The Discourse Report: April 29, 2021

Does anti-racism hurt Democratic messaging?, Biden's address to Congress, welcoming our new robot overlords, and more


Anti-Racism and Electoral Success

  • A new study by political scientists Micah English and Joshua Kalla find that “racial framing decreases support for race-neutral progressive policies.”

  • What is “racial framing”? What is a “race-neutral progressive policy”? Consider a proposal for more progressive tax code. A racial frame might explicitly connect that redistributivist policy goal with reducing inequality for blacks and Latinos.

  • But while this is happening more frequently, as politicians grow more comfortable adopting explicitly antiracist frames, the authors find that “linking public policies to race is detrimental for support of those policies.”

  • I echo Jonathan Chait’s analysis of this trend:

    The mechanism that has led Democrats to embrace race-conscious messaging seems to be entirely internal. As white liberals have grown more aware of racism, they have rewarded politicians who cater to their newfound awareness by explicitly promising racial justice. This has opened the door to redefining large swaths of the Democratic policy agenda. After all, many problems in American life disproportionately harm Black people: unemployment, lack of health insurance or child care, exposure to environmental harm, and so on. Most reforms that increase equality in general also increase racial equality. …

    Describing Democratic policies as a redress of racism makes perfect sense within progressive spaces. Many of these race-conscious messages are designed by progressives for the benefit of other progressives. (Matthew Yglesias argues that competition for progressive funding dollars, some of which are earmarked for anti-racist causes, is a motivating factor.) And framing one’s position as anti-racist certainly feels righteous and good to people with liberal views on race.

    But the only world in which that strategy is going to be effective is one in which most non-Black people are very happy to make sacrifices in order to promote racial justice — which is to say, a world in which racism has been largely eradicated. But that isn’t the actual world we live in. Somehow, white liberals becoming more aware of racism has driven the Democratic party to start acting as if racism isn’t real.

  • Of course, this isn’t just a live issue within tax policy. The Dispatch’s Andrew Egger has a helpful write-up of the Biden administration’s initiative to steer some federal education money toward antiracist curricula.

  • One progressive response is to accept the inevitability of the wider public coming to see the alleviation of inequality in a specifically racialized way, and in light of that, to lean into explicit racial framings. Since people are going to inevitably see these policies through a racial lens, why not just make the racial dimensions explicit? Jamelle Bouie writes: “There is no way to avoid the fact that the politics of redistributive policy in the United States is racialized. Studiously avoiding anti-racist language or mentions of race period does not actually stop or defuse this dynamic, and may actually make the policies more vulnerable.”

  • But, hang on, why should the success of race-neutral messaging be judged on whether it “stops or defuses” the racialization of policy debate? That seems like a needlessly lofty standard. Wouldn’t it be enough if the shift to race-neutral language merely mitigates the racialization of these issues? What I’m arguing is that it makes good sense to shift from a “stop or defuse” model of success, which Bouie proposed, and instead construe partial deracialization as an adequate outcome. After all, per the research, that’s the approach that is likeliest to bring political success.


  1. Biden, in Speech to Congress, Offers Sweeping Agenda and Touts Democracy by Matt Viser and Tyler Pager in The Washington Post on 4/29/21

President Biden on Wednesday night used his first speech to a joint session of Congress to argue for a dramatic expansion of government services, making a plea for sweeping plans to provide universal preschool, free community college and expanded health care and new tax breaks for families — much of it funded by higher taxes on the wealthiest Americans.

While he also renewed calls for an array of priorities — including immigration changes, gun control and police reform — Biden more broadly portrayed a country that is rapidly emerging from the depths of a global pandemic and has survived events that, in his view, tested American democracy as rarely before.

  1. Democrats and Republicans Can’t Agree on Anything. They Shouldn’t Have To. by Ezra Klein in The New York Times on 4/29/21

Let’s make this easier for bipartisanship and imagine the only condition that needs to be fulfilled is that both parties think a bill is a good idea. Outside of emergencies — and American politics cannot function only during financial crises and pandemics — the set of ideas that both parties can agree on is far smaller and blander than the range of ideas that one party or the other likes. To insist on bipartisanship as a condition of passage is to believe that it’s better for American politics to choose its solutions from the kid’s menu.

