Daniel Moraff

Antiracist Electoral Strategy: Its Failure, Its Future


ISSUE 70 | SAFE | DEC 2016

The Clinton campaign serves as a model for an antiracist electoral strategy. Possibly a cynical and insincere model, and certainly a disastrously failed model, but nonetheless a model that deserves to be taken seriously by those of us seeking to dismantle structures of white supremacy. More than any other presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton staked her campaign on a frontal assault on her opponent’s racism – and more broadly, the racism of his coalition. Did it work?

Let’s put white voters aside for a moment and focus solely on the response of voters of color. Certain commentators, mostly white – I’m talking about the people who believed that Bernie failed to win the black vote in the Democratic primary because he didn’t talk about racism enough – should note that the candidate who talked directly about racism to an unprecedented extent prompted a collective yawn among voters of color, who turned out in low numbers and seem to have broken for the Republican. Trump outperformed Romney with black and Latino voters, while Clinton more sharply underperformed Obama. Given that voters of color tend to rate economic issues as the most critical issues, it is not surprising that Clinton, with her hopelessly garbled message on bread-and-butter issues, suffered on election day.

News outlets, with their grade-school understanding of black politics, have mostly chosen not to grapple with this. Bluntly: attempting to appeal to non-white voters almost solely on the basis of race is doomed to fail. As Bayard Rustin warned fifty years ago, “those who wish to build a political movement by appealing solely to the racial consciousness of blacks will be deeply disillusioned.” Those who believed that anti-racist denunciation would juice turnout among voters of color committed a tremendous misread of the electorate, as Clinton failed to address the core issues reported by voters of color.

On white voters, we can make three observations:

  • Clinton failed to appeal to the mostly white voters of Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan – the voters who collectively denied Clinton the presidency. We could dissect why Clinton failed to move these voters, but it hardly seems necessary.
  • Any white voter motivated primarily by racism opposed Obama; despite this, his numbers among white voters were tremendous for a Democrat, helping him do what Hillary Clinton failed to do – win the election.
  • These two points, along with reams of polling data, tell us that enough white voters will vote for an openly antiracist candidate, despite their rejection of Hillary Clinton.

Antiracists can thus breathe a deep sigh of relief. One does not need to hide one’s antiracism under one’s jacket to win elections. There is no evidence that we will win elections if we are more racist. We do, however, need an antiracist electoral strategy more sophisticated than the one employed by Hillary Clinton. Her particular antiracist strategy of loudly branding her opponent as a racist was incapable of appealing to voters of color, incapable of winning white voters, and incapable of winning a presidential election.

A False Antiracism

The task of replacing failed antiracism with effective antiracism begins with dismantling Clintonism.

The first Clinton administration saw the introduction of a disastrous crime bill that led directly to the long-term incarceration of hundreds of thousands of people, disproportionately people of color, along with the gutting of welfare. This we know. Less well-known is Clinton’s massive rollback of federal support for public housing. This is to say nothing of NAFTA, which, more than perhaps any other single policy initiative in my lifetime, devastated the black middle class, plunging entire regions into poverty.

That Hillary Clinton was able to claim the mantle of antiracism should be concerning to us. In her silence on housing and her terrible record on trade and policing, Hillary Clinton has lent her support to policies devastating to non-wealthy people of color. Clinton, representing the wing of the Democratic Party that has done the most damage to the aspirations of working-class people of color, launched the most aggressive rhetorical assault on racism we have seen in a presidential election. She did so while continuing to surround herself with representatives of the neoliberal faction of the party, which advocates policies that would even more deeply entrench America’s racist structures.

The inescapable conclusion is that calling your opponent racist is in no way indicative of genuine antiracism (if the term “antiracist” is to have any real meaning). There is, in fact, virtually no correlation between the two within the modern Democratic Party. We have a leadership that proudly and boldly claims the mantle of antiracism, that seeks to maintain its power via ardent appeals to antiracism, while at the same time championing deeply racist policy.

This, on its own merits, is bad enough and deserves to be fought. It is also strategically disastrous. It puts antiracism in the hands of politicians whose stubbornly neoliberal outlook makes them incapable of running on a strong progressive platform that appeals to sufficient numbers of working-class voters. Clintonism has been the dominant tendency among the Democratic Party, on a national and local level, and we have suffered massive losses. Clinton’s anti-racism is bereft of content and it doesn’t work. Let’s ditch it.

A “New” Antiracism

The ideas needed to construct an antiracist political strategy actually capable of winning elections are, like most good ideas on the Left, not actually new. To quote the criminally forgotten Bayard Rustin in full, from the crest of the civil rights movement:

[…] what is demanded of blacks is … a clear definition of political and economic objectives, as well as a strategy for achieving them. In the absence of such a program, rage must feed upon itself and inspire comforting but self-defeating forms of withdrawal, or violence – which is destructive to all concerned – and induce in the white community the uncreative feelings of guilt or fear. This dynamic of rage, fear and guilt is unusually forceful today, and its social consequences can only be reactionary.

