Shortly after the 2016 election, I posted something on Facebook observing that Trump's victory proved that White racism was alive and well in America and remained a winning electoral force. My most all-in MAGA classmate from law school replied with a half-enraged, half-taunting rant to the effect of "calling White Americans racist is why Trump won, and that you're still doing it now is why we're going to keep on winning."
Spit-flecks aside, I recognized an interesting puzzle. It is entirely plausible for both of the following to be true: (1) That White racism is an important causal factor in contemporary Republican success, and (2) That saying that aloud makes Republican success even more likely. In other words, there's a potential disjuncture between how the social scientist and the political strategist should characterize "why Republicans are winning." It could be that, in terms of public discourse, accurately describing the political lay of the land is antipathic to changing it.
With GOP victories across the country yesterday, most prominently in Virginia, it is a plausible hypothesis that White racism is a significant part of the explanation for GOP success. Some of you think "plausible hypothesis" is far too gentle, others think the very idea is outrageous. I frame it as a "plausible hypothesis" to bracket that debate, for while I think the hypothesis is very strongly supported by the evidence, to the persons who are more skeptical I merely want them to concede that it surely is not outlandish, beyond the realm of what one could reasonably investigate, to think racism played a sizeable role in GOP successes yesterday or indeed over the past decade. Glenn Youngkin, the incoming GOP Governor of Virginia, ran an explicitly race-baiting campaign centered on ginned-up fears of "Critical Race Theory". I hardly need repeat the well-worn notion that "Critical Race Theory", in this context, has no analytical content other than "discussions about race or racism that I don't like"; this of course emphasizes that the anti-CRT push really is nothing more than White resentment politics at fever pitch. By the end of the campaign, Youngkin supporters were a half-step away from calling Terry McAuliffe's call to diversify the ranks of K-12 teachers a form of White genocide. There are reasons to think that the "CRT" narrative didn't really have much purchase beyond the already partisan, and other factors explained the GOP's victory. But again, it is plausible to think otherwise -- clearly plausible, in fact, such that fair-minded and independent journalists should at least think about what the implications are for Democrats, if it is true.
Yet I'm not sure I've ever seen a mainstream journalist grapple with that question. Which is strange, since journalists love nothing more than taking a few off-cycle election results and saying "this is what this means for Democrats" or "here's what Democrats have to do to win." They'll give various answers to that question tailored to the various explanations they have on tap for why Republicans succeeded -- do this if the reason Republicans won is "economic anxiety", do that if it is that Democrats are "out of touch with the heartland", do this other thing if GOP victories stem from "progressives going too far" (boy they love that one). So in that line of thought, we could also ask: what should Democrats do if the reason Republicans won in 2021 is "because White racism is a powerful electoral force"?
Journalists don't have an answer to that -- or at least, not one they are willing to express. In part, they don't ask the question because they refuse to even accept the premise -- calling GOP voters "racist" is rude, it is mean, it is Not Done (none of this has any relation to whether it is true). There may be nobody more fragile on the planet than the White GOP-leaning voter asked to reckon with racism as a partial feature of their life. Certainly, the anti-CRT campaign provides ample evidence of this: parents who saw Connor was a bit sad upon learning about U.S. history and concluded that totalitarianism had been reborn (or just read David Bernstein's origin story for how he became an anti-CRT zealot -- somehow, he thinks that he isn't the obvious villain of this tale). If you're going to give Connor that medicine, by golly he better get ten scoops of sugar to help it go down -- and hey, wouldn't he be even happier if we just skipped the medicine altogether and only ate the sugar?
But to some extent, I think part of why they refuse to ask the question is that they are just constitutionally incapable of coming up with an acceptable answer. For one, at the most basic level, if it is true that the GOP wins insofar as White racism is powerful, the "correct" response is that there is something diseased in America that needs to be cured. Yet framing the problem in this way -- as Republicans doing something wrong they need to fix -- is a clear violation of Murc's Law (that Democrats are the only agential actors in American politics).
If there is any defense of refusing to go with the obvious answer, it is that an explanation for what Democrats should do can't really rely on problematizing what voters want, let alone asking Republicans to leave off a winning strategy ("because it's hideously immoral? Hah -- good one!"). Politics is partially about persuasion, but for the most part one takes the electorate you have, not the one you wished you had. "I would have won if I had better voters" is a pretty pathetic excuse. So the other obvious, if bloodless, response to any explanation of the form "voters want X" is "Democrats should provide, or at least accommodate, X." Of course, that's far easier to say aloud when X is "more restrictive trade policies" or "focusing on bread-and-butter issues" than when X is "racism". Put simply, under the prevailing way political journalists talk about politics, once you admit that racism is what the electorate wants, the only way to complete that story is to advise Democrats to "be more accommodating to racism".
This is why journalists are insistent, to the point of franticness, to recharacterize "racism" as something legitimate that it is fair to ask Democrats to be responsive to. It's not "racism", it's "economic anxiety" or "extreme theories being taught at Berkeley" or "cancel culture gone haywire". At one level, these are just more PC ways of saying "Democrats need to be more accommodating of White racism". But the reason we bother with the altered frame is that, on face at least, it is reasonable to ask Democrats to be responsive to those concerns, in a way one can't just baldly state "Democrats should come to terms with racism". They are more convenient explanations; they allow the standard political story -- voters want X, Democrats should be responsive to X -- to be completed. But convenience aside, whether or not "economic anxiety" versus racism is actually the explanation for GOP electoral successes is an empirical question; "racism" does not fail as an explanation simply because it'd be an awkward one for journalists to explore.
Yet the dismissal of "racism" as an explanation on grounds of convenience is the reality of contemporary political journalism. And it's a problem, for a host of reasons, not the least of which being the puzzle I identified at the outset. If White racism remains an exceedingly powerful political force, what should Democrats do, as a matter of political strategy, in order to win elections? This is a genuinely hard question, and I don't have a clear answer -- I wish I had a silver bullet to make racism less appealing, but I don't and I don't pretend to. Which is all the more reason why it'd be nice if thoughtful political journalists started asking this question. Yet they don't, and they won't, no matter how much evidence piles up suggesting that racism is a viable explanation for our current state of political affairs.
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