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Opinion | Do Democrats Win When They Talk About Race?


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jane coaston

Today on “The Argument,” to win the midterms, should Democrats be talking more about race?

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I’m Jane Coaston. And I don’t know if you can tell, but America’s biggest political parties are at a crossroads and very mad. The Democrats are trying to figure out how to pitch themselves to voters. Granted, Fox News is going to call every Democrat a radical socialist cut from the cloth of Joseph Stalin, but what are Democrats themselves saying? Are they the party of Joe Manchin or A.O.C., defund the police or uphold the filibuster? What do voters actually want to hear?

And with their control of Congress teetering on a knife’s edge, the stakes of figuring it out are high. So today, we’re going to try and solve a problem that Democratic strategists everywhere are wrestling with. You’re welcome. Come November, whose votes do the Democrats need to earn? And how do they do it without alienating other voters under the party’s big tent?

lanae erickson

We need to stand up for our values, but we also need to persuade people that we’re right. And we have to do both of those two things at the same time.

steve phillips

You’re either underappreciating or underemphasizing the centrality of white fear and anxiety about the changing composition of this country, and how that is the principal driving force of politics in this country.

jane coaston

Steve Phillips is the author of the book “Brown is the New White: How the Demographic Revolution Has Created a New American Majority,” and he runs a political media organization called Democracy in Color. Steve thinks that the Democrats will lose if they don’t mobilize a multiracial coalition standing united against the right.

steve phillips

I do consciously acknowledge and embrace coming of age in the context of Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaigns because that puts me both on the left of the political spectrum, but also squarely in the racial justice framework. And so I actually have a lot of critiques of the left, but from a racial justice standpoint.

jane coaston

On the other side is Lanae Erickson. She works at the public policy think tank Third Way. Their argument is that you can’t govern if you don’t win, and that the surest way to victory is to run on mainstream popular ideas to bring voters over to the Democratic side.

lanae erickson

I consider myself a pragmatic progressive. I’m somebody who grew up in the rural Midwest, that had a very politically mixed family, so I don’t want to see making progress one day because we get 51 percent, and then the next day it goes away. I really want to build support over time for the progress that I think is necessary for the country. And I also really want Democrats to win.

jane coaston

Where in the Midwest are you from?

lanae erickson

I’m from northern Minnesota, closer to Canada than Minneapolis.

jane coaston

Ah, I’m from Ohio. I’m from Cincinnati, so.

steve phillips

I’m from Cleveland.

jane coaston

Ah.

lanae erickson

All Midwesterners.

jane coaston

This is going to be the most polite conversation ever.

lanae erickson

That’s right.

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jane coaston

So a couple of weeks ago, I had a conversation with National Review editor in chief Rich Lowry and Charlie Sykes, who’s an anti-Trump conservative. He’s from the Bulwark. And we talked about what the Republican Party is right now, or, I think, more accurately, what it isn’t in this very odd post and, potentially, pre-Trump moment.

And the reason I wanted to talk to you both is that I think Democrats are in a similar identity moment. Let’s not call it a crisis, exactly, but a crossroads in which the party needs to decide and define itself to voters. So Steve, today, how would you describe the Democratic Party in one word?

steve phillips

Afraid.

jane coaston

Lanae, how would you describe the Democratic Party?

lanae erickson

I mean, with the upcoming midterms, I’m with Steve on that. But I think Biden. You know, voters chose Joe Biden to lead this party, and it’s his party right now. And we’re looking to him for that leadership.

steve phillips

When I say afraid, I think the party is afraid to confront the true nature of the threat that we’re facing, and they are afraid to fully weigh in on doing what it takes to bring about true justice and equality in this country. So that’s what I mean by afraid.

jane coaston

What do you think is the Democrats’ biggest threat?

steve phillips

In terms of the party’s biggest threat, it’s timidity, whereas the country’s biggest threat is white nationalist fascism, which is what we almost tipped over to in January 6, 2021. We should not be unclear about what— there was an actual attempted coup in this country by people carrying the Confederate flag and wearing t-shirts saying MAGA Civil War. And so we’re engaged in a fundamental battle within the country around is this going to be a multiracial democracy or is this going to be primarily a straight white male Christian country that others are sometimes tolerated to live in.

