How elites captured the social justice movement

After the murder of George Floyd, mass protests, swelling public support for Black Lives Matter, even corporate action seemed to indicate a major upswing in the social justice movement.

“Then just all of a sudden it just seemed to be over,” Freddie deBoer, writer and academic, says.

deBoer says the progressive left should have seen that coming.

Today, On Point: Race, class and elite capture of the social justice movement.


Freddie deBoer, writer and academic. Author of “How Elites Ate the Social Justice Movement.

Also Featured

Christopher Stout, associate professor in the school of public policy at Oregon State University.

Book Excerpt

Excerpt from “How Elites Ate the Social Justice Movement” by Freddie deBoer. All rights reserved. Not to be republished without permission of the publisher.


Part I

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: Fredrik deBoer identifies himself as a former left-wing organizer. Profiles of deBoer have himself identifying as a Marxist, an atheist. He would like to limit the labels to just two. Quote, “I don’t like any label other than Marxist or socialist for myself,” he once told the New Statesman magazine.

But truthfully, after reading his new book, I wonder now if deBoer would seek to shed any identity label. Because the left’s hyper focus and hyper exaltation on how people self-identify, to the exclusion of any other way of seeing the world, may be one of the reasons why deBoer says progressive movements are quote, “Forever wandering from the righteous to the ridiculous. And very rarely are they marching towards lasting success.” That is the thrust of deBoer’s new book. It’s called “How Elites Ate the Social Justice Movement,” and Freddie DeBoer joins us from Hartford, Connecticut. Welcome to On Point.

FREDDIE deBOER: Thank you for having me.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay, so first let me just quickly ask you would you use any self-identifying label now, or do you take issue with my reading of identity as part of your criticism of the book?

deBOER: I understand what you’re saying. I think that socialist and Marxist are like the best sort of descriptors of my politics. The nice thing about identifying as a Marxist is that there’s so few of us that there’s very little baggage to be associated with it.

But I don’t particularly care what people call me. I am interested in the liberation of all mankind.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay, I suppose some people say that Marxism has plenty of baggage as a way of seeing the world, but we could debate that in another show. Now, what I wanted to do, Freddie, if I may, is actually use two examples that are in the news right now and get your thoughts on what those examples tell us and to see if there’s any connection between the two.

Okay. So first and foremost, as you will know, following Hamas’s attacks the weekend before last on Israeli citizens. A small but very high-profile group of demonstrators in the United States, both online and in reality, came out in support of the Palestinians. But their support was in a very particular form.

We saw images or videos of people at these demonstrations saying that they feel exhilarated. They feel personally exhilarated by Hamas attacks because they see them as a righteous blow against Israeli oppression. Other statements saying they totally absolve the Palestinians and Hamas of any responsibility for what had happened because the entire reason for those attacks was the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory.

And even we saw on social media some images of people flashing the Nazi swastika at these same demonstrations. How do you read that in the context of your book?

deBOER: Yeah, I am firmly a supporter of Palestinian self-determination, but I think that that issue perfectly illustrates sort of the end game of identity as the coin of the political realm. It appears that there can be no mutually happy solution for the two major groups, because of clinging to identity.

So I’m a supporter of a one state solution. What does that mean? It means that the Palestinian territories are integrated into Israel but not as an annexation, but rather as the creation of an Israel-Palestine state where the people in the territories, the Palestinians, have a complete legal and political equality with Israelis.

I think it’s the only way in any real realistic scenario that you have peace without ethnic cleansing or war. But people say nobody wants that, the Palestinians don’t want that because they want to drive people out of who took the land in the Nakba. The Israelis don’t want that because they don’t want the creation of a huge new Palestinian voting bloc in their democracy.

And this is the fundamental issue, right? With these sorts of rabid attachments to identities like ethnic identity. I think one of the worst ways to defend Palestinians is the way that some people do, which is to say, “Oh, they’re the indigenous people of that land.” And it’s first of all, that’s a incredibly contested historical question. But second of all, it doesn’t make any sense to say that basic human rights stem from your indigenous status.

But the reason we need to integrate the Palestinians into a democratic body is because they’re human beings and they need rights like anyone else. But as long as people are clutching to these things, then it looks like there’s not going to be a solution. And I do want to say, Israel’s status as an ethno-state, which is what it is, that’s not me speaking, it’s Theodor Herzl speaking, puts it into constant tension with the basics of liberal democracy.

CHAKRABARTI: So one thing that I often note is regarding the indigenous argument, that of course, fundamentally to your point, people should be treated justly because they’re human beings, but also some awareness of the manner in which indigenous peoples are, have been uprooted from lands. That they’ve historically lived on, can’t go unnoticed. But on the other hand, I also see if you take that argument to its logical extreme, we are in a sense all colonizers, no matter who we are. Because human beings have for a million years moved around the planet Earth.

Which is why I point that out, because when many people who ferociously belong to social justice movements will say at their core what they are about is dressing unjust power imbalances. But what you get when that is the hyper narrow perspective with which you view the world, is the threat of compromising yourself morally. By then saying because an attack against Israeli citizens was an attempt to slightly correct power imbalances between Palestinians and Israelis, therefore those murders are righteous.

Do you see that sort of moral sacrifice? Moral undermining happening in other areas of the social justice movement?

deBOER: Sure. I would say that just in general I’m not interested in the rights of dead people. I’m interested in the rights of living people, right? I think that when you look at historical crimes, you have to count the bodies, you have to tell the truth, you have to pledge not to do it again.

