Merge Left: Fusing Race and Class, Winning Elections, and Saving America
Ian Haney López
The New Press
Hardcover, 288 pages, $26.99
What’s the best way to beat Donald Trump? What’s the best way to send a message that America rejects his racist message and policies, and, just as importantly, win the majorities necessary to undo as much as possible of the impact he has had on our tax code, our broader economic and regulatory policy, and on our judiciary (I assume none of you have forgotten the name Merrick Garland)? This book answers that question, and has the research to back it up.
One of the most difficult and divisive debates among Democrats—both on this site and in the world of campaigns and candidates—is how much to emphasize our opposition to racism versus how much to emphasize our policies on economic inequality. To be sure, there are few of us actually urging that we talk about “only” racism or “only” economics, but nevertheless we are divided in our approach. We have seen ugly charges hurled at those who advocate focusing more in one direction than the other, even though the two sides typically share the same goals, and differ largely over strategy—i.e., how to achieve them. The brilliance of López, who is Earl Warren Professor of Public Law at Berkeley Law School, is that he brings data to bear in developing his answer, and does so in a way that might actually satisfy those across the spectrum of this debate.
The book has already won praise from significant labor leaders like Mary Kay Henry, head of SEIU International, and AFL-CIO chief Richard Trumka, as well as major racial justice leaders like Rashad Robinson, president of Color of Change, and Voto Latino’s president María Teresa Kumar. It is poised to have a major impact on Democratic politics.
I’m going to present the highlights of López’s argument below, followed by an interview with the author.
The heart of the book is what the author calls the “race-class narrative.” López explains it in great detail, and also presents a wide array of survey data garnered from original research comparing the success of this narrative in gaining votes for a Democratic candidate. In short, this narrative connects racism and economic inequality by emphasizing to voters that conservative politicians like Trump, but also those in previous decades like Ronald Reagan, have used racially divisive language to pit white Americans against Americans of color and exploit those divisions to win power and implement policies that benefit the economic elites. Here’s one example of the race-class narrative that was presented to voters:
No matter where we come from or what our color, most of us work hard for our families. But today, certain politicians and their greedy lobbyists hurt everyone by handing kickbacks to the rich, defunding our schools, and threatening seniors with cuts to Medicare and Social Security. Then they turn around and point the finger for hard times at poor families, Black people, and new immigrants. We need to join together with people from all walks of life to fight for our future, just like we won better wages, safer workplaces, and civil rights in our past. By joining together, we can elect new leaders who work for all of us, not just the wealthy few.
In this research, the author tested this kind of message against two other kinds of messages often presented by Democrats: one based on “colorblind economic populism” and another that centered on racial justice. Without going into the weeds on the data, López found that the race-class narrative proved more effective in motivating both white voters and voters of color:
A message urging joining together across racial groups to demand that government promote racial and economic justice consistently proved more convincing—to whites as well as to people of color—than the Right’s racial fear story. The race-class message also proved stronger than the main progressive alternatives, either staying silent about race to focus on class, or leading with racial justice. Bottom line: the race-class research suggests that merging race and class builds energy and excitement between core constituencies indispensable to a resurgent Left but typically seen as mutually hostile—the white working class and Barack Obama’s coalition of nonwhite voters.
The author added:
The Left’s task is to build a multiracial coalition to elect leaders who will promote racial justice and economic fairness. It’s a mistake to translate this into a simple formula that calls for winning back the white working class, or appealing to supposed centrists in the middle, or depending on people of color as a natural base or on liberal whites as firm racial allies. The challenge instead is to encourage persuadables to align with an energized and unified progressive base. Broad popular support for rejecting racism and building solidarity will come from shared ideas and values.
[snip] The Right’s core narrative urges voters to fear and resent people of color, to distrust government, and to trust the marketplace. The Left can respond by urging people to join together across racial lines, to distrust greedy elites sowing division, and to demand that government work for everyone.
López is very sensitive in particular to the concerns of racial justice advocates who might suspect he wants to shut down discussion of racism for fear of scaring white voters. He very clearly does not, as he explained:
The point of framing racism as a class weapon is not to permanently displace discussions about racial hierarchy….Instead, it’s to create added space for those exchanges as well as a greater inclination to participate. When more people see that cross-racial solidarity provides the best way forward for themselves and their families, they should be increasingly willing to engage in and sustain uncomfortable but necessary conversations. Educational work about racial hierarchy is hugely important to racial justice as well as to the project of building robust cross-racial solidarity. It’s just that starting with conversations about white dominance feels unwelcoming and overwhelming to many. Ultimately, however, framing racism as a class weapon and as white-over-nonwhite hierarchy are complementary rather than competing ways to promote racial justice.
