This is going to be a bit of a rant, because there’s a recurring theme in my recent social media that’s really bugging me, and I need to vent. I’m going to do it as a blog post rather than an early-morning tweetstorm, because tweets are more likely to be pulled out of context, and then I’m going to unfollow basically everybody that isn’t a weird Twitter bot or a band that I like, and try to avoid politics until the end of the year. Also, I’ll do some physics stuff.
This morning saw the umpteenth reshared tweetstorm (no link because it doesn’t matter who it was) berating people who write about how liberals ought to reach out to working-class whites– as I did a little while back— for caring too much about the “feelings” of white people. While there are undoubtedly some disingenuous op-eds being written for which that’s true, I think it misses an extremely important point about this whole thing. That is, it’s true that these pieces are concerned about the feelings of white people, but only as a means to an end. What really matters isn’t their feelings, but their votes.
And all the stuff being thrown out there as progressives work through the Kübler-Ross model need those votes. You think it’s ridiculous that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by 2.5 million votes but still lost, so you want to get rid of the Electoral College? Great. To do that, you need to amend the Constitution, which requires control of Congress and/or a whole bunch of state legislatures, most of which are in Republican hands, because they get the votes of those working-class whites. You want to ditch the Electoral College, you need to change those votes.
Think those working-class whites have too much power because of gerrymandered districts that over-weight rural areas? You’re probably right, but if you want to fix it, you need to control the legislatures that make the districts, and those are mostly in Republican hands because they get the votes of those people in rural districts. You want to stop gerrymandering and protect voting rights, you need to change those votes.
There are a whole host of things wrong with our current system. Fixing any of them requires winning elections, particularly those off-year legislative elections where Democrats underperform even when they’re winning statewide and national elections. Winning some of those is going to require getting the people who vote in those elections to change their votes, and hopefully their minds.
And that is why pundits and those who play pundit in a half-assed way on their blogs are saying you should care about the feelings of those working-class whites: because they vote, and you need their votes. And you’re not going to get those votes by berating them and insulting them and disparaging their feelings. You get their votes by understanding where they’re coming from, offering them something they want, and treating them with respect.
And again, this does not mean you need to cater to their basest impulses. Fundamental principles of tolerance and equality are not negotiable, and can not be compromised. But you don’t have to pander to racism to move some votes– most of the policies in the Democratic platform are already clearly better for those people than the Republican alternatives. It’s just a matter of pitching them in a way that makes that clear.
As an attempt at a concrete example, look at issues of affirmative action and immigration. If you’re dealing with someone who’s concerned about immigrants or people of color “taking our jobs,” you’re not likely to bring them to your side by lecturing them about how they’re not really entitled to that job, they’re just the beneficiary of hundreds of years of racist policy, and so on. You might be right about the history, but that’s not terribly persuasive to somebody who’s worried about having a stable income and health insurance to support their family. But you don’t need to go full “build a wall,” either– something like “The real problem is that there ought to be enough good jobs for both you and them, and here’s what we’re going to do to make that happen” could work. (It has the disadvantage of needing a plan to create jobs for all, admittedly, but as the recent election shows, such a plan doesn’t even need to be all that plausible.) That steps around the implicit racism of the original concern in a way that preserves their feelings, gets their vote for better policy, and doesn’t compromise any fundamental principles.
(Yes, this is basically the Bernie Sanders strategy. I would’ve been all for Bernie’s economic program; I don’t think he would’ve been a viable candidate in the general election, though.)
Another common and maddening refrain the past few weeks has been “Why do we have to care about their feelings, when they’re hateful toward us?” The answer is, bluntly, that they don’t need your votes. They’re living in gerrymandered districts that give them too much power, and they’re winning the elections that matter. If you want to change the broken system in fundamental ways, you need to convince them to vote for policies that involve giving up some of that power. They can keep things just the way they are, or make them much, much worse, without any assistance from you.
And, yes, it’s unquestionably true that a distressingly large number of those voters are openly racist and probably not persuadable. But the hard-core racist fraction is not 100%, and you wouldn’t need a huge effect to make things better. As I said before, even if 39 out of 40 Trump voters in PA, MI, and WI was a full-on alt-right Twitter frog, flipping the vote of that one decent human being would’ve avoided our current situation. I think that would’ve been worth a little bit of effort to respect their feelings, at least long enough to win their votes.
Yes, that’s messy, and compromised, and leaves some big issues unaddressed. Welcome to politics. It’s not about feelings, on either side, it’s about getting enough votes to win elections.
Rant over, catharsis achieved. Shutting up about politics, now.