How to Get to a Multiracial Democracy
A new report, Winning the Midwest, challenges conventional wisdom about Democratic and progressive politics alike.
Sunday was the Spring Equinox, the moment when day and night are equally long, the Sun crosses the Equator and starts to climb higher in the northern sky, and when we tell children to try balancing a raw egg standing up because gravity is supposedly equally pulling it between our planet and the star we orbit. Though that last story is a myth, the Equinox is a moment of transition when the rising and falling phases of time are temporarily in equipoise.
I feel the same way about our country right now. The pendulum that swung right in 2016 and then left in 2020 is still in motion, but it’s not yet clear if we are headed back to the hard right. Consider: the partisan war over redistricting has produced a national congressional map that is unexpectedly balanced. The Right’s emboldened culture war on gay and transgender kids and on racially inclusive education is generating a rising counter mobilization, while the Left seems to be giving up on strict mask mandates (probably too soon, but people are exhausted). Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has shifted everyone’s attention, offering a fresh opportunity for energizing the climate change fight (see the “Electrify for Peace” proposal from Senator Martin Heinrich and Ari Matusiak of Rewiring America) and also taking oxygen away from some of our worst conflict entrepreneurs (see the People’s Convoy slowly shrink). New flashpoints are ahead, including the January 6th Select Committee’s public hearings and a Supreme Court decision that may well blow up the politics of abortion. The contours of this fall’s election are still in flux.
In that context, the choices we make now matter. Which is why I was so impressed by a new report by the State Power Action Fund that recently came to my attention, titled Winning the Midwest. While Winning the Midwest is focused on understanding the politics of “hope, despair and precarity” in the seven key states of Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio and Wisconsin, the analysis and arguments it marshals have wider value. The Midwest, or America’s former industrial heartland, just happens to be at the center of an interlocking set of trends that make it especially volatile politically, flipping back and forth between Democratic and Republican representation, and the report’s authors aren’t wrong to single out the Midwest as the region where the national battle for democracy itself will be won or lost. But I don’t think any part of America is immune to the forces it describes and the way experience those forces in our lives and communities.
Winning the Midwest is also a must-read, if you ask me, because it offers a clear and promising way past the stale debate now playing out among national Democratic leaders and political operatives over how to reverse the declining fortunes of the center-left. You know, the one over whether we should emphasize messages that appeal to white moderate voters or messages that better motivate base voters. Debating what messages to use with voters with is like suggesting a thunderstorm can change the course of a river. You might raise the flood line temporarily, but you can’t change a river’s path permanently without ongoing investments in structures that change geography.
Here are my main takeaways from Winning the Midwest:
-White Americans, Black Americans, immigrant, Native and young voters are all in flux and deeply conflicted about the future. The path to a multiracial democracy is still open. But people’s economic and cultural identities have been destabilized by the rapid deindustrialization and the financialization of the economy, creating a growing sense of precarity. The political establishment of both major parties has failed to address these changes, leaving white voters far more open and susceptible to rightwing demagoguery and voters of color questioning the efficacy of participating in a political system that has left their communities behind.
-People understand national political arguments through the lens of their local lived experience. And we have to talk about that experience more explicitly. It has two main parts: deindustrialization and racial segregation, both of which pit local communities and individuals against each other. Racialized suburban sprawl only makes this experience worse, as a handful of wealthy communities manage to corner the best tax base, property values and schools and everyone else scrambles. “For a homeowner in a fiscally precarious community, the threat from an influx of poor families feels greater than the actual danger created by the elites who benefit from this perverse system of development – the real estate developer, the employer playing communities off each other for the best tax break, and the wealthy community that hoards the spoils of sprawl for itself and its own.”
-Calls for new taxes and more government investment in needed public programs will continue to run aground until progressives address the “sense of scarcity, precarity, and the narrow, defensive sense of community that our current racialized sprawl system propagates.” Republican populists offer a rancid narrative that at least addresses people’s feeling about how precarious their lives have become: They blame unions for making us uncompetitive, government for overregulation and socialist welfare policies coddling the poor and minorities, and immigrants for stealing Americans’ jobs. Mainstream corporate Democrats like the Clintons and Obama argued that globalization was inevitable and Americans had to adapt to the shift from an industrial to a knowledge economy (and learn to code!). That narrative has little resonance. A different one that calls to people’s sense of resilience and community must also “name the people and corporations responsible for massive wealth stripping.” Simply promising to lower prescription drug prices and other poll-tested nostrums will not reach people.
-Racism is not an immutable force or identity; “it is organized.” The report notes, “Significant numbers of people in the Midwest voted for the first Black President, and then subsequently voted for a white supremacist. Rather than damning Trump voters as irredeemably racist, the fact that a substantial cadre of voters appear to have swung from Obama to Trump demonstrates that ‘most of us carry conflicting racial attitudes within ourselves’ and that ‘this conflict can be organized to make either our biases or our egalitarian aspirations more salient.’” Trump’s explicit racism was not just not effectively opposed; the tendency on the left to shame white voters with “snap and harsh judgments of someone who violates norms as set by progressive activists” has backfired. “The Right has weaponized the worst of this behavior, framing it as ‘cancel culture’ alongside recent attempts to impugn critical race theory.” The report adds, “By mobilizing shame, the Left may gain catharsis and solidify its own in-group identity amongst its core believers through championing its own moral superiority, but by doing so it unwittingly both closes its doors to potential adherents and aids the right’s own extremist project.” I don’t think I’ve seen as clear a refutation of the left’s language policing and the “either you’re an anti-racist or you’re a racist” posture.