Furthermore, from another section of the book:
No Democratic resurgence is possible based on a game plan that expects racial justice movements to set aside their core concerns. Or, as Michelle Alexander put it, “If progressives think they can win in the long run without engaging with Black folks and taking history more seriously, they better get Elon Musk on speed dial and start planning their future home on Mars, because this planet will be going up in smoke.”…But as an electoral strategy, leading with racial justice is clearly risky. The Right constantly warns that liberal government and the Democratic Party care more about people of color than about whites…To be clear, there’s no argument here that the Left should abandon communities of color to win over whites….The argument is not that progressives should jettison efforts to promote racial justice. The argument is that the current way of explaining racial justice as a goal makes it harder to get there, at least in the context of electoral politics.
Beyond the discussion of the race-class narrative and the presentation of López’s research on its comparative effectiveness, the book also includes more material as well, devoting significant attention to:
◆◆ Detailing how dog whistle politics evolved in response to a Black president
◆◆ Exploring why liberals for five decades and still today distance themselves from racial justice
◆◆ Examining the limited power of colorblind economic populism to actually achieve economic populism, let alone racial justice
◆◆ Parsing why leading with racial justice for communities of color actually loses support from many in those very communities, not to mention from most whites
◆◆ Probing the ominous relationship between Trumpism and dangerous new trends in white identity
Please take note in particular of that fourth point. López’s research found that, yes, communities of color did not respond positively to messages from campaigns that led with a straight-forward racial justice message. That one surprised López, and I suspect surprises many of you.
One other surprise: the right-wing dog whistle message of racial fear was far more popular among Democrats and, yes, people of color, than I think many of us would imagine. The book tested various progressive messages against a message of racial fear, such as the one contained in an actual GOP mailer from 2017 used in Minnesota. It had the following statement on top: “My opponents are demanding more sanctuary cities for criminal and illegal aliens,” and had, at the top of number of statements on the left side: “We need safer communities!” Here’s what López found:
The racial fear message was widely popular. Here are two important implications. First, the Right’s message has real traction with a broad swath of American voters. The term “common sense” in the message, and in Trump’s mouth, captures how a dog whistle narrative of racial fear comes across as reasonable and convincing to very large numbers. Second, when majorities of Democrats, African Americans, and Latinxs find the racial fear message convincing, this is coded, not naked, racism.
[snip] Contra the conventional wisdom, majorities of African American and Latinx voters find large parts of the Right’s story convincing. This means that neutralizing the Right’s narratives of racial fear and resentment is also key to turning out communities of color.
This is very important because it undergirds the distinction between persuadable Trump voters and what López calls the hard-core opposition. If Trump was out there saying, along the lines of actual leaders of the Confederacy or their descendants among today’s white supremacists, that he wanted to build a society that enshrined white supremacy into the law, and which legally placed whites above non-whites, and then he got, say, 46% of the vote and an Electoral College majority, we would be in a very different situation than the one we are in.
To be clear, López does not shy away from recognizing Trump for what he is, nor from characterizing his campaign in stark, accurate terms:
But the main driver behind Donald Trump’s election, as well as the prior fifty years of American politics, is nevertheless colorcoded. Van Jones memorably described as it “whitelash”—the political reaction of a majority of whites to a society struggling to transcend white dominance. It’s time to look directly at troubling new trends among whites. The place to start is with Trump. He personally espouses many of the racist views that the Right seeks to activate and promote, he understands better than perhaps anyone how to exploit racial division for ulterior ends, and his campaign and presidency added propellant to the danger.
What Lopez’s research confirmed is that there are Trump voters who are available to a Democratic candidate. The key question is how to attract them while remaining true to our core values on issues like racial justice. And that’s where the race-class narrative comes in. The author gave a set of bullet points that summarize his argument toward the end of the book:
(1) The Right’s principal political strategy is to exploit coded racism as a divide-and-conquer weapon.
(2) The Left can unite and build by calling out intentional racial division and urging every racial group to join together to demand that government work for all of us.
(3) All working families, white families included, will be economically better off if a large voting majority believes in cross-racial solidarity and rejects messages of racial menace. This would facilitate the sorts of wave elections that can get government back on the side of working families rather than giant corporations.
(4) State violence against communities of color will not drastically diminish until people stop electing politicians who promise to punish supposedly threatening and undeserving people of color. Electing leaders loyal to a multiracial movement that emphasizes our shared humanity may provide the best chance to shift government from persecuting to helping communities of color.
My hope would be that, in the long run, if we could get the message around which the race-class narrative is built to really sink in, it might serve to defang the right-wing message of racial fear by preparing people, in particular whites obviously, for what’s coming, to inoculate them against the right-wing message to the point where they know it’s not only false, but also that it plays them for the fool. That way, when voters hear the fear-mongering from someone like Trump, it will not only be unhelpful to the Republicans, but will actually engender resentment—among some voters at least—who will be fully aware of the motivation behind that kind of message. That is, I believe, Lopez’s goal.
Now, let’s get on to our five questions:
Ian Reifowitz: First, thank you so much for being here, and for undertaking this incredibly valuable research. I’ll start by asking if you’d like to say any more about the race-class narrative.
Ian Haney López: The central claim is that racism is the primary weapon wielded by the power elite in a class war they are winning. This describes what’s been happening in society since colonialism, but over the last half century in particular. In turn, this suggests how we should fight back. One key response is to join together. If their key tactic is to divide, ours must be to unite.
