Denise Herd: Good afternoon. We’re going to get started now. And can everyone silence their phones before we begin? And I’m very thrilled and excited to welcome you to our special event here and our special guests, Professor Ian Haney López who is going to be talking about his new book Merged Left: Race and Class, Winning Elections and Saving America. Before we begin I’d like just for us to take a few moments to acknowledge that we are on Ohlone land. And just a moment of silence or so.
Okay. Thank you. So as I said, I’m Denise Herd. I’m the associate director of the Haas Institute for Fair and Inclusive Society that’s helping to sponsor this event. And we’re really, as I said, really thrilled to have Professor López here. And this event is part of the Haas’ Research to Impact Series. And this year were acknowledging 400 years of resistance to injustice and slavery, and I think Professor López’s talk really fits well within the emphasis that we have on regaining the franchise and regaining political power for disfranchised people including African Americans, Latinx, Indigenous people and other people’s marginalized by race, ethnicity and social class.
So this is a really important topic and one that is something that we are really focusing on as a path forward for belonging. So now I’d like to take a moment to acknowledge our sponsors. As I said the Haas Institute is helping to sponsor this along with the Thelton Henderson Society at Center for Social Justice at Berkeley Law and the Equal Justice Society. I’d also like to thank the Browers Center and all the volunteers who’ve worked so hard to make this event possible.
And now I’d like to welcome so Savala Trepczynski, I got it, to the podium, who’s going to introduce Professor López and serve as the person running the rest of the event. Thank you, Savala.
Savala Trepczynski: Hi, everyone. I have a very tricky last name which is why I gave that thumbs-up to Denise. She said it beautifully. I’m Savala as you know and I have the pleasure of directing the Thelton E. Henderson Center for Social Justice at Berkeley Law. And I’m really delighted to be here in community with all of you. I’m finding that just being in community these days is very nourishing and nutritive and so I appreciate everyone coming out, and I appreciate Ian for inviting me to be part of this event, and for writing this fabulous book.
As you know, this is Ian’s fourth book. He set out a task for himself given how insightful and vigorous and creative, and strategic, and nuanced his prior three books were when particularly when it comes to talking about race. This fourth book, Merged Left, if you haven’t read it yet you will find that all of those qualities are deep and rich in this fourth title. And I think maybe even more important than they have ever been. That’s kind of a bold thing to say given the history of race, and class, and politics in this country, and I’m aware of that.
But I do think the stakes feel quite high and Merge Left addresses the stakes head-on in a way that somehow manages to be extremely truthful and creative, and even a bit hopeful if I may say so. It’s only been on book shelves for less than two weeks like 11 days, but it’s already garnering a ton of praise from scholars and activists, and organizers, and lawyers, and law students and citizens who are involved in all kinds of social justice movements around country.
This is not at all surprising. If you know Ian, he is a wonderfully generous, brilliant man. His students affectionately call him Halo, which I love because I imagine him with this light of wisdom behind his head. So I hope you brought your light of wisdom with you, Ian. Ian is going to speak for about 30 or 40 minutes and then we will do Q&A.
So if you have questions, please hold them in your mind and jot them down on one of these blue cards that will be passed around momentarily. The cards will then be collected and that’s how we’re going to do Q&A. If that doesn’t work for anyone, you can track down one of us organizers of the event if writing down your question is difficult and we can find another way for you to pose your question to the author.
Now, without further ado please help me in welcoming the director of the racial politics project at the Haas Institute, and the Chief Justice Earl Warren professor of law at UC Berkeley, and the author of Merge Left, Professor Ian Haney López.
Ian Haney López: So here’s the structure of the talk: I’m going to start by promising that I have really good news. You’re going to doubt me. I am then going to say, “Well, if that’s how you’re going to be, I’m going to depress the heck out of you.” Then I’ll turn and show you why there is really good news. So the topic is: Can we beat dog whistling? So the first thing is well, okay, what is dog whistling? Dog whistling is the intentional effort to provoke people into thinking in terms of racist stereotypes, but to deny that the politician is doing that.
So imagine, I mean this is too absurd to be true, but imagine that the president of the United States went to Minneapolis yesterday, and said of the Somali American congressperson from that district that she had married her brother to get into the country.
Audience: Oh, what?
Ian Haney López: You’ve got to pay attention because this stuff is just… But again, I’m sorry. I’m just making this up. This didn’t happen, and the current leading contender to be the Democratic candidate for president Joe Biden is only popular because he kisses Barack Obama’s ass, and in a city in Minneapolis which has many Somali refugees, he boasted to cheers from his audience that he had reduced the number of refugees in the United States by 85% and would continue to do so. Now, again, pure fiction. Well, I saw it on SNL. Oh, sorry, I read it in the New York Times this morning. So this is what’s happening.
Okay, so this is the part where this is the… Can we beat this? Yes, we can. How do I know? Because after Trump’s election, I worked with a set of folks that said… So I knew from my prior book, I knew from our prior research that the Republicans use focus groups and poll testing to hone their dog-whistle messages, and I said, so let’s do that. Let’s figure out how to beat them. I got in touch with Anat Shenker-Osorio who’s this amazing communication specialist. She’s local, she’s here in… Also, at Berkeley but it’s really Emeryville, but okay, she might claim Oakland. I don’t know.
She’s actually got a great podcast series so if you want to google her name, you can listen to her podcast. She’s fantastic. We connected with Heather McGhee who is a former Berkeley law grad, who was at that time running Demos and Demos Action, this think tank that’s focused on racial justice and also economic populism. SEIU at the time was launching their own race and economic justice program. They teamed up with us, raised a bunch of money. We then hired two of the most prominent democratic pollsters, Linda Lake and Cornell Belcher. We ran a two-year program. We did national polling. We did focus groups, and we came up with a really good way to defeat dog whistling. So that’s the good news.
Okay. And I know most of you are saying poor, poor man. He set out to figure out how to defeat dog whistling. It’s not dog whistling anymore. That’s so 2012, 2014. He’s stuck in the past. And probably some of you are saying, “And he wrote a book? Who writes books anymore? He should have made a video.” And so I just want to clarify, I’m working on the video. I’m getting there. I’m catching up with the times. Yes. But I also want to address this question: Is it even dog whistling anymore?