So that’s the country’s threat. The Democrats’ threat is their fear and reluctance to acknowledge that national threat and to really engage that battle. That timidity is potentially fatal politically because it fails to inspire your base and supporters and it does not win over who you think you’re going to win over by being so timid. And that, to me, is the fundamental challenge and dilemma facing Democrats in 2022.

jane coaston

Lanae, what would you say is the Democrats’ biggest threat?

lanae erickson

I think the Democrats’ biggest threat is losing to a bunch of white nationalist insurrectionists. I mean, the way that we keep those fascists out of power is by winning elections. And I listened to the episode about the conservative movement and the Republican Party, and was so excited to come and talk about how that plays out on this side of the aisle, but I think that people always forget that it’s not symmetrical. The Republican base is just fundamentally bigger than the Democratic base. The number of people that identify themselves as conservative is much higher than the number of people that identify themselves as liberal.

And I’ll just give you an example from 2020. In Biden’s election, just of Biden voters, 48 percent identified as moderates, 42 percent identified as liberals, and 10 percent identified as conservative. That’s great that we have this big tent. It means that our coalition is more complicated than theirs, because about 80 percent of folks who vote for Republicans are self-described conservatives. But it also means we cannot win if the only people we’re appealing to are that 42 percent.

jane coaston

A lot of pundits are anticipating Democratic losses in November. Whether that’s, one, because the president’s party generally loses in the midterms, historically, or because of mistakes or perceived mistakes made by this administration, I think the heart of your disagreement is how does the party conceive of itself and how does it pitch itself to voters.

Lanae, you brought up an important point, that the Democratic big tent is a complex tent. And it’s one that contains multitudes, who don’t agree about a lot of different issues, and I would argue, in some ways, in 2020, what they did agree on was they did not like Donald Trump. That was one thing that they could agree on. Steve, I’d like to start with you. How should the Democratic Party conceive of itself, and how should it pitch itself to voters?

steve phillips

The first words out of Biden’s first video when he announced his candidacy in 2019 were Charlottesville, Virginia. And he explicitly talked about that being a defining moment for this nation, the battle for the soul of the country. And he had images and pictures of the pro-Confederate white nationalist, white supremacist march. And he explicitly rooted his candidacy in opposition to that. We haven’t heard a whole lot about that type of leadership and that type of concern from Biden since then. I mean, they supposedly have a whole kind of racial initiative that they announced in January or February of last year, and I’ve heard nothing about since.

So the party needs to confront the fight that is happening in the country, and do so explicitly, and offer itself as an explicitly unapologetic multiracial entity that is fighting for democracy and is fighting for justice for people from all different backgrounds. But I feel they’re reluctant to do that because they fear that they’re going to alienate some white voters by saying they’re too much for equality for people of color. And that’s the essential dilemma.

My lens on the electorate, I think, is different than what Lanae was talking about, because I personally don’t think that the labels are very descriptive, in terms of moderate, liberal, et cetera. And even if you look at the different communities of color, they have different labels, but 90 percent of Black voters always vote Democratic and a majority of white voters always vote Republican. And so the composition of the Democratic Party is 47 percent people of color, in terms of the Biden election.

And it’s very important that there’s a meaningful minority of whites who are for racial justice and racial equality. And that’s what I argue is the new American majority. So the party needs to inspire and clarify and convey a sense of urgency to that electorate to turn out in large numbers. And when that happens, we win.

lanae erickson

I agree wholeheartedly that we need to appeal to voters of color, but I think the heart of the disagreement that Steve and I have in approach is that I don’t believe we do that by going further left. In fact, Democrats of color call themselves more moderate than white Democrats. 55 percent of white Democrats identify as liberal. Only 29 percent of Black Democrats do, and only about 37 percent of Latino Democrats do. You can question labels. I agree, I think labels only get you so far. But we saw this in election results, too.

