Prof. Ian Haney Lopez “Merge Left”


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 a special event– our special event
here and our special guests Professor Ian Lopez, who is going to be talking
about his new book, Merge 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 Lopez here. And this
event is part of the HIFIS Research to Impact Series, and this year were
acknowledging 400 years of resistance to injustice and slavery, and I think
professor Lopez’s talk really fits well within the emphasis that we have on
regaining the franchise and regaining political power for disenfranchised people
including African Americans, Latinx, indigenous people and other peoples marginalize 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 way- 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 Felton Henderson Society at Center for Social
Justice at Berkley Law and the Equal Justice Society. I’d also like to thank
the Brower Center and all the volunteers who’ve worked so hard to make this event
possible. And now I’d like to welcome Savala Trepczynski– I got it– to the
podium who’s going to introduce professor Lopez and serve as the person
running the rest of the event. Thank you, Savala. [Applause] Hi everyone, I have a very tricky
last name which is why I gave that thumbs-up to Denise as she said
it beautifully. I’m Savala, as you know, and I have the
pleasure of directing the Felton 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 had quite a– 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 Merge 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
may be 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 if
I may say so. It’s only been on bookshelves for less than two weeks– like
11 days right?– 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, and as his students affectionately call him Halo, which I
love because I imagine him with this you know light of wisdom behind his head. So
I hope you want your light of wisdom with you Ian. Before I officially
introduce him, I was asked to do a tiny bit of housekeeping. If you didn’t turn
off your phone the first time now is the time to do it.
Ian is gonna 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 gonna 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 Lopez. [Applause] So here’s the structure of the talk. I’m
gonna start by promising that I have really good news. You’re gonna doubt me. I
am then gonna say well if that’s how you’re gonna be I’m gonna 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 and so the first thing is, well you know 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 Congress person
from that district that she had married her brother to get into the country, and–
yes, no you got to pay attention because this stuff it’s just–
but again I’m sorry I’m just making this up this didn’t happen– and and at the
leading 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 eighty five percent 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. Right so this is what’s happening. And so, can we– okay so this
is the part where, 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– so, so I knew from my prior book, I knew from my prior
research that the Republicans use focus groups and poll testing to hone their
dog whistle messages, and I said so, 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- she’s local, she’s here in also Berkeley, but
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 like google her name, you
can listen to her podcast, she’s fantastic.
We connected with Heather McGee 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 to the most prominent democratic pollsters Celinda 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 were saying, ‘and he wrote a book?’ Who even
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 gonna 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 dogwhistle message. So we need to know how strong a
dogwhistle 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 gonna do, I’m gonna click on this, and when I click on it, you’re
gonna hear a voice reading a dogwhistle message, and you’re gonna 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, right? 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 wait 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, and I don’t know if I would do this, personally, but I would suggest
that you close your eyes. Don’t– Just listen to the message. Don’t focus on the
lines because the lines in some ways are 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 gonna believe this BS?’ Right?
And when the message is done, then open your eyes. Again, risky I’m looking at so– I would
not close my eyes next to some of you, but if you’re willing to take the risk–
if you see some of my students you’re like we’re definitely not closing our
eyes, we know that– we know Halo. Okay, so we all ready? Alright, close your eyes. 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
street. Okay, no one believes this, right? No one’s
gonna fall for this. Here are what the numbers look like. Oh, I’m sorry, let me turn on my microphone here. Here here’s what the numbers look like. So this yellow line
these are the advocates. These are people who work 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, and they
they actually– two of them went to the hospital with a broken wrist. It was
terrible, right they just they’re dialing down. It’s, you know you say, “Our people” and wham! Right, they know what “our people” means.
Okay, but now look at the other numbers a purple line, that’s Union households and
they’re– sorry the blue line, sorry the one that you see just about fifty
percent, these are people who agree, that’s the progressive base. Not the
Democrats. Majority Democrats agreed with this message. That’s the progressive base,
that’s about the 23 percent 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. Right? That, 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 percent plus one’s not getting us there. 50% plus one locks
us in this continued division. We actually need to get to
fifty-eight, sixty percent to actually change the direction of 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, right? Okay, so I know a lot of you are thinking,
well this is basically a racist message, right? It’s saying, ‘hey you’ve got to
fear those people, you got to resent those people, you got to rally around “our
people” as code for whites.’ And so the good news is people of color are
going to save us. Because people of color are not gonna fall for this. Good luck
with that. Right? So, so what this chart demonstrates is the total number of
people in these differ– broken down by race who found this message convincing. So as
a total number, sixty one percent of whites found this message convincing, but
so did fifty four percent of African Americans and 60 percent 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,
eighteen percent of whites, 16 percent of Latinx, fifteen percent 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, four percent,
six percent. 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 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 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. 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, right? Okay, so we got a problem.
Why is this message so powerful? This message is so powerful this 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 goal 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 whom 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 in 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, though not in 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 formally 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 gonna express that
in code. It’s going to be in fact, but not in name. We’re gonna abandon the surface
rhetoric of, you know, states, of– sorry, of
segregation today, tomorrow, forever, of like this is the white man’s country.
