There are bad arguments, and then there are arguments that are offensive and insulting in addition to being bad. James Traub offers up the latter in this widely-circulated piece from The Atlantic this weekend. For those interested in a more complete takedown rapidly written up by Jamelle Bouie, the title of which says everything you need to know about how bad the initial argument is: "Democrats Shouldn't Give In to White Racism." Kinda embarrassing that that needs to be said.
This is nothing new. We have been hearing variants of this argument from within the Democratic Party since the 1960s – "In order to appeal to the majority of whites, we need to be willing to throw minorities under the bus." Ergo, the more the Party does to stand up for the rights of and issues of particular relevance to African-Americans and Hispanics, the more it will push away white voters of the kind who (in Traub's words) inherently see the appeal of a "message of collective responsibility and common purpose." But they also, you know, don't like black people very much.
The last time we saw this strategy in practice – trying to build a white majority by pandering to racist tendencies and throwing minorities in the meat grinder – was during the presidency of Bill Clinton. Despite the near-worship with which many Democrats see him today, there is unequivocal evidence that "Welfare Reform" and "Sentencing Reform," two positions the 1990s Democrats adopted explicitly to steal the GOP's thunder in the never-ending battle to appeal to white reactionaries, have inflicted more pain and suffering on black and Hispanic communities than can adequately be conveyed in this space. Sentencing reform will, from the perch afforded us by history in a few more decades, be recognized as one of the most shameful moments in Democratic politics. And they embraced it willingly in a calculated effort to appeal to the kind of white voter who thinks the problem with this country is that not enough people (wink) are being locked up in prison.
The fundamental flaw in this logic has always been apparent and is never explained. It presupposes some additional value gained from building a *white* majority, as if one white voter is worth more than one vote. It makes even less sense here in 2018 than it did in the mid-90s given our changing demographics to throw the moral high ground in the crapper in a (likely failed) attempt to woo the kind of white voter who wants a social welfare system but is also kinda racist when as an alternative the Party could make a better effort to appeal to the 30% and growing of the electorate that is not white. Rather than, as Traub suggests, dialing back on the ol' equality for all thing in order to appeal to some stereotype of a midwestern blue collar white voter why not, say, try to push up black turnout by a couple percent by going hard on problems with racial disparities in policing and the justice system as a whole? Or maybe try holding out on DACA for more than two days so the nation's millions of Hispanic voters don't feel like the old, white Democratic leadership is always going to sell them out at the first opportunity?
Traub may not be a person who holds racist beliefs. I don't know him. But what he's proposing here is racist on a very fundamental level. It is racist because it implies at every stage of his logic that getting more white people to vote for Democrats is what really matters here. I thought winning elections and having a coherent ideology that differs from the increasingly batshit Republican Party was most important. Everything about recent elections – the huge numbers of eligible non-voters, the changing demographics of the electorate, the disparity in issue preferences between younger and older voters – suggests that there are more votes to be won by taking positions that appeal to the 50-60% of eligible Americans who are not voting than to craft shameful appeals to white "moderates" that require backing down on commitment to full equality for LGBTQ people, African-Americans, immigrants, Latinos, and other marginalized groups that should see the Democratic Party as their natural political home for some reason more compelling than "The GOP is even worse."
It is difficult to say which part of this argument is worse: that someone is proposing that the Democrats throw African-Americans under the bus for the umpteenth time to try to appeal to whites who want stuff from the government but don't like black people, or that even the most cursory look at reality suggests very strongly that it wouldn't work anyway.