Can progressives win large numbers of the black and brown voters who they say will benefit their policies the most?
This is a provocative question that many Democrats are asking themselves after seeing the first results of the New York City mayoral election last week.
In a competition that focused on crime and public safety, Eric Adams, who emerged as a leading Democrat, focused much of his message on denouncing progressive slogans and policies that he said spelled the lives of “blacks and browns.” Babies “threatened and pushed by” lots of young, white, wealthy people. ” As a retired police captain and district president of Brooklyn, he turned down calls to exonerate the police department and promised to expand their reach in the city.
Black and brown voters in Brooklyn and the Bronx flocked to his candidacy, leaving Mr. Adams with sizable leading margins in neighborhoods from Eastchester to East New York. Although the official winner may not be known for weeks due to the city’s new ranking voting system, Mr Adams has a commanding lead in the race that will be difficult for his rivals to overcome.
His appeal underscores an emerging trend in democratic politics: a divide between progressive activists and the ordinary black and Latin American voters who they believe can benefit most from their agenda. While liberal activists focus their policies on fighting white supremacy and demanding racial justice, progressives find that many black voters think differently about the issues.
“Blacks talk about politics in a more practical and mundane way,” says Hakeem Jefferson, Stanford University assistant professor of political science who studies blacks’ political views. “For people who are often suspicious of broad political claims, something that is more in the middle makes more sense.”
He added, “The middle black voter is not AOC and is actually closer to Eric Adams.”
In the 2016 Democratic primary race, Senator Bernie Sanders fought to win over colored voters. Four years later, black voters helped lead President Biden to victory in the Democratic primary and formed the backbone of the coalition that helped him defeat liberal rivals such as Sanders and Senator Elizabeth Warren.
In the general election, Donald J. Trump made gains from non-white voters, particularly Latinos, as Democrats saw a drop in support that cost the party important congressional seats, according to a post-election autopsy by Democratic pressure groups. According to Democratic data firm Catalist, Mr Trump had bigger gains in all black and Latin American voters in the 2020 election than white voters without a college degree.
On issues beyond criminal justice, data suggests that black and Latin American voters are less likely to describe themselves as liberal than white voters. An analysis by Gallup found that the proportion of white Democrats who describe themselves as liberal has increased by 20 percentage points since the early 2000s. During the same period, the polling institute found an increase in liberal identification among Latino Democrats by nine points and among black Democrats by eight points.
When the votes were gathered in New York, Adams sought to capitalize on this tension between progressives and more moderate colored voters by calling himself the future of democratic politics and his campaign as a blueprint for the party.
“I am the face of the new Democratic Party,” he said at his first press conference after the pre-election evening. “If the Democratic Party doesn’t recognize what we’ve done here in New York, they’ll have a problem in the midterm elections and a problem in the presidential election.”
Extrapolating national trends from idiosyncratic New York politics is a bit like ordering a bagel with a joke in Des Moines. You will likely get a piece of bread, but the similarities can end there.
Liberal activists argue that they have made important breakthroughs with non-white voters in recent years, citing Mr Sanders’ gains among Latinos and younger voters over the course of his two presidential runs. Progressive Congress candidates, such as members of the so-called Squad, have won several districts of the Democratic House of Representatives with significant support from non-white voters.
And of course, like any demographic group, black and Latin American voters are hardly a monolith. Younger voters and those with college degrees are more likely to lean to the left than their older parents.
Still, the attraction some more conservative Democratic candidates like Mr. Adams have gained in black and Latin American communities threatens to undermine a central tenet of the party’s political thinking for decades: demographics as fate.
For years, Democrats have argued that as the country becomes more diverse and urban, their party would be able to achieve a near permanent majority with a growing coalition of colored voters. By gaining that base, the Democrats could win without having to turn to affluent suburbanites, who have traditionally been more moderate on tax issues, or white working-class voters who tend to have more conservative views on race and immigration.
But growing body of evidence suggests that large numbers of black and Latin American voters simply have a more centrist view on issues – race and criminal justice – that progressives believed would attract colored voters to their side.
The New York mayoral election provided a particularly interesting test case for this mindset. With crime and gun violence on the rise in New York, polls showed that crime and public safety were top issues for voters in the race for mayor.
The limited public polls available showed nuanced opinions among black voters about policing. A poll by the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank, found that only 17 percent of black voters and 18 percent of Latinos wanted to reduce the number of police officers in their neighborhoods. But 62 percent of black voters and 49 percent of Latino voters said they support the New York police’s “discovery” and instead spend the money on social workers, the poll found.
Other polls found that black and Latinos were more likely than white voters to say that the number of uniformed cops on the subway should be increased and that they felt unsafe from crime in their neighborhood. Fears of violent crime led some leaders in predominantly black neighborhoods to reject efforts to disempower the police.
Progressive activists who backed Maya Wiley, one of the more liberal candidates in the race, accused Adams of “scare-mongering” the city’s soaring crime rates.
“The Adams rhetoric offered voters a false dichotomy between justice and public safety,” said Sochie Nnaemeka, director of the New York State Working Families Party. “We’ve worked hard to break down this framework, but this dog whistle hits the real fear people have when our streets become increasingly unsafe. It’s a very human experience. “
Nonetheless, Mr Adams’ personal story can be particularly appealing to voters with complicated views about the criminal justice system. As a former cop, he built his political brand by criticizing the police, speaking out against police brutality, and later the department’s stop-and-frisk tactics. After years in New York politics, he is a member of the party establishment and enjoys the benefits of notoriety and decades of relationships with community leaders.
It’s the kind of biographical narrative that is likely to appeal to voters who have more intimate personal experiences with the police, who tend to live in neighborhoods that may be more criminal, but where people are also more likely to engage with violence or Faced with abuse by officials.
Some scholars and strategists argue that black and Latin American voters are more likely to focus their political beliefs on these types of experiences in their own lives and take a pragmatic approach that is rooted less in ideology than in a historical distrust of government and its politicians to keep blanket promises.
“These usual ways of thinking about ideology are falling apart for black Americans,” said Dr. Jefferson. “The idea of liberalism and conservatism simply falls by the wayside.”
He added, “It’s just not the language blacks use to organize their politics.”
Nate Cohn contributed to the coverage.