Democrats Have Started to Retreat on Racial Politics

The party is moderating due to electoral incentives. But other institutions on the left are only getting more extreme

No longer as appealing to Democrats. A “Black Lives Matter” sign is seen in the trash in Los Angeles, California. Image Credit: Valerie Macon/AFP

2020 was a turning point for the American left on issues of race. This shift did not come totally out of the blue: Since around 2014, when the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, led to protests and social unrest, progressives have become increasingly strident in their views on race and racism. But in 2020, the dam broke. The grisly murder of George Floyd, the COVID-19 pandemic and the impending presidential election all coalesced to create a moment of extreme political pressure. That pressure demanded a release valve, resulting in America’s so-called racial reckoning.

Anyone who was paying attention knows what happened next. Almost overnight, traditionally progressive notions about race were deemed passé or even bigoted. America, the argument went, was racist through and through, so racism needed to be excised from every corner of American life. Out went the civil rights-era ideas of equality, due process and racial neutrality, and in came the more radical concepts of equity, harsh justice and race-consciousness. (There is not an agreed-upon shorthand for this philosophy, so let’s just call it “racial politics.”)

The institutions of the American left—the Democratic Party, activist organizations, universities and the media—broadly embraced and adopted this form of racial politics. For instance, the Democratic Party’s 2020 platform trumpeted that the party would “take a comprehensive approach to embed racial justice in every element [emphasis added] of our governing agenda,” illustrating just how foundational these new ideas about race had become to the party. Recently, however, an important split has gone unnoticed: As most progressive institutions continue their leftward trudge on racial politics, the Democratic Party has reversed course, inching back to more mainstream and popular ground.

A Subtle but Clear Shift on Race

The Democratic Party was never going to make a clean break from racial politics, since an outright repudiation of the philosophy would have led to fury from the party’s left flank. So instead, the retreat has been subtle and delicate.

Think back to the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, when candidates were tripping over one another in their rush to the left on issues of race. Over the course of six minutes during the third primary debate, Cory Booker claimed that “systemic racism is eroding our nation,” Pete Buttigieg said he wanted to “marshal as many resources that went into the Marshall Plan” to tackle systemic racism and Beto O’Rourke claimed that “racism in America is endemic” and that “we can mark the creation of this country” not to 1776, but 1619—“when the first kidnapped African was brought to this country.” Throughout the rest of the primary season, Democratic hopefuls talked about race more than almost any other issue, and nearly every serious contender rushed to embrace explicitly race-conscious policies, as if to prove their bona fides.

Today, by contrast, racial politics are playing an astonishingly small part in Democratic midterm election primaries. Rather than devoting time to issues of race and identity, Democratic candidates this year have focused on a different host of issues—abortion, gun control, the economy and jobs—and have all but abandoned the preoccupation with race that dominated the 2020 presidential primary. These days, one could watch hours of Democratic ads and not find a single reference to the racial issues that dominated their messaging in 2020.

The party’s official organs have taken the same turn. In June of 2020, for instance, the House Democratic Caucus invited “White Fragility” author Robin DiAngelo—who represents the extremism of the 2020 racial politics moment more than just about anybody—to speak at the “Democratic Caucus Family Discussion on Race.” Afterward, the caucus praised DiAngelo for illuminating “the importance of recognizing that white supremacy and racism are at the foundation of our country” and that “systemic racism is actively perpetrated by ‘nice’ and ‘well-intentioned’ people.”

Later that year, the Senate Democrats proposed race-conscious legislation that would have spent hundreds of billions of dollars “to address systemic racism and reverse decades of historic underinvestment.” Democratic messaging was similarly focused on race, with the party’s committees, caucuses and leaders releasing frequent press releases and posting on social media about systemic racism, Black Lives Matter and other issues connected to the racial reckoning.

But now, two years later, without a definitive turning point and no acknowledgment whatsoever, the Democratic Party’s focus on racial politics has just … vanished. House Democrats have not invited DiAngelo back, Senate Democrats have not reintroduced the $435 billion Economic Justice Act and since July of 2021, the press releases and social media posts about racial issues have stopped, with the occasional exception of more mainstream gestures such as marking Black History Month or Juneteenth.

Meanwhile, other institutions of the left—universities, activist organizations and media outlets—have done the opposite, opting instead to double down on racial politics. These institutions implement the philosophy in various forms: firing or punishing employees for ideological pushback, instituting mandatory trainings soaked in racial politics and rewarding employees for reporting coworkers over any supposed peccadillo. And while this is hard to quantify by nearly any measure, racial politics and ideological intolerance in these institutions continue apace. For example, according to the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression’s database of “scholars under fire,” colleges and universities punished more academics in 2021 for perceived racial offenses than any year since the foundation started tracking this issue in 2015—and 2022 is on track to be just as bad.

