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How Democrats Are Shorting White Voters for 2020

A race-based strategy will fail hard because what progressives call "privilege" is mostly about status-wealth, which most of us don't have.
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The exaggeration of white privilege has become a cornerstone of progressivism. It’s also one of the ways Democrats risk losing the 2020 presidential race, as it leads inexorably to the devaluation of voters needed to clinch the Electoral College.

The problem with a race-based, victim-washed vision of 2019 America is that being white is not enough, and never has been. I was a diplomat for 24 years, about as privileged a job on paper as you can get. But inside the State Department, being white was only a start. The real criteria was “pale, male, and Yale.” Being white (the pale part) was great, but only if you were also a man; women were stuck in less desirable jobs (girls are nurses; boys are doctors). No surprise, then, that the State Department has been sued over the years by its women and black diplomats.

But white and male got you only to the door. The “good” jobs required the right background, preferably via an Ivy. A sort of proud graduate of The Ohio State University, my privilege only went so far. I couldn’t fake it. They knew each other. Their fathers knew each other. They had money—well, parents with money. We Big Ten alums never got our class action together and so muddled mostly at the middle levels.

The idea that white was enough was always laughable. America did not welcome our immigrant grandpas; it shunted them into slums and paid them as little as possible to work for male, pale, and Yale owners. Check how many Irish died digging the canals around New Orleans. Read how immigrant children were overworked in factories for decades. The 1924 Johnson-Reed Act used phrenology to exclude Italians. It was so horrendously racist that Hitler praised it in Mein Kampf.

In 2019, so much as mentioning the Irish triggers someone with purple hair and a neck tattoo in Elvish to shout that slavery was worse. It was. But applying a rank order to suffering ignores the reason that ideology will drag down the Democratic party in 2020: it is about more than race. What progressives call white privilege is mostly status-wealth privilege, with a lot of unrelated things chucked in to fill out the racist manifesto—basically everything bad that happens to black people, from airplane seating scrums to what color the director of the next superhero movie is.

The candidates then either dismiss what they call white angst as a Fox News narrative or condemn it as supremacy, Nazism, and fascism, words that have lost all meaning. Dems crow about changing demographics that will turn America into a non-majority-white nation, and celebrate the end of privilege as the country depletes its stock of Caucasians. They fail to see that the salient statistic of America is not that the 61 percent who are white is falling, but that a tiny group, the top 0.1 percent of households, now hold the same amount of wealth as the bottom 90 percent.

Every white voter in every swing state feels the pull of that. They’re afraid of losing their place—not to black people, but to the economy. And every one of those voters knows that the solutions Democrats propose will not help them (they are also unlikely to fix racism, but that’s another matter). Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s Douglass Plan provides billions for black businesses and colleges and aims to reduce the prison population by half. Biden wants to provide former felons with housing. Kamala Harris has a $100 billion plan for black homeownership. Everyone on MSNBC favors reparations.

Nothing excuses the at times dangerous behavior of Donald Trump and some of his supporters. Yet declaring all Trump supporters to be racist is far too crude an understanding. Many feel they are under attack by progressives who fail to see their own economic vulnerabilities. Instead of Barack Obama (Columbia ’83, Harvard ’91) talking about hope and change for everyone, they hear today’s Dems dedicating themselves to over-correcting racial wrongs, punishing those in the present for historical sins. Resentment builds as they’re scolded over what little more they have than others.

Democratic very-hopeful Kirsten Gillibrand failed to sell this penitent version of white privilege right at the ground zero for economic inequality—Youngstown, Ohio. Youngstown was archetypal postwar America, a Midwest city built around a now-dead steel industry. It was racially mixed, not only statistically (49 percent white, 44 percent black), but in reality. The now-gone union jobs paid living wages to whites and blacks and allowed people to buy homes on each others’ streets. Workers’ privilege. The receding tide grounded all boats.

Gillibrand was asked at a campaign stop there: “This is an area that, across all demographics, has been depressed because of the loss of industry and the opioid crisis. What do you have to say to people in this area about so-called white privilege?”

Her answer, praised by CNN as “powerful,” was a wandering narrative about how, while white privilege didn’t spare the questioner unemployment, the loss of her house, her son to opioids, and her soul itself at the hands of rapacious inequality, the black folk in Youngstown had it worse—’cause the supremacist cops would bust a black kid for weed while a white kid would walk away. It was the perfect answer for a progressive media hit. It was the worst possible answer if a candidate actually wanted to win some of those Ohio votes. Gillibrand stumbled on to say she that she understood families in the community were suffering, “but that’s not what this conversation is about.”

Her answer was thin soup to women who’d lost sons to drugs. Opioids now rank just below suicide as a cause of death in America (as if the two are unconnected). Many more die from opioids than police violence. Ohio has the second highest opioids death count in the U.S. And how much time will that issue get at the next Democratic debate?

Gillibrand, standing in as the poster child for progressives, likely knows nothing about 1977’s Black Monday in Youngstown, when 5,000 steelworkers were laid off, or of the 50,000 who lost their jobs after that. The town never recovered, trauma that helped put Ronald Reagan and then Trump in the White House. She doesn’t see what they saw. The problem is not black and white; it is up and down. 

The people of Youngstown understand this in their bones, and, to the endless amazement of progressive mediasupport Trump even when he is ineffective in helping them, because at least he understands. He would never tell them that their economic problems pale in comparison to racism. Gillibrand, on the other hand, went to Youngstown specifically to communicate that she doesn’t care—her eye is on another audience.

It is time to admit that racism is not the core problem, the one Pete Buttigieg claims “threatens to unravel the American project.” It is in 2019 an exaggeration driving a key Democratic strategy: betting the White House on unreliable voters (since the 1980s, blacks have turned out in higher numbers than whites, percentage-wise, only for the Obama elections) against a body of whites they devalue.

This is a risky strategy. It alienates too many while challenging others (older Americans of all races historically turn out at 30 to 40 percent higher rates than the youngest voters) to vote for the party that now gleefully denounces Thomas Jefferson as a slaver, and throws its own vice president emeritus and frontrunner under the racism bus. Voters, meanwhile, wonder when the reparations for their lost jobs and homes will come.

The Dems can’t reassess because to discuss racism in any but the Party’s own terms is more racism. Dissenters are racists, or at least noncompetitive. Mayor Pete, who in January said, “Trump got elected because, in his twisted way, he pointed out the huge troubles in our economy and our democracy,” now leads the charge with racism. Argument is ended with “Oh, so says a white person.” Whitesplaining! It’s like saying only doctors who have cancer are allowed to treat tumors.

In Wall Street terms, Democrats are “shorting” white voters. A short means betting against something, devaluing it. If you are short on Microsoft, you make investments that will go up if Microsoft goes down. Dems think white voters have little value, and are betting against them with exaggerated claims of supremacy. Along the way, they assume all “people of color” will fall into place, believing that what resonates with young urban blacks will also click with their older rural relatives in swing states, as well as with Latinos who trace their roots from Barcelona to Havana to Juarez, and Asians too (why not?), simply because, in Democratic lexicon, any color trumps white—no shades of nuance needed.

If that sounds simplistic, never mind inaccurate, and a bad idea, you may want to consider shorting the Dems for 2020.

Peter Van Buren, a 24-year State Department veteran, is the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People and Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan.



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