Please, Democrats, listen to Tim Wise

Wise has an op-ed that spells out what they did to defeat David Duke in Louisiana. Don’t avoid the issue of racism, confront it head on.

In the early 1990s, I worked for the Louisiana Coalition Against Racism and Nazism, an organization founded for the purpose of defeating Duke, a white supremacist and former Ku Klux Klan leader, in his bids for the U.S. Senate and governor’s mansion. During those two campaigns, we learned that if you want to deflate a movement whose yeast is racism, you can’t do it with a raft of policy proposals, because racist movements don’t rise in the first place based on policy ideas. And if a racist’s political opponent avoids the subject of race, and tries instead to appeal to voters with proposals on health coverage and tax reform, that normalizes the racist, whether it’s Duke, Trump or someone else, by treating them like any other candidate, and treating the election at hand as if it’s merely a debate between two legitimate, contrasting public policy visions.

To win an election where the issue of race is front-and-center, antiracists must make it clear to voters that when they cast their ballots, they are making a moral choice about the kind of people they want to be, and the kind of nation in which they want to live.

This is going to be terrifying to craven wonks at the DNC, because Duke got more white votes in that election than in the previous one. But there was a surge in black turnout, and that turned the tide.

Policy is good, especially at sorting out preferences within the Democratic field. Once the noise settles down, though, I think the Democrats have to focus on Trump’s racism and misogyny and make it clear that this next election is about the fate of the country.


  1. doubtthat says

    A lot of that is insightful, but I’m not convinced – or, maybe – I’m not clear on what he’s proposing in practical terms.
    1) 2018 was entirely about turning out Democratic voters. Republican turnout was strikingly similar to what it was in 2010 and 2014, when they surged in Congress.
    2) Trump’s approval ratings are hilariously static. It’s unprecedented in American history. It has basically been in a 5pt range from election day.
    Point is, I think people are already well aware of Trump, his racism, and his misogyny. There are some people who find it offensive, and way too many that either don’t care or agree with him. 2018 was more about getting the people already convinced he’s an asshole to vote than it was about convincing people he is an asshole.
    Not to mention there is still going to be the national media demanding the Democrats account for every penny of their proposals while asking “how will this play” when Trump proposes that we send Megatron and Starscream to take care of Afghanistan.
    I certainly don’t think the democrats should ignore Trump’s awful nature, and they aren’t, but I would like to see some practical suggestions about what this sort of campaign looks like at a national level and how it differs from what folks were doing on the state level in 2018.

  2. F.O. says

    I feel incredibly frustrated to how impervious to facts and arguments these authoritarians are.
    It’s the same thing I see in Italy.

    Articles like this give me a bit of hope, as well as an idea of how to spend my energies more effectively.
    Stop pandering or listening to the racists.
    Stop pretending that they have actual ideas rather than intentions.
    Stop hoping you can change them.
    Start energising those who still value compassion and reality.

    The way I read it see it is, policy is good, but alone it is insufficient.
    You need to tell your story and tell it well, and it must be a story of caring people rising to stop fascism and racism and holding cruelty as a value.

  3. doubtthat says

    @ F.O.

    I think that’s right and it makes sense, but it was presented as criticism of the Democrats. I’m willing to listen, but I see that the Democrats won huge victories in 2018 – were they doing what Wise suggested then? If not, what should they have been doing instead?
    And then, every current presidential candidate has been both criticizing Trump for his immorality and, to differing degrees, offering policy proposals.
    So, I’m willing to listen, I’m not saying Wise is wrong, I just am having trouble envisioning what actual candidates should actually be doing right now that’s different than what they’re doing.

  4. F.O. says

    @doubtthat: my impression as someone who lives abroad is that the Dems gain were mostly a rejection of Trump and the Republicans, which works when the Dems are not in power anywhere.
    Now the Dems have the House and are dragging their feet on impeachment and investigations, making political calculus over hitting Trump as brutally as possible, squandering the good will of their base and reminding everyone why are they so shitty, which means plenty of people will be disappointed, disaffected and won’t vote.

