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Don’t Insult the Customer

Calling voters ‘racist’ when your party loses is a terrible political strategy.

(Photogrpah by Drew Angerer/Getty Images.)

Dear Reader (Especially those of you relieved to see that sand has finally gotten a fraction of the respect it deserves),

Life deals everyone disappointments. One way to minimize future disappointments is to respond to setbacks realistically. Say you’re the sort of dude who thinks a great pickup line is, “Great outfit. It’d look even better crumpled up on the floor next to my bed in the morning.” Now imagine you use that line on a woman while checking out at the supermarket. I’m no expert on such matters, but my hunch is you won’t get the sort of reaction that was once the stuff of letters to the Penthouse Forum (“Dear Penthouse, I never thought this would happen to me …”). Rather, you’re more likely to discover that not only is a gallon of milk more expensive these days, being whacked in the head with one hurts.

If your response to such rejection is, “She must be a lesbian,” you’re destined to get more rejection in the future for the simple reason that you’re not adjusting your approach based on real-world feedback.

What is true for Kroger Casanovas is also true for all sorts of things in life. Almost every day I get an email from someone—often hundreds or thousands of words long—that begins with an insult or epithet. If I don’t respond, or if I respond perfunctorily, I’ll often hear back, “This just proves you have no defense against my arguments.” It’s as if they think I have all the time in the world to enter colloquies with people who begin their correspondence, “You dumb f**k.”

I know lots of intellectuals who think their ideas haven’t caught on or their books didn’t sell well because the general public couldn’t handle or comprehend their brilliance. There are chefs who make unpalatable dishes, architects who make hideous buildings, and directors who release terrible movies who, in response to the market saying, “Thanks, but no thanks,” assume the fault lies with the public rather than themselves.

This is a natural human reaction, but it’s a particular problem for political parties. Which, of course, brings me to the elections this week.

Led by Glenn Youngkin, the Republicans delivered a fairly humiliating defeat to the Democrats in Virginia. And the response from many liberals has been to blame it all on racism. I watched MSNBC on Election Night and that was the consensus view. This supercut from Tom Elliot gives you a good flavor of it.

Now, I’m open to the idea there was a racial component to the Virginia election. I’m even open to the idea that “critical race theory” served as a kind of dog whistle for some Republican voters. More about that in a moment.

But even if you believe that, there is no way to look at the returns or the exit polls and reasonably conclude it was a major factor, never mind the sole reason for McAuliffe’s loss. Biden won Virginia by 10 points last year. On Tuesday, Republicans won it by two points. That 12-point swing means a lot of Biden voters must have voted for Youngkin. Indeed, Youngkin improved upon Trump’s performance with pretty much every group and county in the state. Did they all become racist over the course of a year? Big if true. Even bigger if true: Virginia elected Winsome Sears, the first African American woman to hold statewide office in Virginia history. As the guy said when the KKK gave a big donation to the NAACP legal defense fund, “That’s a weird thing for racists to do.” (The KKK, in fact, did not do that.)

Meanwhile, the New Jersey Republican candidate for governor, Jack Ciattarelli, almost beat the incumbent Democrat. Assuming he eventually concedes, it still means that he erased a D+16 advantage almost entirely. He ran pretty much exclusively on tax issues. Was that racist?

I don’t want to dwell on this stuff too much, because it’s all very familiar to everyone with even a marginal interest in the topic. But if I were to explain these facts to the folks crediting racism for Youngkin’s victory, a sizable number of them would roll their eyes and say something like, “You just don’t understand how complex racism is.” If you doubt such fertile minds exist, I point you to Michael Eric Dyson’s claim that Winsome Sears was a puppet for white supremacy. “The problem is, here, they want white supremacy by ventriloquist effect,” he said. “There is a black mouth moving but a white idea running on the runway of the tongue of a figure who justifies and legitimates the white supremacist practices.

Now, I could easily rant about how assuming that everyone who votes contrary to your desires is racist is immoral and grotesque because it’s so obviously true. But I’d rather talk about how it’s terrible politics. If you blame racism every time you lose, it might make you feel good about yourself—in fact I think that goes a long way toward explaining why people do it—but it won’t make many of those voters feel better about you.

Because so much of what passes for political analysis on cable news is really just an ongoing effort to make viewers feel better about themselves, these kinds of ideas get a lot more play than the facts warrant. The ideological fan service industry is lucrative these days. Feel terrible that Trump lost? Don’t worry, the election was stolen. Bummed that McAuliffe lost? Don’t worry, it’s not because your ideas are bad or unpopular, it’s because villainous people did racist stuff to make people racist. 

Which brings me to critical race theory. I agree entirely with defenders of critical race theory that most people have, at best, a vague understanding of it. Where I part company is on the question of how relevant that is. What a lot of the people object to is the general approach to talking about race today. If you want to call it anti-racism, or woke-ism, or some other label, it has no bearing on the thing people object to, because words aren’t things. And the things people object to can’t be fixed by changing the labels we use for them. The progressive response to anti-CRT rhetoric is one of the great examples of motte-and-bailey argumentation in public life in my lifetime. In front of friendly audiences, it’s all systemic racism, white supremacy, and the like. When people push back, it’s because “they don’t want to talk about slavery and Jim Crow!”

I’m getting tired of saying this, but schools have been teaching about slavery a lot for the last 60 years at least. If progressives were just saying, “Schools need to teach about slavery and Jim Crow,” it would be no different than saying, “Schools need to teach math!” because that’s already happening. But most normal people understand that there is something new going on, and that’s the thing they’re objecting to.

