Shor Is Mainly Wrong About Racism (which is to say, about electoral politics)
A race-informed response to Ezra Klein’s engagement with David Shor
What Shor gets right
Shor is correct that most Democratic messaging makes it harder to win elections because it either fails to persuade or perversely actually alienates many conflicted (rather than “moderate”) voters. The former is true for messages that primarily stress policy issues; the latter comes into play with messages like “defund the police.” Shor is also correct that, to win, Democrats must do far more polling, and must make their case in plain terms easily grasped by people outside the beltway and without a college education (an obvious point, but one often not put into practice).
What Shor gets wrong
1. The conflicted voters in the middle who toggle between the two parties — and thus the voters who determine elections — are not “moderate.” They are low-information voters who are not paying attention (something Shor sometimes concedes). More than that, they often quickly bounce between progressive and reactionary views of the world (but certainly do NOT hold nuanced, considered, centrist views). They are “conflicted,” in the sense that they can be pulled in very different and possibly extreme directions. It makes no sense to advise Democrats to adopt ideologically moderate policies to appeal to people who are not, in fact, ideologically moderate.
The core for the conflicted middle is not ideology, but who they see as like them and on their side, versus hostile to them and a threat. If there’s stability in their voting patterns, it’s the stability of identity rather than ideology.
2. Democratic messages fail to persuade conflicted voters when they center on policy issues. These voters are not able to make heads or tails of policy debates, especially because the opposition Republican messaging consistently claims to be seeking the same end goals. Both parties, for instance, insist they’re fighting for working families. Conflicted voters will not decide whether to support one or the other party by evaluating the relative efficacy of, say, high taxes on corporations to fund government programs, or instead the plausibility of the Laffer curve, low taxes, and trickle-down economics. They will instead use identity issues as a proxy for whom to trust.
3. Democratic messages alienate voters when they are predicated on a sense of identity that voters do not share. For instance, “defund the police” and “abolish ICE” are deeply connected to a story of the police and ICE as white supremacist institutions that oppress communities of color. In turn, this story depicts the country as locked into a historic conflict between white people and people of color. It thus asks white voters to see themselves as members of an oppressive group they must help to disempower; and it asks voters of color to see themselves as members of widely hated groups they must rally to defend. This framing is acceptable to many who are college educated, white and of color alike, but not to majorities of voters.
4. The core problem for the Democratic Party is not too many young, liberal activists, per the Politico piece the followed up the Ezra Klein review. The fundamental challenge for Democrats is to develop a unified, effective response to the intense polarization around race intentionally driven by Trump and boosted by the interlocking elements of the rightwing propaganda machine.
For Shor, racial justice activists are out of control and leading the Democratic Party over a cliff. He’s correct, to a point (see Para. 3). But Shor then weds himself to the wrong conclusion. As the Ezra Klein piece reports, Shor “and those who agree with him argue that Democrats need to try to avoid talking about race and immigration.” This is Shor’s most dangerous piece of advice to Democrats (and gets surprisingly little attention from Klein). For Shor, this has become an article of faith — faith, rather than reason, in the sense that Shor does not substantially engage contrary evidence.
I along with others have been testing the efficacy of talking about racism as a divide-and-conquer strategy. The idea is to shift the basic political conflict in the United States from one between racial groups (the right’s preferred frame) to one between the .1% and the rest of us, with racism as their principal weapon. In our research, which I discuss at length in my book Merge Left, this race-class fusion politics is the most promising route forward for Democrats. This potential has also been heralded by other researchers, including in a careful study done by People’s Action. Despite this, Shor has not deeply engaged with the evidence showing the power of the race-class approach.
In other words, Shor is making the same mistake leaders of the Democratic Party have made for decades: to jump from the insight that attacking racism as a white problem backfires with most voters (true) to the unsupported/seemingly unshakeable article of faith that Democrats should largely stop talking about racism (false).
The GOP has made racial identity the main driver of political polarization since 1970. Democrats have tried to side-step this by emphasizing policy rather than identity (Para. 2); or to confront it by denouncing white racism (Para. 3). Neither approach will win in 2022. The best evidence calls for a new approach that reframes racism as a tool of division that threatens all racial groups.