. It starts with an expressed acknowledgment of race but directs attention through a class lens. A race-class message is a message that says we are being intentionally divided and the best response to intentional division is to build connections across those divisions — because only by coming together can we actually make this country work for all of our families.

We tested nine versions of this message, and because of the familiarity effect, we didn’t think they would perform very well. But all nine versions of our race-class message were more convincing than the racial fear message. The first time people heard this message, they understood it in their gut.

Roge Karma

That strikes me as contradictory given our conversation a minute ago. How is it possible that a message of racial solidarity and a message of racial fear can both be so effective at the same time with the same swath of people?

Ian Haney López

The folks who are responding positively to messages of racial fear — again, including the majority of Democrats and the majority of people of color — are toggling between inconsistent ideas and find them both compelling.

One set of ideas is rooted in racist stereotypes that just about all of us raised in the United States have deeply internalized — messages that paint brown and black people as somehow criminal and suspect, lawless and undeserving. Another set of ideas is rooted in progressive messages that uphold an ideal of racial egalitarianism — an ideal of seeing each other as full humans, not limited by our color.

These results show that people believe in both of these sets of ideas simultaneously. This means it’s possible to find common ground with people who might nevertheless harbor racist fears. We can find common ground not on the basis of their fears but on the basis of their egalitarian aspirations, and their continued commitment to an ideal of racial equality.

Roge Karma

All of this sounds great in the abstract. But, if I remember correctly, the participants in these polls were not necessarily told whether a given message came from a “Democrat” or a Republican.” I worry about that. There’s a compelling body of literature showing that people reason backward from their party affiliation: As soon as party labels are thrown into the mix, everyone typically sides with their own team, irrespective of facts or message. So what makes you think that the race-class message will be able to cut through the noise created by those partisan identities?

Ian Haney López

One reason is because we can see it on the ground. In 2018, this approach was adopted by grassroots groups in Minnesota. The race-class approach was so successful that the Democratic Party in Minnesota picked it up, used it to run campaigns in 2018, and did remarkably well.

But, more fundamentally, the people who are focused on partisan identity are focusing on the symptom and not the cause. Partisanship is not a commitment to a specific set of policy preferences; indeed, all of the best political science work shows that many people’s policy preferences follow from their partisan affiliation. Partisanship is a function of cultural identity: an identity linked to a deeper story about who we are, who threatens us, and who supports us.

Roge Karma

And what the “race-class” narrative does is change the story that underlies our partisan identities.

Ian Haney López

Exactly. On the right, the story that creates a common sense of identity is rooted in race. Who are we? We are decent, hardworking people who are threatened by (implicitly black and brown) violent, lazy, pestilent “others.” Donald Trump embodies this identity that Republicans have constructed for themselves for the last 50 years — an identity of white victimization and endangerment.

What I’m urging is the left to tell a story that says we are working families that have more in common than differences between us, but we are being divided by economic elites who seek profit, division, and conflict. And the way forward is to build social solidarity across lines of division. This is a story of identity more than it is one of ideology or policy.

The significance of the race-class narrative project is that it is proof of concept that this story resonates with people. Right now it is the single most potent political story out there. It’s stronger than any story being offered on the left, and it’s stronger than the story being offered on the right as well.

You can view the Race-Class Narrative Project’s topline results here and explore the national survey results here.

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