The New York Times has a story today about how California is trying to incorporate woke ideology into math education. Some proposed guidelines elicited a huge blowback:

The draft rejected the idea of naturally gifted children, recommended against shifting certain students into accelerated courses in middle school and tried to promote high-level math courses that could serve as alternatives to calculus, like data science or statistics.

The draft also suggested that math should not be colorblind and that teachers could use lessons to explore social justice — for example, by looking out for gender stereotypes in word problems, or applying math concepts to topics like immigration or inequality.

We can have a discussion about whether or not this is critical race theory at work. It might even be an interesting discussion (though I doubt it). But it would be a total red herring. Doing away with what were once called gifted and talented programs in math because they illuminate racial gaps in achievement is a bad—or, to be overly fair, a contestable—policy proposal by any name. It’s bad enough when progressives say your argument is wrong because you’re using the wrong terminology. But when they say your refusal to use their shibboleths correctly is proof of your racism, it’s evil. And more to my point, it’s terrible politics.

Let’s say you’re an immigrant from Vietnam. You and your spouse came here to give your kids a better life. Your kids work hard at math and excel at it. But now you’re told they can’t take accelerated courses because it would make other racial groups look or feel bad. Again, progressives can argue that this is a just or preferable policy. But suggesting that you’re a bigot for having objections to it is obscene. Well, these very same issues were at the heart of the education debate in Virginia, and Youngkin was on the right—and winning—side of that argument. (And, I should note, while it’s at best debatable that Youngkin played the race card, it’s undeniable that McAuliffe did, over and over). 

I’m sure that racists perceived anti-critical race theory rhetoric as a racist dog whistle. I don’t think it was intended that way, but why wouldn’t racists see it that way? They’re racists, after all. But telling non-racists that they’re indistinguishable from those people is just stupid if you want to get their votes later. And that’s what democracy—at least our democracy—is supposed to be about.

I interviewed Jay Cost for The Remnant the other day (it’ll be released next week) and he makes the point that the whole Madisonian framework of our country is designed to constantly receive feedback from voters by having elections at every level of government all the time. A year doesn’t go by in this country where we don’t have hundreds of elections of one kind or another. It’s impossible to get the kind of universal and instantaneous feedback the market provides—nor would you want that kind of thing for politics—but we don’t have a dearth of opportunities to hear from voters.

In a healthy political environment, intellectuals, journalists, and politicians would respond to feedback from the voters with at least a little understanding and generosity. I mean, it’s one thing to criticize the voters in Alabama who voted to uphold Jim Crow 60 years ago. But this isn’t that. Many of these voters cast ballots for Joe Biden in 2020 and voted for Democrats generally for years. Why leap to demonizing them as bigots or fools because they disagreed with you this time?

In fairness to elected Democrats, they did this sort of thing far less than the ideological cadres that shape the Democratic or progressive message more broadly. I mean, Terry McAuliffe tried to say a vote against him was a vote for racism, but that’s at least partly why he lost.

The enemies of most politicians these days are the journalists, activists, and intellectuals who tell them—and their voters—what politics can and should deliver. I’ve written more than enough about the perils of populism to be immune from the charge that politicians should just cater to the masses on every issue. But there’s nothing wrong with taking into account what voters say in various elections and adjusting to political realities.

The other day, Abigail Spanberger got in some hot water with progressives for saying, “Nobody elected [Biden] to be FDR, they elected him to be normal and stop the chaos.”

I agree with the sentiment, but she’s not technically right. As a lot of people said on Twitter, some people voted for Biden to be FDR. Just not enough of them. If significant majorities of Americans wanted a new New Deal, the GOP wouldn’t have gained seats in 2020. The Senate wouldn’t be tied. FDR got his agenda enacted not just because he got elected, but because huge majorities of Democrats got elected, too. If Americans wanted more of what Biden has offered so far, everyone would be talking about the Democrats gaining seats in 2024. Nobody is talking about that because there’s no evidence for it.

And you know what? The people who wanted him to be FDR would have voted for him anyway. If our system worked as designed, Biden would have acknowledged that and focused on holding onto the voters who didn’t want to vote for him but thought he was the lesser of two evils. That’s how you build durable majorities. But for some reason, neither party is particularly interested in durable majorities.

Various & Sundry

Author’s note: My apologies for not filing a “news”letter on Wednesday. It’s been a crazy week. I’ve had some health travails (I’m okay, but if you’re curious it’s discussed on the Saturday Remnant) and we had a lot of work stuff intrude as well. I’ll have to explain some other developments later. But suffice it to say, I hope to be back to a regular schedule shortly.

Canine update: Pippa’s joint issues just aren’t getting better and we’re just not sure how to deal with it. But she’s still a happy girl and we’ll do our best to keep it that way. The girls had a really nice time the other night when most of the Dispatch staff came by to visit them (and to eat my food and drink my booze). I think Pippa told everybody she loves them (Zoë merely said, “I find your scritches acceptable. You may continue.”). Pippa and Steve had some good bonding time as well.


And now, the weird stuff

Jonah Goldberg is editor-in-chief and co-founder of The Dispatch, based in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, enormous lizards roamed the Earth. More immediately prior to that, Jonah spent two decades at National Review, where he was a senior editor, among other things. He is also a bestselling author, longtime columnist for the Los Angeles Times, commentator for CNN, and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. When he is not writing the G-File or hosting The Remnant podcast, he finds real joy in family time, attending to his dogs and cat, and blaming Steve Hayes for various things.