We saw the white primary in Iowa put Joe Biden fourth in terms of their preferred candidate. And then as soon as we got to South Carolina, all of a sudden, Black voters said, no, this is the person that I want to represent our party. And they rejected Bernie Sanders and the more extreme version of the left. So I think both in looking at the data around how people describe themselves and in how Black voters vote, we can see that they’re not looking for more extremism. They want pragmatism. They want progress.

steve phillips

When it came to South Carolina, yes, it was Black voters who rescued Joe Biden, but it wasn’t because he was moderate. It’s because Black people are very clear-eyed about white people. And so Black voters were like, to win in this election, to defeat this white nationalist president, we’ve got to get our own white guy. And we think Biden’s the best white guy that we should put forward to be able to win this election.

jane coaston

Lanae, you mentioned being pragmatic earlier. And I think that what we saw in South Carolina was a lot of African-American voters thinking not necessarily about what they would want precisely, but on what they thought would appeal to white people in other places.

steve phillips

Exactly. And they were right. Any Black person who knows Black people knows there’s a wide range of views. If you’ve been in a barbershop, you know that there’s kind of crazy stuff that gets said and whatnot. So you can say that Black voters don’t identify as many, you know, as liberal or progressive or not. Is opposing the police killing innocent Black people — is that a liberal or progressive issue? And is Black Lives Matter liberal or progressive? And the polling shows that more Black people are supportive of Black Lives Matter than white people are.

So it’s incorrect, I think, to simply say Black voters are less progressive. I think that’s very dangerous. Black voters, I would argue, are the most left and radical sector of the population because they are among the most oppressed and have the most to gain in terms of far-reaching social change.

jane coaston

It’s interesting, Steve, and because I want to dive into this, you see how critical African-Americans are to Democratic politics, but what I see happening a lot is people talk at African-Americans and not to African-Americans about concerns of African-Americans. Recognizing that, for Democrats, African-Americans make up an extraordinarily solid base, but I am curious to hear from you, Steve, when it comes to talking to and about African-Americans, do you think Democrats are getting it wrong? And how could they do it better?

steve phillips

Yes, I think they’re getting it wrong, and I think they’re getting it wrong in terms of what drives Democratic politics and the people who are in charge of Democratic politics is trying not to do anything that might upset white so-called swing voters. That’s the dominant imperative of the Democratic Party. And you’ve seen it play out in the first 13 months of the administration, that the decision to move the infrastructure bill and to try to show bipartisanship before trying to move voting rights legislation, which people of color and African-Americans fought and died for, and still face these enormous threats of voter suppression with all this legislation passed in 2021, that was a race-based calculation around trying to appeal to the white voters by saying, see, we can be bipartisan, and we can all work together, and we’re not that identified with scary people of color things like immigration reform and redefining policing and things like that.

So there’s a lot of lip service, I would argue, but not a lot of commitment, and that if they truly believed in the concerns of Black people, concerns of people of color, they would have led with voting rights. If they saw that population— and that’s a mathematical calculation — do you see expanding the numbers of voters of color as a path to victory in a country where the majority of people turning 18 every year are people of color, or are you focused upon the elusive white swing voter, so-called Obama-Trump voter, and is that your primary imperative around what policies you move and when you move them.

lanae erickson

I would characterize the problem similarly, but the solution differently. So I do a ton of public opinion research, and it drives me crazy that voters of color is one cross-tab. So you can say voters of color think this. Well, to your point, that’s not Black men think this, that’s not Latina women think this, that’s not people with a college degree think this, people in rural areas. And with white voters, we really go deep on all these different things that really shape people’s perspective.

And what I would characterize the problem and the thing we need to fix before 2022 and beyond is what we found in our post-mortem analysis of 2020 that we did with the Collective PAC, which is focused on electing African-American candidates, with the CBC Pac, with the CHC Pac, so the Congressional Black Caucus, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, and Latino Victory Fund. And what we found was that Democrats assume that voters of color are already with them. They take them for granted, and they don’t think of them as persuadable voters. But voters of color need to be persuaded. We can’t just assume they are in our pocket and we just need to turn them out, and once we turn them out, then they’re going to vote for Democrats. And that’s a place that, I think, potentially Steve and I might agree.

steve phillips

Jane, can I flip this a little bit and put a question to Lanae on the reverse front?

jane coaston

Absolutely.

steve phillips

My analysis and premise and belief from lots of years of experience is that Democrats are very timid and hesitant to associate themselves with racial equality and racial justice because they fear that is going to alienate and drive away white voters. So not asking you to speak for all white people, Lanae, but what’s your sense of that, in terms of do you think that the white voters, the white Biden voters will defect from the Democrats if they are too closely allied with issues such as immigration reform, such as reimagining policing, et cetera?

lanae erickson

Absolutely not. I think that the Democratic coalition that put Nancy Pelosi in charge and put Joe Biden in the White House and got us 50-50 in the Senate actually agrees on those issues. So I don’t believe that the right way to win that big tent coalition is to avoid issues of race or to avoid things like immigration reform, which the entire Democratic Party supports now, to avoid L.G.B.T. equality, which everyone but Joe Manchin supports, to avoid gun control, which is something that I’ve worked a ton on.

