Some people were surprised by a recent Washington Post poll showing that 57 percent of black Democrats (and those who lean Democrat) in Virginia thought embattled Gov. Ralph Northam should not step down amid his blackface scandal. In contrast, only 49 percent of white Democrats thought Northam should not resign.
The poll may demonstrate that opinions on social media don’t represent the general public–in Virginia, at least. But this poll should not be surprising, as it reflects the current state of the Democratic Party as shown in other data. How the Northam story plays out may hold lessons for those interested in the futures of Democrats and Republicans alike.
The Democrats’ Polarization
As David Freedlander summarized it a few months ago for Politico magazine: “Increasingly, the Democratic Party features what social scientists call an hourglass structure, with a smattering of elites at the top and a vast working class on the bottom. It is those on the top who drive policy, and their interests don’t always coincide with the party’s longtime base.”
The Democratic elite, moreover, is disproportionately white, while the rank and file is more diverse. That is one lesson of the large-scale polling in “Hidden Tribes,” a report from the left-leaning group More in Common.
Progressive activists–the furthest-left 8 percent of Americans–were more white than all but the most conservative 6 percent of Americans. These progressives were the only group to favor racial preferences in college admissions, yet they frame the debate in the establishment media.
The report shows the same pattern regarding political correctness. It can be argued that Northam should have resigned even before the blackface scandal, with his seeming endorsement of infanticide, but his survival is likely tied to the unpopularity of punitive political correctness outside the woke white demographic.
A working paper by Georgia State University graduate student Zachary Goldberg, analyzing 2017 data from the Pew Research Center, finds the same dynamic: While almost 80 percent of white liberals viewed discrimination as the main obstacle to black progress, 60 percent of blacks believed this. Conversely, only 19 percent of white liberals believed blacks are mostly responsible for their own condition, a view held by 32 percent of blacks.
Furthermore, the portion of white liberals who perceive racial, ethnic, and sex discrimination has skyrocketed in the past decade. For example, in 2009, only 22 percent of white liberals saw “a lot” or a “great deal” of discrimination against blacks; by 2016, that number rose to 73 percent. These perceptions do not appear to square with reality. As Goldberg notes, self-reported incidents of race and sex discrimination in the workplace have declined considerably over the same period.
The higher tolerance among African-American Virginians for Northam’s blackface scandal likely has multiple explanations. Some people may look at Northam and conclude he should at least have the opportunity to redeem himself. Given that Northam almost took up a reporter’s request to moonwalk like Michael Jackson at his big damage control presser, it seems unlikely that he “gets it.” Nevertheless, some people may be feeling generous.
Low Expectations Creating Higher Ratings?
Conversely, some black Virginians may have low expectations for the histories of white politicians of a certain age. These low expectations may not be entirely fair. The Post poll also shows only 11 percent of Virginians have worn blackface or know someone who has. Even accounting for untrue but politically correct answers, wearing blackface seems relatively uncommon. Yet contrary expectations might be aiding Northam now.
These varying attitudes among black Virginians probably reflect their lived experience in ways not fully understood by whites. These attitudes appear to be even less understood by the white leftists who drive the discussion on social and establishment media, and within the Democratic Party.
Accordingly, Northam’s announcement that he will put himself through Woke Reading Camp seems less silly than it might at first glance. Granted, most of Alex Haley’s “Roots” is not based on the current historical evidence, and Ta-Nehisi Coates traffics in a racial essentialism similar to that of alt-right founder Richard Spencer. If Northam is indeed reading “The Case for Reparations,” we can only imagine his reaction when Coates claims “progressives are loath to invoke white supremacy as an explanation for anything.”
But consciousness-raising is not really the point of the exercise. Nor is it really about swaying black Virginians to his side. The real audience is woke whites–and they will probably lap it up.
The Demands of Woke Whites Matter Most to Northam
Black officials and activists in Virginia, probably realizing that Northam is not resigning, issued a letter containing a wish list of policy demands he might act upon as an atonement, including ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment, creation of a new renewable energy agency, money for coastal residents facing climate change, and universal lawyers for immigrants and refugees.
So far, Northam has announced only that he has restored the civil rights (primarily the right to vote) of 10,992 Virginians previously convicted of a felony. This incremental step follows reforms made by former governors Bob McDonnell and Terry McAuliffe to restore the rights of 173,166 Virginians (amid speculation that it would boost the Democratic vote). Moreover, Northam took this action over the past year, before the current scandal.
Although Northam probably will act on some racial issues in the months ahead, he currently looks like someone who believes his future depends more on mollifying woke whites than anything else. And why not, given that this is the general pattern within the Democratic Party nationally.
The reaction to the Northam blackface scandal confirms a political reality about the Democrats that has equally weighty implications for Republicans. It is clear the GOP hopes Democrats will blow the 2020 election by running on a far-left platform and suffer the sort of defeat dealt to George McGovern in 1972. At his recent rally in El Paso, Texas, President Trump painted Democrats as “the party of socialism, late-term abortion, open borders, and crime.”
It’s entirely possible the GOP can win under that scenario. However, in a two-party system, over time each major party tends to win the presidency about half the time. As Jay Cost writes at National Review, our polarized politics could produce another close election with no guarantee against a radical leftist winning. And even if Trump can win in 2020 by making the stakes clear, it’s no guarantee for an open-seat election in 2024.