To do that, I’m going to play you a dog-whistle message. This is a message that we tested. So we’re running this focus group, we’re running this national polling, we want to know how you beat a dog-whistle message. So we need to know how strong a dog-whistle message is and with whom it resonates. So we crafted a dog-whistle message, basically ripped it from the headlines, put it together, read it to people.
What I’m going to do, I’m going to click on this, and when I click on it, you’re going to hear a voice reading a dog-whistle message, and you’re going to see squiggly lines start to move across the screen. And what those represent is people while they’re listening to this message, they have a dial and they can turn it up when they agree and they can turn it down when they disagree.
So this is called dial testing. It’s one way the pollsters use to judge people’s receptivity to messages. And it’s more or less their subconscious rather than their conscious evaluation in the sense that you’re not waiting until they hear the whole thing and asking them to reflect, you’re saying moment to moment, agree disagree. So it’s pretty fascinating. But it is a little risky because I’m looking at this crowd. I don’t know if I would do this personally, but I would suggest that you close your eyes.
Just listen to the message. Don’t focus on the lines because the lines in some ways are a little distracting. Listen to the message and think to yourself does it sound like what’s being said in the headlines and then ask yourself how many people are going to believe this BS? And when the message is done then open your eyes. Again risky. I’m looking at someone. I would not close my eyes next to some of you. But if you’re willing to take the risk, if you’re willing to take the risk… I see some of my students here like, “We’re definitely not closing our eyes.” We know that. We know, Halo. Okay. So are you all ready?
Ian Haney López: Close your eyes.
Speaker 1: Our leaders must prioritize keeping us safe and ensuring that hardworking Americans have the freedom to prosper. Taking a second look at people coming from terrorist countries who wish us harm or at people from places overrun with drugs and criminal gangs is just common sense, and so is curbing illegal immigration, so our communities are no longer flooded with people who refuse to follow our laws. We need to make sure we take care of our own people first, especially the people who politicians have cast aside for too long to cater to whatever special interest groups line their pockets, yell the loudest, or riot in the streets.
Ian HaneyLópez: Okay. No one believes this, right? No one’s going to fall for this. Here are what the numbers look like. Let me turn on my microphone. Here’s what the numbers look like. So this yellow line, these are the advocates. These are people who work in for unions or as racial justice organizations. These are the people who are professionally involved in political organizing. They effin hated this message. They really did. Actually, two of them went to the hospital with a broken wrist. It was terrible. They’re dialing down. You say our people, and wham.
They know what our people mean. Okay. But now look at the other numbers. A purple line — that’s union households. Sorry. The blue line, sorry, the one that you see just above 50%, these are people who agree. That’s the progressive base, not the Democrats. Majority of Democrats agree with this message. That’s the progressive base. That’s about the 23% of the population who are consistently progressive in their political views. They like people of color, they think government activism is necessary to regulate capitalism. They distrust the rich. That’s the progressive base, convincing.
Then above that you get union households. And then above that you get the persuadable middle, the folks who can go either direction. They have some progressive views and some reactionary views. Most popular of all, you get what we call the opposition. And these numbers here about 23% of the national population is consistently progressive. About 18% consistently… I’m going to use the word reactionary because this really isn’t conservatism in that small-c sense anymore. This is reactionary.
Don’t like people of color, hate government, think the rich are awesome. That’s 18%. That means that winning elections requires winning a majority of the folks in the persuadable middle who could go either way, and creating the super majorities that we actually need to change the country’s direction. Because we should be clear, 50% plus one is not getting us there 50% plus one locks us in this continued division. We actually need to get to 58, 60% to actually change the direction of the country. We need a big chunk of the persuadables.
And look at how they’re reacting. They are actually strongly convinced by a message that warns about people from terrorist countries who wish us harm. Okay. So I know a lot of you are thinking well this is basically a racist message. It’s saying, “Hey, you got to fear those people. You got to resent those people. You got to rally around our people is code for white.” And so the good news is people of color are going to save us, because people of color are not going to fall for this. Good luck with that.
So what this chart demonstrates is the total number of people broken down by race who found this message convincing. So as a total number, 61% of whites found this message convincing, but so did 54% of African Americans and 60% of Latinx. The black bar on the bottom, those are the percentage of people who gave it a hundred dialed to the top, pinned it there, were unmovable, loved it 100.
Okay. 18% of whites, 16% of Latinx, 15% of African Americans. If you tell a story of racial threat in express language were Donald Trump to actually stand up in Minneapolis and say, “We need to keep black and brown people out of here. I am here to represent the white race,” his support would be rock bottom, rock bottom. And when I say rock bottom, 4%, 6%. That’s the number of Republicans who are like, “Yes, I support white supremacy, I support the Klan. I agree with their ideas. They’re decent people.” Rock bottom.
When he translates it into code, when he says, “This is about immigrants. This is about refugees. This is about gang bangers. This is about illegals. This is about making the country great again. This is about the silent majority. This is about the heartland. When he translates it into code, he not only carries the Republicans, he carries the persuadable middle, he carries the progressive base, he carries Latinx, he carries African Americans, we’re in deep trouble.
This message is super, super powerful, and it’s still a dog-whistle. And it’s still a dog-whistle in this sense. Many of us here actually can discern the racism, but for most people the code is sufficient for them to understand this message as common sense, not as racist drivel. Okay. So we got a problem. Why is this message so powerful? This message is so powerful, this narrative, a racial threat expressed in coded term. It’s so powerful because we’ve been listening to it for 50 years.
This has been the Republican strategy for 50 years. So this is the only long block of text I’m going to inflict on you, but it’s worth taking a look at. This is from 1963. A conservative journalist Robert Novak attends the Republican National Committee meeting in Denver, and he comes out of that, and he publishes a newspaper article called the White Man’s Party. And this is what he says in that article. He says, “A good many, perhaps a majority of the party’s leadership, envisions substantial political gold to be mined in the racial crisis by becoming in fact, though not a name the White Man’s Party.”
