Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Should or Should We Not Be Worried About Backlash?

As protests around the George Floyd killing continue around the country, punctuated in some cities by considerable looting, property damage and arson, the question arises whether the left should be concerned about a backlash to this violence that could benefit the right.
One response is to point out that the overwhelming majority of demonstrators are peaceful and that the proper response is therefore to ignore the violence and simply talk about the issues that sparked the protests. This seems like wishful thinking. Voters all over the country are by now very, very aware of what is going on beyond peaceful protests and many are likely to be quite disturbed by it. Their concerns will not be assuaged by assertions that the protests are, by and large, peaceful. It's the part that isn't that worries them.
Another response is to say that the current situation is quite different from, say, 1968 where backlash was effectively used by Richard Nixon to gain the Presidency. These differences include:
1. Trump isn't nearly as smart as Nixon and doesn't seem interested in reaching beyond his die-hard base to moderate voters who might be sensitive to the street violence. Tear-gassing demonstrators in Lafayette Park so he could walk across the park to, bizarrely, hold a bible and have a photo-op in front of St John's church is a good example of his non-optimizing tactics.
2. Trump is the incumbent and therefore is presiding over the current chaos. This makes it more difficult for him to portray and a "change" candidate who can make things right.
3. The likelihood of a strong third party candidate this year is small, so Trump will not be able to position himself as the candidate in the middle as Nixon did in 1969.
These are all reasonable points. But they do not persuade me that the danger of backlash does not exist at all and therefore need not be considered. Chaos and violence in the streets is generally not good for the left and the cause of racial equality. It's certainly possible that this won't matter much this year, given Trump's bone-headed actions and unpopularity. But it might and that should have us all nervous and taking evasive action. Princeton political scientist Omar Wasow explains in an interview on the New Yorker website:
"I would say that nonviolent protests can be very effective if they are able to get media attention, and that there is a very strong relationship between media coverage and public concern about whatever issues those protesters are raising. But there is a conditional effect of violence, and what that means, in practice, is that groups that are the object of state violence are able to get particularly sympathetic press—and a large amount of media coverage. But that is a very hard strategy to maintain, and what we often see is that, when protesters engage in violence, often in a very understandable response to state repression, that tends to work against their cause and interests, and mobilizes or becomes fodder for the opposition to grow its coalition.
What we observe in the nineteen-sixties is that there was a nontrivial number of white moderates who were open to policies that advanced racial equality, and were also very concerned about order. The needle that civil-rights activists were trying to thread was: How do you advance racial equality, and capture the attention of often indifferent or hostile white moderates outside of the South, and at the same time grow a coalition of allies?....
When we observed a wave of violent protests in the mid- to late sixties, those white moderates who supported the Democratic Party after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 defected to the Republican Party in 1968. So, when the state was employing violence and protesters were the targets of that violence, the strategy worked well, and when protesters engaged in violence—whether or not the state was—those voters moved to the law-and-order coalition....
When we observed a wave of violent protests in the mid- to late sixties, those white moderates who supported the Democratic Party after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 defected to the Republican Party in 1968. So, when the state was employing violence and protesters were the targets of that violence, the strategy worked well, and when protesters engaged in violence—whether or not the state was—those voters moved to the law-and-order coalition....
I think there is a lot of evidence that nonviolent tactics can be effective. You saw this on the first day in Minneapolis, where the police showed up with an excess of force, and you had these images of children running away and police dressed like stormtroopers. There are a set of narrative scripts in the public mind, and I think we interpret the news through those preĆ«xisting narratives. And so a nonviolent protest where we see state excesses is a very powerful and sympathetic narrative for the cause of fighting police violence. And as soon as the tactics shift to more aggressive violent resistance—and, to be clear, as best I can tell, police were shooting rubber bullets and there was tear gas. It seemed like an excessive police response, and so in reaction protesters escalated as well. That has an unfortunate side effect of muddying the story. Instead of talking about the history of police killings in Minneapolis, we are talking about a store going up in flames, and the focus in reporting tends to shift from a justice frame to a crime frame. And that is an unfortunate thing for a protest movement. It ends up undermining the interests of the advocates....
What’s often hard for people to see is that there are these white moderates who are part of the Democratic coalition as long as they perceive there to be order, but when they perceive there to be too much disorder they shift to the party that has owned the issue of order, which is the Republican Party. For some people, the idea that there are these swing Democratic-minded voters is hard to grasp, but there is pretty strong evidence that in 2016, and in 1968, that was an important and influential niche of voters."
A reasonable question is who these movable white moderates might be in the current context. One nomination would be whites over 65. As has been widely noted, Biden has greatly benefited from the movement of seniors, around 24 percent of 2016 voters, away from Trump and into the Democratic camp. Based on States of Change and Nationscape data, this movement has been a massive shift from 2016 of 21 margin points. The great majority of this group is white, comprising 20 percent of all voters, and they have had a similarly sized shift toward the Democrats since 2016.
As a point of comparison, consider young (under 30) black voters where Biden has been underperforming relative to Clinton--by about 15 margin points according to the same data. But this group is only around 2 percent of voters.
What this means concretely is that the shift toward Biden among white seniors has added 4 margin points to his current lead. But underperformance among young black voters has only subtracted 3/10 of a percentage point from that lead. This political arithmetic needs to be considered carefully when assessing the possible effects of backlash and the historical lessons highlighted by Wasow.
NEWYORKER.COM
A politics professor at Princeton discusses civil-rights-era protest tactics, what violent protests have meant for elections, and whether Donald Trump is a figure of disorder.

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