Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Coates, Race and the 2016 Election

Photo credit: Eduardo Montes-Bradley
I just finished Ta-Nehisi Coates’s article on the Trump presidency and the 2016 election in the October edition of The Atlantic.  As always, his writing is provocative and enlightening in many ways. One of my frustrations in reading the exit polls was that they didn't break down the results by race and income—even though the dominant narrative about the election has been that white working class voters were largely responsible for Trump’s win.

Coates shows that all whites, in every income category, supported Trump. Perhaps surprisingly, given the narrative about the working class, Trump’s white voters were more affluent than Clinton’s, and his strongest margin was among voters who should probably be considered middle class, those making above the national median income, from $50,000 to $100,000.

Coates seems to be wading into the heated debate within liberal/Democratic Party/progressive circles about how to interpret the results and what they say about whether Democrats should emphasize “identity politics” (a category that Coates helpfully complicates), or economic/class issues. Coates is highly critical of many of the politicians and writers who are calling for a more populist emphasis on economics and class and a de-emphasis of “identity politics.” But then he voted for the party's stalwart class warrior, Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries last year, and there are subtle hints in his article that he understands the necessity of getting more white voters into the Democratic coalition.

For example, after excoriating Sanders for defending white working class Trump voters against charges of racism, he concedes that “candidates for high office, such as Sanders, have to cobble together a coalition. The white working class is seen, understandably, as a large cache of potential votes, and capturing these votes requires eliding uncomfortable truths” (82). But Coates focuses mostly on the question of whether white Trump voters were motivated by race and he seems to conclude that Hillary Clinton was guilty only of underestimation when she said that half of Trump’s supporters belonged in a “basket of deplorables.” “Certainly not every Trump voter is a white supremacist.... But every Trump voter felt it acceptable to hand the fate of the country over to one,” he writes.

Since the TV show “All in the Family” premiered in 1971, liberals and the Democratic Party have been wracking their brains to figure out why working class white people would vote for Republicans. Why would Archie Bunker, “an old trade union man,” support the anti-union party? (Cowie 196). Norman Lear, Thomas Frank, Arlie Hochschild and many others have pointed to race as only one of the relevant factors.

More urgent questions less directly addressed in Coates’ article are these: How can Democrats form a winning coalition in the next election? And: Is it possible for an anti-racist party to attract enough white votes to form a winning coalition?

Coates's writings suggest three alternatives for winning white allies to the cause of racial justice. First, instill in white Americans a searing sense of guilt for their racist inclinations, for America’s racist past. Second, appeal to their empathy and altruism by teaching them the details of that horrifying past. Third, convince white people that racial justice is good for them too.  This last option is easy to miss in Coates’ writings, but it is embedded in his concessions to the importance of coalition politics and in his predictions of national disaster in the last three paragraphs of the Atlantic article (87).

For the past forty years—at least since Richard Nixon adopted the “Southern strategy”— Republicans have been making the case that racism is good for white people, that is, policies that help blacks and other people of color, hurt whites, and vice versa. Meanwhile, Democrats have done very little to convince white voters that racism is bad for all of us. Bernie Sanders’s campaign was a notable exception.

In the end, self-interest is a stronger motivating force than guilt or empathy or altruism, and so the key to the success of a party that is opposed to racist policies is to tie them to the self-interest of at least some part of the white majority.

Trump’s margin among all white people in the 2016 election was one point greater than Romney’s in 2016. A point that Coates failed to note, though, is that Romney won 59 percent of white voters and Trump got one point less—58. His increased margin was due to more white voters rejecting both major party candidates. And how about this: White voters liked Obama, a black Democrat, more than they liked last year's white Democrat, Hillary Clinton. Obama got 43 percent of the white vote in 2008 and 39 percent in 2012. She got only 37 percent in 2016.

Whatever sentiments about race lie hidden in the deep dark recess of white peoples’ hearts, one thing is for certain. The Democratic coalition cannot afford to lose any more white votes if the party wants to win any more elections. White people made up about 53 percent of Clinton voters. 

They also can't afford to lose any more people of color.  In 2016, 8 percent of blacks and 29 percent of Hispanic and Asian-American voters pulled the lever for Trump, a greater percentage in each case than Romney got in 2012. Coates does not mention this, but he should be disturbed that almost a third of non-African American people of color “felt it acceptable to hand the fate of the country over to” a man he considers to be a white supremacist. 
The red triangles indicate percentage increase in  Republican vote for president from 2012 to 2016.
Demographers predict that future population growth will be greatest among Hispanics and Asians. Some party strategists thought Democratic victories would become ubiquitous and inevitable as the population becomes more diverse and whites become a minority. For these population trends to work out as Democrats hope, non-whites will have to be remain unified against candidates who channel racist feelings (probably even more unified than they are now) and it would help if they continue to consider themselves to be non-white.  But a big chunk of white voters will still have to vote for Democrats, especially in the near term.

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