We are now electing a different kind of moderate. And those folks are on board for all of those things, but they also don’t think like Bernie Sanders. For me, the future of the Democratic Party is those candidates that were able to deliver majorities, because without majorities, we don’t get to govern. Without majorities, the insurrectionists get to govern. So when you look at like the 2018 election, for example, both of the kind of theories that Steve and I have been talking about were tested.

We saw Justice Democrats and Our Revolution Democrats, who were endorsed by Bernie Sanders and the far left, run in swing districts. And we also saw moderates, who were endorsed by the New Democrats, run in swing districts. And in the entire Trump era, the Justice Democrats and Our Revolution did not flip a single seat. They added zero seats to Nancy Pelosi’s majority. New Democrats flipped 33 seats from red to blue. And I think it is totally legitimate for somebody to primary someone in a super blue district and make it bluer, but that does nothing to add to our majority and our ability to actually make progress.

jane coaston

One of the challenges I see is that there is a lot of focus on thinking about the Democratic agenda as a monolith, despite the fact that voters don’t think about it in that way. We saw in downballot races in 2020 that non-white voters, specifically Latino voters in, say, Florida or Texas, many voted for Trump. Many also favored minimum wage raises. I think even the terms conservative and liberal sometimes fail us in these conversations. How do you get voters who don’t explicitly identify as a Democrat to vote for Democrats?

lanae erickson

You know, I think you hit the nail on the head when you were talking about what issues people care about most, because it’s true that if you held a national ballot initiative on something like universal background checks for guns or codifying Roe versus Wade, we would win every time. But unfortunately, I often say, people agree with Democrats on all kinds of things that they don’t care very much about, and then they agree with Republicans on the top issues of the day.

And we saw this in Virginia. The top issues were education and the economy. And Glenn Youngkin won on both of those issues, was ahead on both of those issues. Terry McAuliffe was ahead on Covid response, but only 15 percent of people said that was their top issue.

And I think, going back to the assuming what voters of color care about, people always assume Latino voters prioritize immigration reform as their number one issue. They don’t. The data does not bear that out. And, you know, I did a bunch of research with Latino voters during the Trump era, and it was harrowing. You know, they would say I hate what he’s doing on immigration, but I think he’s a good businessman and he’s making the economy better, and that’s more important to me.

jane coaston

Steve, what do you think works best to help Democrats win?

steve phillips

Well, first of all, a premise that’s been woven throughout this conversation that I want to lift up, actually, a little bit more explicitly, is that I think we have a difference of opinion around just how many persuadable or swing voters there are in the country.

jane coaston

Right.

steve phillips

Right? Somebody who is very, very top-level in Georgia said to me recently, there are no swing voters in Georgia. To this question of what Democrats need to do to win, Democrats need to mobilize voters to turn out. And they need to mobilize the new American majority, which is largely people of color and, though, progressive whites who are consistently with us. The Democratic vote is always roughly low 30s to maybe periodically 40, 41 percent of the white vote, and then it’s always roughly two-thirds people of color, 80 plus percent African-Americans.

When that vote is mobilized in large numbers and sees the imperative and the urgency, and when there’s massive investment in those communities, then we win. When voters of color and the new American majority does not turn out in large numbers, we lose. That’s what happened in Virginia. It wasn’t that there was this big, persuadable electorate, and they had decided they liked Biden in 2020, and then they switched their opinion and they went over to Youngkin. What happened is that Youngkin tapped that same white fear that Trump tapped and people turned out in large numbers to support him, whereas McAuliffe ran a much more milquetoast campaign that did not convey a sense of urgency and importance to turn out to vote. And then we lost.