    It’s not a matter of criticizing Trump for his immortality.
    “Trump bad because A, B and C” doesn’t work. It limits the problem to specific things that a specific person did.
    As I read it, Wise is saying to go all out, not to be scared to use “fascism” not to be timid about calling out racism all over the right; “Trump bad because A, B and C” should be replaced with “We must stop fascism”

  5. PaulBC says

    I think there is a part of the Democratic party that still believes it can win back the “Reagan Democrats.” There is also a not so subtle view that non-white votes are a kind of consolation prize. As long as this lasts, we’re doomed to certain defeat.

  6. PaulBC says

    To expand on what I wrote in 5, what if politicians aren’t really rational actors who see themselves as best suited to represent constituents? What if they’re actually vain human beings who want to win elections because they get a charge of affirmation that makes them feel good about themselves? I mean, I know, radical thought here…

    What if these putative vain politicians who happen to be white and without being virulent racists possess some implicit bias… what if they really do prefer to be elected by other white people and it means that their election strategy will not optimize for getting votes, but will optimize for getting white votes with the constraint of also getting as many non-white votes as they need to push them over the edge.

    This does not explain all politicians. On the surface, you’d think it would not explain non-white politicians, but then again, there is no reason to think that. It is not unreasonable to think that even though it is hard to win an election, politicians will still direct the campaign towards the strategies that affirm their sense of self rather than the most effective strategies.

    Just spitballing here. It would be interesting to see if this could be quantified.

  7. unclefrogy says

    while there is seldom one explanation that explains anything as complicated as politics I agree with Paulbc there is undoubtedly much truth in such an interpretation. politicians really seem to shy away from anything that might offend their voters as they perceive them and it is winning that is as important as any policies that would promote the general welfare as they perceive it.
    it offers insight into the actions of many of the established politicians both the dems and the republicans in recent years.
    it is a challenge to remain optimistic about the intimidate future
    uncle frogy

  8. consciousness razor says

    A lot of that is insightful, but I’m not convinced – or, maybe – I’m not clear on what he’s proposing in practical terms.

    Yes. I’ll be less diplomatic and say that there’s nothing much for anyone to listen to, in that pile of mush that Wise wrote. (But I guess it fits right in at the Washington Post. They’re probably happy with it.)
    I don’t think it does us any good to downplay the importance of clear and substantive policies, which will actually change how this country is going. If one or more of the candidates adheres more closely to Wise’s vision than the others, I don’t know who that would be. And it’s not even clear that he really means to endorse such a person (or multiple people), if there is any way to identify them according to a hopelessly vague standard like that.
    Presumably, it wouldn’t be the shameless policy wonks like Sanders or Warren. But the rest of the field does know how to say feel-good platitudes and make vacuous promises with no practical import (like most politicians in every party can), so maybe they’re all somehow okay. It’s just worrying that anyone might be able to convince themselves, by listening to Wise’s mush, that this should somehow count against candidates like Sanders or Warren. It’s a feature, not a bug, that they tell you very specifically what they want to do with the position, as they apply for the job. Persuading or “energizing” voters is nice and all, but ultimately, we were only worried about that to make a government that actually does a lot of very specific shit in the real world, which will make this country less of a dumpster fire than it currently is.
    So the conclusion is confusing at best, but his evidence for it is also extremely weak. He mentions David Duke losing two elections in the 90s. In the first, Wise claims that hate won, while in the second, hope won, supposedly because of a change in campaign strategy or focus. Those are some awfully fuzzy claims. But even if they were made more precise, I just don’t get that conclusion, given that Duke went from 44% (and losing) in the first to 39% (and losing) in the second, not to mention that in absolute terms he actually got more voters in the second election. I don’t know what kind of goggles I need to be wearing, in order to see what Wise is seeing in that. But I don’t see it.
    He might be a little happier about the second election (5% happier maybe?), or he can talk about being proud of working on both campaigns (even when hate won). He can brag about his past work as much as he wants for all I care. Maybe this is just a bit of self-promotion and doesn’t say a lot more than “listen to me, as I tell you a story about how I became an expert.” Whatever it is, I just don’t see how his train of thought is supposed to work, what advice he’s actually giving to anybody, or why it should be considered good advice. But of course, if I’m missing something, I’d love to hear what that is.

