How Much Racism -- If Any -- Must Democrats Tolerate?

by Neil H. Buchanan

"Even voters’ racism must be ignored if we are to avoid a one-party state."  Those words appear under the headline ("Neil Buchanan: Can the Democrats Win Back Trump Voters?") of my most recent Newsweek column.  Did I really say that?  Did I argue that we must ignore racism?  Yes and no.  Understanding both answers is important.

It is standard practice for authors of columns not to write their own headlines or short descriptions.  A professional editor/journalist (who is, in Newsweek's case, also a scholar) reads each piece and summarizes the most interesting argument, to give readers a sense of the author's point of view.  While authors often complain about this process, I find that it frequently provides an interesting insight into my writing that I might otherwise have missed, especially if the editor focuses on what I might have thought to be the less essential of two or three arguments in a piece.

But this is arguably different.  Did I really say that we should ignore racism?  Again, yes and no.  If asked to summarize the piece for myself, I would have said that my core point was a refutation of the now-familiar claim that some Trump voters cannot be racists because they voted for Obama.

In my mind, therefore, the takeaway from the column was that those Trump voters should not be let off the hook so easily.  They might in fact be racists, and they at the very least rewarded an openly white supremacist campaign with their votes.

In particular, I noted that a person can be a racist but still have voted for Obama, because racial animus is only one of multiple motivations that go into the mix of arguments and emotions determining how people vote and interact with each other in the world.

Consider, for example, how racism can play out for a person who has the authority to hire and fire employees.  That person might think of himself as quite open-minded, especially if he has hired nonwhite applicants in the past.  Yet that would not prevent him from acting on his racism in other ways, such as by immediately suspecting a nonwhite worker of a workplace theft, or by setting different standards for promotions or salary increases.

This means that the small sub-group of Trump voters who also voted for Obama could still be racists in a very active sense (whether conscious or subconscious).  And as noted above, they were certainly not concerned enough about Trump's racism -- including, among many examples, Trump's clumsy (at best) handling of endorsements by white supremacists --  to refuse to vote for him.  That is a very troubling reality.

It is interesting how much of the discussion of the 2016 election ends up circling back around to Hillary Clinton's widely misunderstood "deplorables" comment.  Trump and his team (especially his running mate, Mike Pence) pounced on that comment, distorting it by saying that it showed Clinton's disdain for "millions of Americans."  The idea was that she had said that it is impossible to be a Trump voter and also be a good person, so (according to Team Trump) everyone should view her as an elitist who hates regular people.

Along with plenty of others, I pointed out at the time (and many times thereafter) that Clinton had meant exactly the opposite of what the Republicans claimed.  She did say, quite correctly, that there really are plenty of awful people who were drawn to Trump, people who were beyond reach for the Democrats as a practical matter and utterly repellent as a moral matter.  That crowd is now well represented in the incoming administration, especially in the person of the president's chief strategist.

Yet Clinton's musings were not really about those unapologetic white supremacists at all.  She was trying to get at the idea that many apparently non-deplorable people seemed to be ignoring Trump's obvious bigotry.  She was trying to ask how to pull in the people who were not vicious racists and sexists but who somehow found Trump appealing in other ways.  She was, in other words, trying to figure out how to win the votes of people who are racists (or racist-tolerant) in the sense that I described above but who might nonetheless be convinced to turn away from Trump's ugliness.

As I noted in my most recent column, this is also the conundrum that Vice President Joe Biden was confronting when he talked about people who live in the white working class neighborhoods that he views as his home base.  When he said that they were not racist and not sexist, he was saying that their embrace of a bigot was temporary and in important ways understandable.

The problem is that, because racism exists along a spectrum (actually, in multiple dimensions), making political calculations regarding target audiences is extremely tricky.  Democrats could simply say that Trump voters are lost forever, because it is not worth trying to appeal to people who could overlook everything and still pull the lever for Trump.  Rather than trying to swing those voters back, Democrats could decide to hold their current voters while winning over new voters and non-voters.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, the Democrats could say that they are going to do everything they can to appeal to all but the most committed white supremacists among Trump's voters.  The danger there is that Democrats would not merely be engaging in a Biden-esque willingness to assume that most people are inherently good, but they could soon find themselves excusing more and more blatant bigotry.

I recall reading an article many years ago by an African-American activist who had grown up in Louisiana in the 1950's.  He described how white politicians would show up to campaign in black neighborhoods and say quietly to community leaders, "Now, when I campaign in white neighborhoods, I'm going to use the n-word a lot, just to fit in and try to appeal to them.  But don't you worry, I won't really mean it."

The Democrats clearly have to avoid ending up at that ugly end of the spectrum, but they can and should avoid completely giving up on Trump voters.  For one thing, there were plenty of potential anti-Trump voters who did not bother to come out to vote in 2016.  Democrats' most obviously supportive groups, from liberal women to younger voters to Latinos, apparently could not be bothered to come out to vote in greater numbers than they had in 2008 and 2012.  African-American turnout was down.

Some people argue that this lack of enthusiasm was not the non-voters' fault, because Clinton was in various ways supposedly unappealing.  But compared to what?  If current non-voters are supposed to be the antidote to Trumpism, we have to ask why the prospect of Trump as bigot-in-chief was not enough to drawn them to the polls.

In other words, if voters who swung from Obama to Trump are to be thought irredeemable, we have to remember that the voters who did not bother to vote against Trump are hardly guiltless.

Moreover, this still leaves the Democrats facing the problem of local politics.  If they give up on the Obama-to-Trump voters in the swing states, Democrats have even less chance of replacing Republican governors and other federal and state officeholders with people who believe that climate change is real and that the answer to every problem is not tax cuts for the rich.  Republicans' voter suppression efforts will continue unabated.

All of which brings us back to the core question: Do Democrats have to ignore some voters' racism in order to win again?  Up to a point, yes.  There really are people who revealed themselves to be somewhere along the racism spectrum (most obviously, by voting for Trump or by not voting at all) but who are also potentially part of an electoral coalition that would bring Democrats back to power.

Although I would hope that it goes without saying, I will say emphatically that this does not mean that Democrats should justify or excuse the racism that allowed Trump to cobble together his non-majority victory.  They must never do so.

But if "ignoring" the racism that allowed those voters to participate in Trump's ascendance means trying to find the good that Joe Biden (and I) think is still residing in the hearts of many Americans, then Democrats should do exactly that.