THE BLOG
09/13/2014 01:59 pm ET Updated Nov 13, 2014

Is It Racist to Seek White Votes?

"Democrats need to attract more white voters, and their best hope may come once they no longer have a black man in the White House." This is Nate Cohn, in an article entitled "Why Democrats Can't Win the House" that bannered the front of this past Sunday's New York Times' Week in Review section.

This sounds borderline racist, or at the very least, impolitic. But is it? Is there something wrong with saying that Democrats need to do better among whites? Is this somehow more offensive than the constant refrain among Republicans that they have to win more Hispanic votes?

I'll return to those questions, but first, back to Cohn. In his defense, he didn't actually use the phrasing I started with. Rather, he used circumlocutions, writing: "To retake the House, Democrats... need to attract the voters that some liberals thought they could abandon: the conservative Democrats of the South and Appalachia, where the vanquished Blue Dogs once reigned. The best hope for Democrats may be reclaiming some of these voters once President Obama is out of the White House."

Cohn wrote this in the context of a larger argument about a deepening split between "liberal cities and close-in suburbs, on one hand, and conservative exurbs and rural areas, on the other," a divide, he points out, that hurts Democrats in House races because it geographically concentrates their votes, limiting the number of districts in which they're competitive. Overcoming this divide, Cohn argues, is the central electoral challenge Democrats face.

Of course, more underlies this schism than race alone; nevertheless, race is a major component. Do we feel better or worse about Cohn because he failed to surface the racial aspect implicit in talk of Southern and Appalachian voters, Blue Dogs, and a rural/urban split? The truth is, it's euphemistic engagements with race, rather than straightforward calls for Democrats to seek more white support, that should concern us.

So is there something wrong with urging Democrats to pursue white voters? Consider, for instance, the case made by Andrew Levinson and Ruy Teixeira last summer in The New Republic: "To create a stable Democratic majority, Democrats need to win the support of a significant group of voters who are now part of the Republican coalition. As the 2012 elections demonstrated, the group that has perhaps the greatest potential in this regard is the white working class." As they further note, not only is this a large demographic group -- 36 percent of voters, as measured by exit polls -- but it's also a winnable one for Democrats, given its close affinities with Democratic priorities.

In important respects, there's no difference between this sort of argument and the GOP's strategizing to win more Latino voters. Whites for Democrats parallel Hispanics for Republicans -- for both parties, winning more support from these key constituencies could potentially remake the political landscape.

Nor should we take umbrage when strategists and pundits dare to mention race directly. True, this violates a version of colorblindness that says it's racist to speak about race, but this is a silly argument. Being racist is racist; talking about race as an important sociological phenomenon is common sense.

Nevertheless, there's some discomfort at urging an appeal to white voters, and to see why, it's important to understand what's happened in American politics over the last fifty years.

Since the civil rights era, the GOP has been using race and other social wedge issues to distract voters from the growing power of concentrated wealth. The main tactic has been dog whistling, using terms like "welfare queen," "urban crime," and "illegal alien" that are silent about race on one level, but trigger strong racial reactions on another. The result is a Republican Party that draws the vast bulk of its support from socially conservative whites, while serving the interests of moneyed elites.

And how have the Democrats responded? As long ago as 1970, they recognized that race was being used against them. But rather than contest this directly, they typically instead concluded that they had to reply in kind. So, sub silentio, Democrats launched their own racial appeals. Promising to "end welfare as a way of life" and to ramp up Reagan's war on crime, Bill Clinton won the presidency by out whistling the GOP. Democrats have not been ignoring white voters; on the contrary, all to often they've been pursuing them using the same tainted tactics as the Republicans.

Seeking votes through appeals to racial anxiety or group chauvinism is immoral and democratically destructive. This would be as true if one sought black or Latino votes this way as if one sought white support by these means. In practice, though, one of these has been -- and remains -- a much, much bigger problem in American politics.

The danger with urging greater Democratic efforts to enlist white voters is that it comes in a context in which that party already has a long history of seeking white support -- through foul means. Because of this history, those advocating more Democratic attention to white voters must be careful to recognize and repudiate liberal versions of racial demagoguery. Euphemisms here -- say about the need to win over Blue Dogs and Appalachian voters -- are especially dangerous, because they obfuscate and can thereby facilitate unsavory practices.

Cohn's correct that the ability of Democrats to retake the House depends on reaching more white voters. Had he said so clearly, though, he might have gone on to raise, rather than ignore, the single most crucial question: Can Democrats win white votes without themselves trading on prejudice, and if so, how? This is what Democratic leaders and political pundits should be debating -- front and center -- as they confront the reality of racial divisions in American politics.