And that is the strategic direction. Are we going to organize, inspire, and mobilize our voters, or are we going to try to persuade this very small grouping of people who, I would argue, are very hard to get, and aren’t even that large, and are not as large as the number of people of color coming into the electorate every year? The majority of people turning 18 are people of color. Most of them are more progressive. That offers far more upside than trying to get the, you know, Obama-Trump voter in a diner in our beloved Midwest.

lanae erickson

Let me just push back, because Terry McAuliffe got 200,000 more votes in Virginia than Ralph Northam did in the blue wave year of 2017. So it was not a failure to turn out voters— 2017, people came out of the woodwork because it was just post-Trump.

steve phillips

He got a lot fewer voters than Biden did.

lanae erickson

Yeah, because it’s an off-year election. That makes sense.

steve phillips

So yes, there was an increase in vote in Virginia, but the Republican increase was bigger. And so we did not do enough — I think it’s dangerous, frankly, in terms of to primarily try to look at the labels of progressive, liberal, moderate, et cetera. I actually think it’s far more illuminating to have your primary lens on the electorate, on the country be a racial lens.

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jane coaston

We’ve spent a lot of time in the past month talking about American politics and democracy on the show. If you haven’t heard our episodes about the future of the G.O.P. and what independent voters want from Joe Biden, go back and listen to those, too. As part of this big conversation, I asked you to tell me about your party and what you want to see from it going forward. A lot of you Republicans told us the Trump years really put you off the G.O.P.

archived recording

I left the Republican Party after Charlottesville.

After January 6 and the whole thing, I became much less of a Trump fan.

It brought tears to my eyes, and to many people’s eyes, as we watched that atrocity happen. The final straw for me was Ted Cruz reading “Green Eggs and Ham.”

All the things that I used to think were the bedrock have been given up for lie after lie after lie. I can’t accept that.

jane coaston

You overwhelmingly told us you don’t want Trump to run again in 2024, but there are some other people in the party you’d be excited to vote for.

archived recording

If Liz Cheney were to run, I would seriously consider voting for her.

I would vote for Adam Kinzinger.

I’ve been a big Nikki Haley fan for a while.

I will vote for John Kasich if he runs again. Ron DeSantis. He’s just a stud, and really like the way he’s handled Covid in Florida.

I’m going to do a write-in candidate for Mickey Mouse.

jane coaston

But don’t get ahead of yourselves, Democrats. You’re not much happier with your party.

archived recording

Crime, inflation, and Covid are the three big issues. And I think, on all three of those issues, Democrats nationally and locally are kind of just in denial.

Democrats have all these plans and all these issues, and I support all those. And at the same time, I’m left feeling like, how can I trust that they’re actually going to do any of this stuff?

jane coaston

You’ve also got some thoughts about who you see as the future of the party and what issues you want them to be running on.

archived recording

The biggest problems we have are gerrymandering and voter rights problems.

Economic and racial injustice, health care for every person, student loan forgiveness.

I feel strongly we need to get rid of qualified immunity. Literally none of this matters if we don’t address climate change.

No, I do not think Joe Biden is the future of the Democratic Party. I would like to see young, fresh blood for 2024. I think Michael Bennet would probably be a great choice.

Pete Buttigieg.

Ayanna Pressley or Katie Porter. I really thought the Democrats kind of did Andrew Yang dirty.

As for whether or not Joe Biden should run again in 2024, oof. Ask me again in two years. I’ll call you back.

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jane coaston

I always want to hear what you think of the arguments we’re having here and what you want to add to them. Call anytime and leave me a voicemail at 347-915-4324.

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I want to talk about a word that attempts to uncomplicate a very complicated issue. And that is the term popularism. It’s a term that’s been floating around Democratic strategist circles for a while, as they do. Essentially, the strategy of popularism is to figure out which views are popular, which aren’t, and frame your message accordingly. The easiest example is the slogan defund the police is unpopular, so Democrats running should stay away from it. Obviously, I am not a Democratic strategist, as anyone could tell. And so Lanae, one, am I getting that wrong? And two, is that a theory that you subscribe to? Why or why not?

lanae erickson

It is not a theory I subscribe to wholesale, but I do want to win. And so here’s how I think about it. I think actually what you’re saying is take your Democratic values, lay out all the things the Democratic Party stands for and the progressive movement stands for, and then focus on the things that voters actually like within that realm. And I think that that is a really good idea because, like I said, there aren’t enough people in our base to make majorities in the swing districts we need to win to keep the House or in the Senate seats. And that’s really how we’re going to make progress on any of those things. So when there are activist movements that are talking about their passion, that is absolutely something they should do. I was very much involved in the marriage work. That was what I worked on for about five years. And I think we need those folks to push the envelope, to say we need to go further than this.

