Political Discourse from Dog Whistles to Intersectionality

 Democrats poised to run for President in 2020 are embracing language and concepts from the racial justice movement in part as a response to what they view as racial dog whistles and attacks on political correctness. At issue is whether blunter racial language will attract or repel white working-class voters in states that can give a candidate an Electoral College edge. [Illustration Credit: Melissa Joskow/Media Matters]

Democrats poised to run for President in 2020 are embracing language and concepts from the racial justice movement in part as a response to what they view as racial dog whistles and attacks on political correctness. At issue is whether blunter racial language will attract or repel white working-class voters in states that can give a candidate an Electoral College edge. [Illustration Credit: Melissa Joskow/Media Matters]

Racial dog whistles, criticism of ‘political correctness’ and eyerolling at identity politics have become election staples in our hyper-partisan political environment dominated by President Trump. Despite that – or because of that, Democrats poised to run for President in 2020 are embracing a blunter lexicon borrowed from the racial justice movement.

An example reported by Politico from a Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren speech earlier this year: “Let’s just start with the hard truth about our criminal justice system: It’s racist.”

Trump’s presidential campaign and his ‘Hail Mary’ stumping on the eve of the midterm election have pushed racially charged issues to the forefront, in a fairly naked attempt to drive a wedge between traditionally Democratic black voters and up-for-grabs white working-class voters.

The backlash started immediately after Trump’s inauguration with a women’s march in Washington, DC that emphasized unified resistance, inclusiveness and “intersectionality” – the concept that America faces overlapping prejudices against races, religions, genders, sexual orientations and citizenship status.

While Trump and his GOP supporters have seen the path to victory as black and white, Democrats see a rainbow opening that not only appeals to minority voters, but also to suburban women and younger progressive voters. 

“Intersectionality feels obvious to younger progressives in the way that LGBTQ rights do,” Amanda Litman, co-founder and executive director of Run For Something, which recruited thousands of young progressives to run for local and state office in the aftermath of the 2016 election.

Not everyone in the Democratic Party is on board with the shift. Democratic moderates, including some newly elected House members who unseated GOP incumbents in swing districts, want to focus on bread-and-butter issues. Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown is toying with a presidential run based on what he calls a “pro worker” message.

However, the horses may already have left the corral. Warren publicly dismissed the idea that “Democrats have to choose between being the party of the white working class and the party of Black Lives Matter.” Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, in his aptly named new book titled “Where We Go From Here,” credits Black Lives Matter and the ACLU with raising awareness about the racial inequities of the US criminal justice system. New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand told her supporters “Resistance is female, intersectional and powered by our belief in one another.”

Politico reported, “Many progressive grassroots organizations are instituting new training and programs to improve their approach to race. Indivisible, the largest ‘resistance’ group of the Trump era, recently held its first mandatory virtual training; more than 300 group leaders across the country tuned in. The topic: ‘Direct Voter Contact through a Racial Equity Lens.’”

Maria Urbina, Indivisible’s national political director, said, “We expect candidates in 2020 to commit to an inclusive and motivating message that addresses both economic and racial inequality.”

A message of inclusiveness and intersectionality may appear incongruous with polling results showing three white men leading the way in the 2020 Democratic presidential sweepstakes – Joe Biden, Sanders and Beto O’Rourke, who lost a high-profile bid to unseat Texas Senator Ted Cruz. Other potential candidates include Warren, Gillibrand, California Senator Kamala Harris and New Jersey Senator Corey Booker.

There is a pragmatic reason for identity politics. African-Americans are a critical voting bloc in southern states, Latinos are turning Texas and Arizona purple and Asians are transforming red parts of California such as Orange County into Democratic enclaves. Young Democratic voters also gravitate to younger candidates with more progressive views on sexual orientation, reproductive rights and income equality. Minorities and young people are among Americans most concerned about access to affordable health care.

Pundits might sum up this trend as Culture Wars 2.0 with Democrats advocating an agenda with the equivalent emotion of GOP policies on immigration, abortion and gun rights. It is a trend unlikely to lower the temperature of political debate.

However, that doesn’t mean common ground is impossible. Trump has signaled a willingness to support criminal justice reforms proposed by a bipartisan group on Capitol Hill. Reform legislation could pass Congress in the lame duck session when Republicans are still in control.