Calling Out Racist Voters Is Satisfying. But It Comes at a Political Cost.

Bernie Sanders’s clumsy comments about voters in Florida and Georgia reignited a debate on how politicians talk about racism.

The silhouettes of attendees are seen during an election night party for 2016 Republican Presidential Nominee Donald Trump at the Hilton Midtown hotel in New York, U.S., on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2016. Fifty-one percent of voters nationally were bothered a lot by Trump's treatment of women, while Democrat Hillary Clinton's use of private e-mail while secretary of state was troubling to 44 percent, according to preliminary exit polling as voting neared a close in some states. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The silhouettes of attendees are seen during an election night party for 2016 Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump at the Hilton Midtown hotel in N.Y., on Nov. 8, 2016.

Photo: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Google “is Trump racist?” and you’ll find that just within the last week, at least three major news outlets have taken on that very question.

At the Chicago Tribune, columnist Clarence Page asked, “Is President Trump a racist — or does he just act like one?” At CNN, Mallory Simon and Sara Sidner offer that “Trump says he’s not a racist,” but “[t]hat’s not how white nationalists see it.” And at New York magazine, the headline doesn’t hide the ball, declaring: “The Republican Denial of Trump’s Racism Is Absurd.”

I tend to agree. Over the past year, a consensus seems to have finally formed — at least among the broad political left — that President Donald Trump is, in fact, racist. Liberals have largely backed away from euphemisms like “racially charged” and “racialized” and just started speaking plainly. “Just Say It,” read a headline last January in the New York Times. “Trump Is a Racist.”

But the question of how politicians should characterize Trump supporters is a different matter altogether. Some Trump voters are certainly racist. But is it worth the strategic risk for politicians to call them out?

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., found himself in hot water last week when, in a clumsy quote to the Daily Beast, he said that voters who rejected black candidates because they are black might not be racist.

Sanders’s full remarks, cut from the Daily Beast article but released later in an audio clip, included a strong condemnation of racism. When asked to comment on the “race-oriented” nature of the gubernatorial campaigns waged by Brian Kemp of Georgia and Ron DeSantis of Florida against African-American candidates Stacey Abrams and Andrew Gillum, respectively, Sanders corrected the reporter, saying, “Why don’t we use the right word — not use the phrase ‘race-oriented.’ Why don’t we say ‘racist,’ how’s that?” Sanders went on to describe Gillum as having had to take on some of the most “blatant and ugly racism that we have seen in many, many years.”

But when discussing whether voters themselves, rather than the candidates, might have acted out of racism, Sanders seemed to equivocate. “There are a lot of white folks out there who are not necessarily racist, who felt uncomfortable for the first time in their life about, you know, whether or not they wanted to vote for an African-American,” he said.

Of course, as many have pointed out, Sanders’s comment didn’t make much sense. Declining to vote for a candidate because of their race is, by definition, racist, and Sanders should have known better than to suggest otherwise.

But much of the criticism that followed focused on Sanders’s perceived tendency to “downplay” racism — a claim that isn’t supported by the interview transcript or his subsequent statement, in which he said, “Let me be absolutely clear: Donald Trump, Brian Kemp, and Ron DeSantis ran racist campaigns. … They used racist rhetoric to divide people and advance agendas that would harm the majority of Americans.” On NPR later that day, he explained that “there’s no question that in Georgia and in Florida, racism has reared its ugly head, and you have candidates who ran against Gillum and ran against Stacey Abrams who were racist and were doing everything they could to try to play whites against blacks.” He’s been similarly blunt before, as in an August MSNBC appearance, when he said, “I think we have to do a heck of a lot better getting through to some of those people. I am not going to deny for a second that some of those supporters are racists, sexists, homophobes, xenophobes. That’s true.” But, he said, “I don’t believe that’s a majority.”

In response, some critics still observed that “in neither statement did Sanders indict voters for backing racists candidates.” To them, it wasn’t enough for Sanders to call out racism or racist politicians. The litmus test seemed to be whether he would call voters racist. And that reopened a debate, familiar from when Hillary Clinton labeled Trump voters “deplorables,” about how politicians ought to address racist voters. Should they call out racists, or should politicians avoid that confrontation in hopes of building a broad coalition that can better attack racist policies and systems?

US Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama (L) and Republican John McCain shake hands at the end of the final presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, on October 15, 2008.         AFP PHOTO/Emmanuel Dunand (Photo credit should read EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images)

U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama and Republican John McCain shake hands at the end of the final presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., on Oct. 15, 2008.

Photo: Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images

A politician must be persuasive. She must be many things for many people. She must represent the masses, and appeal to thousands, if not millions.

Consequently, setting aside extreme examples like white supremacists, terrorists, or abusers, politicians often take “the customer is always right” approach when it comes to voters. They might be cajoled, but they’re rarely criticized.

