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Sunday, June 10, 2018


De-escalation training

by Tom Sullivan

2016 presidential vote by county.

The United States, a place of legendary freedom, has become an authoritarian state under our noses, MSNBC's Chris Hayes observed recently. If there is an upside to the Twilight Zone-ish quality of recent weeks, they seem (for now) to have sidelined the post-November 8 progressive funk of shock and rage. We are perhaps seeing the beginnings of a strategy for Democrats regaining both their footing and political ground. We may have to de-escalate the rhetoric in the country first to heal it.

Joel Dodge wrote at Washington Monthly that what animated and empowered Robert F. Kennedy's message was a politics of dignity:

What Americans needed and craved, Kennedy believed, was greater dignity and purpose. And that meant jobs. Good work is more than clock-punching drudgery. It means having a stake in a community to call one’s own—an exercise of citizenship to take pride in.

“We need jobs, dignified employment at decent pay,” he said. “The kind of employment that lets a man say to his community, to his family, to his country, and most important, to himself, ‘I helped build this country. I am a participant in its great public ventures. I am a man.’”
As inequality widens even as the economy recovers from the Great Recession, it is not only the loss of buying power, heightened uncertainty, and decline of white privilege animating the resurrection of authoritarianism. It is the fading of the American Dream, and the disappearance of the middle class and the sense that people have a stake in this country.
Not coincidentally, dignity has become the core dividing line in our politics in the age of Trump. The president has set about boosting solely the dignity of his own narrow political base, and stripping the dignity of everyone else. By relentlessly denigrating just about every marginalized group, Trump elevates the relative status of his followers by undermining the status of nearly everyone else.

At the same time, conservatives have latched on to rhetoric about the dignity of work to justify cutting off Medicaid and other welfare benefits from the unemployed. There’s a big difference between penalizing people for not working and facilitating work for all who want it. Progressives shouldn’t dismiss the gains to personal dignity from expanding employment just because conservatives pervert that idea to demean and marginalize the poor.
A jobs guarantee is a good start, Dodge believes, but the ability to serve The Market is not the same as having work that elevates one's family and community. Workers in the underworld of Metropolis had jobs. What they lacked was economic justice, a share in the fruits of their collective labors, and recognition of their humanity.

Speaking of the starving children he'd seen in rural Mississippi, the despair of jobless and hopeless Native Americans on reservations, and decaying, unheated classrooms in black neighborhoods, Kennedy said, "Even if we act to erase material poverty, there is another greater task, it is to confront the poverty of satisfaction - purpose and dignity - that afflicts us all."

Supporters of the current administration, aware their fortunes and demographic dominance have been in decline for decades, now find themselves enraged at the prospects of joining their brethren on society's lower rungs. Sneering at their Trumpist folly won't help us. Policies that truly lift all boats might.

Preliminary findings from Anat Shenker-Osorio (Don’t Buy It: The Trouble with Talking Nonsense about the Economy), Ian Haney López (Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class), and Demos researchers suggests an economic message alone will not draw as much support for Democrats as a “race-class narrative” that combines an economic message with acknowledgment of racial and economic disparities. The assumption that the left must run on either identity politics or economic populism is a false choice, their research shows.

Josh Holland writes at The Nation:
Shenker-Osorio told me that the “race-class narrative” she and her colleagues are developing “draws a causal link between issues of race and racism and the extreme and growing class inequities that are of course more acute for communities of color.” The project’s goal is to determine whether a message “that combines issues of race and class [can] actually beat both the opposition’s message—which is always the name of the game—and also the kind of color-blind, economic populist message that we’ve come to accept as a progressive standard.”

The results, according to Shenker-Osorio, were compelling. “Every single message that we tested that gave explicit mention of race” performed better with what the researchers defined as the progressive base and was “also more persuasive to the 63 percent of people who fell not in our base, and not in the opposition’s, but in that coveted middle.”
"Persuadable" white voters are torn between the two. Yet dog whistles deployed by the right to fire up their base activate a fear response that drowns out an otherwise appealing economic message.
Shenker-Osorio said that it’s vital to “help white people understand why it is that these severe racial disparities exist, rather than just naming the disparities, which leaves people to fill in the causal relationship for themselves.” When voters are left to draw their own conclusions about why people of color have disparate economic outcomes, they’re more likely to embrace conservative narratives that hold that poor work habits or stereotypical cultural flaws are responsible. Naming a culprit—in this case, politicians who use racial animus to divide working America—creates a sense of solidarity with people of color, rather than stoking resentment toward them. “Perhaps the most interesting finding from our research,” said Shenker-Osorio, “is that explicit references to race actually bolster economic populism.”
In their survey of Minnesota voters — half people of color and half of them white — people of color responded positively to the race-class message. Twice as many people of color said they would sit out the election after being presented the race-neutral economic appeal.

At Washington Monthly, Hullabaloo alum David Atkins extends the discussion:
It is self-evident that Trump voters by definition didn’t see a problem with voting for a racist, sexist buffoon. But many Trump voters also proved remarkably indifferent to Republican economic orthodoxy, and many want high taxes on Wall Street, robust jobs programs and investment in domestic industry, and libertarian social policy on many issues like drugs. Neither party will give them everything they want, but a committed progressive economic agenda that rejects the muddled market-directed pabulum of education and retraining as a solution to all ills can be successful in winning many of them over, even though the progressive commitment to racial and gender equality might rankle them as just so much social-justice-warrior political correctness. We already [know] this can work, as a very large number of registered Democrats are already just so cross-pressured. Appallingly, a full third of Democrats have a negative opinion of the Black Lives Matter, and a quarter of Democrats think millions voted illegally in the 2016 election. If they register as Democrats anyway, it’s a fair bet that economics are their top priority. It stands to reason their number could be increased to regain some of the voters who chose Barack Obama twice, and then flipped over to Trump.

So, too, can cross-pressured affluent suburban Democrats be won over by a stridently economically progressive Democratic Party in spite of their potential reservations about their tax bracket, mutual fund returns, McMansion values and budget deficits. Sure, these voters might not like the idea of transaction taxes on Wall Street impacting their dividends or affordable housing being built near their bungalows, but their commitments to social equality and their desire not to have jingoists running the country’s trade and foreign policy mean that they will generally choose the party of both Kamala Harris and Bernie Sanders over that of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz.
"Democrats don’t have a 'white working-class problem,'" Stanley Greenberg said this time last year. "They have a 'working-class problem.'” That extends beyond urban and suburban enclaves. Race-class messaging that works there ought to work in harder-to-reach districts. I must reiterate that focus on suburban voters at the expense of rural ones reflects not only a federal elections bias at the expense of state and local ones, it threatens to leave the majority of state legislatures in GOP hands for the next round of redistricting in 2021. Let's not do that, shall we?

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For The Win 2018 is ready for download. Request a copy of my county-level election mechanics primer at tom.bluecentury at gmail.