We’re to stop saying that, but we’re gonna express the same thing.
Barry Goldwater’s 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 don’t get up. Okay. You could not
possibly run a campaign on that slogan unless people understand that states
rights in fact 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, right, that’s what it means. But it’s a dog whistle
because on the surface you can be like I’m just, 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 gonna work? Horrible. It’s a disaster.
Barry Goldwater loses, is just like, he gets trounced. Why? Because Barry
Goldwater is saying not only is he for states’ rights but he’s against the 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, y’all
don’t need government, we’re gonna get rid of it, and we’re going to cut taxes
for rich people. Oh and by the way states’ rights. Okay, now look at this map. A lot
of pundits look at this map in 1964 and they say that confirms that we are
fundamentally a country that believes in activist government that regulates
capitalism, provides relative upward mobility, and taxes the rich to
redistribute wealth downward and outward. That’s 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 regions of the country. The New
Deal has brought them electricity, right. 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 SOB? Yes, he
does. We have him watching one of his own ads, it 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 gonna 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
with Nixon. Vietnam War, 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. 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 ten of the
voters supporting Republican presidential candidates are white. This
does not include Hispanics. That’s another six percent of their vote.
The numbers are a little bit fuzzy, but I guarantee you at least three or at least
half of that six percent are Latinos who consider themselves white. So we’re
solidly above nine out of ten supporters of the Republican presidential
candidates identifying and seeing themselves as white. Ninety eight percent.
Ninety percent of Republican elected officials are white. Sixty percent 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, I told you I was gonna
depress you. How to respond? Well, we’ve gotta respond, right. We’ve 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. 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. That ad is powerful. And part
of the reason it’s powerful is because there’s a strong element of truth. I had–
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 to truth here. How is
this gonna work as a way to mobilize votes and create a supermajority? How is
this gonna 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, okay. And this is so well-established that
there is a theater, a formal, intentional, commonly practiced theater. Punch,
deny, counter punch. So punch, say something like those four Congresswomen
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 the deny. Now comes the counter punch. ‘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– Right, 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 let me be clear about something else too because it’s 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.’ Right, now I
get it. The activists, 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. And you can kind of– if you step back, what happened to
focus groups is people said, ‘well wait a minute, you’re telling me the big problem
we face is a racist president, beloved 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 just too, 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 gonna retreat.’
And a lot of people retreated into this sense of ‘I can only do what I can do.’
This message of ‘we’re fighting racists,’ 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 call-out strategy doesn’t work, they’ve known that
since 1970. So what they said in 1970 is, ‘well, race
is going to be used to to to break us apart. What we’re gonna do is we’re gonna
stay silent. We’re just gonna wait for this to blow over because it’s just
grassroots, and people will get over, and generations will change, and we’re just gonna stay silent.’ Now, I had a hard time finding an ad to illustrate what silence
looks like, but it’s like the one hand clap– that actually produced a sound. I guess
one hand clapping does produce sound if you have a mic, but okay, so I
might be going on a tangent. Let me show you what happens when Democrats stay
silent. This is the infamous Willie Horton Adam. 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. So a couple things. One, this has been going on a long long time. Right, so don’t let anybody tell you, ‘Oh Trump, we’ve never seen
anything like it.’ Oh we have. Right, now Dukakis says, ‘I’m gonna stay silent. I
can’t challenge this, I can’t call it out. I’m gonna 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
position you 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 stay– we can’t challenge it, we can’t stay silent. It’s not going away.
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. They’re a 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’ve rejected the
old tax-and-spend politics. Clinton’s balanced 12 budgets, and they’ve proposed
a new plan investing in people, detailing a hundred and forty billion dollars in
spending cuts they’d make right now. Clinton Gore. For people. For a change. The New Democrats were new in the sense that they decided they would be Republicans
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 in 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. Right, 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. It’s just the political power in the Democratic
Party has shifted. 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. Right, so this
isn’t going to happen again, but there is 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 gonna be safe, too. We’ll keep you safe, too. We’re not going to say end 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 we’ll
provide 1.2 trillion dollars 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.’ Right, 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 gonna 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 would
otherwise identify 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. Alright, when you
guys figure this out, I’m gonna give you my email, you send me a note. [Laughter] 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 has 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 and the economy. Okay, so this is
going to be Lee Atwater talking, he’s one of the masterminds behind the Willie Horton ad. Imagine a candidate who says, ‘I’m gonna
ban all Muslims, I’m gonna build a wall, and then his single greatest achievement
is to pass a tax cut that awards six trillion dollars in benefits mainly to the wealthiest
family dynasties and to corporations. Racial division is the
principal weapon of the rich being used against all of us. Alright, okay, so this
is this is 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 this 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 think– 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, those are really giveaways to welfare queens. Right, 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. 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 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.
