Should Democrats Be Willing to Go Silent on Racism?

Following the first debate, Peggy Noonan joined Andrew Sullivan and David Brooks in their concern trolling about how Democrats are blowing the 2020 presidential election. She posits that the party appears to be once again “losing the thread.”

They’ve spent the past few months giving the impression they are in a kind of passionate lockstep with a part of their base, the progressives, and detached from everyone else.

And in the debates they doubled down. Both nights had fizz. There was a lot of earnestness and different kinds of brightness.

But what Night One did was pick up the entire party and put it down outside the mainstream and apart from the center.

I can only guess where Noonan locates “the center,” but according to analysis from New York Times’ Sahil Chinoy, it is the Republican Party that has planted itself outside the mainstream, not the Democrats.

The Republican Party leans much farther right than most traditional conservative parties in Western Europe and Canada, according to an analysis of their election manifestos. It is more extreme than Britain’s Independence Party and France’s National Rally (formerly the National Front), which some consider far-right populist parties. The Democratic Party, in contrast, is positioned closer to mainstream liberal parties.

What I found even more enlightening is that Noonan began her pearl-clutching about Democrats by summarizing an exchange she had with a middle-aged man from Kansas City who sat out the 2016 election, but has become a Trump supporter.

“Every day, Americans are told of the endless ways they are falling short. If we don’t show the ‘proper’ level of understanding according to a talking head, then we are surely racist. If we don’t embrace every sanitized PC talking point, then we must be heartless. If we have the audacity to speak our mind, then we are most definitely a bigot.” These accusations are relentless.

“We are jabbed like a boxer with no gloves on to defend us. And we are fed up. We are tired of being told we aren’t good enough.” He believes the American people are by nature kind and generous—“they would give you the shirt off their back if you were in trouble”—and that “in Donald Trump, voters found a massive sledgehammer that pulverizes the ridiculous notion that Americans aren’t good enough.” Mr. Trump doesn’t buy the guilt narrative.

First of all, notice what isn’t bothering Mr. Middle-Aged White Man from Kansas. He didn’t mention his paycheck or anything having to do with his “economic security.” He’s simply sick and tired of hearing that white Americans are acting like racist bigots. Apparently, that has only become a factor for him since Trump was elected, because his support for the president materialized once he found a “massive sledgehammer” to use against those accusations.

The exchange Noonan referenced is the opinion of only one man. But it perfectly captures the politics of resentment that encompass the Trump era.

Policy differences, ideology and even narrow-minded self-interest cannot explain the deep and growing divide in American politics. Nor can it explain the popularity of Donald Trump in some quarters. The only way to explain or understand these phenomena is to attribute it to a bone-deep cultural resentment that probably does not originate in politics, but that finds its outlet and expression in politics.

If the politics of resentment stems from white voters being frustrated at hearing about racism, the implication from Noonan is that Democrats need to move toward her vision of the so-called “center” by going silent on the topic—even as the president exploits right-wing nationalism. Knowing that I’m trafficking in Godwin’s Law, that would be like asking Europeans to go silent about anti-semitism as Hitler talks of “vermin” that have “infested” our community.

Every Democrat needs to think long and hard about what it means to counsel their colleagues to dial back the rhetoric about racism in attempt to woo Mr. White Middle-Aged Man from Kansas back into the fold. If that is the arena in which politics meets principle in 2020, the side chosen today could very well have long-term consequences for our democracy.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.