But when you are a politician, you have to win, and you have to assemble a winning coalition. And for me, I just look at the data. So Democratic data firm Catalyst does a lot of analysis about the electorate from election to election. And what they saw in 2018, when we had a blue wave that brought in this majority in the House, was that 89 percent of the Democratic gains from 2016 to 2018 came from persuading vote switchers, not from turning out new voters who didn’t show up in 2016.

So if 9 in 10 of our increased margin is from persuading vote switchers, there are vote switchers out there. And so when you just look at the data, there just simply aren’t enough people for turnout to deliver us. And we’ve seen over and over again that people do change their minds if we’ll appeal to them.

steve phillips

Yeah, I would commend a different set of data to you, Lanae, in terms of the analysis, is that there’s a fundamental level of data that people have not grappled with. It’s like, for instance, Abigail Spanberger in Virginia, right? So she was one of the main proponents of, oh, defund the police really hurt me and my campaign, et cetera, et cetera, and we lost all this support. She got more votes in 2020 than she did in 2018.

If, in fact, all of these people were defecting from the Democratic Party, then the Democratic vote should go down and the Republican vote should go up. So how did she backfill? Where did all these people actually come from? So that’s a mobilization issue. You have to inspire and mobilize your people, to say nothing of the moral slippery slope that popularism sets you on. And Lanae, you said you have this whole background on marriage equality. Marriage equality was not— not only was it not a popular issue, popularism in 2004, in 2006 said stay away from marriage equality. Don’t talk about that issue. We’re going to lose, because we need to win. So I just think we have to be very, very careful about that. But fundamentally, we actually have the numbers, if you look at the right data set, in terms of being able to win, stand on our values and win.

lanae erickson

Well, you know, Barack Obama was not for marriage equality in 2008, and I don’t think he should have been, because the numbers weren’t there. But he was by 2012.

jane coaston

Hang on one second. I want to jump in here because I have no idea how Barack Obama actually felt about marriage equality in 2008. I do know what he said publicly. And I think that that gets at this idea Steve had, is there a slippery slope here? If Democrats are going for let’s just go with what’s popular, what if what’s popular is anathema to Democratic ideals?

lanae erickson

I don’t think we should support that. I think that what I try to use data and public opinion research for is to figure out how to persuade people to be with us, and to win elections while we’re persuading them to be with us. But that requires persuading them. That requires not assuming that standing up and calling someone a racist or a homophobe is the way to actually persuade them to be with you. You know, there are ways to frame these issues that do bring along a majority.

And I’ll just come back to this defund the police question, right? So I don’t know if this is what Steve is saying, but I do not believe that, if the Democratic Party had embraced defund the police, that we would have gotten more voters of color out. And here’s why I say that. Number one, New York City. Eric Adams was delivered in the primary against a defund the police candidate by Black voters. Black and Hispanic voters are the ones that put him in office.

steve phillips

There’s a lot of polling on Black Lives Matter and the phrase on “defund the police,” and it shows a dramatic racial disparity in terms of white people being far more concerned, fearful and not supportive, and Black people being more supportive. This is the challenge of popularism. And as we just had all of the, I would argue, hypocrisy around the Martin Luther King holiday, Martin Luther King was not popular. Civil rights for people of color were not popular. And so there’s a whole issue here around how do you grapple with that reality. And you can’t simply say I’m for Black Lives Matter, but I don’t want the movement’s demand, I don’t support that.

And so I would somewhat also put this back to you, as well, Lanae, because you’ve talked a lot about voters of color, and what you think voters of color may think and feel. But I would ask you more about the view, because you yourself said it doesn’t help to call people racists. What about calling out racism? And I’m asking you that both meta, in terms of your Third Way, but as a white person, how do people experience that?

There is racism in this society, but white people do not deal well with racism being called out. And so I am asking you, in terms of what your experience and your insight around how to advance racial justice and racial equality in ways that will not— well, I ask you, will it cause white people to flee to even a Trump? Or what’s your analysis of that?

lanae erickson

You know I think that we absolutely have to call out racism. And that is what was done in 2020 over and over again by Joe Biden, by the candidates in these swing districts. They marched with the Black Lives Matter protesters, as did I. And that is absolutely a thing we need to do.

