(See the introduction of this series in Part I: Are Democrats Buying into Trumps’s Narrative?)
There is a reason that Democratic congressional candidates who have made striking gains from Kansas to Montana to Georgia haven’t included “check your privilege” in their stump speeches.
Democratic appeals to working-class whites as screwed by the system and middle-class whites as under enormous pressure don’t even get a chance to work when the party simultaneously says they’re privileged. It’s easy to understand why people living paycheck to paycheck who feel bad they can’t get their kid something nice for Christmas resent being called privileged.
The privilege narrative communicates that Democrats think whites have everything handed to them. Most people, even if they acknowledge the advantages that gave them a leg up, think their talents and striving played a critical role in their achievements. Moreover, parents of all races hope to help their kids get ahead.
As a result, focus on racial advantage comes across to individual white voters as a dismissal of their problems and a denigration of their success. Exhorting whites to “check their privilege” is heard as telling them to shut up and that their interests should go to the back of the line. Not a winning appeal to any group.
Some argue that one only needs to explain white privilege properly to white people. But when a party’s message requires defensive explanation—and not one amenable to a sound bite—it is already losing. In any case, once you’ve told voters that their concerns should count less, they’re not even interested in listening.
It’s easy to deride white voters as “snowflakes” if they don’t cotton to white privilege narratives. Of course, this approach just adds to the perceived insult. Said snowflakes will continue melting away if they sense Democrats disrespect them. In other words, there is a real cost when privileged progressive whites say “check your privilege” to show (off) their cultural sensitivity.
My point is not to debate the veracity of white privilege but to argue that it is a political loser. As a message, it sets one group against another, which is exactly the game that Trump likes to play. Losing elections, of course, prevents Democrats from enacting meaningful measures like those taken by Maryland Democrats on issues from policing and sentencing reform to the DREAM Act.
Making one’s case in the context of a unifying American narrative has broader appeal. One reason the DREAM Act had so much support was that it appealed directly to a thread running through American history. Descendants of immigrants can understand well the desire of people to come here to work hard for a better life.
Of course, the bill’s title echoed Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “I Have a Dream” speech in which he warned America of the dire consequences of ignoring black demands for justice but also inspired by calling for America live up to the best of its ideals in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial.