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Former Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz wrote another column in Isthmus on how Democrats should move forward using thinly coded dog-whistle messaging which will unfortunately, intentionally or not, further marginalize voters of color. The implication of his column “Democrats don’t speak to legitimate blue-collar values” is that Democrats should use language that appeals to “blue-collar” voters. “Blue-collar” has become coded language for “working-class white voters,” which ignores the fact that there are many voters of color who are also blue-collar workers – voters that didn’t vote for Trump en masse.

There is some important truth in his columns: that Democratic messaging is off and uses too many policy stances as its core, instead of appealing to values and that Democrats shouldn’t limit their outreach. But the path forward that Cieslewicz suggests is troublesome – that we must leave behind “identity politics” and appeal to these white voters that are turned off by it. All the while ignoring that it’s all identity politics. All the while ignoring that dropping “identity politics” is white identity politics.

Cieslewicz is suffering from a great case of cognitive dissonance, ignoring all the evidence that it wasn’t “economic anxiety” that pushed people to vote for Trump, but it was “cultural anxiety,” a.k.a. fear of the loss of white dominance within society. Better yet, let’s just state it: it was racism. It can be hard for many white people to believe that so many white people perpetuate racism, conscious or not. But the best evidence of this is Madison, Wisconsin, and its nation-leading level of racial disparities in so many categories. And, according to white Madison, nobody is racist here. Racism is more than just prejudice, it’s a system that perpetuates disparate outcomes based upon the perceived notion of race, conscious or unconsciously.

“It can be hard for many white people to believe that so many white people perpetuate racism, conscious or not. But the best evidence of this is Madison, Wisconsin, and its nation-leading level of racial disparities in so many categories. Racism is more than just prejudice, it’s a system that perpetuates disparate outcomes based upon the perceived notion of race, conscious or unconsciously.”

Within the article, Cieslewicz dismisses the evidence race played within the election.

“A widespread explanation of that phenomenon adopted by liberals is that these blue-collar voters are dumb, voting against their clear economic interests. Or they’re racist, misogynist and xenophobic, voting for someone who promises to fight the cultural changes they don’t like…The Democratic Party does not lose elections because voters are too dimwitted to understand how great the party’s policies are and it doesn’t lose elections because of race or gender.”

But two new studies find racial anxiety is the biggest driver of support for Trump. Democrats who ignore this cultural backlash ignore it at their own peril highlighted in this excerpt:

“Political pundits have also attributed Trump’s stunning victory to economic populism. However, exit polls are not consistent with an economic populist mandate.

A majority of household earning less than $50,000 voted for Clinton, while no candidate attained a clear majority of votes for any other income group. Granted that the less-than-$50,000 income category is the most racially diverse income bracket, this election was more about racial identity than class.

This leads to a key question with regards to the tenuous relationship between racial divisions amongst the working class and racial coalition-building to address their collective worsening economic conditions:

Are the white-privilege benefits and protections that accrue to white workers as a result of exclusionary and discriminatory practices that codify the “property rights in whiteness” greater than the reduced labor-bargaining-power cost that result from a smaller and more fragmented labor movement, and from having to compete with a reserve army of black and other subaltern, unemployed workers?

Two things that are unambiguous from racial stratification: (1) black workers are made worse off, and, (2) the capitalist class, which is overwhelmingly white, is made better-off. What is ambiguous, is the economic positioning of the white working class. “White privilege” offers both psychological and material benefits.”

By ignoring all this, you’re letting voters of color know that you’d rather appease these voters than support them. See Black voters post-Obama don’t feel welcome by the party, which is mixed with Voter ID laws, and a failure of Democrats to make fighting voter suppression a core value. This is a dangerous combination.

Cieslewicz goes on to say that, “They’re voting their legitimate values” and that “I wrote ‘legitimate’ values because I don’t see racism, misogyny or xenophobia as legitimate.” He also uses a Van Jones quotes that support his thought process, effectively tokenizing Jones by saying “see even this liberal black man aggress with me, all other black people should, too.”

This is the dismissal of the fact that white supremacy, or upholding “white cultural values,” is a legitimate value when it comes to white voters. This nation was built upon the idea, and reinforced decade after decade, generation after generation, that white supremacy is a legitimate value for white people.

What we see in the evidence of the election is that “cultural anxiety” was indeed the main driver for Trump voters – Muslims, immigrants, gay people, feeling like a stranger in their America. They were more than fine with electing a blatant bigot who has brought actual Nazis into his administration.

Within the article, Cieslewicz accidentally admits that it is indeed “cultural anxiety” by saying these voters want the “preservation of one’s cultural traditions.” He’s saying that white voters want to preserve their cultural traditions, which is saying the preservation of “white American traditional values.” They see the economic and cultural ascendance of people of color threatening to their own power and cultural values. The loss of cultural values is the core argument of those that perpetrate the “white genocide” theory. Protecting whiteness and its place in society is a value and it is a legitimate one, as it drives our current political climate and has driven the Republican party since Barry Goldwater and President Nixon, with the highlty successful southern strategy. There is an entire 24-hour news channel and massive media empires dedicated to this, as well. These are the mythic “Reagan Democrats,” most of these folks abandon the Democratic party after the Civil Rights Act in all but name only. Reagan only made it official.

This doesn’t mean one shouldn’t reach out to them. A party should try and reach out to all voters. But the Democrats base is black women, so they should be leading out front and being centered in what the Democratic Party is about.

Democrats lost for a variety of reasons in 2016, especially because of Hillary Clinton, but the strongest indicator on support for Trump were views on race and gender, people felt “cultural anxiety.” And, secondly, they lost votes because of voter suppression laws (i.e. race!) and they lost because they don’t have long-active outreach towards voters of color who feel just as left out by Democrats as these “blue-collar” voters do. But you don’t see black people voting for someone like Trump en masse.

The one thing Cieslewicz gets right is the point on Democratic messaging, and lack of a vision to market to people. Democrats need to move on from having such a policy focus in their messaging. This isn’t to say that they should become the party of the uninformed, instead they need to have better messaging. Democrats don’t see messaging as they should, they need to look at it from a marketing lens. People are swayed by an emotional connection to values, not facts. But their values should be one that embraces diversity, not push it off to the sidelines and try to hide it. The Democratic Party needs to have a multi-layer campaign that is tailored to specific groups. Wider value-based marketing, then tailor it to specific demographics, especially around issues at that point.

Young people tend to find Cieslewicz stuck in a time machine, and generally out of touch (The laziest article ever written against marijuana legalization in this week’s Isthmus are thoughts for another day.) Worse, it appears his habit of being a wallflower when it comes to people of color extend to this day. We saw a rise in racial disparities under his watch as mayor, and he has plenty practice ignoring those that aren’t white. That’s an overall problem of Democrats. But instead of moving forward, Democrats keep moving backward trying to out dog-whistle Republicans. It’s something that is doomed for failure because you can’t beat the experts at it; the GOP invented dog-whistling and have perfected it over the last half-century. Furthermore, their attempts to do so only pushes the party further to the right.

This is not to say ignore white blue-collar workers, but black women, Trans folk, black men, Latin@s, and more are all coming with us. There are also plenty of blue-collar workers of color that didn’t choose to vote for Trump en masse, too. Yes, Democrats should look to market their message better than they are. In fact, they must. And, yes, reach out to those white, blue-collar workers, and, most importantly, actually push for policies that help the people. But reaching out to that much larger bucket of those that didn’t vote (nearly half of Americans didn’t vote!), and working with voters to overcome voter ID laws will be far more effective. They also must work to empower unions, especially in the service industry. As many of those folk don’t want to live on minimum wage and would like to have sick days. Service work is where many of these lost jobs went.

Cieslewicz’s columns have us stuck looking back and not knowing where we are, which makes it almost impossible for him or for many in his generation to see the future. It’s time for that generation to catch up and step back … so that we, in this rapidly diversifying nation, can move forward.

Written by Matthew Braunginn and Savion Castro

Matthew Braunginn is a Madison native and civil rights activist. Savion Castro is a UW-Madison student and One Wisconsin Now research associate.

1 COMMENT

  1. Sounds good! You folks work on that kind of stuff, my side will work on bringing thousands of new jobs to Wisconsin. Keep toking up, leaving you unable to pass drug tests for said jobs, and de-motivated to vote or improve your lives. Should work out nicely for both factions!

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