There’s several points that are really important here. Well, one to clarify, racial crisis, or sometimes it’s referred to as the civil rights movement. What’s happening is the civil rights movement is beginning to move out of the South. There’s a sense that integration is going to be required across the country. In the South and increasingly across the country there’s rising anxiety among whites. What’s it going to mean to them to live in a society that is not formally organized around their superiority and their dominance? That’s a pressing question and people are anxious at which point political leaders are like, “Well, we can reassure people and all move together.”
Or they could say, “That’s the best opportunity we’ve had in a generation, because we can appeal to that rising anxiety as a way to break apart the Democratic New Deal coalition of the white working-class, African Americans and liberal elites.” And what you’re seeing here is a strategic decision. This is a purposeful decision. This is the Republican Party who up until now has been relatively racially progressive saying we see political gold and actually appealing to white folks in their fears and anxieties. That’s one point to take away. This is strategy not bigotry. Here’s the next point to take away.
This is going to be the white man’s party in fact though not in name. And that phrase in fact they’re not a name is really important because what’s happening is politically, the country has long debated who best represents the interests of whites, formally, openly, expressly. Indeed in 1963 there is a party that openly calls itself the white man’s party, and that’s the Southern Democrats. But the very success of the civil rights movement means, that the nation as a whole is coming to the realization that firmly endorsing white dominance is immoral, that it’s a grave injustice, that it’s wrong.
And what the Republicans are saying is okay cool. We’re not going to formally endorse white dominance, we’re just going to express that in code. It’s going to be in fact, but not in name. We’re going to abandon the surface rhetoric of segregation today, tomorrow, forever of like this is the white man’s country. We’re going to stop saying that, but we’re going to express the same thing. Barry Goldwater is the candidate at the time. He says he adopts this strategy, and he begins to campaign using the slogan that he supports states’ rights.
Now states’ rights, I have some of my con law students here, they know just how boring states’ rights is. They do not want to talk anymore about state federal sovereignty and the relationship between these disparate governments. They just don’t want to hear it. In fact, stay, stay. Don’t get up. Okay. You could not possibly run a campaign on that slogan unless people understand that states’ rights and facts means the right of southern states to continue to use their laws and their police forces to oppress and humiliate African Americans. That’s what states’ rights means.
That’s what it means, but it’s a dog-whistle because on the surface you can be like, “I’m just voting because I’m very concerned about excessive power on the part of the federal government.” Yeah, right. Okay. So this is 1963. How is it going to work? Horrible. It’s a disaster. Barry Goldwater loses. It’s just like he gets trounced. Why? Because Barry Goldwater is saying not only is he for states’ rights, but he’s against a New Deal.
Goldwater is standing up and saying, “I’m going to dismantle the New Deal. I don’t believe in activist government.” Barry Goldwater is saying, “I am the child of a wealthy retail family in Arizona and I don’t need government. You all don’t need government. We’re going to get rid of it and we’re going to cut taxes for rich people. Oh, and by the way states’ rights.”
Now, look at this map. A lot of pundits look at this map in 1964 and they say, “That confirms it. We are fundamentally a country that believes in activist government that regulates capitalism, provides routes of upward mobility and taxes the rich to redistribute wealth downward an hour.” That’s all what a lot of pundits conclude, but there’s an alarm bell in the night. It’s kind of Arizona, but it’s just Arizona, whatever. Focus on the deep South. Deep South, diehard Democrats, love the New Deal.
In fact, the deep South has been helped by the New Deal more than most region of the country. The New Deal has brought them electricity. They love the New Deal. And there’s the deep South voting Republican, voting for someone who promises to demolish the New Deal and the alarm is they were willing to abandon the Democrats, willing to abandon progressive government when they heard an appeal couched in racist terms in dog-whistle terms, and that’s the alarm.
Richard Nixon 1968 starts campaigning in these terms, but he’s a little bit tentative because Goldwater has lost so badly. Political pundits look at the numbers after ’68. And in 1970, both Republicans and Democrats published books saying, “Oh my God. Race can be used to break the New Deal coalition.” And Nixon goes all-in in 1970. And he begins to campaign for law and order, for states’ rights, against forced busing, for the silent majority. Does he know that he’s being a racist S-O-B? Yes, he does. We have him watching one of his own ads that talks about law and order, and then him saying, “Yeah, that’s it. That hits it right on the head. It’s all about those damn Negroes and Puerto Ricans.”
He knows what he’s doing. He is dog whistling. Is it going to work? Welcome to 1972. Lyndon Johnson, running on behalf of civil rights and the war on poverty, and expansion of the New Deal wins in a landslide eight years later. That is reversed in an even bigger landslide. Now, I understand that there’s a lot going on in the ’60s and ’70s with Nixon, Vietnam War, the civil rights, women’s rights. So it’s not just one thing, but it’s important to recognize 1964 really marks a tectonic shift in American politics. 1964 is the last time a Democratic candidate for president wins a majority of the white vote. It’s the last time.
Not Bill Clinton, certainly not Barack Obama. The last time a Democratic candidate for president in the United States won a majority of the white vote was Lyndon Johnson in 1964. Republican presidential candidates currently depend on white voters for 90% of their support. Nine out of 10 of the voters supporting Republican presidential candidates are white. This does not include Hispanics. That’s another 6% of their vote. The numbers are a little bit fuzzy, but I guarantee you at least half of that 6% are Latinos who consider themselves white.
So we’re solidly above nine out of 10 supporters of the Republican presidential candidates identifying and seeing themselves as white, 98%. 98% of Republican elected officials are white. 60% of whites currently vote for Republican presidential candidates. Three out of five. And now you’re probably looking at me being like, “Why is he being so circumspect? Why didn’t he just say this is Trump?” Because these numbers are from Mitt Romney. These numbers are from Mitt Romney and the numbers for Trump barely changed. What we are up against is a 50-year pattern.
Trump has accelerated it. Trump has been feeding it steroids, but it’s still the same basic pattern. And this is not just about beating Trump may impeachment work. This is not just about beating Trump. This is 50 years in which our political system has been reorganized around racial resentment expressed in coded dog-whistle terms. So told you I was going to depress you. How to respond? Well, we got to respond. We got to respond. So how to respond?
