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Biden’s Quiet ‘Breakthrough’ In Talking About Race



Since at least the mid-1980s, the pursuit of the archetypal “Reagan Democrat” suburban swing voter has been a lodestar guiding Democratic messaging. The strategy was straightforward: These socially moderate-to-conservative suburban white Americans largely were simpatico with Democrats on economic issues, but voted for the GOP in part because they believed Democrats were interested in pursuing racial justice at the expense of issues they viewed as more relevant to their own lives.

The result of that thinking was a “color-blind” approach to talking about economic policies and programs — emphasizing a “rising tide lifts all boats” message that glossed over or ignored racial disparities. But for reasons both ideological and strategic, that “color-blind” posture is no longer effective for Democrats — and, McGhee says, can actually backfire.

“Since the Obama era, the racial sorting of voters has included white voters moving to the Democratic Party because of their progressive views on race,” she says. “What holds together the progressive coalition is, yes, obviously, a sense that government can — and needs to — be a force for good and address our big crises. But also the coalition … thinks we have to talk about race, and doesn’t want to see politicians without the courage to address these obvious inequalities head-on.”

In this way, while the Biden administration’s massive investments in middle-class economic growth have been likened by some to the liberal heyday of Franklin D. Roosevelt, that comparison misses an important difference. The New Deal era was defined by policies that were “either explicitly, as in the housing subsidies, or implicitly, because of segregation in education and housing under the GI Bill, for whites only,” says McGhee. By contrast, she sees the Biden era as “a massive refilling of the pool of public goods for everyone.”

What explains that change? What shifted in American politics that prodded Democratic leadership to directly address the racial components of economic issues? And what’s the hidden history that led to the disinvestment in public goods just as Black Americans began to be included in what America saw as the “public”? To sort through it all, POLITICO Magazine spoke with McGhee. A condensed transcript of that conversation follows, edited for length and clarity.



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