While the Democratic Party pulled off a complete (albeit narrow) victory over Donald Trump and the Republican Party in 2020, they lost ground with nonwhite voters—despite significantly raising the salience of racial justice issues during the campaign.
According to progressive pollster David Shor, it's time to face the facts: The cultural views of very highly-educated, very left-leaning white people are toxic for many nonwhite voters who would otherwise support the Democratic Party.
"I don't think a lot of people expected Donald Trump's GOP to have a much more diverse support base than Mitt Romney's did in 2012," Shor told New York magazine in a recent interview. "But that's what happened."
Shor pointed to two specific associations—socialism and the "defund the police" movement—that appear to have tarnished the Democratic Party in the eyes of minority voters. The former is an unsurprising finding, and something I've written on previously: Socialism is generally not popular with Hispanic voters, who associate it with the kind of political oppression experienced by people in Venezuela and Cuba.
But the latter is also noteworthy, given that "defund the police" is a mantra recited by progressive activists who purport to represent the wishes of racial minorities. These activists claim, for instance, that the role of police in society is to defend or legitimize America's white supremacist culture. In other words, activists want to defund the police because they think doing so is a necessary component of antiracist organizing.
The trouble is that many racial minorities don't actually share that view.
"We raised the salience of an ideologically charged issue that millions of nonwhite voters disagreed with us on," said Shor. "And then, as a result, these conservative Hispanic voters who'd been voting for us despite their ideological inclinations started voting more like conservative whites."
Importantly, this holds true for the highly specific way that elite white liberals talk about race in general. Shor again:
In liberal circles, racism has been defined in highly ideological terms. And this theoretical perspective on what racism means and the nature of racial inequality have become a big part of the group identity of college-educated Democrats, white and nonwhite. But it's not necessarily how most nonwhite, working-class people understand racism. …
If you look at the concrete questions, white liberals are to the left of Hispanic Democrats, but also of Black Democrats, on defunding the police and those ideological questions about the source of racial inequity.
It seems fairly clear, based on Shor's polling, that Ivy League–educated white liberals' messaging on an assortment of issues falling under a category I have termed "woke excess" ended up driving minority voters into the arms of Trump. This wasn't enough to give Trump a second term, but it probably helped the Republicans dramatically improve their position in the House of Representatives.
Woke excess goes by many names, including "political correctness run amok," which I previously claimed was a non-trivial explanation for Trump's surprise win in 2016. (It also drives "cancel culture," which is currently the thing that Republicans seem most interested in symbolically fighting.) Several smart thinkers, including McGill University's Jacob Levy, disagreed with my argument that the backlash against political correctness was significant; I was "mapping my list of excesses onto the voting behavior of 80,000 very-low-information voters in three states," according to Levy.
Four years later, the thesis that highly educated white liberals are sabotaging the Democratic Party and inadvertently helping Trump seems, if anything, better supported than it was previously: Woke excess doesn't just turn off non-college whites, but it also prompts some Hispanic and black voters to defect from the Democratic coalition.
In a post for Slow Boring on how Democrats can win more elections, Matthew Yglesias offers some concrete suggestions for the party's candidates:
- Say you think it's dumb that they are putting warning labels on old TV shows like the muppets. Just let people watch stuff.
- Say you don't think it's fair to call people racist when they worry about crime or illegal immigration — these are things lots of folks worry about, and the government owes them solutions.
- Especially if you are Vice President Kamala Harris, a former elected official from San Francisco, say that canceling Abraham Lincoln while keeping the city's schools closed is the kind of dumb shit that makes people think Democrats can't govern, and you're mad about it.
I would add that Democratic candidates should fire any staffer who advised them to use the word "Latinx." That this term, which only about 2 percent of Hispanics actually like and use, has rapidly taken hold in mainstream media, is a powerful example of how campus culture has quickly come to dominate elite institutions, contrary to the wishes of actual minorities.
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