Demonizing, Not Engaging

Recent discussions about the white working class and racism (me, DeBoer, Mystal, et al) have me flashing back to the fascinating world of 2008 LGBT politics. In that year, the majority of Black voters came out and voted in favor of proposition 8, a successful referendum that sought to eliminate same-sex marriages in California. Needless to say, this put LGBT writers and activists in a tough spot: do you take out your frustrations and demonize Black people as anti-gay bigots fighting against equality or do you blame yourself for failing to adequately engage Black people on the issue?

After some initial grumbling, the consensus position was to blame themselves for not engaging. In a post at The American Prospect titled “Engaging, Not Demonizing,” Adam Serwer argued:

Andrew Sullivan agrees that “this community needs to be engaged not demonized, and we haven’t engaged enough,” but in the weeks before the vote Sullivan was telling everyone on the Internet that the black community was “the most homophobic ethnic community” which sounds a lot to me like demonizing. That’s not the way to build a political coalition, anymore than Barack Obama won the election by telling white people how racist they are.

Dean Spade weighed in similarly:

Current conversations about Prop 8 hide how the same-sex marriage battle has been part of a conservative gay politics that de-prioritizes people of color, poor people, trans people, women, immigrants, prisoners and people with disabilities. Why isn’t Prop 8’s passage framed as evidence of the mainstream gay agenda’s failure to ally with people of color on issues that are central to racial and economic justice in the US?

Jessie Daniels at The Society Pages shared similar sentiments:

I heartily agree with the authors’ re-frame of the failure of Prop 8. The mainstream gay political movement has failed to do the hard work of coalition building with people of color, whether straight or LGBT. While I’m not prepared to argue that gay marriage is inherently racist as some do, I do think the fight for marriage equality has got to re-think it’s white-led agenda and connect to broader social justice goals in order to be successful.

Of course, white LGBT advocates never did successfully engage Black people well enough to bring them around on the gay marriage cause. Instead, what happened is gay marriage advocates ran up their support among whites so much that it didn’t really matter what Black people (a 13% minority) wanted. Put bluntly, majoritarian support for LGBT rights was largely won through a GOP-like demographic strategy of maximizing white margins.


Nonetheless, what’s interesting to me about the 2008 moment is the rallying cry of “Engaging, Not Demonizing.” The liberal response to Blacks opposing gay marriage was not to demonize them as anti-gay bigots that can go fuck themselves for all liberals are concerned. They certainly could have responded that way. As history shows, winning the support of most Black people was not remotely necessary to win gay marriage. But instead liberals responded with calls for further engagement, calls for further outreach, and, crucially, calls for finding “broader social justice goals” and “issues that are central to racial and economic justice” that could possibly unify the LGBT and Black causes.

This is contrasted with some recent liberal sentiments about lower class whites, which are more about Demonizing, Not Engaging. Specifically, the fact that many lower class whites are racist is enough grounds it seems for many Discourse Liberals to say to hell with them.

DeBoer argues that this new posture shows that liberals have evolved towards more conservative modes of thinking, modes which emphasize that only the morally good are worthy of concern:

Yet in a deeper sense I think conservatives have won a major victory, one not understood by them or their antagonists: they have written the notion that dignity, respect, and material security must be earned into the progressive imagination. They have made the notion of a moral meritocracy inescapable in American civic life

While I’d agree with DeBoer that this is a particularly conservative approach, the reality is that these Discourse Liberals do not actually adhere to the approach for populations other than lower class whites. As discussed above, they didn’t and don’t say “to hell with Black people’s needs” just because most Black people oppose LGBT marriage rights. And right-wing efforts to talk about how many Muslim communities across the world hold views about women and LGBT people that liberals find abhorrent are shrugged off instantly. For these and other groups, being morally problematic (under the liberal framework) does not make them undeserving of dignity, respect, and material security.

So what’s going on, then? If liberals haven’t evolved generally towards a “moral meritocracy” worldview, then why do they seem to apply that worldview to the case of lower class whites? I don’t pretend to know the answer to this, but Emmett Rensin suggested to me earlier that the main dividing line here is whether liberals think you will vote for Democrats or not. That is, lower class whites are seen as largely outside of the Democratic coalition and therefore their moral failings are seized upon as adequate grounds for dismissing them and their problems. But other groups, such as Blacks and Muslims, are seen as inside the Democratic coalition, meaning that when they hold morally degenerate views (again under the liberal framework), the proper remedy is not to dismiss and demonize them but instead to do more and better outreach. Which is to say, the moral high ground that Discourse Liberals stake out with regard to lower class whites is mostly motivated by a more crude partisan tribalism.

This is obviously just a speculation on Rensin’s part, but it seems plausible enough. At minimum, it accounts for why some groups are subject to moral meritocracy while others aren’t.