There’s a fundamental difference between calling out racism and supporting defunding the police. And I think this goes back to the difference between the activist movements and the politicians, right? It is the activist movements’ absolute job to push the envelope and say the most extreme thing, even if that’s not going to be something that they can persuade other people of in that moment, because they’re looking over the next 40 years and the trajectory of where we want our country to go. But that’s not how elections work. Elections work by pushing the envelope and then making progress, and then pushing the envelope and then making progress.

jane coaston

I want to move forward because we are talking about some local elections, but I have a theory I want to try on both of you. My theory is that one of the problems that Democrats tend to face, and Republicans, too, is that local elections become nationalized and national elections become localized. And this is because of how social media works and how media works.

So for example, in conservative media, you will hear that, in Alabama, you need to be very, very worried that something in Seattle might happen to you. It will not. Alabama and Washington are different places.

And we see in these elections of Democrats that a candidate like Amy McGrath, for example, will bring in millions of dollars from Democrats across the country. And those millions of dollars could have gone to races that perhaps were closer. They could have gone to support candidates to fill in races where there wasn’t even a Democrat running. Lanae, you think about these kinds of local races that could be bellwethers for national races. Am I wrong about this? Is this a problem? And how do we rejigger how Democrats think about local, state and national elections?

lanae erickson

For sure it’s a limitation that some of the candidates get huge national attention, and then donors from across the country are sending them money that they probably don’t need. But let’s be honest, in 2020— and all the folks that ran those campaigns would say this— they had enough money. Everybody had enough money. Jaime Harrison had enough money. Abigail Spanberger had enough money. Everybody had a lot of money. That doesn’t get you the long-term organizing that Steve was talking about. The long-term organizing needs to be done by infrastructure on the ground, not by that candidate.

And so my question is, how do we get those millions of dollars that were going to Amy McGrath to go to building grassroots support for Democratic policies and the Democratic Party in Kentucky? And that is where Democrats have been really behind the ball from Republicans. We invest in an issue we care about, not in that infrastructure. So we might give it to Planned Parenthood or we might give it to a climate group, but those groups’ job isn’t long-term organizing over the next 20 years for the Democratic Party. It’s to win on their issue. And that is a dynamic I think we absolutely need to switch if we’re going to continue to build majorities.

jane coaston

Steve, what do you think?

steve phillips

Yeah, well to your point about elections being nationalized, I actually don’t think politics is that complicated right now. And actually, the next book that I’m working on is called “How We Win the Civil War.” And so I make the argument, first of all, that the Civil War never ended. So in terms of this nationalizing piece, I think every election, it doesn’t come down to, you’re with Trump or you’re not with Trump. If Trump suddenly became a Black Lives Matter activist, his support would disappear. It’s because he is the champion of white nationalism in this country and stands up for that in such an unapologetic fashion.

So every election, I think, is now basically along the lines of the Civil War. Are you for a multiracial democracy? Or are you for white nationalism with whatever code word you want to attach to it— Make America Great Again, Trumpism, et cetera? And so that then leads towards strategy. The data and the numbers is that the majority of people — although it’s a narrow majority — support this country being a multiracial democracy, explicitly and unapologetically embracing the full diversity of who we are.

But it’s narrow. And so if we don’t turn out our people, those who are driven by fear and anxiety— white racial fear and anxiety— will turn out in larger numbers. And then we’re going to lose. And so that’s the fundamental dynamic. And I think it plays itself out in almost every single election from school board to the White House.

lanae erickson

I think there’s two complicating things there, though. One is, people of color moved towards Donald Trump in 2020.

steve phillips

No, that’s not true, Lanae. That’s a fundamental data point. Biden got millions more votes of people of color than Clinton did and than Obama did.

jane coaston

But it was a massive turnout election. Just to be clear, there are millions and millions and millions of people voted who did not generally vote, who voted in 2020.

steve phillips

Yes.

jane coaston

And I think that it should be noted here that everyone got more votes from everyone than you could possibly have expected. The data shows that there was a growth of African American voters for Trump, but it was predominantly African American men, which I think is an important piece here. What was your second complicating factor here, Lanae?

lanae erickson

It goes exactly to that point, which is, what we’re increasingly seeing is a divide on education lines, not just on the lines of race. So where we saw, for example, 78 of 100 majority Hispanic counties in this country went for Trump more than they did by bigger margins this time around. And we saw him improve his margin with Latino voters in all 10 battleground states, sometimes by as much as a dozen points.

