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How racism and economic anxiety fuel the GOP's war on democracy

Democrats need to give Americans the full picture of how Republicans exploit white fear.

As we barrel toward Election Day, Democrats are struggling to figure out what their overall message to voters should be. Should it be a focus on the economy and the struggles working-class Americans face? Should more attention be paid to the ways democracy itself is under threat? Or are they underplaying the concerns among their base about the at times blatant racism on display from the Republican Party?

It's easy to see why candidates feel pulled in so many different directions, but a new analysis from The New York Times has me convinced what the Democrats need to tell Americans is “all of the above.” All three are intertwined in a way that has powered the MAGA wing of the GOP, feeding into white voters’ interconnected fears of racial replacement — as seen in the conspiracies that the likes of Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., and Fox host Tucker Carlson have endorsed — and their being further left behind in a shifting economic landscape that will only worsen should House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., become speaker next year.

In their analysis, the Times authors looked at the districts represented by the 139 House Republicans who voted against certifying President Joe Biden’s victory on Jan. 6, 2021, and found that “a shrinking white share of the population is a hallmark” of their constituencies. “The portion of white residents dropped about 35 percent more over the last three decades in those districts than in territory represented by other Republicans.”

Their feeling of abandonment is provoking the backlash against democracy itself that Trump’s election denialism helped galvanize.

Taken alongside the fact that these districts also “lagged behind in income and education,” you have a recipe for the willingness we’ve seen from residents to believe the 2020 election was rigged. It’s a case in which these districts’ residents have taken the things they can see — the changing faces of their neighbors and the lack of economic opportunity — and melded them with former President Donald Trump’s conspiracy theories to explain the world they live in.

It's not an entirely surprising finding when you consider earlier analyses of the rioters who attempted to stop the electoral vote count on Jan. 6 in what boiled down to a race riot. Last year, the Chicago Project on Security and Threats noted that many of the people who had been charged with storming the Capitol came from areas that underwent the same demographic shifts The Times is highlighting: “Counties with the most significant declines in the non-Hispanic white population are the most likely to produce insurrectionists who now face charges.”

Meanwhile, that feeling of abandonment is provoking the backlash against democracy itself that Trump’s election denialism helped galvanize. If elections are only set to strengthen the hand of nonwhites, it follows then that elections themselves must be questioned. And when past disappointments have conditioned them to lose faith in the system, promises from men who claim they alone can fix it, like Trump, seem like a better bet than the results elections have brought them so far.

The idea that Republican voters and politicians base their views on (and feed off of) white fears is something we're very bad at directly facing as a society. It’s why the tea party’s origins were framed as a backlash to taxes and Wall Street bailouts, rather than as a racist backlash to the first Black president. It’s also why so much of the framing of Trump’s 2016 win looked at “economic anxiety” among his supporters, overlooking the permission he gave them to embrace racist positions.

The idea that Republican voters and politicians base their views on (and feed off of) white fears is something we're very bad at directly facing as a society.

In throwing their lot in with Trump and the election deniers he has spawned, many of these white Americans are basing their actions on decades of lies that have actually worsened the daunting economic conditions they face. Since the Reagan era, Republicans have told voters that social safety net programs — which will be only more useful as inflation makes essential items more expensive — are stealing tax dollars from hard-working whites and giving them to indolent Black and Hispanic Americans. A 2018 study from researchers at two California universities found that “white Americans are more likely to favor welfare cuts when they believe that their status is threatened and that minorities are the main beneficiaries of safety net programs.”

In reality, white Americans “make up the largest share of Medicaid and food stamp recipients,” as a Washington Post article about the study pointed out. While elderly Black Americans are more likely to depend on Social Security for income, they “benefit less overall from this program due to the persistent pay gap, as well as shorter life spans.” But the difficulty Democrats face in convincing voters in the districts The Times analyzed that the government programs they’re championing are designed to help them and minorities, even if things feel different, is part of what has kept us in this cycle.

That dynamic is set to be aggravated if the GOP manages to take back control. Even now, House Republicans are pledging that should they retake the majority, a massive cut in federal spending will be the cost for not plunging the world into a new depression. The looming recession that Republicans hope begins on Biden’s watch will bring even louder demands that Democrats yield to cuts that pile further miseries on Americans.

And that pain won’t be blamed on the white men and women who went to Washington and voted to reduce how much help families in their districts get at the grocery store every month. It will be aimed at the people whose votes are automatically seen as untrustworthy, the minorities and immigrants who they’ve been told have come to replace them and their children. The anger unleashed in those constituencies will yell once again that only Trump can fix it — no matter what the election results say in 2024.

This is the scenario Democrats face as Republicans ready themselves to exploit the fears of their white constituents once again from inside their safely gerrymandered districts. Democracy demands that representatives listen to the voters who put them there — and in a fit of irony, the Republicans of the House, fearful for their jobs, will likely do just that in January 2025, even if it means casting the votes of a majority of Americans into the proverbial fire.