Republicans have campaigned on race-baiting and fear-mongering for decades. President Nixon, in the 1960s, adopted the infamous “Southern strategy,” which used racial resentment to appeal to the old Confederate states at the height of the civil rights movement. Reagan and Bush, in the 1980s, dog-whistled about being “tough on crime,” getting the public to associate people of color with violence and drugs before convincing them that Democrats supported both. In 2016, Donald Trump threw the whistle aside completely, literally by promising to build a wall to keep brown people out of the country. Republicans will deny these tactics with the special kind of forced aversion only found in those who know, deep down, just how guilty they are. They will also deny that race-baiting has long been their most effective tool for winning elections.
Want proof of the Republican Party’s faith in this nearly 50-year-old tactic? Look at the vitriolic just-ended gubernatorial race in Virginia. The Republican nominee, Ed Gillespie, a New Jersey-born, weaselly former chair of the Republican National Committee and, of course, then a lobbyist, was slagging in the polls due primarily to his public image as a GOP establishment lackey. Over the summer his opponent, Democrat Ralph Northam, was up by double-digits. Gillespie likely knew he had to adapt or be crushed, and in the final months of his campaign began increasingly parroting Donald Trump, using the concept of “sanctuary cities” to highlight divisions based on race and ethnicity in his attacks on Northam. While Northam went on to win the governorship, the more Gillespie tied his opponent to race and crime, the closer the polls were.
Gillespie was not alone in adopting a strategy of race-baiting in campaigning this last election cycle, either. New Jersey Republican gubernatorial candidate Kim Guadagno released an ad on sanctuary cities featuring images of Hispanic criminals, claiming that her opponent, Democrat Phil Murphy, would make the state a safe haven for such people. In Edison, NJ, racist campaign mailers targeted two Asian-American school board candidates, calling for their deportation despite both being born in the US. In New York, the Republican candidate for Nassau County Supervisor released fliers literally calling his Democratic opponent “MS-13s choice for county executive.” These blatant appeals to stir up racial tensions were both shameless and relentless this election cycle.
So it was not exactly a surprise when Democrats shot back. The Latino Victory Fund (LVF), a progressive PAC supporting Northam in VA, released a controversial ad featuring a nondescript white male riding a pickup truck with a confederate flag and a Gillespie bumper sticker chasing down ethnic children fleeing in terror.
The ad reveals this to be a dream sequence, with the children awakening at home, terrified, as a voiceover asks “Is this what Donald Trump and Ed Gillespie mean by the ‘American Dream’?” The ad is shockingly poignant, clearly depicting Gillespie’s supporters as violent and Virginia’s ethnic children in danger. It undoubtedly strikes the same racially charged chord that Republicans have been plucking at for decades.
At first, reactions to the ad were mixed — and the LVF and Northam’s campaign were unapologetic. Could you blame them? Gillespie had been slinging the filthiest of mud for weeks, and pundits have been calling for Democrats to grow some spine in increasingly dirty elections. However, after significant condemnation from major media outlets for race-baiting, the LVF used the terrorist attack in NYC as a pretext to pull the ad. Northam, apparently wary of backlash, also appeared to distance himself from it.
It’s understandable for progressive committees and candidates to resort to the tactics used by Northam and the LVF. We’ve all watched Trump and Republicans win elections by stooping so low as to frighten voters into the voting booth. Racial dog-whistling is a nasty game, but it works, so why not fight fire with fire? This last election cycle, however, should serve as an example as to why this is an awful approach for Democrats take. Going forward, Democratic candidates should remain extremely wary of taking such a low road during campaign season. Consider the following:
First, Democrats and progressives must realize that no matter how frustrating it may be, the muddy cellar of race-baiting during a campaign is the modern Republican party’s home turf. They don’t just live in the grime and fear, they thrive in it. They’ve been at this game for decades; they are masterful at toeing the line between being outwardly vile and subtly tapping into their voters’ worst fears. They know their voters will reject open racism, so they must tie it to a thinly-veiled intermediary concept like sanctuary cities. The LVF attack ad proved, if anything, that progressive inexperience at racial muckraking has left them bereft of understanding where such a line is. They leaned far too obviously on racial fear and tension in their ad, simultaneously repulsing supporters while giving cover to Gillespie for invoking even more racially charged attacks under the guise of escalation. Candidates like Trump and Gillespie realize that in order to win, they need to incite a culture war; ads like this are only deepen the fight on their preferred battlegrounds.
Second, this ad committed a classic sin in campaigning: it portrays hypothetical voters as the villain, rather than the opposing candidate himself. Instead of targeting Gillespie as supportive of policies that would harm children of color, either through immigration policy or criminal justice, the ad instead attacks his fellow Virginian voters as racist vigilantes. As the editorial board of The Roanoke Times observed, this is nearly akin to Hillary Clinton referring to half of Trump’s supporters as a “basket of deplorables.” Widely regarded as an absolute low for Clinton, “deplorables” completely backfired and became a badge-of-honor for Trump supporters. Even if fear of truck-driving neo-Confederates is far from unfounded, attacking voters doesn’t seem a productive way to expand your base. Northam was lucky this did not come back to harm him.
Third, such racially charged attacks do absolutely nothing for the very communities of color they are attempting to reach. Democrats have been trying to appeal to the white working class for years, albeit unsuccessfully, by highlighting the fact that the steady diet of false promises and racial fear fed to them by Republicans has not fixed their communities or provided them with economic opportunities. Such has always been the case-in-point when condemning what the Republicans stand for. That can no longer be the case if the Democrats no longer refrain from offering racial resentment in place of real progress. The Democrats must instead show that they can make promises and deliver, not just point fingers.
Finally, the message of cultural division and community mistrust absolutely cannot be the one that Democrats deliver moving forward. Republicans have already cornered that market; engaging in it now will only accelerate a cultural race to the bottom and the rapid decay of American values. Democrats must realize that their voters do not want them to just beat Republicans, they want them to be better than Republicans. Democratic candidates often struggle to find a message that appeals to a broad coalition of women, people of color and white men. However, many of their voters choose them because they feel they are at least trying to find that message. The concerted efforts of Democrats across the ballot should be to find such a message of diversity, inclusivity, unity, hope and change, and not to simply outdo Republicans on fear, rage and divisiveness. Their only hope remains in redefining this countries cultural dialogue, or they will keep losing with the current one. Thus, while fighting race-baiting with racism-bashing may seem understandable, it does not represent a way forward in Democratic coalition-building.