Those were non-college educated voters. And if the Democratic Party cannot figure out how to retain non-college educated voters in our coalition of all races, we are going to lose.

jane coaston

I really appreciate both of you for being here to do this therapy session about what Democrats should be thinking about. One of my last questions is, do you think that the point of Democratic governance should be to reflect the existing priorities of the electorate or to help shape them?

lanae erickson

I think there’s definitely a role for leadership within politics. But we also have to realize that you can make progress on issues without it being voters’ number one priority. Marriage equality was never voters’ number one priority. And we’ve made huge progress obviously on not just that issue, but on acceptance of L.G.B.T.Q. people throughout the country. You don’t need to make it the most salient issue to make progress.

What you need to do is win on the most salient issue and then make progress on all the others. So we have to get better at talking about the issues that are the most salient to voters, and win on those so that we can make progress on all the other priorities we care about.

jane coaston

What do you think, Steve?

steve phillips

It’s slightly nuanced. And I think there is a point that Lanae had made earlier, which I agree with in terms of, there’s a difference between the role of the movement and the role of the candidates. And so I will say that I don’t think the candidate should be the leading voice around the most fundamental social change dynamics. I come back to what I was saying before — the Civil War has never ended. We’re still engaged in that battle. Lanae keeps talking about education. And then people are thinking this with education. The concern about education was that white parents were afraid their children are going to be taught about racism and the history of racism in this country. And they rebelled against that.

And so I do believe there is a majority of voters, a minority of whites and majority of the overall electorate, who is bought into and supportive of and enthusiastic about this being a multiracial country in terms of public policies, in terms of its caring for all the different people. And that I think you can lead with and win. But I actually don’t think that many Democratic strategists believe that.

jane coaston

If Trump is the nominee in 2024, as it looks like he will be in February, 2022 — though I got out of the prognostication business a couple of years ago. If Trump is the nominee, should Biden be the nominee in 2024, Steve?

steve phillips

I will say, yes, in that I feel we need more time to fix the damage from Trump’s first period. And I do think that the fact that he is president shows that there is broad enough swath of people who are supportive of him. I don’t think he’s the leader for the future. I think that, that debate needs to happen within the party. But I, frankly, would appreciate four more years to have that debate than to get right into it for 2024.

jane coaston

What do you think, Lanae?

lanae erickson

Amen to four more years, for sure. Obviously, a lot can happen between now and then. But if Biden is up to the task, I think he absolutely should be the nominee. And then I would look forward to supporting Kamala Harris as the next nominee. That’s typically how Democrats kind of move through our primary process. But I think the most important thing is that we maintain the Democratic brand as reasonable and palatable enough for those people who defected from the Republicans to stick with us in 2024. And if we can do that, then we can win no matter who our nominee is.

jane coaston

Steve, Lanae, thank you so much for talking through the Democrats’ existential crisis of sorts with me today. This was fun and interesting and entertaining. Thank you so much.

steve phillips

Thanks for having us. I enjoyed it.

lanae erickson

Thanks for having us. [MUSIC PLAYING]

jane coaston

Steve Phillips is a civil rights lawyer, writer, and host of the “Democracy in Color” podcast, which he describes as a race-conscious podcast on politics. His forthcoming book, “How We End the Civil War,” is available for pre-order now.

Lanae Erickson is a senior vice president for social policy, education, and politics at the center-left think tank, Third Way.

And if this conversation about Democrats running makes you crave a good one about Democrats governing, check out my friend and colleague Ezra Klein’s episode with Biden’s chief of Staff, Ron Klain.

“The Argument” is a production of New York Times Opinion. It’s produced by Phoebe Lett, Elisa Gutierrez, and Vishakha Darbha, edited by Alison Bruzek and Anabel Bacon, with original music and sound design by Isaac Jones and additional engineering by Carole Sabouraud. Fact checking by Kate Sinclair and Mary Marge Locker. Audience strategy, by Shannon Busta. Our executive producer is Irene Noguchi. Special thanks this week to Kristin Lin and Kristina Samulewski.

[MUSIC PLAYING]



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