The response that I think that seems intuitive to most of you, and that Democrats currently are shifting to is a response that we can call The Racist Call-Out Strategy. The Racist Call-Out Strategy. So Trump, bigot. Let’s call him that. Nixon, racist, bigot. Let’s call him that. Let me show you what that looks like as a campaign commercial. This is from a race in Virginia. Take a look. See what you think.
Speaker 2: Run. Run, run, run. Come on.
Speaker 3: Is this what Donald Trump and Ed Gillespie mean by the American Dream. Latino Victory Fund paid for and is responsible for the content of this advertisement.
Ian Haney López: That ad is powerful. And part of the reason it’s powerful is because there’s a strong element of truth. One of my former students was describing an experience like this growing up in Houston. Young African American man being chased off a basketball court by a pickup truck flying a confederate flag. There’s an element of truth here. How is this going to work as a way to mobilize votes and create a supermajority? How is this going to work? Terribly.
This is the worst possible message. This is the message that tested the most poorly. Why? To pick up on something I said earlier most people are understanding dog-whistle messages as common sense. When we turn around and say, “That’s not common sense, that’s bigotry. That provides an opening for the dog-whistle politicians to say, “Hey, you’re calling me a bigot, but I’m not a bigot. And in fact you’re calling all my supporters bigots too and they’re not bigots.”
And it actually creates solidarity among the reactionary base. And this is so well-established that there is a theater, a formal intentional commonly practiced theater in punch, deny, counterpunch. So punch, say something like, “Those for congress women of color ought to go back to where they came from.” Then wait until a progressive calls you a racist. And then say, “I didn’t say anything about race, I just think they don’t love this country. This is just about patriotism.” That’s the punch and then deny.
Now comes the counterpunch. “But you just called me a racist. And that’s racist against me because you’re stereotyping me when I wasn’t racist. And you’re stereotyping all my followers, and you’re the real racists.” It doesn’t matter if Trump can convince… What matters is that the nation gets locked into a debate. Who’s the real racist? Is it Trump and the people who love him? Is it progressives and the people who love them? Who’s the real racist?
When we’re having that debate, we’re deepening the basic narrative offered by the right that our country is locked into a racial war and that when you go to vote you need to choose what racial side you’re on. That’s the message they want and we risk reinforcing it. When we say, “Trump’s a bigot.” Okay. Let me be clear about something else too because this is a really important. You might think to yourself, “Hey, I’m just talking about how we appeal to whites. When we ran our focus groups with African Americans and Latinx communities we found these folks too did not like a framing that said, “The big problem in our lives is white supremacy. We got a racist president.”
Now, I get it. My students, we love this message. We’re used to it. We’re super comfortable talking about white supremacy. We’re super comfortable talking about structural racism cultural bias, implicit bias. We get it. But most folks in African American, Latinx communities are not comfortable with this language. If you step back, what happen to focus groups is people said, “Well, wait a minute. You’re telling me, the big problem we face is a racist president, but loved by millions of racist Americans and backed by 400 years of racism.” I can only take care of what I can take care of. It’s just too overwhelming.
It’s like I can’t fight all of that. I can’t carry all of that. I can’t put all of that on my children. I’m going to retreat. And a lot of people retreated into the sense of I can only do what I can do. This message of we’re fighting racist, it alienates whites, it demobilizes people of color. We need a better approach. Democrats have known that this… Let’s call them racist, the racist callout strategy. They’ve known that since 1970.
So what they said in 1970 is, “Well, race is going to be used to break us apart. What we’re going to do is we’re going to stay silent. We’re just going to wait for this to blow over, because it’s just grassroots and people will get over it, and generations will change and we’re just going to stay silent.” Now, I had hard time finding an ad to illustrate what silence looks like but it’s like the one hand clap. It actually produce sound. I guess one hand clapping does produce sound if you have a mic. So I might be going on a tangent. Let me show you what happens when Democrats stay silent. This is the infamous Willie Horton ad.
Speaker 4: Bush and Dukakis on crime. Bush supports the death penalty for first-degree murderers. Dukakis not only opposes the death penalty, he allowed first-degree murderers to have weekend passes from prison. One was Willie Horton who murdered a boy in a robbery stabbing him 19 times. Despite a life sentence, Horton received 10-weekend passes from prison. Horton fled, kidnapped a young couple stabbing the man and repeatedly raping his girlfriend. Weekend prison passes, Dukakis on crime.
Ian Haney López: So a couple things. One, this has been going on a long, long time. So don’t let anybody tell you, “Oh, Trump. We’ve never seen anything like it.” Oh, we have. Now Dukakis says, “I’m going to stay silent. I can’t challenge this. I can’t call it out. I’m going to stay silent.” And the month when this is playing when he stays silent he goes from leading the race to losing in a big way. And political scientists love to debate whether a single TV ad can switch an election. And they disagree with each other because they’re paid to. But this is the ad that they point to.
Whatever you position to come down, this is probably… This is I think definitely the single most important factor in Dukakis losing. And so Democrats said to themselves, we can’t challenge it. We can’t stay silent. It’s not going away. So they keep investing in it. What should we do? If you can’t beat them, you can join them. And this is Bill Clinton as a new Democrat.
Speaker 5: There are new generation of Democrats, Bill Clinton and Al Gore and they don’t think the way the old Democratic Party did. They’ve called for an end to welfare as we know it. So welfare can be a second chance, not a way of life. They’ve set a strong signal to criminals by supporting the death penalty, and they rejected the old tax-and-spend politics. Clinton has balanced 12 budgets, and they’ve proposed a new plan investing in people, detailing $140 billion in spending cuts they’d make right now. Clinton-Gore, for people for a change.
Ian Haney López: The New Democrats were new in the sense that they decided they would be Republican’s light. This is what they did, and I want to be clear about what happens with Clinton. Clinton starts an era in which Democrats begin to compete with Republicans over which party could more successfully scare the hell out of white folks. And they would do that by stoking resentment against people of color as welfare cheats, as welfare queens, and they would do that by campaigning on issues of threat and crime, and communities of color.
