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Democrats Have Their Own Challenges In Talking About Racial Issues In The Trump Era

The events in Charlottesville over the weekend put President Trump on the defensive about why white nationalists see him as an ally, led key figures in his own party to distance themselves from the president and inspired some Democratic Party officials from around the country to either consider or accelerate the process of taking down symbols of the Confederacy in their cities and states. If American politics increasingly revolves around questions of culture, identity and race, as it often seems, the Democratic Party looked unified and confident amid the Charlottesville news, while Republicans were divided and a bit at sea about what exactly to say.

But there is a real, pressing battle in the Democratic Party over identity issues too, with some in the party worried that movements like Black Lives Matter turn off white voters while others say the Democrats should speak bluntly and unequivocally on issues that particularly affect women and nonwhite voters.

“We also have to avoid vilifying people whose social views aren’t as ‘progressive’ as we think they should be,” reads the mission statement of a new group of centrist Democrats called New Democracy. The group, whose advisory board includes Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu and Alabama Rep. Terri Sewell, argues that “both parties have indulged in a civically corrosive form of identity politics.”

But Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a key figure in the party’s left wing and a potential 2020 candidate, said in a recent speech, “The Democratic Party isn’t going back to the days of welfare reform and the crime bill. It is not going to happen. We’re not going back to the days of being lukewarm on choice.”

Before Charlottesville at least, Democrats appeared to have arrived at a compromise between their two wings: keeping their liberal stands on cultural issues, but highlighting them a bit less. Last month, congressional Democrats unveiled a new slogan, “A Better Deal: Better Jobs, Better Wages, Better Future,” and a batch of populist-tinged policies like making it harder for big companies in the same industry to merge.

The proposals themselves — and the FDR-style rhetoric surrounding them — show the Democrats trying to capture the populist appeal that seemed to drive both Trump and Bernie Sanders’s presidential runs last year. The “Better Deal” ideas are almost exclusively about economic issues and largely do not address subjects like immigration, abortion or racial discrimination.

Economic populism could work for Democrats. Trump, as FiveThirtyEight detailed after the election, was particularly strong in areas where residents had lower credit scores, men had stopped working, and where jobs are vulnerable to automation and outsourcing. Areas, in other words, where people have reason to worry about their economic future.

But here’s the big potential problem for Democrats: What if Trump’s victory — carrying more than 200 counties where former President Barack Obama had won in 2008 and 2012 — was not primarily driven by his populist economic appeals, but by his rhetoric and policies around race and identity issues instead? Trump’s denunciations of Black Lives Matter, his embrace of building a wall to keep Mexicans from coming to the U.S., and his proposed temporary ban on Muslims entering the country were just as much a part of his campaign as his promises to bring back coal jobs.

In short, what if the Democrats’ problems with white working-class voters are more about them being white than working-class?

There is reason to be skeptical that economic populism will win back Trump voters for Democrats; some scholars argue that cultural and racial issues were more important than economics to voters who cast a ballot for Obama in 2012 and then Trump in 2016. An analysis by New America’s Lee Drutman (based on a series of polls conducted by YouGov) concluded that Obama-Trump voters had more liberal views on economic issues (like the importance of Social Security and Medicare) but more conservatives ones on cultural issues, such as immigration and their attitudes toward blacks and Muslims.1

“The Obama to Trump voter looks very much like [Mitt] Romney to Trump supporters on attitudes toward African-Americans, feelings on immigration, and attitudes toward Muslims. Interestingly, the Obama to Trump voter is not as conservative on moral issues, and looks like a [Hillary] Clinton voter on concerns about inequality,” Drutman wrote.

Political scientist John Sides, looking at that same YouGov data set and concentrating on white Obama-Trump and Romney-Clinton voters, found that the factors that were more highly correlated in 2016 than in 2012 in terms of predicting people’s votes were immigration, feelings about blacks and feelings about Muslims, not economic factors.

Similarly, the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) found that fears of America becoming too influenced by foreign nations and favoring the deportation of undocumented immigrants were both stronger predictors of support for Trump among white, working-class voters than whether those voters said they were personally suffering from a lack of money.

We’re not going to settle whether race and culture or economic anxiety was the primary driver of Trump’s victory here — both likely played some role — but if culture and race are a big part of the problem, what should the Democrats do? The “Better Deal” is one move, but not the end of the debate about the Democratic Party’s future. More populism was the easy part of the new agenda; figuring out race and identity is more challenging — as the events in Charlottesville showed.

Generally, the “what do Democrats do next” conversation features two big questions in terms of race and culture: message and messenger.


Should the Democrats take more conservative stances on race and identity issues, keep the same policies but talk about them less, or keep the same policies and the same strong message regarding them?