Virtually the entire Republican Party signed a pledge to oppose any and all tax increases, so a truly bipartisan approach would mean taxes were simply off the table for policymaking. That would plainly be absurd. But even where more reasonable compromise is possible, problems abound.

Bills both parties agree on are often bills that have seen their most dramatic or unusual ideas sanded off. Compromise bills can be wise legislation, but they often result in policy too modest and mushy to solve problems. We would never want industries to release only products that all the major competitors can agree on — we understand that it’s good for the public to have choices, and sometimes the best product starts as a risky bet, not as a consensus pick.

  1. The Clockwork Universe: Is Free Will an Illusion? by Oliver Burkeman in The Guardian on 4/27/21

It’s tempting to dismiss the free will controversy as irrelevant to real life, on the grounds that we can’t help but feel as though we have free will, whatever the philosophical truth may be. I’m certainly going to keep responding to others as though they had free will: if you injure me, or someone I love, I can guarantee I’m going to be furious, instead of smiling indulgently on the grounds that you had no option. In this experiential sense, free will just seems to be a given.

But is it? When my mind is at its quietest – for example, drinking coffee early in the morning, before the four-year-old wakes up – things are liable to feel different. In such moments of relaxed concentration, it seems clear to me that my intentions and choices, like all my other thoughts and emotions, arise unbidden in my awareness. There’s no sense in which it feels like I’m their author. Why do I put down my coffee mug and head to the shower at the exact moment I do so? Because the intention to do so pops up, caused, no doubt, by all sorts of activity in my brain – but activity that lies outside my understanding, let alone my command. And it’s exactly the same when it comes to those weightier decisions that seem to express something profound about the kind of person I am: whether to attend the funeral of a certain relative, say, or which of two incompatible career opportunities to pursue. I can spend hours or even days engaged in what I tell myself is “reaching a decision” about those, when what I’m really doing, if I’m honest, is just vacillating between options – until at some unpredictable moment, or when an external deadline forces the issue, the decision to commit to one path or another simply arises.

  1. Welcoming Our New Robot Overlords by Adam Elkus in The New Atlantis for Spring 2021

While online behavior is certainly shaped by platform mechanisms, the fear today is less of the mechanisms themselves than of whom they’re enticing. Prior emphasis on the machine threat warned of the unpredictability of automated behavior and the need for humans to develop policies to control it. Today’s emphasis on the social media terror inverts this, warning of the danger posed by unchecked digital mobs, who must be controlled. The risk comes not from the machines but from ourselves: our vulnerability to deception and manipulation, our need to band together with others to hunt down and accost our adversaries online, our tendency to incite and be incited by violent rhetoric to act out in the physical world, and our collective habit of spiraling down into correlated webs of delusion, insanity, and hatred.

  1. Joe Biden’s First 100 Days Reshaped America by Jonathan Chait in New York Magazine on 4/26/21

During the first hundred days of Joe Biden’s presidency, it has dawned on Republicans that the man their standard-bearer once mocked as “Sleepy Joe” is a formidable adversary. And the quality that has made him so effective up to this point is, well, his sleepiness. “I think Biden is a disaster for the country, and his ideas are an atrocity. But he’s boring. He’s just boring,” complained alt-media personality Dan Bongino. This frustration is not confined to the party’s entertainment wing. “It’s always harder to fight against a nice person because usually people will sort of give him the benefit of the doubt,” grumbled Senator John Cornyn. At a recent speech to donors, Donald Trump was reduced to mocking his successor as “Saintly Joe Biden,” perhaps the feeblest moment in his decades-long career of schoolyard taunts. …

Biden’s strategy of boringness is a fascinating counterpoint to a career spent trying desperately to be interesting. Biden used to overshare, with frequently disastrous results that led him to accurately self-diagnose as a “gaffe machine.” Whether his advanced age has slowed him down or made him wiser, he has finally given up his attention-seeking impulse and embraced the opposite objective. Biden’s success is a product of the crucial yet little-appreciated insight that substantive advances don’t require massive public fights. The drama of inspiration and conflict is not only unnecessary to promote change but even, in certain circumstances, outright counterproductive.


  1. Jake Tapper (@jaketapper)

  1. Martin Kulldorff (@MartinKulldorff)

  1. Carissa Byrne Hessick (@CBHessick)

  1. Jeffrey Sachs (@JeffreySachs)

  1. Don Moynihan (@donmoyn)