Right, who’s the real threat in our lives as 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 cover it 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 color and 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. Okay, so this is
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 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 gonna 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 kickbacks 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 gonna come together. We stand for coming
together. They divide us, we want to 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. White’s 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’ve got to work with us. And once they know
it, people of color suggest this might work, this might work. Okay so, all a
little bit abstract. Let me show you– I’m gonna 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. 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 health care 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’ve got to change who’s in charge. It’s time to give someone else a chance, 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. Yay, Amber. [Applause] Yay, Amber. So, so this message, let me be super clear about this, this
message: ‘They’re trying to divide us, we’re gonna 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, Whites, 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 just happened yesterday, and it’s
also just fun because I love seeing Minnesota snow from California. [Laughter] This message was amazing. It was produced
in part by Anat Shanker-Osorio the communication 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 gonna have to ramp it up for 2020. They are just gonna have to ramp this up.
Okay, so I’m gonna wrap up now. This is my closing screen. I’m gonna make three
quick points, but while I’m doing that great opportunity to start writing down
your questions. So, so here’s my closing pitch. Yes, I wrote a book. Just
have pity on me, buy it. Okay that’s one. It’s available. In addition we need
to understand that fighting racist 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 gonna get this country back on track. A 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 did we
give up on it?’ and 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 and 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. It is– and I’m making a
different point here. I really want 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 gonna 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.
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 a long-term vision.
Beyond the abstraction, MergeLeft2020.org And this is Karen Tamara is here,
is 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 the 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. [Applause] 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 gonna 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? 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 understood– 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 gonna 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 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 walk 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. And part of the New Deal, part of Clinton as a new– sorry as a New Democrat, part of Clinton as a new Democrat was saying, ‘We are
going to be progressive on social issues. I am going to play the saxophone on
Arsenio Hall Show,’ well you know, 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, right, 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 gonna get somebody
in office who’s like ‘All I need to do is get to fifty percent plus one, I need to
be friends with the people on Wall Street, I can’t challenge racism,’ and
things are gonna get far far worse. What you know, you sense that Trump is
accelerating hatred. He really is, and 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’s for people of color, go get a gun.’ And they are. That’s what they’re
doing. Right, so there is a moment. We are in a crisis deeper I think than in
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’s gonna get much much worse.
And that’s if a Democrat wins. Okay. 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 trying to flip Trump voters and we
should focus a hundred percent on the base turnout. What are your thoughts
about these issues? 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 right’s 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 are, ‘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 a majority of whites are in this persuadable category. So are a majority of
African Americans. So are a majority of Latinx. So are a majority of Asian
Americans. The majority of people in this country do not have coherent worldviews,
and can be pulled in one direction or the other. Right, and I want to clarify
pull the one direction or another does not mean necessarily hey they’re gonna
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, right. We need to reach the persuadables, not precisely to say, ‘hey we need
those, you know, 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. Where do multiracial people, Native Americans, and
Asian Americans fit into your framework? 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 right there. 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 that means that we have centuries of exclusion and oppression
and genocide to repair. Right, and let me just let me just really emphasize that point.
You might think that if someone said, ‘hey we need a multiracial movement, that what
I’m saying is let’s be colorblind, let’s 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’ve 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 a
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 it is a moral obligation,
because we see ourselves in their eyes and we know they need this, and we will
repair those communities because that’s the only way we’re gonna save our own
families. Alright, and so this is 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 saying it was reparations for
blacks. Because that, honestly, a lot of white folks are like, ‘they only
care about Democrat– or they only care about people of color,’ whereas imagine if
we said we need reparations and the reason we need
reparations is because we all have to come together, and coming together has to
be real and it has to recognize harms 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. Right,
that’s the message. In light of that, what do you think of Mark Millis’ message? Let me go with the questions that are written down.
I love the question, I think very little of it, but. Ian, how do you get the
DNC and other similar organizations to listen to you and adopt this strategy? Ah! So here’s the great news from my point of view. That’s your your job. Go get ’em! So, so here’s what’s happening.
Almost no matter how radical, imaginative a candidate is, their
staff is very conscious– 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’s 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
campaign’s, I– 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.’ Right, or
this 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, and a
certain point they’ll pick it up.’ Right, and it’s– 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. I think it’s time for one more question,
but there will be a book signing after this, so you can pose your questions to Ian at that time and also you can purchase the book. Can you talk about Trump’s stance on the environment, global
warming, etc. and whether the actions that you’re prescribing can have a positive
impact on environmental issues? I love that question. It’s so important I’ve
been talking about race and class and 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 a chapter on this, so Luna, my research assistant on this, so
any questions about this we’re gonna– okay. When Obama was elected, the Koch
brothers were like, ‘well you know this here we have his administration, it’s
promising to pass these regulations, our lobbyists aren’t good enough, what should
we do? Let’s fund the Tea Party. Let’s fund racist hate, and get politicians
elected who will divide us, but who will 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 be 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
saved 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 that 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
calculating them all at the same time we will lose and lose and lose and the
planet will burn. So that was a little downbeat, so let me– 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 [Applause]

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