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Democrats can win by tackling race and class together. Here’s proof

The party is often asked to choose between courting white working-class voters and fighting racism but our research shows it can do both

By Ian Haney López , Anat Shenker-Osorio and Tamara Draut | The Guardian | April 14, 2018


We’ve heard this line over and over again: Democrats need to woo the white working class. Of course, Democrats should endeavor to reach these voters – just as a basketball team that wants to win should score every possible basket. But the people arguing this position aren’t merely mouthing a truism about elections. They’re staking a position in an increasingly contentious debate.

Arguments for courting white working-class voters are bound up with a corollary, often unspoken, claim: Democrats must choose between non-college white voters and voters of color. Baked into this is the conviction that appealing to one group necessarily imperils Democratic chances with the other.

We have important new evidence that we discuss below that shows this is wrong.

We believe there’s a way to talk about racism that garners support from both people of color and white people. We are leading a large-scale research project to develop and test an integrated narrative that can bridge the divide between those who would focus on race and those who would focus on class, to create a multiracial progressive coalition for economic and racial justice.

Results from one of our many experiments are in, and while still tentative, they offer hope. A progressive coalition known as Our Minnesota Future partnered with us to test our storyline.

This January, they canvassed 800 homes, conducting half their conversations with white respondents and half with people of color. Each respondent was shown two flyers. The first used classic dog whistling, taken from a real Republican mailer now circulating in Minnesota. Arguing for more tax cuts, an unnamed candidate describes his opponents as “demanding more sanctuary cities for criminal and illegal aliens.”

From there, half the respondents were shown a flyer detailing a progressive populist agenda silent on race – the settled wisdom of the class-left. The other half were shown a race-class narrative that describes how certain politicians use racial division to cleave us from each other in order to gain and hold economic power.

The race-class flyer says “Whether white, black, or brown, 5th generation or newcomer, we all want to build a better future for our children. My opponent says some families have value, while others don’t count. He wants to pit us against each other in order to gain power for himself and kickbacks for his donors.”

The test was over which narrative – the one that avoids race or the one that uses race to explain the origins of economic inequality – could more effectively beat real Republican messaging. Among white respondents, a majority agreed with the initial dog whistle script. When these respondents were shown the class-only progressive flyer and asked which candidate they would select, 55% stuck with the racially divisive politician, and 44% shifted to the progressive candidate.

But for those shown the race-class message the numbers flipped. Only 43% stayed with the conservative candidate while 57% switched to the progressive who addressed race and class together. Put bluntly, the race-class message was significantly more effective at generating progressive votes than the class-only script. And this was among white voters initially keen on the divisive message.

A Donald Trump sign is displayed in the backyard of a house in Schuylkill Haven, Pennsylvania. Support in working-class areas such as this helped Trump win the state in 2016.

A Donald TRum sign is displayed in the backyard of a house in Schuylkill Haven, Pennsylvania.  Support in working class areas such as this helped Trump win the state in 2016: Mark Makela/Getty Images

Among people of color, a large plurality initially agreed with the conservative dog whistle script – a dispiriting reminder that racial scapegoating is pervasive to the point of seeming like common sense for many. Nevertheless, when shown the race-class flyer, 62% said they would vote for the progressive candidate instead, a much bigger shift than generated with the class-only story.

For respondents of color, Our Minnesota Future also looked at another metric. To determine whether a class-only message leaves voters of color cold, respondents of color were offered a third option besides supporting either candidate: sitting out the election. And, indeed, people of color were twice as likely to report they would stay home when shown the class-only message compared with the race-class one.

Admittedly, these are early results, with caveats about sample size, region, method, and so on. Nevertheless, they suggest Democrats can tackle racism and economic inequality simultaneously, making gains with white voters and voters of color simultaneously. The key is to make explicit how racism oppresses people of color while serving as a weapon for a greedy few to keep the rest of us from uniting.

A message that demonstrates the foundational link between economic and racial injustice helps white working-class voters identify the true culprit for their hardships. It also motivates voters of color who want leaders that fight not merely against corporate interests but also for equality and freedom.

So, yes, Democrats must go after white working-class voters. Yes, Democrats must address racism. And, yes, progressives can do both simultaneously – and do better with both white voters and voters of color in the process.

  1. Ian Haney López is the author of Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class

  2. Anat Shenker-Osorio is the author of Don’t Buy It: The Trouble With Talking Nonsense About the Economy

  3. Tamara Draut is vice-president policy and research at Demos Action and author of Sleeping Giant: How the New Working Class Will Transform America

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