The prevalence of confusing emotions has led to the identification of white racism as the most pressing and immediate problem that must be solved. I reject this analysis, not because I think white Americans are innocent – I am sure many are prejudiced, as are some people of every race – but because it cannot lead to a constructive programmatic solution to the plight of black Americans. In the first place, if we locate the source of the problem in the attitudes of white people, it follows that the solution has to be mass psychoanalysis, something I find neither practical nor appealing. More importantly, white breast-beating will hardly help the black youth who is unemployed or the black child who is being miseducated. Quite the contrary, it will compel the well-meaning yet guilty individuals to justify their position by a soothing process of rationalization and self-delusion. Thus unintentionally, and perhaps even unconsciously, they may end in giving tacit approval to the growing white reaction against the movement for equality.

We have to focus our attention, therefore, on the social and economic conditions that have produced poverty, segregation, deteriorated housing, inferior schools, and poor health. If we can make improvements in these fundamental areas, I think it is possible that – as emotions and attitudes adjust to the new and more equitable social conditions – we shall also see a marked reduction in rage, fear, and racism. But of course, such changes do not evolve spontaneously. They can be brought about only by a political movement whose specific objective is their attainment. [emphasis mine]

Achieving antiracist goals, argues Rustin, requires a political movement specifically seeking to bring about both “equitable conditions” and a reduction in racism – and such a movement should not pursue, as its primary strategy, an attitude adjustment among white racists.

Simply put: antiracist electoral strategy must center on efforts to attack the “social and economic conditions” that have produced poverty and segregation, rather than merely using racism as a rhetorical bludgeon.

Corollary: capitalism and antiracism are directly at odds in the United States in 2016, and the winning antiracist coalition is ultimately a working-class coalition. This requires a different conception of antiracism, one that judges a given activity’s antiracist qualities on whether it actually serves to combat racism and its legacies. Absent such a redefinition, one cannot refute the powerful case made by Reed et al that “antiracism” is a dead end.

Sidebar: On the White Antiracist

On the phenomenon of the white person with a genuine commitment to fighting racism who is unsure of how to do so, we return to Rustin:

I do not trust those affluent whites who, out of guilt, are sympathetic to reparations. Guilt is an uncomfortable emotion, and the guilty party will ultimately rationalize his sins and affirm them as virtues. By such a process, today's ally can become tomorrow's enemy. Political alliances are not built on the shifting sands of moral suasion.

He is quite right. Opposing racism out of guilt, or even altruism, is not the basis of long-term coalition. Us antiracist whites may be genuinely altruistic and pure of heart (doubtful), but attempts to build a broader base of white people to act in an antiracist coalition will, if they are based on appeals to altruism and guilt, fail.

Instead of viewing class-oriented rhetoric as a competitor with antiracist politics, we should view it as a component of any attempt to build a durable antiracist coalition. Putting white voters in a position where their interest aligns with the victory of a multiracial coalition position is our most promising strategy; making transformative demands (full employment, free healthcare) that serve everyone in this coalition is an obvious tool. We establish common goals, and forcefully make the case that racism is a tool of elites that serves to prevent us from uniting around those goals.

Two Fronts

As Rustin implies, those with the explicit goal of destroying racist systems of oppression must place ourselves at the center of electoral coalitions. In the immediate term, that means a full-on assault on Clintonism. Its toxic brand of capitalist faux-antiracism is a barrier to building the antiracist coalition we need to win elections. Clintonism’s power is concentrated (mostly) in cities. Demographically, the voters in these areas are disproportionately people of color; the politicians who must be targeted are racially mixed.

These electoral efforts are the ideal forum for discussing the racist implications of the neoliberal policies so prevalent within the urban power centers of the Democratic Party. Can one be anti-racist while at the same time turning our cities over to landlords and real estate developers, whitewashing them in the process? Can one fight racism while privatizing public services that serve as a critical source of both services and middle-class jobs for people of color? Can one fight racism while supporting a battery of neoliberal policies that further segregate and impoverish working-class people in our cities?

We have to ask these questions; they must be at the forefront of antiracist electoral activity in heavily Democratic areas. The urgency of this task is underlined by the complete fecklessness of urban Democratic elites when it comes to winning statewide elections. As Lester Spence put it in the aftermath of the Trump debacle:

Most cities with high black population percentages are reluctant to engage in persistent registration, education, and mobilization, in part because the neoliberal turn has significantly truncated the willingness and the ability of city mayors to provide services to this population. Put plainly, the Democratic Party is only interested in turning out black voters when the presidency is at stake, and not under any other conditions because the black population itself may end up wanting government for services city mayors are unwilling to provide.