And when we look at what happens to the safety net, and when we look at what happens to mass incarceration, the most substantial damage is done during the Clinton years with Clinton advocating this sort of rhetoric and signing bills passed by a Republican congress supported by many Democrats, because both parties are locked into a dog-whistle competition. This is what we get.
So I want to be really clear. We will not in 2019 see this sort of dog whistling from Democratic candidates. The political power in the Democratic Party has shifted. There’s too many people of color. So much of the energy is coming from communities of color especially from young women of color. Even if you think about 2016, Hillary Clinton paid a big price among young African Americans for her support in the ’90s for the war on crime. So this isn’t going to happen again.
But there is a version of it that is a major problem. And here’s the version. It’s the version that says we know that Republicans are running on a threat narrative and we know we need to tell people you’re going to be safe too. We’ll keep you safe too. We’re not going to say, and welfare as a way of life but we need to communicate to people, we’ll keep you safe too.
Think Nancy Pelosi responding to Donald Trump’s proposal to build a wall by saying, “We won’t fund a wall but will provide $1.2 trillion for border security.” It accepts the frame that there is a threat coming from brown-skinned people, and says, “We won’t dog-whistle, we will protect you from brown people.” Once Democrats accept the threat narrative, they are locked into a competition about who can keep Americans safe from dangerous black and brown people.
Again, all conducted in code, but that’s the underlying debate and Democrats have lost. And communities of color have lost. And if you want to see what this looks like, as much as I love Barack Obama for many of the good things he did, he earned himself the nickname of deporter-in-chief because this is precisely how he reacted. He knew Republicans were going to go after him for being soft on immigration, so he deported people at record levels. Three million families destroyed, three million communities broken. What did he gain? Did he squelch immigration as a fear message? Not at all. All he did is ruin lives and demobilize people who would have otherwise identified with the Democratic Party.
So we can’t allow this to happen again, but we still haven’t solved the problem. You can’t go for the racism directly. You can’t stay silent. You can’t imitate it. All right. When you guys figure this out, I’m going to give you my email, you send me a note. Here’s the key. Here’s the pivot. We have been thinking about dog-whistle racism, dog-whistle politics in too limited a fashion. Democrats have been thinking about it in too limited a fashion. We were thinking about it as a way to mobilize votes through racial fear. It is that.
But remember who was Barry Goldwater? He’s a rich dude who wanted to kill activist government, cut taxes for the rich. Dog-whistle politics simultaneously mobilizes people in terms of race and promotes an ideology that supports rule by and for the rich. It does both and it is especially done both since Ronald Reagan. Dog-whistle politics has two components. Promote a message of racial fear, break social solidarity, the faith in collective action, confidence in government, and promote a mindset that allows the rich to hijack government in the economy.
Okay. So this is going to be Lee Atwater talking. He’s one of the masterminds behind the Willie Horton ad.
Lee Atwater: You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968, you can’t say “nigger.” That hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things. You’re talking about totally economic things and a byproduct of them there, blacks get hurt worse than whites. “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “nigger, nigger.”
Ian Haney López: Imagine a candidate who says I’m going to ban all Muslims. I’m going to build a wall and then his single greatest achievement is to pass a tax cut that awards $6 trillion in benefits mainly to the wealthiest family, dynasties into corporations. Racial division is the principal weapon of the rich being used against all of us.
Okay. So this the core right wing narrative. This is the story that the right is telling all the time. And when I describe it as a core narrative, what I mean is these provides the bones of everything you hear from Republicans, but it is not the language in which they express it. The campaign slogans, the policy prescriptions, they’re meant to obfuscate the basic story being told, but this is the basic story.
Fear and resent people of color. We’re inherently criminal. We’re dangerous. We’re lawless. We’re lazy. We abuse welfare. Fear and resent people of color, but hate government, hate government. The threat from government is that government refuses to control people of color. It doesn’t imprison us enough. It wants open borders. It refuses to enforce our laws, and hate government because all those social safety programs doesn’t really giveaways to welfare queens.
Once you’ve decided you hate government, trust the marketplace. Cut taxes because the job creators are going to save us. Cut regulations which is just a distraction. Allow corporations to write their own regulations. All right. Cut through social safety net because the safety net is not for you, it’s for undeserving people. This is the basic structure, and you can hear over and over again. Okay. If this is that story, another way to say that is the right for 50 years has fused people’s views on race on government and on class, on poverty and wealth.
They are fused together. But precisely because they’re fused that means that we need a progressive response that also fuses race and class, and government. This is what it can look like. This is what it does look like. Distrust greedy elite stoking division. Who’s the real threat in our lives of black and brown people? No, we don’t have any power. What? Are you kidding me? It’s the greedy elite stoking division that we need to worry about. In fact, since division is their main weapon, our main response has to be joining together across racial lines.
And why? Because when we join together across racial lines then and only then can we take government back. And what does taking government back mean? It means taking government back from dog-whistle politicians who spread messages of fear and govern through state violence against communities of color. It means ending government violence against communities colors starting to invest in communities of color. And what is taking government back mean? It means getting government back on the side of all working families, not corporations and not family dynasties.
So this is the structure. What does that look like? I’m going to run us through like a message that we tested. This message gets, okay, super successful. In fact, the single most successful message we tested. Regardless of where we come from, what our color is, how we worship every family wants the best for their children. Start positive but invoke race directly. We know we’re racially divided. We want to understand why and what we’re going to do about it so invoke race directly.
Explain where the real threat comes from but today certain politicians and their greedy lobbyists hurt everyone by handing kickback to the rich, defunding our schools and threatening our seniors with cuts to Social Security and Medicare.
Name racial fear-mongering. Then they turn around and point the finger for our hard times at new immigrants even tearing families apart and losing children. I want to stop and pause right here. This is not accepting the “we need to be safe from immigrants” story, it’s calling it a lie. Do not accept the message that people of color represent a threat and we must be made secure from them, call that part of a racist con. When we think people of color are the danger we face whether it’s Muslims or refugees or African Americans when we accept that, that’s when division works and we lose. And when we realize that’s the racist con, then we can point to the real threat in our lives.
