Operatic disdain for white people is bad politics
Why liberals need to stop doing collective guilt over election results
Democrats whiffed the Virginia elections this week, and the dread "Karen" is to blame. So argues Wajahat Ali at The Daily Beast, pointing to exit polls finding that a 57 percent majority of white women voted for the GOP in the state. "Democrats must finally stop chasing Amy and Karen, and start chasing Stacey: lean on women of color and a multicultural coalition that will inspire and bring out voters of color, who are your base and helped deliver you Georgia and Arizona," he writes.
This is a stupid and counterproductive argument. Liberals' habit of using collective responsibility to explain election outcomes needs to stop.
To start with, the class connotation of "Karen" isn't even right. This (increasingly grating and offensive) stereotype is generally applied to educated, upper-middle class white women with a bad case of entitlement. Examples are people who call the cops on Black men at the drop of a hat, yell at service workers, work to keep their schools racially segregated, flip out about affordable housing proposals, and so on. But white female college graduates are the closest subgroup to the stereotype in the Virginia exit polls and they actually swung towards Democrats. It was white female non-graduates who swung Republican, from 56 percent to 75 percent (which Ali does note, to be fair). For the argument to make sense, we need a more classist derogatory synecdoche — maybe Krystal or Amber?
Secondly, operatic disdain for white people is politically daft. Non-Hispanic white people make up about 60 percent of the American population. As a matter of simple arithmetic, it is impossible to win a national election without winning a substantial portion of those voters. Consider the 2020 election and white men, who vote Republican at even higher rates than white women. If the Biden campaign had been following Ali's line of thinking, it would have written them off even more firmly than white women.
In reality, white men were the only race/gender grouping that moved towards Biden relative to Hillary Clinton. Every single other one — Black men and women, Latinos and Latinas, and white women all swung towards Trump. But white men going 8 percentage points towards Biden was more than enough to make up the difference, because there are so many of them and they tend to live in swing states. (Oddly, nobody wrote any articles about how we need to thank clap white clap men clap for putting Biden in office.)
But more fundamentally, assigning collective guilt for election results is simply prejudiced by definition. Blaming "Karen" for Republicans winning puts guilt on an entire group for something only a bit more than half actually did. Of course, that's not in the same league as anti-Black racism or other serious bigotries, but it's still unfair.
Despite his caveats, Ali's article is full of barely-qualified generalizations about white women. "They vote for their interests, which is preserving whiteness at all costs. When push comes to shove, many white women in this country have historically shoved people of color out of the way," he writes. "These Virginia Karens can now sleep peacefully at night knowing their cultural warriors will confront and annihilate that loathsome and fearsome beast known as [critical race theory]."
This kind of thinking led some white women to write bizarre self-flagellating articles actually accepting blame for exit polls apparently showing Trump had won white women in 2016. "As a young white woman, I realize that white women did not do the work needed to keep Mr. Trump, and his boasts about sexual harassment, from the White House," wrote Phoebe Lett in The New York Times. "This couldn't have happened without white women — and whatever comes next is also on us," wrote Kristi Pahr at Bustle.
It's ridiculous — as if, what, young white women from the D.C. suburbs are supposed to traipse out into rural Pennsylvania to convince other white women specifically to vote for Democrats, like some nonprofit jargon-addled Narodniks? Why wouldn't activists just work to get votes, period, like all door-knocking volunteers have always done since time immemorial? And as far as blame for 2016, how about blaming the Democratic Party elite for clearing the decks for the second-least popular nominee in the history of polling?
Now, I have no doubt that a great many hardcore Republican women voters are racist, or refuse to get vaccinated, or deny climate change, and so on. (Proof of that can be found at any Trump rally.) But in my view, the morally appropriate way to approach voters is also the best way to view them politically: as individuals. White women are to blame for electing Republicans if and only if they actually did vote for the GOP — and even so, should still be welcomed should they change their mind. This approach has the handy property of not flippantly dismissing the potential votes of 30 percent of the American population. A big tent coalition party like the Democrats can't afford to write off any group that large.
It's not a coincidence the most successful socialist politician in American history, Bernie Sanders, never ever dismisses categories of people. When he is before skeptical crowds on Fox News, he always looks for common ground and points of unity, working for every single last scrap of support, and he's quite good at it. A vote is a vote, even if it comes from a someone whose prior voting history is less than pristine.
Electoral defeats are always demoralizing. But the way forward is not to scapegoat huge demographic groups in a fit of pique. Much as we might want to, we can't dissolve the people and elect another.