Unnecessary compromises – Future of social democracy

Over the past few months in the United States, something resembling panic has gripped the Democratic Party. The popularity of President Joe Biden is extremely low, major policy initiatives have stalled, a gubernatorial election in a supposedly solidly Democratic Virginia has been lost, and major setbacks are likely in future terms of Congress. .

For many “progressive” Democrats, the blame lies with the stars rather than themselves. Republican success, according to this view, is due to a combination of “anti-black white supremacy” and structural features of the American political system, such as the presidential electoral college and the Senate, which favor regions and populations that do not support the party. . For “centrist” Democrats, on the other hand, the real problem lies with the party itself – or rather its progressive wing which insists on championing issues of racial or social justice with “unshared opinions and values” by a majority of voters. .

There are many quintessentially American things in this debate, but echoes can be found in left-wing parties across Europe. In particular, the challenge of reconciling a progressive social and racial agenda with the need to attract a majority coalition, which includes non-urban and working-class voters, is today a challenge on both sides of the Atlantic.

How problems are framed

Centrists and progressives often describe these goals as irreconcilable: That is left-wing parties champion progressive social and racial agendas Where they attract more non-urban voters and workers. Yet they don’t need to be.

As the famous political scientist William Riker has argued, to borrow the titles of his books, political outcomes depend on The art of political manipulation and Agenda. “Successful politicians structure the world so they can win,” he wrote. Concretely, How? ‘Or’ What questions are framed plays a vital role in determining their appeal and importance to voters.

When white voters are told that redistributive policies involve extracting money from them to fund programs that primarily benefit minorities, support for these policies plummets.

A recent study of working-class voters sponsored by YouGov, the Center for Working Class Politics and the leftist magazine Jacobinconfirms what many previous studies have found: when policies are designed to benefit one group over another or to the detriment of another, they are less popular. For example, when white voters are told that redistributive policies involve extracting money from them to fund programs that primarily benefit minorities, support for these policies plummets. When precisely the same policies are presented as taking money from the wealthy and redistributing it to workers or the less fortunate, support increases.

This is often portrayed as the result of racism – and, of course, some white voters harbor racist feelings. But minority voters also prefer a color-blind or class-based framing of issues. As two well-known scholars have put it, “the strongest arguments” for redistributive policies are those that “go beyond race to the moral principles that black and white Americans hold dear, not as blacks or whites, but as Americans…race has power, not because it escapes the reach of prejudice, but because it brings into play the principle of equity – that all those who need help should be helped, regardless of race.

“Current language”

This also applies to the persistent disadvantages faced by minorities and immigrants. The study mentioned above, for example, found that potentially working-class Democratic voters “didn’t fear progressive candidates who strongly opposed racism.” But candidates who framed this opposition in highly specialized, identity-driven language fared much worse than candidates who adopted populist or mainstream language.

Like Bhaskar Sunkara, the editor of Jacobinnoted, ‘The political costs of an ethnic identity-focused campaign message seem significantly greater than the benefits… Of five soundbites of different candidates presented to respondents, the worst performer was the one pollsters described internally as ‘moderate woke’.’

Other researchers also find that it is indeed possible to move beyond color-blind or class-based appeals and attract “persuasive” voters, as long as these discussions are not framed in a zero-sum way. . Ian Haney López, one of the strongest proponents of this view, argues that leftist politicians should not shy away from discussing the persistent disadvantages faced by minority communities – they should simply point out that tackling those disadvantages will create a fairer and fairer society. .

Contributing to a situation where various groups feel threatened or in zero-sum competition with each other is contrary to building the broad and diverse coalition that Democrats need.

Persuaded voters, López notes, are indeed discouraged by messages that address “racism solely in terms of harming communities of color in a way that implicitly excludes and perhaps even blames white people.” But when the fight against injustices is presented as benefiting “working people, whether they are… white, black or brown,” such a racial class message resonates among a wide range of voters.

Race-Based Appeals

Yet despite such findings, as one commentator noted, some Democratic politicians and activists “emphasize – and sometimes even exaggerate – the racial implications of racially neutral redistributive policies,” including spending on infrastructure, assistance for small businesses, the expansion of Medicaid (helping low-income people with healthcare costs) and even government-sponsored access to Covid-19 vaccines and treatments. This has contributed to a situation where such race-based appeals and policies have become associated with the Democratic Party as a whole in the minds of some voters. (In his 2020 campaign, Biden did this less than his progressive rivals, but he still framed some of his policies in these terms.)

“Contributed,” of course, is a crucial word here: Republicans are doing all they can to deepen such an association, acknowledging that anything that portrays the Democratic Party and its policies as primarily benefiting minorities and immigrants (especially illegal) to the detriment of others mobilizes their base and widens the gap between non-urban and working-class voters and Democrats. Populists in Europe engage in a similar framing, to heighten voters’ fears about immigrants and reinforce the belief that they are taking resources from “deserving” natives.

If the Democratic Party wants to avoid a trade-off between pursuing progressive racial and social policies and attracting the majority coalition it needs to win the election, it must frame that platform so that citizens can consider a vote for it to be within reach. their own interest. as good as the interest of their country. Contributing to a situation where various groups feel threatened or in zero-sum competition with each other is contrary to building the broad and diverse coalition that Democrats, as well as other left-leaning parties, need to win – as well as the health of democracy as a whole.

This is a joint publication of Social Europe and IPS-Journal.

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