While this level of myopia on the part of professional politicians may be hard to believe, those experienced in local progressive politics will be familiar with the dependence of machine politicians on low voter participation. This toxic brand of neoliberal Democratic politics results in a sharp reduction of the political power of our natural working-class base in the cities; dismantling it and replacing it with something more robust remains the most obvious electoral task for committed antiracists, themselves often based in Democratic-dominated areas (cities and heavily black or Latino suburban and rural areas). We don’t need to decamp en masse to rural Wisconsin. There is plenty of work to do in our “blue” havens.

In parallel, we can vigorously push forward a social-democratic, Sanders-style message in the vast swathes of the country that are currently voting Republican. Bernie’s polling numbers in “red” areas in the general were very encouraging; while the climb is uphill, an aggressive class-warfare-heavy program of redistribution, whose antiracist messaging parallels that offered by Senator Sanders, offers our best chance to win elections in the working-class precincts industrial Midwest.

If we find success on both of these fronts, working-class voters in heavily white areas will quickly find themselves in a situation where realizing their political aspirations depends on the victory of a coalition centered in the cities – a coalition with deep anti-racist roots. This is a recipe for a multiracial social-democratic coalition, led by people of color, founded on an anti-racist basis. In the heyday of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, integrated delegations from Mississippi and Georgia forced the segregationists from those states out of the DNC. Rebuilding that integrated coalition on the state level is the most promising antiracist electoral strategy available to us.

What Must I Do?

The most urgent question, for any antiracist, becomes how – if this kind of coalition is the most plausible path to defeating racist forces in elections, who builds it and how do they do it?

Rustin, writing in 1969, was clear:

If the fire is to be quenched, a political strategy must be devised and an economic program planned to attack injustice at its source. I am not concerned with designs that might elect a local official or employ a few individuals, but with building a movement that can change the fundamental social and economic relations in the society. For this, it is essential to work within the institutions capable of providing black people with the maximum power and leverage in their efforts to achieve equality. I am referring to the Democratic Party and the trade-union movement, and the instruments that black people must use to make them more viable and progressive are the ballot box and the union card.

One can argue over whether Rustin is right that the Democratic Party is the venue for this activity, or whether Adolph Reed’s claim in the eighties that “no popular base currently exists within the black community for wide-scale political organization independent of the Democratic Party” still rings true. Regardless, the institutions of party and union are the two that offer the prospect of mass organization.

There is terrific writing about unions out there. Here, all that needs to be said is that there is a broad consensus on the left, such as it is, that any significant efforts to shift power in this country must be rooted in a vibrant multiracial labor movement. This is, while true, not completely useful to the large number of us who want to lend our talents to the movement and are either in no union or in a bad union.

The party offers the option of an immediate organizational home for you, the reader. Whether we are talking about the Democratic Party, or a new party that works primarily within the Democrats (see: MFDP, the Working Families Party), or a third party that never engages with the Democrats, the party is the vehicle for organizing a mass base around a political agenda – both inside and outside labor unions.

Seth Ackerman’s recent piece takes a hard look at what this new party might look like. For now, local progressive coalitions and organizations that engage in electoral politics, primarily through the Democratic primaries, can be thought of as “parties within parties”, an old idea in left politics pushed heavily by Rustin and his contemporaries, most notably Michael Harrington, founder of the eminently joinable Democratic Socialists of America. Until we have full-fledged party structures to participate in, these organizations offer immediate opportunities for individuals to begin practicing a more effective brand of anti-racist politics, and work toward building more formal party structures.

The task of "party-building"—building a base of ideologically coherent volunteers capable of drafting and endorsing candidates, growing a list of voters who have some sort of genuine affinity for the party (or party-within-a-party), organizing in the "offseason" around specific issues that serve to grow the base and win tangible victories—is so important. For a variety of reasons it has mostly been the domain of conservative fuddy-duddies. An infusion of antiracist, anticapitalist cadre into electoral politics in the United States would be tremendously productive.

Party-building and union-building are painstaking and long-term work. The objective is to build the long-envisioned coalition of labor, progressives, and (as Rustin would put it) “civil rights activists”, who together comprise the democratic antiracist left.

The alternative is grim.

Working-class voters in Democratic strongholds are locked into a coalition dominated by upscale neoliberals intent on claiming the mantle of antiracism. Should they prevail, electoral “antiracism” will be defined by a coalition incapable of resisting Trump with no real commitment to any policies that could actually dismantle racist structures. In this environment, political linkages between working-class whites and working-class voters of color are unlikely to develop. Should the current Democratic coalition emerge victorious over the Republicans, we will only tread water; when our coalition is defeated, we are more vulnerable than ever.

Clinton’s claim to antiracism should be regarded not as an encouraging first step towards a more genuine Democratic commitment to racial justice, but as a vicious distortion to be opposed. We must substitute our own, more effective vision of antiracism. Talk is cheap. Loud denunciations of racism have their purpose but they are not effective in a vacuum and they do not indicate genuine antiracism in a vacuum. Let’s replace those denunciations with a more muscular working-class antiracism, one that can win elections and produce an antiracist coalition that means something.

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