When we reject scapegoating and come together, we can make this a nation. We’re proud to leave all of our kids whether we’re white, black, or brown from down the street or across the globe. There’s an affirmative message here. The affirmative message is we’re going to come together. We stand for coming together. They divide us. We want us bring us together. That’s one important point.
Here’s the other important point. Whether we’re white, black or brown. This is so important. Republicans have been saying for 50 years, Democrats only care about people of color. And now, whenever folks hear a conversation about race, about racial justice, they immediately default to a frame, this is racial justice? That’s for people of color. We need to say expressly, “Racial justice? That’s for white folks too.”
Whites need to hear that they will benefit from being part of a multiracial coalition, and let me just add this really quickly. When we tested this message with communities of color, they had far more confidence in a multiracial coalition when we said whites will benefit, because that told people of color, “Oh, this isn’t just kumbaya and we’re all going to do this because we should, this is white folks need to save their families and to save their families, they got to work with us.” And once they know it people of color say, “Yes, this might work. This might work.”
Okay. So all a little bit abstract. I’m going to show you a couple of versions of what this looks like, what this can look like. This is Amber Phillips who’s actually in Oakland. So check this out.
Amber Phillips: Whether you’re a black working-class woman in Columbus, Ohio or a white father in Kentucky, or a Latino student in Phoenix, it is the same ruling class using the same played-out tactics to make us hate each other based on race, gender, religion, and sexuality. They are trying to make us point fingers in the wrong direction while we’re all struggling and they are thriving. And we’re struggling to build the families that we want with access to the healthcare that we need, provided by the jobs that bring us joy in order to manage the crippling debt from those fun yet incredibly expensive degrees that we kind of don’t really use.
We got to change who’s in charge. It’s time to give someone else a change. And it’s on all of us to actually support and cheer on a new generation of leaders. We choose us. We choose us. Don’t you choose us? I would choose us. Like… I mean, us. Duh.
Ian Haney López: Yay, Amber. Yay, Amber. So this message, let me be super clear about this. This message, “They’re trying to divide us. We’re going to come together. When we come together, we can take this country back for all of us white, black, and brown.” Single most popular message with union households, Democratic voters, progressive base, persuadables, white, African Americans, Latinx.
It is a message of unity that is also unifying this single message… There is no distinction between, “Hey, how do we reach the people who are swaying and how do we mobilize the base?” This message was the most persuasive with all of them. Here’s another version. This is from Minnesota. It’s super relevant in terms of what has happened yesterday and it’s also just fun because I love seeing Minnesota snow from California.
Speaker 6: In Minnesota, we know long winters, and we know how to dig our neighbors out of the snow, because whether it’s our first Minnesota winter or our 50th we’ve all been there. So when certain politicians want to divide us and make us afraid, we know that means they’ve got nothing else to offer. We’re on to them. There are lots of ways to be Minnesotan and all of them are greater than fear. In Minnesota, we’re better off together. Vote greater than fear between now and November 6th.
Ian Haney López: This message was amazing it was produced in part by Anat Shenker-Osorio the communications specialist I mentioned before working with SEIU and Faith in Minnesota. It was so powerful, it was working so well in rural Minnesota and also in Minneapolis that the Democratic Party ended up picking it up. Tremendously successful in 2018 and they are going to have to ramp it up for 2020. They are just going to have to ramp this up.
Okay. So I’m going to wrap up now. This is my closing screen. I’m going to make three quick points, but while I’m doing that, great opportunity to start writing down your questions. So here’s my here’s my closing pitch. Yes, I wrote a book. Just have pity on me, buy it. Okay, that’s one. In addition, we need to understand that fighting racists division is for all of us. We are not all hurt the same way by racism in American politics, but all of us depend on fighting racism if we’re going to get this country back on track.
Second, we as progressives have largely given up on building social solidarity and we can talk about why. In fact, you can ask me a question. You can say, “Why? Why do we give up on it?” And then the answer is race and we’ll talk about it. But we’ve largely given up on it, and yet here’s the main insight. And this is way beyond slogan, this is way beyond messaging, and it is way beyond 2020.
The way the titans of our economy, win power hijack our democracy is by purposefully funding social division. You can think about the Koch brothers. They’re primarily responsible for funding the Tea Party. You can think about the Mercer’s. They’re primarily responsible for funding Breitbart and Steve Bannon. You can think about the billionaire, the self-claimed billionaire in the White House.
I’m making a different point here. I really want to emphasize this. This isn’t just strategy, their fundamental way of winning power is to actively fund and promote racist hatred, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia. They are actively trying to destroy social solidarity to make this country easier for them to hijack and run for their benefit. Meanwhile what are the progressives doing to actively build social solidarity? We’re sitting on our heels and we’re kind of saying to ourselves, “Oh, we’ll all get along. That’s going to be great.”
No. We need to invest as heavily as we can and make our number one priority in whatever you’re doing, building social solidarity, building inclusion, reaching out across race lines. The social solidarity doesn’t just happen. It can be actively destroyed, it can be actively built, and we haven’t been building it. They’ve been destroying it for 50 years. We need to build it, and this has got to be our long-term vision.
Beyond the abstraction, mergeleft2020.org. Karen Tamara is here who’s up front. Among all the different things we’re trying to do, we’re trying to give people the practical tools required to build cross racial alliances, to build a progressive multiracial supermajority that is class conscious that can help all of us thrive. Part of the way we’re doing that is through house parties, through trainings, through engagement around these issues with other like-minded folks. That’s mergeleft2020.org.
You can look it up on the web. You can sign up on a sign-up sheet out front. But we got to do this, and it really is up to all of us to understand that our highest ideals, recognizing ourselves in the smiles of people who look different from us, really believing that government is buying for all of the people, really understanding that all of us deserve the best chance to thrive. Our highest ideals are not just ideals, they’re the roadmap for how we save our democracy. Frankly, they’re the roadmap for how we save our planet. Merge left. Thank you all.
Savala Trepczynski: Thank you, Ian. That was spectacular. It was wonderful. I wish that I could hear it all again. And you’ve got a stack of wonderful questions that I’m going to sort through and ask you. And we will get to have a conversation. So here’s the first question. How would you analyze Barack Obama’s victory in 2008 and 2012 elections based on your framework?
