Bill Clinton, Race and the Politics of the 1990s
My colleague Ezra Klein wrote his latest column on the work of David Shor, a Democratic polling analyst whose primary message is a critique of the Democratic Party, namely that its college-educated professional class is too removed from the working-class, non-college-educated voters they need to win. Here’s Ezra with a little more detail:
The main issue, Shor argues, is the polarization of voters by education. Voters who graduated college have moved sharply toward Democrats, and voters who have not have moved sharply toward Republicans. The problem for Democrats is that most voters don’t attend college. The single largest cohort of voters, in fact, are white people without a college degree. And it is those voters who have flocked in droves to the Republican Party since the 2016 presidential election.
If those voters were concentrated in a few states, this would not be such an advantage. But they are everywhere, including most swing states.
Donald Trump’s Republican Party may not be able to win raw majorities in national elections, but its grip on non-college whites (as well as its inroads with non-college Black and Hispanic voters, especially men) means it can easily win power in a system where the geography of your votes is just as important as the number of votes you win. The Senate, in particular, will almost certainly return to and stay in Republican hands, and there’s no guarantee that Democrats will ever muster the votes to win it back. Here’s Ezra, channeling Shor:
To push back on education polarization, Shor believes that Democrats should talk less about issues of racial justice and immigration — which, he argues, have pushed non-college voters, especially whites, away from the Democratic Party — and align their message with the economic priorities of the non-college majority. Again, here’s Ezra:
Now, for all of these proscriptions, Shor does not say much about what this would actually look like and how it is distinct from current practice. When he does, he usually cites two examples, one positive, one negative. The positive example is Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign for re-election, in which Obama downplayed issues of race and immigration and focused on economic growth and the record of his opponent, Mitt Romney, who had made his fortune in private equity. The negative example is the 2016 presidential election, when Hillary Clinton tried to counter Donald Trump’s racist messaging with her own rhetoric of inclusion, a move that kept race and immigration salient and pushed non-college whites further into the Republican column.
Shor sees the 2020 presidential election, and Trump’s significant gains with Hispanic voters, as another example of what happens when race and racial issues dominate a campaign and its media environment:
Here, I should say, I don’t think this analysis is necessarily wrong. Indeed, there is other evidence to prove the point.
In a piece for the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics (where I am a fellow), the political scientist Alan Abramowitz shows how the “deep political divide between college and non-college white voters in recent elections reflects a deep ideological divide between these two groups.” This class divide, he continues, “appears to have little or nothing to do with economic self-interest and everything to do with the diverging racial attitudes of these two groups.” Racial resentment and party identification, he finds, are by far the strongest predictors of conservative ideology.
Likewise, in his Substack newsletter, the demographer Ruy Teixeira unpacks new survey data from the 2020 election to find that “Hispanics opposed defunding the police, decreasing the size of police forces and the scope of their work, and reparations for the descendants of slaves by 2:1 or more.” What’s more, a majority of Hispanic voters hold what political scientists call “racially conservative” views. Specifically, Teixeira writes,
Take all of this together and you have a pretty clear picture. Democrats’ perceived identification with immigration, racial liberalism and the interests of Black activists has alienated a large cohort of non-college white and Hispanic voters, as well as a smaller (but still meaningful) number of non-college Black voters.
Now is the point where I should show my cards. My problem isn’t this conclusion. If you think, as I do, that anti-Black prejudice plays a large and important part in American politics, then none of this comes as a surprise.
My problem is that I don’t think Shor or his allies are being forthright about what it would actually take to stem the tide and reverse the trend. If anti-Black prejudice is as strong as this analysis implies, then it seems ludicrous to say that Democrats can solve their problem with a simple shift in rhetoric toward their most popular agenda items. The countermessage is easy enough to imagine — some version of “Democrats are not actually going to help you, they are going to help them.”
What might move the needle is what worked for a previous generation of Democrats who fought to align their party with the white mainstream. In the early 1990s, the historian Thomas Sugrue writes in “Not Even Past: Barack Obama and the Burden of Race,” liberal journalists in influential periodicals like The New Republic, The Washington Post and The New York Times argued that “the Democratic Party had lost its appeal on the national level because of backlash against the social programs of the 1960s.” Worse, Democrats had capitulated to “identity politics.”
The Democrat who broke the party’s presidential losing streak, Bill Clinton, took these recommendations. He spoke about the party’s most popular policies while also taking every opportunity to show that he was not, and would not be, beholden to the interests of Black Americans. Invited to speak at Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition conference, Clinton concluded his remarks with a now-notorious denunciation of the rapper and activist Sister Souljah, an attack by proxy on Jackson, who had brought Souljah to the event. Jackson, a two-time candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, was a stand-in for the Black activist class, and Clinton’s audience got the message. “What Clinton got out of the Sister Souljah affair,” noted the historian Kenneth O’Reilly, “were votes, particularly the votes of the so-called Reagan Democrats like the North Philadelphia electrician who said ‘the day he told off that [expletive] Jackson is the day he got [mine].”