In addition, though, we must be clear about the basis on which we are uniting. The power elites divide us so that they can hijack government, using government itself as well as its power over the marketplace to serve their own elite interests. In joining together, we must demand that government and the economy work for all of us, of every color, and not for corporations and family dynasties.
I’ve titled my book Merge Left to capture both of these elements. “Merge,” as in fusing together issues of race and class and bringing together whites as well as people of color. And “left,” as in embracing a vision of activist government that actually helps people.
Reifowitz: How did you come to do this kind of research? I know you had previously done work with unions, trying to educate them about racism.
López: In 2014, I published Dog Whistle Politics, a book detailing a half century of right-wing efforts to exploit racial division on behalf of the party of big business. After that, I realized I needed to move beyond the walls of the Academy and to connect with people fighting for a better society. One key resource was the AFL-CIO. They were open to the analysis, but also wanted hard evidence that an approach fusing race and class would work.
So I got in touch with a communication specialist, Anat Shenker-Osorio, and a racial justice leader, Heather McGhee, and together we launched a major research endeavor, the race-class narrative project. We knew the right was using focus groups and polling to craft their dog whistle racial fear messages. We decided to do the same, and in the process, figured out the best way to beat them.
Reifowitz: Can you please explain and summarize your research process briefly, so that people here know how you came to know that the race-class narrative is so effective at motivating and persuading voters of all colors to support Democrats?
López: We took two simultaneous approaches. First, we studied the messages that Trump and other members of the GOP exploit, copying their language so that we could test it in focus groups and polling. The aim was to figure out who was supporting the message, but also to understand the underlying structure. That is, to get below the words to figure out the storyline the right consistently promotes. Here it is, stripped of all code: 1. Fear and resent people of color. 2. Hate government because it coddles people of color and refuses to control them. 3. Trust in the marketplace.
Again, this is stripped of code. In real life, the message looks something like this: too many people are abusing welfare and committing crimes. But liberals and Democrats want to increase welfare spending and open our borders. We need to put hard-working Americans first, making sure our leaders cut taxes and get government out of the way so the economy booms for everyone.
Second, we used interviews with activists from labor as well as racial justice movements to understand how progressives are already talking about the relationship between racial justice and economic fairness. Then we explored how that messaging works in focus groups, and drew on the results to craft our own race-class messages. Finally, we tested our insurgent messages in national polling, comparing them to the right’s racial fear message, as well as to the standard Democratic responses.
Reifowitz: This appeared in The New York Times last month, and I’ll ask you to comment on how it fits with your own research:
A poll conducted in June for the Center for American Progress Action Fund, a political arm of the progressive think tank, offered voters six derogatory descriptions of Mr. Trump: ineffective, false promises, for the rich, divisive, corrupt and racist. Among voters surveyed, the ineffective label moved the most voters toward a generic Democratic candidate; the racist label moved the fewest. Among black voters, the poll found that calling Mr. Trump a racist did not move support to Democrats. Calling him ineffective did.
López: There’s enormous excitement about the Merge Left approach. I think it stems from two distinct sources. First, it names what people already deeply intuit. People can see we’re divided in a game rigged by the power elites. Naming and directly challenging this massive con rings true.
Second, progressives want to get past the divisions. This includes acrimony between whites and people of color. It also includes the schism on the left itself. No one on the left doubts that Trump is using racism as a weapon. Some people say we have to directly challenge that racism, even if that loses some white voters. Others respond we have to ignore it, even if doing so loses some voters of color. But it’s simply not true that we have to sacrifice any of the left’s core constituencies. The Merge Left response shows that there is good evidence we can challenge Trump’s racism as a con game and thereby build enthusiasm among both whites and people of color.
Reifowitz: Finally, a set of related, forward-looking questions: What level of receptiveness are you finding in reaction to the message of Merge Left? And this question applies to campaigns, activists, and anyone else. Looking at the 2020 race specifically, what candidates’ message is already employing the strategy you lay out in Merge Left, and in what ways? And please feel free to share any other thoughts you have on the upcoming round of elections.
López: It’s important to be clear that every candidate who believes in racial justice and in economic populism can easily pivot to the Merge Left approach. As you have pointed out in one of your previous posts, Elizabeth Warren is already doing so. But it is also important to be clear that much more is at stake than the 2020 election.
We are at a critical moment in the history of this country. Either we transcend racial division and reclaim government for all of us, of every race, or racial division destroys our society, leaving only the rich unscathed behind their high gates. The very depths of the current crises create an opportunity for all of us to join together to take the next momentous leap forward toward a multiracial society in which our government ensures everyone has the best possible chance to thrive.
Reifowitz: Thanks so much, Prof. López, for taking the time to share your thoughts with us here at Daily Kos!
Ian Reifowitz is the author of The Tribalization of Politics: How Rush Limbaugh's Race-Baiting Rhetoric on the Obama Presidency Paved the Way for Trump (Foreword by Markos Moulitsas)