Ian Haney López: Obama showed the possibility of this message because he articulated an idea of hope and of change and of a multiracial America, but he fell short in two really important respects, two fundamental respects. One, Obama lacked the confidence to directly challenge racism. He’s a very smart guy. He really understands race. He made the decision that racism was not something that he could take on. He knew that racism would be mobilized against him, and so he said, “I’m going to pretend to be a president who happens to be black rather than a president who is going to lead us to cross racial solidarity in which we really tackle racial division.”
And so Obama talked about racism less than any Democratic president going all the way back to FDR. That was a conscious strategy. So that was one major failing. Here’s the other major failing. Yes, let me back up for just a second. What happened to the Democratic Party once it walked away from African Americans in 1970? Once they walked away from civil rights they walked away from labor too because the two issues are too closely tied.
Once you walked away from civil rights, and you walked away from labor, where do you get your funding from? And then it turned out that was Wall Street and corporations. Part of Clinton as a new Democrat, part of Clinton as a new Democrat was saying, “We are going to be progressive on social issues. I’m going to play the saxophone on Arsenio Hall Show. Well, okay. But we are going to get our funding from the wealthy, and we are going to rule on their behalf.” And Barack Obama stayed within that tradition.
And so in the midst of the second most severe economic calamity ever to confront the country, he bailed out the banks. And what that allowed was space for the right to come in with their narrative. Don’t focus on the banks, focus on these Democrats, this black president, this black party. Blame people of color for this. Oh, and by the way the Democrats themselves are corrupt. They’re in themselves in the pockets of Wall Street. And if you think about Trump’s themes, he’s saying, “Build a wall. Ban all Muslims. Drain the swamp.”
And I think this is where Barack Obama had the ability to change the country’s direction, to seize on the crisis of the Great Recession and to change where we’re going. Honestly, we face this same risk in 2020. If we nominate and elect the wrong Democrat, we will put someone in office who will not change the country’s direction. We need to worry that we’re going to get somebody in office who’s like, “All I need to do is get to 50% plus one. I need to be friends with the people on Wall Street. I can’t challenge racism.” And things are going to get far, far worse.
You sensed that Trump is accelerating hatred. He really is. There’s still time to turn this around in terms of where most people are at. The racist mass killings will accelerate and we will descend into a race war over the next eight years if we don’t have someone who can actually name and address racism head-on and change our direction. If progressives, if Democrats say, “We’re not going to talk about it,” the right is talking about it 24/7 every minute, every second.
Every minute of every second the right is saying, “Hey, white folks. Go get a gun. You can’t trust government. Government is not going to protect you. Government is for people of color. Go get a gun.” And they are. That’s what they’re doing. So there is a moment. We are in a crisis deeper I think than 2007. We can seize that crisis. We can turn this around. We can gather people. 80% of the country wants to hear a message of let’s join together and let’s get this country back from the corporations. Let’s see each other across race lines. 80%.
But if we don’t have someone bold enough to articulate that, we’re locked into a deepening crisis for the next four years, next eight years, and it is going to get much, much worse. And that’s if a Democrat wins. Okay.
Savala Trepczynski: Who are the persuadables that you’re talking about? Our society is so highly polarized. How can there be that many centrist or independents who remain open to persuasion? Is there any point… Sorry, many on the left say there’s no point in trying to flip Trump voters and we should focus a hundred percent on the base turnout. What are your thoughts about these issues?
Ian Haney López: Fantastic question. Don’t understand persuadables as swing voters, don’t even think about them in terms of Democrat and Republican, although there’s clearly some dynamic there. We wanted to understand the power of the rights message that says resent people of color, distrust government, trust the rich. And so we asked a series of questions. You get 23%, 24% consistently progressive, 18% consistently reactionary. Persuadables are folks who tend to toggle between both statements.
If we say, “The market is rigged,” they say, “Yes, it is.” And if we say, “The market rewards those who work hard,” they say, “Yes, it does.” If we say, “We need to talk about racism to get beyond it,” persuadables say, “Yes, we should.” 70% of persuadables say, “Yes we should.” If we say, “We can’t talk about racism, that just makes things worse.” 70% say, “Yeah, well I agree.” They’re toggling between. And this is really important. This is actually how most people think.
Relatively few of us hold coherent worldviews in our minds. Lots of us draw on disparate elements from our culture and don’t see a contradiction. And when I say lots of us, here’s the other point I want to clarify. You might think when I say persuadable, I mean white folks. You might think, “Oh, he’s saying how do we win whites.” And it is true majority of whites are in this persuadable category. So are majority of African Americans. So are majority of Latinx. So are a majority of Asian Americans. The majority of people in this country do not have coherent world views and can be pulled in one direction or the other.
And I want to clarify. Pull the one direction or another does not mean necessarily, “Hey, they’re going to go vote Republican.” But it might mean they just don’t see why they should vote Democrat. It just doesn’t seem worth the effort. They can’t tell the difference. Why should they support someone who thinks they’re a bigot when they are really worried about immigration? Why should they support somebody who’s corrupt? We need to reach the persuadables not precisely to say, “Hey, we need those few Obama-Trump voters.”
We need to reach the persuadables because that’s the majority of Americans. We can pull some folks who voted for Trump, but more than anything else, we need to motivate folks to vote for a progressive change in this country that deals with racism and that promotes a government that actually works for working families, and the way to do that is to reach the persuadables understanding that includes people of color, and that includes whites.
Savala Trepczynski: Where do multiracial people, Native Americans and Asian Americans fit into your framework?
Ian Haney López: Let me hold on multiracial for just a second. So we ran this polling with Native Americans. The results were a little bit confusing. I think the sample group was too small. So in terms of the research there’s a larger number of Native Americans, in terms of our research who identify with these conservative frames rather than progressive frames. So there’s a bunch of work to be done there.
That said, if you think about Native Americans, the politically energized Native Americans, if you think about the energy, the sort of Standing Rock energy, that’s essential. That’s essential. There are lots of activists. And thinking about issues that affect Native Americans, this is a crucial way in which we see that we have to build multiracial alliances both in terms of articulating the idea that we as a nation are better when we all belong, and that means that we have centuries of exclusion and oppression and genocide to repair.