  • Stephen Waldron

    I think that the article DeBoer links to (by Alan Jacobs) explains things pretty well: As you mention here, blacks and Muslims are part of the perceived ingroup for white liberals, while working class whites are not. The psychology behind that seems intriguing, but I can’t explain it.

  • Steve

    Raw tribalism. Slate Star Codex has been writing about this type of thing for a while; a good example is “I Can Tolerate Anything Except the Outgroup”:

  • Frank Bolton

    You got that right. Hell, tribal is probably too strong of a word; it’s pure patronage, nay, exploitation. See: Obama and Clinton taking on the mantles of having deported, by proportion and absolute number, the 2nd and 3rd-most number of immigrants in U.S. history. After all, ‘illegal’ immigrants will not be able to vote and it’ll take a minimum of 18 years for their children to be able to. So… fuck ’em. Sending poor people back to their shanties won’t cost liberals anything in the short or medium-term.

  • White people have white privilege, so poor white racists are evil. Black people do not have white privilege, so black homophobes are misguided. Really, it’s Identitarianism 101.

  • Ross Schaap

    Sure Democrats should still try to win working class white votes and shouldn’t needlessly create conflict. The white working class was long a mainstay of the Democratic Party’s base. Moreover, white working class voters are not some monolithic bloc against the Democrats or for Republicans, it’s more fragmented than that. But if you think about this historically, is it that the Democratic Party abandoned working class whites or that some part of the white working class left the Democrats? I’d say the latter. Yet, these discussions seem framed as though Democrats failed to engage the white working class.

    Now, Democratic policy preferences have strayed from well representing this group, but that’s a function of the votes the party was increasingly winning, not a function of antipathy to working class whites. The Dems continued to try to win those votes and still offer policies that are, in aggregate, arguably much better economically for them than tax cuts for upper incomes and the resulting large budget deficits that preclude
    public investment.

    In the end, it really shouldn’t be a surprise the Dems have been less critical and more accommodating of groups that are still voting for them. Incentives matter for the election-minded politicians just as much as for voters.

  • This is crystal clear analysis, Matt. Good job.

    Yikes, those theories that gay marriage was “inherently racist”, or it had a “white-led agenda”, or it wouldn’t succeed unless it latched onto other issues… Time can be unkind!

    It’s almost gruesome irony that liberals won with a de facto conservative demographic strategy. But not demonizing blacks was best all-around, anyway. In contrast to the recent demonization of working class whites, liberals realized that alliances could still be made on other issues, and engagement and argument would continue to win a few converts on gay rights.

    Dems’ approach to Catholics seems to mirror this. They used to be a cornerstone for Dems, but affluence and social issues have made them a much more diffuse voting bloc. Still, Dems knew better than to react with articles saying “Catholic voters are stupid”, ensuring that even more will leave the coalition. Today, you’ll still find antichoice Catholics who vote for prochoice Dems ’cause they like their overall platform.

  • ” is it that the Democratic Party abandoned working class whites or that
    some part of the white working class left the Democrats? I’d say the

    I think this is the point of contention. The long-term efforts of people like the Clintons to re-orient the party towards business and big money, and neoliberal/DLC-style politics, is well-documented. It was a conscious decision–underscored by their fierce antipathy to the working class politics of Sanders.

  • Frank Bolton

    is it that the Democratic Party abandoned working class whites or that some part of the white working class left the Democrats?

    The 80s were 30-35 years ago. Get the fuck over it. What may have been the greatest good then (suck up to plutocrats to get support for defending civil rights) is definitely not the greatest good now.

  • Sensible Moderate

    Maybe a little too simplistic and dismissive. The working class white population has a long, storied history of being instruments of oppression to POC, women generally and LGBT for material economic advantage. To excise the economic basis of the WWC historically is a bit disingenuous.

  • Ross Schaap

    My point is that all these discussions treat the Clintons as though they made the times, when it’s closer to reality that they reflected the times. Seems more like they are pragmatic and will move with popular preferences. They don’t appear to be anti-working class so much as pro-Clinton. That may disappoint many but the Clinton’s found a way to win the presidency for Dems while the solid south was shifting parties, a pretty remarkable feat. I don’t see any fierce antipathy to working class politics any more than than there is fierce antipathy to recognizing racial politics by Bernie; that’s all just political positioning.

  • sam w

    I started noticing this phenomenon in the early 2000s. It was in the context of thinking about what differentiates social democracy from American liberalism; and also about GOP-echo-chamber attacks of those years on the cultural elitism of “coastal elites” which, while one level absurd and disingenuous, were not without some truth. The Dems have never been a party intending to represent the working class as a class in the same sense as, say, the British Labour Party. They did arguably encompass those elements at one point, but now are pretty straightforwardly a party of capital with a middle-class rank-and-file. That rank-and-file includes both salaried professionals and civil society groups (churches, NGOs, etc.) specific to specially oppressed groups. The latter have a greater capacity to mobilize working-class people for GOTV than the former.