Instances in which politicians publicly contradict average voters are so rare and unexpected that they become iconic, as when late Sen. John McCain clumsily corrected a supporter who claimed that then-Sen. Barack Obama was “an Arab,” and thus couldn’t be trusted; or when Texas congressional candidate Beto O’Rourke voiced support for Colin Kaepernick in response to a constituent who found the football player’s protests “disrespectful.”

It takes courage to contradict a constituent when one’s career depends on votes, and moments of political and personal integrity are rightly celebrated. But even in these instances, O’Rourke and McCain understood that voters needed to be treated, well, politically.

McCain didn’t call the woman who objected to Obama on the (mistaken) basis of his identity a racist — even though choosing to reject a candidate on racial grounds undoubtedly is. And O’Rourke didn’t argue that antipathy for the NFL Black Lives Matter protests is rooted in anti-blackness, though he’d be justified in doing so. Instead, both men responded with strategic grace. Notably, O’Rourke set the stage for productive communication by first offering that “reasonable people can disagree on this issue,” and establishing that it makes people “no less American to come down on a different conclusion on this issue.”

Whether or not you agree that reasonable minds can differ on the issue of police violence, it’s hard to argue that O’Rourke’s soft touch didn’t help his argument. His approach — which some might call “good politics” — acknowledges what Zak Cheney-Rice, writing about Sanders in New York magazine, noted when he said that “calling racist white people ‘racist’ is probably a good way to ensure they do not vote for you.” At 72 percent of the country, white Americans are still a necessary part of any political coalition, and the geographic distribution of ethnic groups combined with our electoral college system means white votes are weighted more heavily than others.

Clinton felt the consequences of labeling voters racist when her “deplorables” gaffe became one of the more notable controversies of her 2016 presidential campaign. And Gillum seemed to appreciate the danger of calling his Republican opponent racist outright, saying instead, “I’m not calling Mr. DeSantis a racist. I’m simply saying the racists believe he’s a racist.” (Even that deft sidestep might have hurt Gillum, who lost the election.)

Obama — who negotiated the third rail that is American racial politics more successfully than perhaps any other politician — declined to directly confront racists. During his famous “race speech” in 2008, he went out of his way to emphasize that although his own white grandmother exhibited prejudice, she sacrificed for him and loved him “as much as she loves anything in this world” — a framing choice that seemed to recognize that he would get further by lighting a path for those with bigoted beliefs to join the fold than by shaming them. He didn’t win by calling out racist voters, but by suggesting that they could be “more perfect.”

Like it or not, the opinions of white voters matter, and politicians have to balance the validation that marginalized communities deserve against the anxieties of white voters. As Cheney-Rice noted, it’s frustrating that white voters’ sensitivity about being called racist often becomes a more central part of the national conversation than the actual consequences of experiencing racism.

The consequences of not considering white voters in one’s political messaging strategy are more than just frustrating.

But the consequences of not considering white voters in one’s political messaging strategy are more than just frustrating. To millions of black and brown people, LGBTQ Americans, women, immigrants, and differently abled people, they are existential. In just the last two years, voting protections have been bulldozed, transgender rights stripped, and the deficit exploded on a tax giveaway to the rich — and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. If Democrats can’t win in 2020, things will only get worse.

Cheney-Rice worries that an “unwillingness to alienate racist voters inevitably leads to coddling racist voters” — an understandable and common concern. But I’d argue that there’s nothing inevitable about it. To the extent that politicians have put the interests of white voters before others, it’s been a choice, and not something intrinsic to multiracial coalition building.

Too often, politicians, including Democrats, have exploited racial bias to gain power in this majority-white but ethnically diverse country. The third-way strategy perfected by Bill Clinton relied on right-wing racism to keep nonwhites in line with the Democratic Party while he pivoted hard to the center — branding himself as a welfare-slashing, tough-on-crime candidate who was so invested in capturing the “law and order” vote that he paused his first presidential campaign to personally oversee the execution of a functionally lobotomized black man.

Unlike many Republicans and some moderate Democrats, many progressive candidates today seek to erect a big tent by offering broad-based, universal policies — not by weaponizing identity politics. Despite rejecting white majoritarianism and relying instead on cross-racial, class-based solidarity, they’re often met with understandable, if undeserved, skepticism. Words like “pandering,” “courting,” and “coddling” — as well as newer slang, like “caping for whites” — are frequently bandied about when the political motives of white voters are interrogated beyond the question of racism.

But not all politicking is pandering, and it’s incumbent on journalists to be observant about the difference: Are racist sentiments or group stereotypes being exploited, or are the interests of various groups being authentically met? If we treat genuine, if messy, efforts at communication and cynical identity politicking the same way, we run the real risk of derailing efforts to deliver maximum benefits to the most vulnerable among us. And the vulnerable simply can’t afford it.

A member of the audience wears a shirt that reads "Proud to Be A Trump Deplorable" as President Donald Trump speaks at a rally at Southern Illinois Airport in Murphysboro, Ill., Saturday, Oct. 27, 2018. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

A member of the audience wears a shirt that reads “Proud to Be a Trump Deplorable” as President Donald Trump speaks at a rally at in Murphysboro, Ill., on Oct. 27, 2018.