Let me just really emphasize that point. You might think that if someone said, “Hey, we need a multiracial movement.” What I’m saying is let’s be colorblind, less ignore race, let’s tamp down on race. And frankly some folks hear that. What I’m saying is we need a multiracial movement because racism is the biggest weapon against us, and we got to address it head-on. Nothing colorblind about that. And here’s what else I’m saying. We need a genuine multiracial movement, not a sort of 1960s we’re multiracial, but nothing changes whites are still in charge multiracial movement.
We need a 2020 multiracial, meaning shared power, shared respect, real equality and to the extent that there are communities that have been systematically harmed, oppressed, humiliated destroyed, we will repair those communities. And we will repair them because there’s a moral obligation, because we see ourselves in their eyes and we know they need this, and we will repair those community because that’s the only way we’re going to save our own families.
And so this is the way to think about Standing Rock, Native Americans. Frankly, it’s the way to think about reparations. Most people, now most politicians now are saying we need reparations for African Americans. Why? It’s the right thing to do. Okay, I agree. It’s the right thing to do, but think about the frame. The frame says we as Democrats care about black people. And if that’s the frame that is the Republican frame.
In fact, Republicans campaigned against the Affordable Care Act by seeing with reparations for blacks, because that honestly a lot of white folks are like, “They only care about Democrats, or they only care about people of color.” Whereas imagine if we said, “We need reparations and the reason we need reparations because we all have to come together.” And coming together has to be real and it has to recognize harm is done, and it actually has to engage in deep repair.
And it is not an easy process. This is not an easy process. But the alternative is catastrophe for all of us. So let’s get doing the hard work that we as a country have put off for decades and decades and decades. That’s the message.
Speaker 7: In light of that, what do you think of Mark Miller’s message?
Ian Haney López: Let me go with the questions that are written down. I love the question. I think very little of it.
Savala Trepczynski: Ian, how do you get the DNC and other similar organizations to listen to and adopt this strategy?
Ian Haney López: So here’s the great news from my point of view. That’s your job. Go get them. So here’s what’s happening. Always no matter how radical, imaginative a candidate is, their staff is very conservative, very cautious. Their staff is like, “All I care about is getting to 50% plus one. We just need to win this election, or we just need to win this primary.” So the staff is quite cautious. The way to move politicians is to communicate to them that winning their primary, winning support from engaged progressives, winning the general election depends upon them articulating a message of multiracial class-conscious solidarity.
The more you all are talking back to the candidates, talking back to the campaigns… Have any campaigns approached you for money? I don’t know if that’s happened. Next time that happens say, “I’m so glad you did because I really want you to talk to me about your multiracial approach and class conscious approach because we need a multiracial movement.”
A friend of mine is saying, he’s buying copies of Merge Left, and he’s mailing it to politicians. He’s just like, “I just want to flood their offices with copies of this book so many that they’re kicking over them in a certain point they’ll pick it up.” But the insight is they need to see that we all are demanding it. They’re not going to lead on this. And some of them are quite close to this message, but they won’t lead, we will lead but we can pull them along.
Savala Trepczynski: I think we have time for one more question, but there will be a book signing after this so you can pose your questions at that time.
Ian Haney López: Yeah. And I’d be happy to answer your questions at that point.
Savala Trepczynski: And also you can purchase the book. Can you talk about Trump’s stance on the environment global warming, et cetera, and whether the actions that you’re prescribing can have a positive impact on environmental issues?
Ian Haney López: I love that question. It’s so important. I’ve been talking about race and class and you might think to yourself, okay, this is an approach that deals with race and class, but let me back up for a second. In fact, let me talk to you about the source of the contemporary environmental catastrophe. It’s called the Koch brothers. It’s called petrochemical industries that have been run in pursuit of dollars with little regard for the environment. But now how have the Koch brothers protected their industry?
For many years they simply funded lobbyists, but when Obama was elected, Obama said, and I should actually point to Luna who’s helping me write our chapter on this. So Luna my research assistant on this. So any questions about this, we’re going to… Okay. When Obama was elected the Koch brothers were like, “Well, you know this here, we have this administration. It’s promising to pass these regulations. Our lobbyists aren’t good enough which we do, let’s fund the Tea Party. Let’s fundraise hate and get politicians elected who will divide us, but who will legislate in favor of our industry.” And that’s precisely what happened.
Another way of telling this story. Averting climate collapse requires massive government intervention into the marketplace. It needs regulating the extractive industries, it requires investing trillions in new strategies. It requires investing trillions in people dislocated by climate collapse. What do we need to do to have massive government energy, massive government action? We need multiracial super majorities. What is the single greatest impediment to that? Dog-whistle politics. What is the most important thing to do to save the planet? Defeat dog-whistle politics.
You cannot avert climate collapse if you don’t address the way racism has been politicized and weaponized by Fox and by the Republican Party because that’s precisely how they keep sufficient power to make sure nothing is actually done. The Green New Deal, the Green New Deal says we are going to invest trillions in the economy. We are going to invest trillions against racism, and we’re going to launch these ambitious programs to save the environment. A lot of people react to that by saying, “Why we got to do this whole wish list thing? Why don’t we just save the environment?” Because we can’t just save the environment like we can’t just get economic populism all by itself, like we can’t just get racial justice all by itself.
The only way to get these things is to get them all together. Race and class, and government have been fused together as the weapon against all of us. And if we don’t respond by fusing them together and tackling them all at the same time, we will lose, and lose, and lose, and the planet will burn. So that was a little dumpy. So let me, let me… It’s a little dumpy, but the very depth of the crisis means people are motivated to solve some of the biggest challenges the United States has historically faced. What are those big challenges? Racial solidarity, a regulated marketplace that actually helps all of us. Securing government from being hijacked by the rich. Those have been the perennial challenges of this country from its founding to today, but the depth of crisis means we are at a moment when we can actually turn this around and put ourselves back on trajectory towards our highest ideals. Thank you all. Thank you. It’s super interesting.
Savala Trepczynski: Thank you.