Tag Archives: white voters

How Not to Alienate White Voters

Trump loves to invoke white identity politics to rally his base. In recent days, we’ve seen him triple down on this approach to distract from the scandals and fecklessness of his administration. He began this most recent cycle with an attack on transgender people who serve honorably in our military.

Trump continued with his embrace of efforts to cut even legal immigration and the recent deportation of a Latino kid from Gaithersburg who won a college scholarship. Now, Trump and Sessions plan to fight affirmative action as an effort to end discrimination against whites.

Earlier installments in this series were called “Playing Trump’s Game” because Democrats unwittingly aid Trump’s efforts to rally white voters on racial lines when they play into his frames by portraying whites in negative terms as a group. (See Part I: Are Democrats Buying into Trump’s Narrative, Part II: White Privilege, Part III: Old, White Men, Part IV: Denigrating People’s Jobs, and Part V: Denigrating American History.)

Today’s final installment encourages Democrats to avoid “heads you win, tails I lose” narratives about whites that just communicate whites are bad in a way that plays straight into Trump’s efforts to consolidate white voters.


Much ink is spilled today expressing concern about the impact of whites moving into neighborhoods that are predominantly black or Latino. No doubt there are real effects as occurs whenever there is economic or racial change in neighborhood composition. On the other hand, when I was younger, whites were repeatedly chastised for leaving cities. People cannot help but notice that whites are excoriated for moving in and out of cities.

In contrast, progressives have nothing negative to say about similar movements by black or Latino populations. Just as whites fled DC, much of the African-American middle class decamped to Prince George’s. Now, many black families are moving into Charles or back into DC. Most people have nothing negative to say about either, which is of course as it should be, with criticism perceived (rightly) as racist.

Cultural Appropriation

To the extent people want to condemn the appropriation of intellectual property, as often occurred to black musicians in the 1960s, the idea of cultural appropriation is fine. However, stretching the concept to attack when people from one culture use or mix in something from another culture makes little sense, as cultures are not hothouses but constantly incorporate outside ideas.

The widely-lauded musical Hamilton seems a great example with Puerto Rican Lin-Manuel Miranda taking the history of the proverbial “dead white man” and mixing it with styles of music developed by blacks and Latinos to create an exciting, multiracial, and rich contribution to our common culture. And utterly appropriate, as we all get to claim the history of this country whether our ancestors were among the Founders or even here at the time.

No, not all experiments work out so well. I have serious reservations about the peanut butter chocolate chip bagel. But I’m not offended by it.

Finally, to the extent that claims of cultural appropriation demand that whites remain strictly outside observers of black, Latino, Asian etc. cultures, it flies in the face of simultaneous demands that whites need to learn much more about them. Regardless, separating cultures into neat racial boxes is an impossible task in our increasingly diverse society.

In The Atlantic, Jenni Avins provided a sensible guide to “The Dos and Dont’s of Cultural Appropriation” that applies the idea in a rational way. Her headline points are: 1. Blackface is Never Okay, 2. It’s Important to Pay Homage to Artistry and Ideas, and Acknowledge Their Origins, 3. Don’t Adopt Sacred Artifacts as Accessories, 4. Remember That Culture is Fluid, 5. Don’t Forget That Appropriation Is No Substitute for Diversity, 6. Engage with Other Cultures on More Than an Aesthetic Level, and 7. Treat a Cultural Exchange Like Any Other Creative Collaboration—Give Credit, and Consider Royalties.

Her approach makes cultural appropriation about mutual respect and appreciation rather than a means to catch white people out, which can only alienate people who actually have an interest in cultures other than their own—something to be encouraged and seen as natural in our highly diverse country rather than policed.

Returning to Why This Matters

As I explained in first post in this series:

Democrats don’t need to win back most white voters in order to win—even small gains among whites would have been enough to deprive Trump of his electoral college victory. Giving up on white voters is political folly. Increases in the rising black, Latino and Asian vote won’t be enough alone to win many of the states moving in the Democratic direction, at least in the medium term.

Additionally, geographic distribution renders capturing more white votes key to Democratic control of federal and state legislatures as well as the presidency. In Maryland, white votes will determine the outcome of legislative elections in most seats targeted by Republicans, such as those held by Sens. Kathy Klausmeier and Jim Mathias, and whether Democrats retain their ability to overturn gubernatorial vetoes in both houses  of the legislature.


Maryland Democrats’ White Problem

In the above table, I’ve collected exit polls from past presidential, senatorial, and gubernatorial elections in Maryland. If exit polls were unavailable, I used pre-election surveys.

Mac Mathias was the last Republican to win a U.S. Senate race in Maryland in 1980. No Republican presidential candidate has carried Maryland since George H.W. Bush in 1988. On the other hand, Republicans managed to win the governor’s mansion twice since 2000. Bob Ehrlich’s 2002 victory broke the long Democratic streak since Spiro Agnew’s fluke election in 1966.

No Democratic winner fell below the 39% gained by Ben Cardin in his successful 2012 reelection bid. In both gubernatorial elections won by Republicans, the Democratic share of the white vote fell dramatically. In 2002, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend won an estimated 34% of white voters.

Anthony Brown performed even more poorly with just 31% in 2014. Towards the close of the 2014 campaign, I estimated that Brown realistically needed a maximum of 37% white support in order to capture the governor’s office.

Lower levels of white support result from two factors: defection and abstention. Put another way, some normally Democratic white voters switched to the Republican in these races. Additionally, others either didn’t vote or sat out these contests.

Since the 2016 election, much of the discussion has focused on the need to increase Democratic turnout, especially non-white turnout and especially in midterm elections. For Democrats, these are good goals, if only because the share of the white vote needed to win declines if more non-white, primarily African American but also Asian and Latino, Democrats vote.

At the same time, the 2016 elections also show the limits of relying solely on non-white voters. Turnout nationally among Latinos and Asians rose and by more than white turnout. African-American turnout declined from the historic levels seen when Barack Obama was at the top of the ticket.

Nevertheless, the task of winning the governor’s mansion would be a lot easier if Democrats can win back a higher share of the white vote by preventing both defections and abstentions. Even with higher minority turnout, it would have been hard for Anthony Brown to win without increasing white support.

The implications extend beyond gubernatorial elections. The retention of not so much control but dominant majorities in the General Assembly depends on receiving enough white voters. Losing more white votes means, for example, losing Senate seats that are critical to invoking cloture for legislation favored by Democrats and their ability to override Gov. Hogan’s veto.

I’m not saying that Democrats should take minority voters for granted. No political party should ever take anyone’s vote for granted, and I expect Hogan to look to increase his non-white support in 2018. But Maryland Democrats cannot repeat their 2014 hemorrhage in white support if they want to defeat Hogan.