In addition to that incident, there was Clinton’s infamous choice to fly to Arkansas, where he still served as governor, to preside at the execution of a mentally impaired Black inmate, Ricky Ray Rector, in a macabre demonstration of his “tough on crime” bona fides.
All of this is to say that if Shor’s analysis is correct, then this is what it could be like to change course. Progressives would complain, as they did in 1992, but — a proponent of this approach might say — Clinton still won 85 percent of the Black vote. And once in office, he would try to reverse course: to moderate and to show his commitment to the people who put him in the White House.
But there is no such thing as idle presidential rhetoric. Having committed himself in word as a candidate to the interests of the white mainstream against Black activists and civil right leaders, Clinton would do the same in deed as president, slashing welfare and funneling billions to prisons and law enforcement as part of a “war on crime.”
Then again, I could be wrong. Perhaps there is a way to stop the bleeding with non-college whites and Hispanics without pandering to the worst forms of racial conservatism. There is the “race-class” narrative, which appeals to economic interests while also trying to pre-empt division along racial lines. I can also imagine a version of Barack Obama’s strategy of publicly rebuking some Black leaders and lecturing Black audiences about “respectability.” Black politicians, in fact, might be uniquely positioned to triangulate between the racial liberalism of the Democratic Party’s professional class and the racial conservatism of the voting electorate.
My larger point is that I think this debate needs clarity, and I want Shor and his allies to be much more forthright about the specific tactics they would use and what their strategy would look like in practice.
To me, it seems as if they are talking around the issue rather than being upfront about the path they want to take. There is a template for the kind of politics they want to see from Democratic candidates, and if it isn’t the “Third Way” of Bill Clinton, then they should say what it is.
What I Wrote
I wrote one column this week, on Joe Manchin’s fear of an “entitlement society” and what that could mean:
I recently read this 1941 essay by Dorothy Thompson titled “Who Goes Nazi?” in Harper’s Magazine. You should read it too.
Richard Kreitner on abolition and the Constitution in The Nation.
Bilge Ebiri on Michael Mann’s “Miami Vice” in New York.
Laura Nahmias on the New York city hall riot of 1992 in New York.
Amanda Mull on clothes, waste and the supply chain in The Atlantic.
Feedback If you’re enjoying what you’re reading, please consider recommending it to your friends. They can sign up here. If you want to share your thoughts on an item in this week’s newsletter or on the newsletter in general, please email me at [email protected] You can follow me on Twitter (@jbouie) and Instagram.
Photo of the Week
It’s cliché but sometimes I go down to the university here in Charlottesville and photograph the Rotunda. This is one of my better pictures, taken on a Yashica-D camera using Cinestill 50d film.
Now Eating: Spicy Butternut Squash Pasta With Spinach
Now, I have not actually made this yet — it’s on the menu for this weekend — but I thought I would share it anyway so that next week, we can compare notes. I will probably go a little heavy on the squash, a little easy on the cheese, and may use frozen spinach instead of fresh just to save time. If you decide to make this recipe (which comes from NYT Cooking), please let me know what you thought and how you changed it!
3 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for serving
1 medium butternut squash (about 2½ pounds), peeled, seeds removed and cut into ½-inch cubes (about 6 cups)
1 tablespoon ground cumin (see Tip)
½ teaspoon red-pepper flakes, plus more as needed
1 pound penne or other tubular pasta
1 cup low-sodium vegetable broth (or water)
¾ cup grated Parmesan
3 packed cups baby spinach
1 (8-ounce) ball fresh mozzarella, torn into bite-size chunks
1 jalapeño, sliced into rounds
⅓ cup flat-leaf parsley and tender stems, roughly chopped
Bring a large covered pot of heavily salted water to a boil.
Meanwhile, in a 12-inch ovenproof skillet with high sides and a tightfitting lid (or a Dutch oven), heat the oil over medium-high until shimmering. Add the squash and season with salt, cumin and red-pepper flakes. Cook, stirring every minute, until squash becomes browned in spots and feels just tender, 6 to 8 minutes.
Meanwhile, heat the oven to 400 degrees. Add the pasta to the boiling water and cook, uncovered, until not quite al dente, 3 to 4 minutes less than the package instructions. (It should be a little too firm to the bite.) Reserve 1 cup of the pasta water and drain. If the pasta is done before the squash, then stir in a drizzle of olive oil so that it doesn’t stick together.
When the squash is just tender, add the broth. Bring to an active simmer, cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until the squash is soft and easily mashable, 10 to 12 minutes. Turn off the heat, then use a potato masher or the back of a wooden spoon to crush about half of the butternut squash and leave the rest chunky. Season the squash to taste, keeping in mind that salty Parmesan will be added soon.
Add the cooked pasta to the skillet along with 1 cup reserved pasta water and ½ cup grated Parmesan, stirring vigorously to combine. Stir in the spinach one handful at a time until it shrinks down a little.
Sprinkle the top with the remaining ¼ cup Parmesan, the mozzarella and jalapeño, then place in the oven, on a sheet pan if you are worried about dripping. Cook until the top is melted and browned in spots, 12 to 15 minutes. Drizzle with olive oil, top with parsley and serve.