The Rising Racial Liberalism of Democratic Voters
By Sean McElwee
In response to both the election of Barack Obama in 2008 and the backlash in favor of Donald Trump in 2016, analysts and commentators have focused mostly on racial attitudes on the right. Both scholarship and journalistic accounts of American politics have drilled down on the increased opposition to immigration and high levels of racial resentment among Obama opponents and Trump supporters.
But few have investigated the countervailing trend on the left, the increasing racial liberalism of Democratic voters, which I’ve been thinking about for a while.
Though Mr. Obama’s presidency ended up being defined in many ways by America’s reaction to his race, he carefully avoided racially liberal appeals during his original campaign, even taking the time to criticize the purported excesses of campus liberalism. Mr. Obama had begun his national political career with a speech at the Democratic convention in 2004, declaring that “there’s not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America.” During his 2008 campaign, to give just one example, he turned down an invitation to Tavis Smiley’s State of the Black Union, an event Hillary Clinton attended.
As the first chart shows, white Democrats have become much less likely to endorse individualistic explanations of racial inequality and more supportive of structural explanations of racial inequality. In 2016, for the first time since the question was asked, a majority of white Democrats agreed that discrimination held black people back.
A similar trend can be seen in Pew data: In 2014, 41 percent of Democrats agreed that racial discrimination was the main reason black people couldn’t get ahead, a number that rose to 64 percent in 2017. Not only have Democrats shifted their attitudes about African-Americans, they have changed their thinking about policies that affect Latinos and other people of color. In 1994, 65 percent of Democrats supported decreased immigration (67 percent of white Democrats), a share that fell to 29 percent in 2016 (30 percent of white Democrats).
In primary contests across the country, Democratic politicians are being held to an increasingly stringent standard on racial equity. In Colorado, Representative Diana DeGette faces a primary challenge from Saira Rao, an Indian-American lawyer who has called for defunding Immigration and Customs Enforcement. In Massachusetts, which has an all-white congressional delegation, Representative Mike Capuano faces a primary challenge from an African-American councilwoman in Boston, Ayanna Pressley.
The two leading contenders for the Democratic nomination in New Mexico’s First Congressional District, Deb Haaland and Antoinette Sedillo Lopez, have also both called for defunding ICE. Even centrist Democrats like Senator Charles Schumer talk openly about racial disparities in arrests for marijuana and incarceration rates. On the other hand, anti-immigrant candidates like John Morganelli in Pennsylvania’s Seventh are losing their bids in the face of intense opposition from racial justice groups like the Center for Popular Democracy.
Already, we’ve seen changes at every level of government, with racial justice advocates supported by millennial-led organizations like Launch Progress and Run for Something winning down-ballot races. . Incumbents, sensing the change, have moved left. Democratic politicians who opposed the Dream Act in 2010 (like Senator Jon Tester of Montana) have signaled their support for such a bill now. That’s a far cry from the party that under President Bill Clinton supported the disastrous 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act that helped pave the way for increased deportation under Mr. Trump.
It’s unlikely that these changes in racial attitudes will reverse, meaning that Democratic politicians will no longer have the option in general elections of using a Sister Souljah strategy to win over independent whites the way Bill Clinton did in 1992 — the Democratic base simply won’t allow it. Instead, prominent progressives like Bernie Sanders have tried to win over young voters by praising rappers like Cardi B.
It’s difficult to imagine a Democratic strategist advising a future presidential nominee to “claim and achieve record deportations of criminal aliens,” as the mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel, did when he worked for President Bill Clinton in 1996. Black Lives Matter will continue to pressure politicians on issues from policing and housing to criminal justice reform. As the party realizes that its hopes lie in mobilizing its base of black and Latino voters and increasingly liberal whites, they will be forced to take these movements seriously.