    It’s well-known that the Labour establishment (and other social democrats trying to dump social democracy) admire this arrangement and have been trying to move toward it for some time (and with considerable success, until Corbyn). I wonder, though, if we shouldn’t likewise think of the Dems as moving toward some aspects of New Labour politics, particularly the British model of multiculturalism, which has been criticized by some on the British Left as precisely a delegation of power to (unelected, unaccountable, state-backed) civil society leaders to “manage” their constituents.

  • unBeatable

    It’s not outreach. It’s soft bigotry of lowered expectations… INSDE the conservative hegemony framework. If there are enough conservatives (military force projection included) prepared to go kill all the bad Muslims…. then you can still look down on Muslims as ignorant third worlders who are not responsible (Colonialism!). The moment that there is danger of Muslims actually toppling the liberal cultural hegemony, then they become conservative enough to go kill the baddies. With blacks in US, liberals do the same… you do it yourself… you cheer race riots, the get the couple little ones we price into the system… but if things ever go sideways, liberals worry about “Super predators” and do what it takes to clean up Times Square. This is always your problem… you scream property is violence, but don’t grok that the first guys we line and kill when shit goes down and the guys saying property is violence. Until you are PREPARED and ABLE to kill the baddies yourself… you by definition do not don’t have the “safe space” to to do OUTREACH…. no fort, no outreach to the backward natives… values don’t change that.

  • Ross Schaap

    The 80s? So you think Mondale and Dukakis were the Dems break with the white working class?

    Get over what? I am just describing what happened, not taking any position. The Dems moved policy positions as the Republicans were able to capture a part of their base. Maybe the Dems should have fought harder for the white working class, but I doubt there was a way to win the presidency with that strategy in the 1990s.

    If I was laying out my preferences, I’d like the US to have a much more comprehensive welfare state, though streamlined a bit; I’d also prefer a much more pro-market, as opposed to pro-business, regulatory operating environment. How do I get there with the set of voting choices available? Probably Sanders as top choice, but no one is selling out the working class by going with Hillary as their second choice. It’s a long fight.

  • Frank Bolton

    Not them directly. But the 80s was when the New Democrats started taking the levers of power in state government.

    Maybe the Dems should have fought harder for the white working class, but I doubt there was a way to win the presidency with that strategy in the 1990s.

    Two things:

    A.) Economic leftism was always popular with the white working class. There’s really no argument that can be had there. What was toxic was the social leftism. So… if the Democratic Party made the choice to take on the moral but politically unpopular position with the WWC of social leftism, why did they jettison the popular parts of the platform?

    The standard excuse I’ve heard for that is by-and-large ‘b-b-but we really needed that plutocratic money to defend civil rights! The white working class is eternally was then so goddamn racist that full-on economic justice wouldn’t have gotten us any more votes than full-on neoliberalism!’ You know, even though that neoliberalism only further served to inflame the racial resentment of Reagan Democrats (since the Dems were clearly playing favorites) and Ross Perot came along and showed that, holy shit, economic justice is still like super-popular and will get you votes! Even though it’s like the 90s and shit.

    B.) But even if we accept the ‘racists gotta racists; our only hope was sucking up to plutocrats’ framing and strategy, what was true in the 80s is not true now. Two generations since McGovern’s defeat have given us white Gen-Xers (who were much more socially liberal than non-Millenials) and white Gen-Yers (who are leftist as fuck, completely eclipsing even Gen-X). These two generations have replaced/are replacing the Greatest Generation and the Silent Generation, who are much more conservative and culturally revanchist. And what’s more, this trend looks to be continuing indefinitely.

    The Democratic Party is missing a fuck-huge opportunity to reclaim the white working class by continuing to weep and snivel over the ass-kickings they got in the 70s and 80s. Like I said, the 80s were 30-35 years ago. Get the fuck over it and stop wallowing in your failure.

  • Jacob Stevens I think Jonathan Haidt captures it well. My interpretation (not Jonathan Haidt’s) is that to a fair extent liberal morality is predicated on opposition to establishment, in institutional and traditional form (church, autocracy, cultural hegemony). Viewing such establishment as an impediment to positive progress. WWC would be seen as part of the establishment, by virtue of race, then.

  • Mike Powers

    “The psychology behind that seems intriguing, but I can’t explain it.”
    Actually, I’d go with what “unBeatable” starts off with (although not the rest of his post): It’s the idea that, due to poor education caused by The Legacy Of American Racism, blacks just don’t know any better than to be like they are, and that if only there were sufficient “outreach” then they’d be perfectly fine with gay rights.