Both race and class are essential in a progressive narrative

Posted on June 20, 2018

If there is one certainty about the 2018 General Elections, it’s that the debate will be ugly.

Donald Trump will be a central issue, whether or not local candidates want that. There will be both overt and “dog whistle” appeals to racism, sexism and religious bigotry. Even when a given conservative candidate runs without appeals to prejudice, expect right-wing PACs and third parties to jump in with what may be the dirtiest campaigns in history.

Some progressives will be tempted to not engage the hate. It’s not our style. As Hillary Clinton said, “when they go low, we go high.” Sadly, that didn’t work in 2016 and won’t work this year either.

Other progressives might feel that the best defense is an offensive against the rich and powerful. That’s clearly an important part of the message, but it is not the most effective approach.

There’s new research from pollster Celinda Lake and a host of allies demonstrating that progressives should not focus exclusively on race OR class. Both the progressive base and persuadable Americans are more energized by messages that address both.

Research sponsored by Our Minnesota Future found success with this opening argument:

Whether white, black, or brown, 5th generation or newcomer, we all want to build a better future for our children. My opponent says some families have value, while others don’t count. He wants to pit us against each other in order to gain power for himself and kickbacks for his donors.

Not everyone may be comfortable with this exact language, but you should be able to craft something similar. The key is putting across the idea that right-wingers “want to pit us against each other” for their own benefit.

Such language doesn’t change the minds of racists, but it moves persuadable voters who already have some understanding that they’re being manipulated by hate. Perhaps more important, it energizes people of color in the progressive base by pointedly recognizing that they’re the targets of hate.

Here are some additional conclusions  from the Lake Research online poll of 600 Minnesota voters conducted March 23 to April 9, 2018:

  • Both the progressive base and persuadables strongly agree that focusing on and talking about race is necessary to move forward toward greater equality, a position that conservatives reject.
  • Progressives believe that the wealthy achieved success because they were given more opportunities while conservatives say it is because they worked harder. Persuadables tend to agree with progressives that the rich were given more opportunities.
  • Both progressives and persuadables believe that if we really committed to it, we could ensure that all people are treated fairly and equally, no matter their race, religion, or country of origin.
  • Progressives should evoke race when articulating an agenda to make life better for working people. For example, “put the interests of working people first, whether white, Black, and brown.” Doing so resonates more strongly with persuadables than simply articulating a positive agenda.
  • A positive call to action that recognizes “we are stronger when we work together” is more effective with progressives and persuadables than focusing solely on the politics of division.

In sum, this new research shows that many in the progressive coalition have been arguing about a false choice. We do not have to—and must not—choose between (a) appealing to the White working class through populist economic arguments, or (b) increasing enthusiasm and turnout among the progressive base, and especially people of color, by condemning racism. We must do both.