  9. doubtthat says

    @ F.O.

    As I read it, Wise is saying to go all out, not to be scared to use “fascism” not to be timid about calling out racism all over the right; “Trump bad because A, B and C” should be replaced with “We must stop fascism”

    Ok, but again, how is this any different than what Dems did in 2018 and what the current candidates are doing and saying now?
    Every one of them has called him a racist. The Squad is straight up calling him a fascist and the Democratic candidates are supporting them (I don’t know if any of the candidates have called him a fascist themselves).
    Again, it’s not that I disagree with the analysis, it’s that I would like this political consultant to offer some specific guidance on what folks are doing right or wrong and what sorts of practical things they should be doing.

  10. lotharloo says

    No, they need to focus on his incompetence and corruption. Hillary Clinton focused hard on his racism and sexism, she spent more money than him running ads all about those, they didn’t work. People can vote for a sexist or racist candidate but they will never vote for an incompetent one. People will vote to stop a sexist and a racist candidate but they will also vote to stop a thoroughly incompetent one.

  11. F.O. says

    They shouldn’t focus on Trump.
    They should focus on the situation.
    They should call everyone‘s racism and fascism.
    They should explicitly call out white voters’ racism.
    They should show they are not afraid of losing the racists’ votes.
    And they should go beyond words and actually move to impeach Trump and to speed up the investigations, otherwise it’s all bark.

    BTW, I don’t think Wise criticism especially hits Sanders or Warren.

  12. ck, the Irate Lump says

    They can’t hear people like Tim Wise over the constant flow of Inexplicable Republican Best Friends (alternative podcast of the same concept podcast version) who want to warn Democrats of the dire threat of doing anything that might even partially appeal to the left wing of the party, or moderates like them will never vote for them, (not that they’ve ever or would ever vote for the sexual deviant, baby killing, open borders loving, race traitor Democrat Party, but you know, gotta keep those options open).

    For some reason, leftists and liberals aren’t writing continuous op-eds about how the Republican party needs to appeal to moderate leftists. They should be listening to their actual supporters like Tim Wise, and should be telling these Republican saboteurs to piss off, but instead it’s the other way around.

  13. pipefighter says

    Ya, we tried Tim’s advice in Alberta and got creamed. Four years of Kenney. This guy doesn’t. Know what the fuck he’s talking about.

  14. George says

    There’s a pattern in the afairs humans in that people have a bad habit of ignoring a threat until the poop hits the propeller. Somehow we mostly seem to wait till the Titanic sinks before requiring that there be enough lifeboats on ships for everyone. It’s only after the Debacle that people freak out and rush to fix the problem.

    Hardly anybody took Trump seriously or expected him to win. Even most of his supporters. So too many people said, “Meh, Hillary’s going to win anyway,” so they shrugged and didn’t bother to vote, or voted third-party, or voted for Trump as a big “F— You!” to the “System.” And then, Ooops!, he won. Now he’s a reality.

    Most of his base are perfectly happy with most of what he’s doing. Even the Never Trumpers who are pissed at him, like George Will, Joe Scarborough, etc, are mostly annoyed because he’s so crass, stupid, and, well, embarrassing. They’re perfectly fine with most of his policies. Depending on a few percent of the Residually Sane Republicans to vote for Joe Biden to save us is pretty much a losing proposition. Want to win? Energize the base and inspire some of the Einy-Miny-Miney-Moe voters by offering a clear alternative.

