Race, Racism, and the Democratic Race

Jennifer King/Miami Herald/AP

Elizabeth Warren holds a town hall on the Florida International University campus in Miami. 

The Democratic field is winnowing down way ahead of schedule. There is always the chance that a long-shot candidate can break out, but that chance diminishes every day thanks to the relentless logic of bandwagon effects and competition for funds. Few people like to throw money at a likely loser.

After the debates, polls suggest that the effective field is four and a half. The half is Pete Buttigieg, who is now bogged down in a messy hometown conflict over race and policing, which undermines his claim to be a world-class, problem-solving mayor; keeps him off the campaign trail; and makes him a lightning rod for black protest at a time when race is coming to the fore. Mayor Pete, however, has raised massive sums from donors large and small, and on that basis is still (barely) a first-tier player.

The four serious contenders are of course Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, and Bernie Sanders. A new CNN poll shows Biden faltering, and only slightly ahead of Harris and Warren, with Sanders fourth and the rest of the field barely registering. Biden seems to be cratering well ahead of schedule.

Warren has done just what she needed to do, slowly gaining respect and appreciation, with one remarkably positive media piece after another and growing acclaim from her live appearances. “I was wrong about Elizabeth Warren” has become its own genre. She set the standard for the first debate.

Harris, as the world knows, gained attention and a sudden surge of support by taking on Biden’s checkered record on race.

For the larger fate of the Democratic field, the 2020 election, and the future of our democracy, this shift in the dynamics of the contest is a mixed blessing. It’s good to smoke out Biden’s weaknesses early in the game. If he is going to demonstrate his penchant for blunders, his failure to speak effectively off the cuff, and a clumsy inability to defend his record, it’s better to get him offstage early.

But while Democrats need to be steadfast on the subject of racial justice, it would be a real calamity if the election were primarily about race. The focus of the election needs to be both/and: both racial justice and economic justice—so that Democrats make their common enemy a corrupt plutocracy epitomized by Trump, rather than using a frame that divides workaday voters according to race.

Racializing American politics is the long-standing dream of Steve Bannon. In my 15 minutes of fame in August 2017, when I did an on-the-record Prospect interview with Bannon that ended up costing him his job as White House political director, Bannon said this:

The Democrats—the longer they talk about identity politics, I got ’em. I want them to talk about racism every day. If the left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats.

Defining economic frustrations as racial ones, and whipping up nationalist and racist sentiments among the white working class, got Trump elected president. If grievances and remedies are defined as primarily racial in 2020, Trump could repeat the trick.

Here is how Elizabeth Warren described the challenge, speaking at the 2018 Netroots Nation conference:

In Trump’s story, the reason why working families keep getting the short end of the stick isn’t because of the decisions he and his pals are making in Washington every day. No, according to Trump, the problem is other working people, people who are black, or brown, people born somewhere else …

It all adds up to the same thing—the politics of division. They want us pointing fingers at each other so that we won’t notice that their hands are in our pockets. That stops here. That stops now. We say, no, you will not divide us.

Exactly right. And Warren has gone on to hone a narrative that explains how workaday families have been savaged by the current rules of the economy—and how that savaging hit black and brown households with special, brutal force.

If Biden and Sanders continue to fade, the two finalists could well be Harris and Warren. Harris appropriately took Biden to task for his past positions on busing and other racial issues. But if Harris’s strategy going forward is to keep race front and center at the expense of other issues, that could spell trouble.

The interesting contrast here is between Harris and Barack Obama. As a candidate, Obama went out of his way to run as an outsider and a reformer who happened to be biracial, and not as a racial candidate. He was rewarded by winning the support of about 40 percent of white working-class voters, as well as the overwhelming support of African Americans.

Harris, by contrast, is leading with race. As Trump has tried to expunge the legacy of Barack Obama, and as random arrests of black citizens and even police killings continue with impunity, the demand that America have an overdue reckoning with race is more than legitimate.

At the same time, if the election is defined racially, Bannon and Trump will have a field day. We are still a long way from a “majority minority” nation, even with a massive rainbow turnout.

For Democrats, the challenge is to animate Americans of all races to appreciate that Trump is not serving their interests. And on core issues of political economy, Harris is not as progressive as Warren or Sanders.

Indeed, if Biden keeps faltering, the corporate wing of the Democratic Party will be looking for a candidate who can keep the string of centrist Democratic presidents and nominees intact. That could easily be Harris.

The Democrats need a candidate who is both a racial and an economic progressive. They do not need a rainbow neoliberal.

In fairness to Harris, her campaign is still a work in progress. She may yet find a way to talk as passionately about economic justice as she speaks about racial justice. But for now, the candidate who hits that sweet spot is Elizabeth Warren.

The contrast will be instructive as well as potentially fraught. We could do far worse than having these two strong women as the finalists.


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