Democrats Shouldn't Base Their Agenda on What Shitty People Might Think
Doing cool shit because it's cool will win elections, not lose them
The lunch counter sit-in organized by students in Greensboro, North Carolina was one of the defining moments of the Civil Rights Movement, when organizers walked into a Woolworth’s and refused to leave when denied service. Other students across the South followed suit, organizing their own lunch counter sit-ins. This radical direct action campaign inspired the Freedom Riders, and ultimately led to desegregation of public establishments in the Jim Crow South.
As much as the sit-ins are celebrated now as a storied part of American history and the struggle for equality, they were enormously unpopular at the time. As Prism’s Anoa Changa recently tweeted, a Gallup poll conducted in May of 1961 found that a significant majority of respondents viewed Civil Rights demonstrations like the lunch counter sit-ins and the freedom rides as harmful to the cause. 57% of those polled said those protests would “hurt” chances at ending segregation, and only 27% of respondents said they would help.
(Gallup poll, May 1961)
Polling didn’t change in activists’ favor over subsequent years. In June of 1963, Gallup asked Americans if they “think mass demonstrations by Negroes are more likely to HELP or more likely to HURT the Negro’s cause for racial equality,” then asked the same question in May of 1964. Those who said “help” actually dropped from 27% to 16%, while the percentage of respondents who said “hurt” rose from 60% to 74%.
Activist Bree Newsome (currently identifying on Twitter as “Brent Newsome Purdy, Non-Aggressive White Man”) reminded us that these direct action campaigns were a point of contention even among activists at the time. Younger people at the time wanted to engage in radical acts of disruption and to confront racial injustice directly, whereas older activists thought the movement should focus more on litigation.
If the movement took its cues from what the Democratic Party felt about its electoral chances among swing voters, it may have allowed the polls of the time and the wet blankets among the older generations and the political establishment to smother their momentum. But this is another great reminder that the Democratic Party is the graveyard of social movements, and that movements drive politics, rather than allow themselves to be driven by politicians.
The same tendency to hold back social movements remains strong today among the liberal commentariat. The Week columnist Damon Linker recently opined on Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer’s surprising yet welcome show of spine, warning that if the Biden administration were to go forward with his calls to enact an FDR-style 100-day agenda, including the forgiving of up to $50,000 of student debt, it could cost them electorally (using this same logical pattern, it could also be said that developing a Covid vaccine would be unfair to the nearly quarter million Americans who have already died of Covid).
Giving people free stuff is a time-honored tradition among politicians, especially in election years. The Pennsylvania Republican Party sent a mailer to voters in the days leading up to election reminding them that President Trump padded everyone’s paychecks by suspending the payroll tax, extended unemployment benefits early on in the pandemic, and halted student loan payments. It’s been theorized that Trump putting his name on our $1,200 stimulus checks may have gotten him more votes.
The Washington Post’s Dave Weigel expanded on this, tweeting that the president giving everyone free stuff before the election was “popular,” and was “clearly part of Trump’s overperformance.”
This isn’t stopping leading Democrats from being gun-shy about going too hard in the paint with their next coronavirus relief package once Joe Biden assumes the presidency. House Majority Whip James Clyburn — who rails against “socialism” while having a statue of famous Black socialist W.E.B. DuBois in his Zoom background without a lick of irony — blamed Jamie Harrison’s loss to Lindsey Graham in the South Carolina Senate race on the “sloganeering” of Black activists like “defund the police.” However, Jaime Harrison still lost by 10 points despite actively campaigning against the defunding of police departments.
Thankfully, Black Lives Matter activists aren’t being deterred by establishment figures like Clyburn. Tracey Corder, who is the deputy campaign director at the Action Center on Race and the Economy, defended the call to defund police departments as both “budgetary” and “moral.”
Governments providing people with critical help in times of crisis are perhaps their primary reason for existing. If our city is flattened after a hurricane, it’s expected that the government will deploy FEMA and the National Guard and help us rebuild. If the government forced businesses to shut down and workers to stay home to contain the spread of a deadly pandemic, we should expect the government to compensate us. And if thousands of people across the country are protesting the fact that police officers are often routinely acquitted after killing Black people with reckless abandon, municipal leaders shouldn’t then continue to give them a lion’s share of local tax revenue.
If shitty people want to use that as justification for not voting for politicians in an election two years down the road, that shouldn’t deter our representatives from doing the right thing.
Or do you think the Civil Rights movement should have curtailed their demands to win over the votes of these people?
(Pro-segregation protesters in Clinton, Tennessee in August of 1956. Photo by unknown/Wikimedia Commons)