There Are No Perfect Political Alliances

Having grown up in an Ivy League town, gone to college in the midwest, and spent most of the rest of my life living in the metropolises of Los Angeles and Philadelphia or the Philly suburbs, I’ve had an opportunity to watch how “liberal” whites think about and talk about people of color in a lot of different settings. Without any question, urban white liberals are the only ones who don’t consistently fall short of the ideal for racial tolerance and enlightenment. And there is a simple reason for this. They’re the only group that comes close to being truly integrated with people of other races, religions and ethnic backgrounds. Urban whites will still make reference to dangerous neighborhoods in racially-tinged derogatory ways, but the dirty little secret is that urban blacks do this too. When these distinctions are made, they’re discerning and accurate as to this actual risk.

Shopping for a car in the suburbs, the salesman will reference “Philadelphia” when describing the security features, rather than any particular part of the city. Parents will refer to their discomfort with visiting the city in general terms, with the unstated and understood premise that there are a lot of minorities and crime there.  “Philadelphia” is shorthand for “black and dangerous,” even though among liberals there’s usually no intended racial animus to the reference.

These things only get more pronounced the further you get from a major city or diverse suburb. In western Michigan, the fear is more palpable and casually racist remarks are more common and better tolerated. A park that suddenly has Mexicans and Central Americans picnicking and playing pick-up soccer will become a subject of open complaint.

My experiences neatly line up with the research of Harvard political scientist Ryan Enos, whose recent book “The Space Between Us,” is highlighted today in Thomas Edsall’s New York Times opinion piece. The research shows that white liberal tolerance for racial integration diminishes very quickly when faced with actual integration. Tolerance is highest where integration is already high or where it hardly exists at all.

The relationship between the proportion of an out-group in an area and group-based bias is curvilinear: it becomes greater as the out-group proportion increases until reaching a tipping point and then starting to decrease. This means that when a group makes up a large portion of a place — for concreteness, say 40 percent — each additional person above 40 percent actually decreases group-based bias.

It’s all the in between places that are problematic, and that’s where Donald Trump made the most headway in the 2016 election.

Edsall seems pessimistic about what this means for our politics:

In fact, the predictable “decrease in group based bias” notwithstanding, the force that may prove most challenging to rein in is Trump and the legion of Republican candidates who have seen how effective anti-immigration rhetoric and policy has been in turning Democrats into Republicans.

In politics, once a new strategy or tactic has proved a winner, no matter how reprehensible, it’s next to impossible to return to the past.

Relying on Republicans to use self-restraint and a sense of decency to restrain themselves is not a political strategy. We can hope that we’ve reached a high-water mark with Trump for lack of restraint and decency, but there are bound to be lingering effects from his success no matter how ignominious his political downfall is in the end.

Edsell’s piece is titled “How Much Can Democrats Count on Suburban Liberals?” and the racial issue is just one component of answering that question. Over the weekend, David Atkins tackled another with his piece Does Winning Affluent Districts Require Selling Out The Poor?.

Historically, suburbs developed as a haven from the problems and politics of cities, and we’re entering almost a bizarre phase in our national politics where suburbs and cities are moving together in an increasingly united effort to fend off an increasingly nativist, anti-science, and anti-modern right. There are bound to be tensions, misunderstandings, and problems, but we ought to keep things in perspective.

The Democratic Party of Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and John F. Kennedy was far, far more polarized on race, ethnicity, religion, and region than the emerging Democratic Party of today. In retrospect, it’s hard to believe that urban Catholics and blacks were willing to share a party with Klansmen and ardent white supremacists but that’s exactly what happened during the New Deal Era. As a coalition, it was bound to split apart and it did over integration of the armed services and schools and civil rights and school prayer and eventually over women’s rights, gay rights, the war in Vietnam, and other issues.

Suburbs and cities are too naturally antagonistic to remain in any kind of permanent alliance, and the racial issue is a soft spot that the Republicans know they can tap and tap again. But I’ll take an alliance with suburban white liberals over an alliance with Orval Faubus and George Wallace any day. The compromises that are required to maintain that alliance are more than offset by the gains that are made and the problems that are avoided by being in the political minority.

As for the Democratic Party’s commitment to the urban poor, you can see hope in the way suburban liberals are successfully implementing the expansion of Medicaid as the most obvious example of how concerns about the alliance are probably overblown.

What I can’t see is any other route to majority status for the left that doesn’t include an urban/suburban alliance.  In fact, I’ve been a consistent voice arguing that Democrats are overconfident that this alliance alone will be sufficient to replicate the kind of dominance the party held at the midpoint of the last century. I believe the Democrats too often forget that the farmer-labor component of the New Deal coalition was an indispensable part of their ability to accomplish their goals. And if racial issues present a weakness and vulnerability in the suburbs, that pales compared to the challenge they present to the farmer-labor faction.

If it were possible to build a political power base as large as FDR’s without having uneasy alliances, it would have  been replicated before now. But the past provides useful guidance, and when the progressives had gotten as much as they could get out of the New Deal alliance, the Democratic Party (not entirely voluntarily) downsized and shed its reactionaries.

It’s time to build a new alliance and that means it’s time for the left to take wins wherever they can get them without doing too much hand-wringing about whether suburbanites are the perfect or most reliable partners, or whether every rural/labor Democrat meets the test for perfect orthodoxy. Our disagreements are minor compared to what they’ve been in the past.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.