  15. Frederic Bourgault-Christie says

    Tim Wise is my main man! Glad to see you recommending him PZ.

    That having been said… I think Tim is missing part of it, or at the least he’s downplaying a huge aspect because he’s focusing on the short-term need to hedge against Trumpism. (Critically, he’s also assuming that a huge portion of the country can’t be swung in a year and that we need to get the vote out while depressing their side).

    I have definitely noticed, contrary to @13 (and seriously man? you can disagree with him but the guy has been doing this work for a very long time), that you can take the fun out of fascism for some people by not letting up on the moral aspect of it. And we know, as the Alt-Right Playbook points out, that the alt-right knows that too. That’s why they try to get us to change topics away from things like Trump supporting a pederast and being a rapist.

    But the reality is that some people embrace Trump because they have gotten so frustrated that they are just lashing out. Anger and self-loathing is what drives fascist movements. More yelling is just more pressure.

    The policy ideas are the hope part of the equation. But they have to be expressed in a way that doesn’t seem like more business-as-usual.

    Still, no matter what, we’re not going to peel off a huge number of Trump supporters. They’re too deep into their death cult. They have to be beaten first so they can’t get their high. Only when they’re weaned off can some come to their senses.

  16. PaulBC says

    Still, no matter what, we’re not going to peel off a huge number of Trump supporters.

    I’m trying to understand the circumstances in which I (imagining myself as a Democratic candidate) would even want the vote of someone who is still considering voting for Trump and hasn’t been living in a cave for the past three years (or at least since Trump made it abundantly clear that he was going to preside as advertised (even if he’s not very good at it)).

    I’m not saying these circumstances don’t exist. I suppose there is some utilitarian argument that a center right voter could make that the outcome is not as bad as people fear. But this is really a tough one for me to comprehend. Not only are core Trump supporters lost (and good riddance) but people who still might just vote for Trump are outside the ordinary boundaries of even moderate Democratic views.

    I don’t believe a majority of Americans want Trump to be re-elected in 2020 (sadly, a majority of my fellow white Americans probably do). I also don’t believe that this majority can be counted on to agree on what it is they do want. I also don’t believe they can be counted on to turn out at all and I expect a range of voter discouragement to outright suppression to keep this number down.

    I think the slogan ‘Vote for the crook. It’s important’ was a brilliant move in defeating David Duke. I think in retrospect, that might have been a better approach to Hillary Clinton instead of dividing the vote between those who are actually OK with conventional Democratic politics and those who despised Hillary and saw the 2016 election as a referendum on Debby Wasserman Schultz’s tenure as DNC chair and hoo boy, they won that referendum. Trump’s victory sure stuck it to ole’ DWS, I mean that’s what really counts, right? Unfortunately, “lesser of two evils” gets an undeservedly bad rap, and besides that, the minority who actually liked Clinton (like me, sort of) would have objected to “vote for the crook” motto.

    Trump can definitely lose in 2020 but it will require pulling a coalition together. I don’t think it will require moderating jackshit, however. Clinton would have lost even worse by “moderating” further. I will require getting people to comprehend the stakes and use the limited power of their vote merely to avert catastrophe, not to get what they want.

    And if Trump wins, maybe I’m just wrong, and maybe he really does represent America. I’m the weirdo. F**k it.

  17. DanDare says

    If you have the clout you can reframe politics in peoples minds. We just learned that in Australia. The election should have been about narrowing the gap between rich and poor and bringing high accountability to the “free market”. Instead people were voting based on “well nobody likes Bill”, “labor wwill increase taxes”,and my fave “we can’t vote Labor because they arrest people for using wrong pronouns”.

  18. mountainbob says

    In Louisiana the bumper sticker for Duke’s nemesis read, “Vote For The Crook.” It worked! We have to confront evil, but do it with actual verifiable facts and avoid any sort of violence.