“As the only black person onstage, I would like to speak on the issue of race,” Sen. Kamala Harris said at the Democratic presidential debate in Miami in June. Harris proceeded to deliver what looked to be a well-rehearsed shot across the hood of former Vice President Joe Biden’s mythical Pontiac Trans Am.
Harris’s specific charge was that Biden, during his early days in the U.S. Senate, had joined with racial conservatives to oppose busing. The California senator was not delivering a policy position; she was defining a contrast of values. The message wasn’t subtle: Biden had betrayed black Americans. Harris, whose mother was born in India and whose father emigrated from Jamaica, would not.
While busing per se is not a hot topic in the primary campaign, the racial dynamic that led to busing — persistent, structural denial of opportunity to nonwhite kids — remains very much alive. Many black and Hispanic Democrats, for example, are excluded from good schools in neighborhoods of well-educated, upper-middle-class white Democrats. That segregation has dire, lifelong consequences for their children. As Thomas Edsall has written, inequality rooted in race, class and geography could become a visceral source of conflict within the Democrats’ multi-racial, multi-class coalition.
President Trump appears eager to exploit that opening, but so far he seems to lack the proper finesse. His incessant appeals to white racists (and there are millions) is suboptimal. Racists already know who their champion is, and their willingness to turn out for him in 2020 seems all but certain.
The marginal benefit of an extra racist vote here or there is slim compared with Trump’s potential among white voters (and there are millions) who prefer not to think much about race at all. Such voters could use less racial provocation and more reminders about low unemployment and continued economic expansion. Many are neither dedicated to racial justice nor consciously hostile to non-whites. They could cotton to Trump if only he could find less ugly ways of attacking that nice black/Hispanic/Muslim/Asian family they see at the supermarket.
Every candidate in a multi-racial field, seeking votes from a multi-racial electorate, must account for the political and partisan energies of race. The racial gap in American politics makes the famed gender gap look like a crevice. According to the Pew Research Center’s analysis of the 2016 electorate, women voted Democratic by a 15-point margin, and men voted Republican by an 11-point margin. Blacks voted Democratic by an 85-point margin and whites voted Republican by a 15-point margin.
Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns treated race the way a black family traveling the pre-Civil Rights South negotiated perilous roadways. He kept a low profile, avoided known trouble spots, bypassed notorious towns. When he was forced to confront race head-on in his 2008 campaign, he gave an eloquent, reassuring speech and promised to revisit the topic often. His next two speeches were on Iraq and the economy. Obama recognized that he needed support from white voters who don’t like thinking about race, and who might resent being forced to.
The 2020 Democratic nominee will not be able to follow Obama’s path, which required a degree of tacit cooperation from his opponents, first John McCain, and second, Mitt Romney. Unlike Trump, neither man was determined to press the racial pedal to the metal.
The intensifying self-definition of Republicans as a racial tribe, along with the Trump administration’s dehumanization of immigrants, and delegitimizing of non-white political actors, guarantees that race will be the context in which the 2020 campaign is fought.
If the 2020 nominee is not white, Trump will cast her as an existential threat to white status and power. If the nominee is white, Trump will cast her as a cosmopolitan elitist who looks down on working- and middle-class whites, dismisses white aspirations and is perversely sympathetic to undeserving (and violent) racial minorities.
The racial swing voters — those whites who aren’t rankled by non-white progress but also aren’t moved by pleas for racial justice — may well decide the winner. Trump’s hope is to transform them into racial tribalists in red hats or, if that’s too far a stretch, at least into more racially conscious voters wary of immigration and social change.
The Democrats’ task is to establish the high cost of incompetence, corruption and plutocracy in the White House, and how Trump’s brand of chaos puts access to health care and financial security in constant peril. That message will be harder to convey when the news is dictated by Trump and it’s largely about racial conflict.
“I would be blunt and straightforward when Trump does this race stuff,” said Robert Shrum, a longtime Democratic strategist who is now a professor at the University of Southern California. “People don’t want a race war.” While rebuking Trump’s racial aggression, he said, the Democratic candidate can use television and the internet to carry messages on health care, inequality and education. Economic justice and social justice, Shrum said, should be a “seamless” Democratic message.
That can be a tricky merger. As the primary multi-racial vehicle in American politics, the Democratic Party has a unique burden. It has to carry much of the weight of social transformation, and single-handedly manage the group conflicts from which the mono-racial GOP has walled itself off. Polls reveal white Democrats growing decisively more attuned to racism as the Trump show continues. But strains will not disappear, and not every Democratic candidate will want them to — at least not until the nomination is wrapped up.
Trump is the most successful demagogue in American history — he’s president, after all. But so far, he has failed to develop the skill to transpose his arena attacks onto a more complex social grid where Democrats are more vulnerable. He is not known for self-correction. But if Trump ever figures out a more subtle and strategic means of pursuing racial division, the high stakes of the 2020 campaign could become even more grave.
Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg Opinion.