Josh Marshall, founder of Talking Points Memo, is both a personal favorite and a ridiculously productive writer. The downside of being that prolific is that from time to time you post some duds. Yesterday’s column, “More Thoughts on the Intra-Democratic Divide,” falls in that category.
I thought about responding to what I considered to be the main thrust of the piece — an acknowledgment that there is a correlation to racial bias among most Trump supporters — last night. I skipped it largely because Josh failed to make a useful point about this observation. So why bother?
Of course, lots of other people responded, and in true TPM form, Josh posted four of those replies today. The first argued that Trump was a fluke and Democrats just need to nominate someone not named Clinton next time. The second pointed out the folly of looking for a single silver bullet that kills Trumpism. The third contends that Dems should be looking forward, not backward. The fourth said it wasn’t race, but hatred of women, that caused the Nov. 8 disaster.
Quite honestly, I find none of these opinions useful. What I do find valuable — the reason I’m responding today — is how the sum total of these responses illustrates the sad current state of liberal conversation. In their own way, all five of these pieces demonstrate a fundamental misunderstanding of our current predicament.
To wit: Republicans tend to over-perform their demographic restrictions in large part because they embrace the idea that politics is simply about winning elections. On the other hand, liberals — gawd bless our pointy little heads — remain convinced that politics should be about correctly diagnosing root problems and then fixing them.
The problem with that liberal concept is that — at least in the modern electoral sense — the problem is white people.
This is why Democrats are tearing themselves apart in a debate between the party’s “identity politics” and “economic populism” wings. It’s why there’s so much electronic ink spilled over whether Trump voters were primarily motivated by economics, race or sexism.
The radical edge of the identity politics wing not only sees cisgendered Christian white male antagonism as the nation’s fundamental problem, it prescribes a “call them out” campaign of public shaming as the solution.
Meanwhile, the radical edge of the opposing economic populism wing contends that — in order to win elections — the “usual suspects” of Democratic identity politics should be stifled in favor of claiming a “common ground” based on class. What they’re really saying is that progressives should speak to working-class white people, and that the rest of the party should enable this by shutting up.
Most progressives, liberals, whatever you call us, exist somewhere between those extremes. But intramural fights are never fought between the marginally involved. In off-years, intra-party battles are always waged by activists. And sadly, both wings speak to competing truths: The Democratic Party is a coalition party in a way the Republican Party is not, and the diverse identities that comprise its current establishment cannot and should not be expected to sit down and shut up. Conversely, the class-based approach favored by the insurgent economic populists comes with its own challenges, not to mention the impracticality of asking a diverse existing coalition to stop talking about its myriad concerns.
But please allow me this attempt at making the overly complicated overly simplistic: Even if the “Most Trump Voters Are Racist” diagnosis were correct, any concerted Democratic Party strategy that emphasizes this alleged racism would do exactly nothing to win elections, heal a divided nation, or advance a reality-based platform.
Yes, of course, many Trump voters are straight-up racists. Perhaps even a plurality. It really depends on your preferred definition of the word “racist.”
But to restate the obvious — because apparently one must when dealing with Democrats and lefties in general — elections aren’t won by taking EVERY vote. You only have to get most of them. And in America, this means that national parties and candidates MUST APPEAL TO WHITE VOTERS TO WIN ELECTIONS. Any Democratic strategy that that fails to embrace this mathematically obvious truth is doomed to half-measure frustration at best, and abject failure at worst.
Before you “call me out,” please consider the tyranny of numbers. The 2016 national electorate was 73 percent white. The non-white electorate? Twenty-seven percent. The African American electorate? Twelve percent, down a full percentage point from 2012.
Yes, Republicans “win” the white vote year after year. Last year, Clinton took just 37 percent of white votes cast. Obama won 39 percent of the white vote in 2012.
But one of the flaws I’ve found in the way Americans tend to think about politics is that we obsess over those percentages, rather than considering the raw numbers that actually count.
When you do the math (and these numbers are so generally under-reported that one is literally forced to do so), white voters made up 53 percent of Clinton’s tally last November. White voters also provided the majority of Obama’s support in both his presidential victories, and so on.
Here’s another interesting data point to consider: Trump gained roughly 5 to 6 million of his 63 million votes from former Obama voters who switched sides. It’s a safe assumption that a majority of those swing voters were white people. When white people who voted for a black candidate turn around four years later and vote for an orange dumpster fire, I think it’s worth questioning what the Democratic Party did to contribute to that failure. You don’t have to get every vote, just most of them, yet we somehow gave away the winning margin to the worst candidate in American history.
None of this is an apology for the worst of the Trump base. It’s not a challenge to studies that indicate a correlation between white racial bias and support for Trump.
Rather, it’s an appeal to the left, based on another group of studies, which generally confirm two utterly unsurprising points: 1. If you want to persuade people to consider your side of an argument, you must first engage them in a constructive conversation; and 2. If you begin a persuasive conversation with a stranger by calling that person a privileged racist, the chance of that person voting for your candidate rapidly approaches zero.
That’s why it doesn’t matter whether you’re right about cisgendered Christian white men being the root of all evil. Even if you’re correct — and as someone who meets three of those four criteria, I disagree — you lose. Democrats need to engage with white voters in a constructive way, not because white people are entitled to special treatment, but because the vast majority of voters is white.
That’s not a value judgment. It’s an electoral reality.
Yes, the left should always find a prominent place for confrontational “movement politics” (the kind of campaigning that challenges bias, changes attitudes and raises awareness). It’s just that putting movement politics front and center during an election year is absolutely lousy salesmanship. If you think that salesmanship shouldn’t matter, that principles are more important than winning, then please allow me to redirect your complaint to the current resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
More than 60 percent of the country is white. Less than a third of the population has a bachelor’s degree or higher. These statements of fact come with a lot of baggage for those of us on the political left, and we typically feel the need to launch all sorts of “yes-but” rebuttals.
But again, I restate the obvious, because, you know: We’re liberals. Politics — specifically electoral politics — is not like surgery. You don’t heal the rest of the body by cutting out one part of it that happens to be unhealthy. It’s not auto repair, where you solve the problem by identifying the malfunctioning part and installing a new one. The electorate is the electorate is the electorate. There is no prize in electoral politics for being “right.”
Win and you make policy. Lose and you get nothing. Which is exactly where we are today..
Folks, it boils down to this. Today’s American left is basically Walter Sobchak and The Dude sitting in a shitty car outside a bowling alley in “The Big Lebowski.” Walter keeps screaming: “AM I WRONG? AM I WRONG?” until The Dude, exasperated, finally shouts: “You’re not WRONG, Walter! You’re just an ASSHOLE!”
Josh Marshall’s piece yesterday lacked utility because it suggested no practical application. The alternate responses he highlighted this morning aren’t useful because they appeal to an obvious status quo that provides no insight that might result in a productive way forward. And in total, those five opinions disappoint because they all fail to address the obvious truth: Democrats lose too often because they’ve stopped working to win voters in the one group that comprises most of them.
I’m not here to tell you how to do that.
I’m here to tell you that figuring out how to do that — without abandoning our core values — is the whole enchilada.