It All Comes Down to Winning Elections

The reason why the Democratic Party has ditched racial politics while other institutions on the left have not is straightforward: Democrats need to win elections by appealing to a broad coalition of Americans. And although there is no perfect way to poll the popularity of racial politics, essentially every proxy shows that it has become unpopular—especially among independent and swing voters. Last year in Virginia, for example, Glenn Youngkin won his race for governor largely by appealing to voters frustrated by the emphasis that public schools were putting on race and identity.

Quantitative data backs up the theory that voters have a distaste for racial politics. In June of 2020, for example, 52% of Americans supported the Black Lives Matter movement and just 24% opposed it. Now, however, the movement is underwater, with 44% opposing and 43% supporting. Among independent voters, support is even lower: 46% oppose and 35% support. Meanwhile, just 26% of Americans think that race should be a factor in college admissions, while 74% think it should not. Other race-conscious policies, like government reparations for slavery, are similarly unpopular. So too is the jargon associated with racial politics: The terms “BIPOC” (black, indigenous and people of color), “AAPI” (Asian American and Pacific Islander) and “Latinx” have favorable ratings of just 18%, 25% and 35%, respectively.

And not only is racial politics dismally unpopular, but it is also no longer a salient issue for voters. For example, in June of 2020, 19% of Americans said that race relations or racism was the most important problem facing the country. Two years later, in June of this year, that number was just 3%—putting race and racism below inflation, the economy, gun control, crime, fuel prices, immigration, uniting the country and the country’s “ethics/moral/religious/family decline.”

Considering these numbers, it is not surprising that a political party whose primary task is winning elections would avoid this brand of politics. With their Senate and House majorities in peril, Democrats cannot afford to run on divisive issues that turn off key swing voters and independents.

Other institutions on the left, however, are not under this pressure to appeal to Americans at large. In fact, universities, activist groups and media outlets face the opposite pressure from extremely progressive students and professors, employees or news consumers. A recent article in The Intercept detailed how many progressive activist organizations have been brought “to a standstill” due to infighting and recriminations among their staff over internal racial reckonings. Similarly, many newsrooms, including the Philadelphia Inquirer, committed themselves to an ideological version of “antiracism” that may appeal to their narrow audience, but has little resonance with most Americans. Given their conflicting incentives, the divergence that has developed between the Democratic Party and other progressive institutions makes sense.

The Future of Racial Politics

To be sure, the Democratic Party has not completely excised racial politics. Some in the party’s left flank still push the more radical line on race, and even more mainstream Democrats have been reluctant to give it up altogether. The White House, for example, refuses to drop its race-conscious messaging strategy or to stop using reductionist jargon like “BIPOC” and “Latinx.”

This is concerning, especially because it indicates the potential for Democrats to revert to racial politics once the 2022 midterms pass. And if there is a competitive 2024 Democratic presidential primary, at least one candidate will likely try to win over progressive voters with a far-left message on cultural issues. Whether or not this candidate ultimately wins, they could end up pulling the party backward on race.

Given the incentives facing the Democratic Party, however, a wholesale reversion to the politics of 2020 seems unlikely. That year’s historical collision of the pandemic, George Floyd’s murder and an impending election against Donald Trump made the Democrats particularly susceptible to the extremism of racial politics. As the intensity of 2020 continues to cool, and Democrats realize that racial politics are bad for their electoral fortunes, the party will likely continue letting the issue slip from the spotlight. The same incentives, however, do not apply to other institutions on the left, and given these differing motivations, the rift between the Democratic Party and other progressive organizations will likely continue to grow.

Race and racism continue to play a role in American life, and these are appropriate and vital issues for any political party to consider and address. But the way to do that is not by telling Americans that their country is irrevocably racist or by emphasizing the importance of racial categories. For Democrats, the best electoral strategy is also the best policy for the country: Embrace civil rights-era ideas of equality, universalism and the fundamental unimportance of skin color. And when they talk of systemic racism, Democrats should point to specific systems and how they are discriminatory, rather than gesturing at American society at large. Democrats are thankfully heading—slowly, but certainly—in the right direction, while other progressive organizations sink deeper into the quicksand of racial politics. Let’s hope this trend in the Democratic Party continues and that their allies on the left soon join them.

Submit a Letter to the Editor
Submit your letter
Subscribe to our newsletter