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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Political Strategy Notes

NYT columnist Thomas B. Edsall has an important article, “Should Biden Emphasize Race or Class or Both or None of the Above?,” which merits the interest of Democratic political strategists, who are concerned about ‘message frames.’ Edsall writes, “Should the Democratic Party focus on race or class when trying to build support for new initiatives and — perhaps equally important — when seeking to achieve a durable Election Day majority?…The publication on April 26 of a scholarly paper, “Racial Equality Frames and Public Policy Support,” has stirred up a hornet’s nest among Democratic strategists and analysts. The authors, Micah English and Joshua L. Kalla, who are both political scientists at Yale, warned proponents of liberal legislative proposals that Despite increasing awareness of racial inequities and a greater use of progressive race framing by Democratic elites, linking public policies to race is detrimental for support of those policies….The English-Kalla paper infuriated critics who are involved in the Race-Class Narrative Project. The founder of the project, Ian Haney López, a law professor at Berkeley and one of the chairmen of the AFL-CIO’s Advisory Council on Racial and Economic Justice, vigorously disputes the English-Kalla thesis. In his view, “Powerful elites exploit social divisions, so no matter what our race, color or ethnicity, our best future requires building cross-racial solidarity….In an email, López wrote me that the English and Kalla study seems to confirm a conclusion common among Democratic strategists since at least 1970: Democrats can maximize support among whites, without losing too much enthusiasm from voters of color, by running silent on racial justice while emphasizing class issues of concern to all racial groups. Since at least 2017, this conclusion is demonstrably wrong.”

Edsall goes on to share the perspective of a host of other researchers, including: “A late February survey of 1,551 likely voters by Vox and Data for Progress produced similar results. Half the sample was asked whether it would support or oppose zoning for multiple-family housing based on the argument that It’s a matter of racial justice. Single-family zoning requirements lock in America’s system of racial segregation, blocking Black Americans from pursuing economic opportunity and the American dream of homeownership….The other half of the sample read that supporters of multiple-family zoning say that this will drive economic growth as more people will be able to move to high opportunity regions with good jobs and will allow more Americans the opportunity to get affordable housing on their own, making it easier to start families….The voters to whom the racial justice message was given were split, 44 in support, 43 in opposition, while those who were given the economic growth argument supported multiple-family zoning 47-36….After being exposed to the economic growth message, Democrats were supportive 63-25, but less so after the racial justice message, 56-28. Republicans were opposed after hearing either message, but less so in the case of economic growth, 35-50, compared to racial justice 31-60.”

Edsall adds, “López founded the Race-Class Narrative Project along with Anat Shenker-Osorio, a California-based communications consultant, and Heather McGhee, a former president of Demos, a liberal think tank and author of the recent book, “The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together.”….I asked López about the English-Kalla paper. He was forthright in his emailed reply: As my work and that of others demonstrates, the most potent political message today is one that foregrounds combating intentional divide-and-conquer racial politics by building a multiracial coalition among all racial groups. This frame performs more strongly than a class-only frame as well as a racial justice frame. It is also the sole liberal frame that consistently beats Republican dog whistling….Unless Democrats explicitly address race, Shenker-Osorio wrote, millions of whites, flooded with Republican messages demonizing minorities, will continue to be primed to view government as taking from “hard working people” (coded as white) and handing it to “undeserving people” (coded as Black and brown). If we do not contend with this basic fact — and today’s unrelenting race baiting from the right — then Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” will simply continue to haunt us. In other words, if the left chooses to say nothing about race, the race conversation doesn’t simply end. The only thing voters hear about the topic are the lies the right peddles to keep us from joining together to demand true progressive solutions….The race and class message did substantially better than the class alone message among both base Democratic voters and persuadable voters.”

Edsall notes, further, “Celinda Lake, the Democratic pollster who conducted much of the research for the Race-Class Narrative Project, was outspoken in her criticism of the English-Kalla paper, writing in an email: “There are huge flaws in their study and therefore in their conclusions. No candidate would run on what they put forward as the ‘race’ message.”…When I asked Kalla about these criticisms, he countered: The messages that we tested did come from the real world of politics. Our messages came from actual politicians. As we note in the paper: “To improve the external validity of these findings, we adapted the frames from real-world political sources.”….Elizabeth Suhay, a political scientist at American University, captured the complexity of the debate….Suhay’s caveat: Broad public approval is not the only thing politicians care about. From a strategic perspective, they must also be responsive to activists, interest groups, and donors. Given the intense focus on racial justice among some of the most active Democrats — including but not exclusively African Americans — Biden needs to not only deliver on this issue but also to tell people about it. Suhay went on: They face intense demands from Democratic activists for both policy and symbolic actions that address racial inequity; however, these actions do threaten to turn off many whites, especially those without a college degree. Biden, Suhay argues, “seems to have no choice but to find some middle road: focusing communication on how his policies benefit most Americans while also, more infrequently but unmistakably, making clear his commitment to racial equality” and, she added, “he seems to be walking the tightrope well.”

One comment on “Political Strategy Notes

  1. Victor on

    Of course activists and consultants with conflicts of interests will support the losing messaging framework.


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