  1. You could imagine Democrats remaining the party strongly advocating for the legalization of undocumented immigrants, major reforms to policing, efforts to make it easier to vote and other policies that disproportionately affect minorities, and including those ideas in the “Better Deal.” You could also imagineparticularly in the wake of Charlottesville Democrats pushing even more aggressively to remove Confederate symbols around the country, and talking more bluntly about Republicans and race. We would see more quotes like this one, from Minnesota congressman and Democratic National Committee deputy chairman Keith Ellison, who told an audience at the liberal Netroots Nation conference last week: “The fact is that the Republican Party today is the party of racism. Now I’m not saying every Republican is a racist, but I’m saying their party does hold that up. … It is the Republican Party in 2017 that says, ‘wall them off, ban them out, no transgender in the military.’ If it’s mean, if it’s racist, if it’s greedy, it’s coming from them.”
  2. You could imagine the party still favoring those ideas but not making them front and center in the way Clinton did in 2016 and not including them in the “Better Deal.”
  3. Or you can imagine the Democrats perhaps shifting right on some of these issues. Could a red-state Democrat, like West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, support limits on so-called sanctuary cities and reduced legal immigration — two Trump proposals? Would other Democrats do the same? More symbolically, will Democratic candidates in the future avoid using phrases like “Black Lives Matter,” which Clinton invoked frequently?

I suspect Democrats will largely take the middle course: more populism, less talk about race and identity but without any real shifts in position on those issues. This is essentially a bet that Trump’s unpopularity will help lift the Democratic Party to major gains, so they don’t need a broader political course correction on race and identity. Such a middle course would also acknowledge reality: Democrats, with a party that is about 45 percent non-white, can’t try to ape Trump’s racial appeals to woo whites. The days of a Democrat running for president and distancing himself from a black hip-hop artist to appeal to whites (as Bill Clinton did in 1992) are probably over. Not moving right would also reflect the increasing liberalism of the Democratic Party.

But this is a tense divide, and a hard one for Democrats to discuss openly. The voices in the party advocating that it tone down its cultural messages tend to be white and male, while the strongest advocates of strong liberal stands on identity issues are often female and nonwhite.


Should Democrats run candidates who they think appeal specifically to white Trump voters, be mindful but not overly focused on that factor or ignore it completely? For example, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has annoyed some Democratic activists by saying that Democrats should embrace some congressional candidates opposed to abortion rights, particularly in more conservative areas.

We don’t totally know exactly what kind of candidate appeals to a white Trump voter, since some of those voters backed Obama in 2008 and 2012. But you could argue that the most logical candidate, in terms of identity politics, to appeal to white, Christian male voters would be a white Christian male. (Trump ran very strong among white men and white evangelicals.)

Looking forward, this makes the 2020 Democratic field interesting. The well-known white Christian men who might otherwise be logical candidates for the Democrats have some obvious potential challenges. Trump, at age 70, was the oldest person ever first elected president. So California Gov. Jerry Brown, who is 79, and Joe Biden, 74, are facing America’s historic preference for younger candidates. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is 59, but liberal activists hate him. Hickenlooper, 65, just has not galvanized party activists so far. Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, 59, has already said he will not run. Ohio’s Tim Ryan and Massachusetts’ Seth Moulton are hinting that they might consider presidential runs, and the kind of unspoken assumption here is that those relatively obscure U.S. House members could have a chance in part because Democratic primary voters might be looking for candidates who they think can appeal to Trump voters in a general election.

Many of the people whom party activists are talking about running in 2020 are not the most obvious fit with Trump voters, at least in terms of their identities: Bernie Sanders (who is Jewish), New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker (black), California Sen. Kamala Harris (a black woman) and Warren (a white woman). This dynamic is playing out at the state level as well, as a lot of the candidates who have been energized to run for office since Trump won are women and people of color.

The easiest response for Democrats is to ignore this candidate factor: Obama won in 2008 and 2012, after all. We simply don’t know which candidates will appeal to voters in the future. And it’s unfair to Trump voters to suggest that they wouldn’t consider a black woman, since some of them backed Obama, and unfair to Harris and Warren to suggest that they shouldn’t run for president because Americans haven’t elected a female candidate before.

But Trump highlighted issues of race and identity much more explicitly than John McCain or Mitt Romney did in their campaigns against Obama. I would expect him to do so again if he runs in 2020. The president has abandoned some of his campaign promises, but not the Muslim ban and the border wall. So we can expect these identity issues to be front of mind for voters. Or, as Drutman put it:

“As long as ethno-cultural identity issues are salient, it will be hard for Democrats to win back Obama-Trump voters. And as long as Trump is president, ethno-cultural identity issues will be salient, because that’s Trump’s MO.”

Several Democratic officials I spoke to privately took a more enthusiastic view. Essentially, they argued that it’s impossible to figure out exactly why Clinton lost in 2016 and that trying to figure out how much was race, how much was economics and how much was just Clinton is impossible and not that important: She barely lost in a weird race, and maybe a combination of more voters turned off by Trump, increased populism from Democrats and candidates other than Clinton is enough to win at least some Obama-Trump voters back.

That doesn’t sound convincing. But remember: Democrats were sure that they were screwed with Christian and Middle America voters after the 2004 elections, then won the presidency in 2008 while making some small gains among those voters. Republicans were convinced they were screwed after the 2012 elections because of their unpopularity with people of color, but then won in 2016 while barely making any gains among people of color. Populism may not be the path back, but it looks a lot more logical than running a first-time senator (Obama in 2005) or a businessman with no political experience (Trump 2013) were three years before those approaches worked.


  1. The survey asked people questions designed to assess their racial resentment levels toward blacks and their views on immigration policy and the Muslim ban.

Perry Bacon Jr. was a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.