-The kind of retail politics practiced by national political campaign consultants which involve “treating” white voters with messages about the economy and Black voters with messages about race have to be rejected in favor of year-round integrated organizing and power building. As Winning the Midwest argues, “The ‘treatment program’ strategy atomizes voters, viewing them as random consumers of politics, and does not result in strong democratic institutions, transformative politics, or durable governing coalitions.” I actually want to quote more of this section of the report because it comports with so much of what I’ve been arguing here in The Connector:
“This traditional approach is characterized by:
· Focus on electing Democrats with little concern for accountability or governance following the election;
· Priorities such as tactical scale and efficiency, absent a deep and long-term engagement with voters, which lends itself to tactics accelerated by late money dumps where a “field program” organizes brief canvassing bursts for two months every two to four years; and
· Targeting, narrative, and strategy that are driven by DC-based technical experts, rather than embedded practitioners who actually live in the Midwest.
This strip-mining approach becomes less and less effective as voters revolt against its transactional, shallow nature that fails to account for their true interests and worldview. This approach is no antidote for a growing segment of voters who rely on social media feeds to shape their worldview, with white and Black voters in particular bearing the brunt of right-leaning propaganda machines….
The strategy of “treating” voters like a sick patient who has digested too many Tucker Carlson shows on Fox News or Alex Jones conspiracy theories, and simply needs to be prescribed the right TV ad does not and will not build a governing coalition. The question that has defined political investments: ‘What will motivate a voter to vote for a particular candidate in the shortest time frame and at the lowest possible cost?’ is the wrong question to ask….
On the whole, investments made by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and Presidential campaigns spent little to no money on Black-led organizations undertaking long- term power building and year-round organizing. To the extent that these campaigns invest in “field” (i.e. grassroots people), they hire national vendors to carry out short-term canvassing operations to turn out the vote: a strategy that presents diminishing returns, if not proving to be altogether useless.”
So, what is to be done? Winning the Midwest calls for a massive, multiyear investment in Black, people of color and women-led organizing in its seven focus states, with an emphasis on year round on-the-ground community organizations and a particular attention to specific immigrants communities and the deep canvassing approach to outreach. It also calls for a shift away from “misguided” investments in national groups to direct support for state and local organizations. And it also calls for ongoing research and building the capacity of local community groups to engage in their own capacity to learn what moves their folks.
Odds and Ends
—Are “Liberty Girls” the new “soccer moms”? That seems to be the case in suburban Colorado, where conservative women are organizing locally to oppose mask and vaccine mandates, critical race theory and other bogeymen of the right. They’ve flipped a school board in Douglas County and, as Jennifer Brown reports for the Colorado Sun, “On caucus night in early March, 60 Liberty Girls were elected as delegates, precinct committee chairs and election judges. The group has hosted candidates in a heated race to replace the county’s longtime sheriff and is working its way up the ticket toward the Republican candidates for governor and U.S. Senate.”
—Why hasn’t the “People’s Convoy” now circling Washington DC been more of a repeat of the Canadian experience, which seemed to center white nationalism? The answer may be because Brian Brase, a trucker and veteran who calls himself its “co-organizer,” has stayed committed to a far less confrontational approach. This profile of him by Ellie Silverman and Karina Elwood in the Washington Post notes that he lost his teenage son to suicide and his job to Covid. It also notes, “He doesn’t believe in banning books and is fine with students reading novels by Toni Morrison, although the late author’s work is a frequent target of right-wing attacks. He thinks schools should teach the country’s full history, including the enslaving of Black people by White people. Still, he supports those at the speedway flying the Confederate flag.”
—More people are raising their voices against creating a no-fly zone over Ukraine, which is good because the danger of a low-level war between the US and Russia escalating to something nuclear would only be worsened if NATO takes that step. Tomorrow night at 8pm ET, you can learn more about “The Progressive Response on Foreign Policy and the War in Ukraine,” a national town hall discussion hosted by Senator Bernie Sanders, Rep. Barbara Lee, Peter Beinart, and Ben Rhodes.
—The lesson Google learned from the defeat of the SOPA/PIPA bills ten years ago wasn’t to invest more in supporting the kinds of distributed, grassroots organizing that rallied thousands of small sites and millions of users; it was to bet bigger on traditional lobbying through trade associations, Ben Brody writes for Protocol.
—Mackenzie Scott has donated a whopping $436 million to Habit for Humanity International and its 84 US affiliates ($25 million to the former and the rest divided among the latter). Last week, the Boys & Girls Clubs of America announced that it and 62 local Boys & Girls Clubs had received $281 million from Scott.
—Bitcoin ventures are bombing: Sam Altman’s vaunted startup Worldcoin, which aims to scan the irises of a billion people, is floundering; El Salvador’s national gamble to digitize its economy around the cryptocurrency using a digital wallet called Chivo is crumbling.
—The New York Times has set up a tip line for anonymous reports about mismanagement and poor oversight at nonprofits. Do they have one for for-profits?
Lately on Medium I’ve been writing a lot about Ukraine and the danger of an accidental nuclear war; here’s a “friend link” to my latest on that happy topic. If you want more, then please sign up to be a Medium member—that will get you access to all their writers.