What Are the Magic Words We Aren’t Saying to Racists?

Government is basically wizardry.

Open up any of our spellbooks and you will see that it requires wizened men (and we’re letting more women in) to say and do things in exactly the right order to change reality. Textbook wizardry. In Indiana, if you want to amend the Indiana Constitution, the state’s highest body of wizards, the General Assembly, has to pass it out of two consecutive sessions. Then the people must cast ballots for it the following election. Timing, ritual, and invocation all play a major part in changing our government. Wizardry.

But you know magic isn’t real. It is really just an agreement to follow the rules about how to make rules so that we respect rules we do not like. I opposed the recent “Right to Hunt” amendment on a number of grounds, but I view it as legitimate because it passed the process. As a relatively privileged person, these invocations work often enough in my favor and basically never catastrophically against. Therefore, I am willing to pretend the magic works. This is the entire liberal* project in a nutshell. If we invoke the right words at the right time, we can create a system that protects individual rights and keeps the government needed to defend them in place.

The American left deeply, passionately believes in the ability of words to change hearts and minds. The evidence is a bit more mixed. For example, public opinion of same-sex marriage has tracked fairly closely with how the courts have ruled on it. This suggests that people draw legitimacy not directly from the arguments, but from what the state says about those arguments. The wave of hate crimes following Trump’s election suggests that even those who are ideologically committed take cues from the legitimacy of state. Further, the gaping hole in millennial voter turnout suggests that the problem wasn’t that Barack Obama convinced white racists in swing states to turn out for him, but rather young people who were weakly opposed to racism to show up. It was young liberals, not poor white folks, who did not make it to the polls. And now Trump is going to be President.

So when I see calls for Liberal Soul SearchingTM, I have to wonder: what are the magic words we are searching for? Here are some things the democrats could say to win the votes of white conservatives. They worked for George Bush, John McCain, Mitt Romney, and now Donald Trump:

  1. We will deport illegal immigrants.
  2. We will keep them from abusing welfare.
  3. We will keep America safe by invading dangerous, foreign countries.
  4. We will end job-destroying regulation.
  5. We will protect traditional family values.

There you go liberals! Those are the magic words that Sanders or Warren or Michelle Obama need to say in 2020 to win the votes of white conservatives. If you would just empathize a little harder with conservatives, you too would feel that is what they feel.

Anyone saying differently is just widening the empathy gap.




*A year ago, this footnote would say that the Democrats and Republicans were competing liberal visions. The rise of the alt-right to power in recent weeks challenges that. Republicans used to very clearly believe in the system of individual rights that has defined the liberal project since the 18th century. While I still believe that true, just under half the electorate chose to abdicate their responsibility to protect that vision—and now we have bona fide White Nationalists en route to the White House.

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