Photo: Andrew Harnik/AP

Clinton’s defenders often point out that her “deplorables” speech was accurate: that anyone who would endorse the racism, sexism, xenophobia, and Islamophobia coming out of the Trump administration is deplorable.

Some Trump voters are undoubtedly racist. But racism is a popular and bipartisan endeavor. A much touted Reuters/Ipsos poll from 2016 showed that over 30 percent of Trump voters think blacks are less “intelligent” than whites, while 40 percent think we’re “lazy.” But the fact that 20 percent of Clinton voters agree went underreported. That number is especially troubling when you consider that without the 22 percent of Clinton voters who are black, there might not be much daylight between white voters regardless of where they fall on the political spectrum.

The prevalence of racism means that most accusations of racism are accurate — if only by broad definitions that include implicit bias, or structural systems in which most Americans are complicit. But as common as it is, few people see themselves as racist, and that fact neuters the efficacy of accusations of racism. The accused often react defensively and become even more resistant to change. “Telling people they’re racist, sexist, and xenophobic is going to get you exactly nowhere,” says Alana Conner, executive director of Stanford University’s Social Psychological Answers to Real-world Questions Center. “It’s such a threatening message. One of the things we know from social psychology is when people feel threatened, they can’t change, they can’t listen.” As I’ve argued before, shaming, though cathartic, just doesn’t work.

This gulf between what racism is and what the average American understands racism to be is at the root of this racial double bind. Whether to call out voters isn’t always a question of political temerity. It can be a matter of political strategy.

Whether to call out voters isn’t always a question of political temerity. It can be a matter of political strategy.

The difference between Sanders and some other Democratic politicians (and liberal voters) is not a reluctance to call out racism. It’s that he’s not willing to write off people who hold bigoted beliefs as beyond political reach — perhaps understanding that racism is a pathology avoided by few. It’s the difference between seeing racism as something mutable and susceptible to the influence of persuasion (e.g., politics), or something intrinsic, static, and essentially corrupting.

I’ve always thought the more problematic part of Clinton’s statement was her deployment of the word “irredeemable.” Irredeemable voters don’t just hold abhorrent views. They’re permanently, essentially toxic. By calling half of Trump voters — millions of Americans — “deplorables,” she transmuted an adjective into a noun, and morphed bad actions and beliefs into untouchable people. One’s personal antipathy for racism shouldn’t preclude understanding that a president, responsible for all who live within her nation’s borders, shouldn’t consider any constituents beyond saving.

On some level, liberals seem to agree that racism is mutable. Despite somewhat deterministic historical accounts which have become popular in recent years, they celebrate the fact that higher education is correlated with liberal political views — as is living in racially mixed urban areas. But although they acknowledge that exposure to diversity is a balm for bigotry, many still scoff at middle-American conservatism as though their politics wouldn’t likely be different if they’d been born in Boise, Idaho.

Sanders takes the more humanistic approach. He has been rebuked repeatedly for believing that some Trump voters could be flipped, and for declining to write off all of them as “irredeemable.” He has been criticized for carving out space for their rehabilitation and reintegration into the Democratic party — even while he’s clear that not all can be convinced. For over two years now he has traveled the country — visiting parts of America long abandoned by the Democratic Party — red states full of black voters and white states that used to go blue — selling America on progressive policies that have consequently become mainstream. But few who criticize him pause to reflect on the relationship between Sanders’s inclusive, nonjudgmental approach and the increasing currency of his ideas.

In his statement following the Daily Beast article, Sanders threaded this needle well. He seemed to draw on a Demos report from earlier this year, which shows that so-called persuadable voters — those that fall in the middle of the political spectrum — are most receptive to political messaging that condemns the 1 percent for exploiting racial division. By appealing to voters’ belief that they aren’t racist, that they are better than divisive rhetoric, those voters are offered an opportunity to position themselves on the side of anti-racism, and against the more powerful enemy: corporate oligarchs. “It’s not just that politicians divide us based on what we look like, but that they do it to rewrite the rules to line their pockets,” was one message that tested well, according to the Demos study. “It’s not just that they generate fear based on race, but that they do it to benefit the wealthy few at our expense,” was another. Or, as Sanders put it in his response last Thursday, “They used racist rhetoric to divide people and advance agendas that would harm the majority of Americans.”

So is the answer ignoring individual racism? Not at all. I only question the utility of calling voters racists — not policies, or politicians, or other public figures. Nor am I suggesting that politicians should stay silent on biased remarks or behaviors — no matter who voices them. But pointing out acts, beliefs, or systems as racist is different, and more effective, than focusing on individuals, who are likely to become defensive and resistant to change. It’s not that politicians should do anything to win, but they shouldn’t tether themselves to a strategy that neither lessens racism nor helps them access the political power necessary to better people’s lives.

If the Democrats want any chance of winning in 2020, they should reconsider whether they want to force their most compelling and progressive politicians into an unwinnable double bind.

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