But that is not where the impetus for justice comes. In other words, it’s a profound mistake to say that the reason why we need to fight for Black people is because of slavery. Among other things, there’s generations of Black people in the United States who have immigrated from the Caribbean or Africa or other places that have been here for many decades.

Who are not the descendants of slaves, but who still suffer under the burden of American inequality. The reason to want to tear down the inequality isn’t because of a bunch of people who have been dead for hundreds of years. The reason they want to tear down the inequality is because it’s a moral stain on the nation that you’ve had this group of people who have experienced one oppression after the other.

And now are in a state of economic deprivation, of constant surveillance and violence under the law, etc. That’s the moral case for fixing American racism.

CHAKRABARTI: So that’s the one example that I wanted to just quickly survey you on. And the other one, which the second one we will come back to in detail later in the show, because you basically wrote an entire chapter in your book about it.

But the sort of controversy that the Antiracism Center at Boston University, led by possibly the most famous public intellectual on antiracism, Ibram X. Kendi. And before, I need to disclose completely that the home station that I work at, WBUR, Boston University owns our broadcast license, and I am technically an employee of Boston University.

So all of this has literally happened in our backyard, full disclosure. But basically, what has happened there is evidence of pretty severe financial mismanagement after many tens of millions of dollars of funding came to the center. And Kendi in particular, with basically no scholarship in return.

How does that factor into you seeing elites as eating the social justice movement?

deBOER: So the first thing I want to say is I am not someone who sees Ibram Kendi as uniquely pernicious in any way. I think that he’s wrongheaded on many issues, but he, I think, because he’s probably the most prominent antiracist, receives a lot of flak that I think is more general, sort of for things that people don’t like about the antiracist movement.

I also have no doubt that I don’t think he had any intention of creating some kind of slush fund or anything for himself. I think that the structural issue, though, is that a lot of people responded to what happened in 2020 by cutting a lot of checks.

And if there’s anything the last three years shows, it’s the limits of what can be accomplished by cutting checks. In investing, there’s this phenomenon that happens where in a low interest rate environment, which we had until very recently, there are often people who have more money than they feel like they have investment opportunities.

Everyone is chasing an investment opportunity. Part of the reason why startups receive so much money is because these people are desperate to find an opportunity to win big. There’s a very similar thing in philanthropy in 2020, between George Floyd’s death, which was obviously shocking to people and inspired people to want to do something.

And so they wanted to give, between George Floyd’s death and the end of the year, something on the order of $10 billion was donated by individuals. So that’s not even organizational donations. That’s, I think, a very noble impulse, but what you end up with this is like Ibram Kendi sitting at an antiracism center with $50 million. Which no antiracism center actually needs, right?

It’s this phenomenon of people wanting to give, but they’re not being clear paths for where that money could go. In an ideal world, you would hope that it would just be distributed to Black people.

Part II

CHAKRABARTI:  Freddie, I think elites has become, it’s such a overused term, it’s like the favorite pejorative for people to go to when they’re just criticizing something or someone they don’t like, right?

Elites are college elites, they’re the wealthy 1%, they’re media elites, they’re the Washington elite. It’s become meaningless to me. So when you say elites ate the social justice movement. Who are these elites?

deBOER: I hope Simon & Schuster won’t mind If I share with you that my preferred title was “No justice, no peace, no progress,” but I lost that argument.

CHAKRABARTI: (LAUGHS) They’re good at marketing. because I’m telling you that headline or the title of the book very much has caught a lot of people’s attention and led them to open the book. Let’s put it that way.

deBOER: So when I talk about elites in the book, in two dimensions. The first is elite sort of individuals who make up the idea generating and political class of American life.

That’s the first part. And the second part is elite institutions. So for the first, there’s a particular kind of person who has dramatically unrepresentative, excuse me, a disproportionate influence in how we talk about politics, what we define as political goals, the journalism that gets performed, the idea generating class.

If you look at the universities, the major media companies, the nonprofits who play a huge role in these things, the congressional staffers, for example, these people overwhelmingly come from elite academic backgrounds. It’s important to say, I don’t know if everybody understands this, going to a college that rejects more students than it accepts is extremely rare.

It’s less than 30% of colleges who have an acceptance rate below 50%. And that’s even a little misleading because they’re very small enrollments compared to bigger colleges, which means that the experience of being someone who goes to a Yale, a Dartmouth, a Stanford, a Brown, a university of Chicago, a Duke, that in and of itself makes you part of a tiny sliver of the American population.

And we know about that sliver. They are, they tend to be hyper educated. They tend to congregate in urban enclaves. So you’re much more likely to move to a city if you’re college educated than if you’re not. They also tend, obviously, there’s lots of exceptions, but they tend to have been raised in affluence.

If you look at the numbers about some of these elite schools, it’s shocking just how many of their students have come from financial privilege. And they’re the ones who took the ball that with the natural and organic and righteous anger over George Floyd’s murder, and then they set the terms of the debate.

And the problem with that is that if you’re a 23-year-old and you work at a prominent website that puts out news and journalism and analysis and you just graduated from Stanford, and you grew up in upper middle-class comfort, right? The material dimensions of racism that George Floyd experienced, right?

As someone who came from poverty, he had lost two jobs because of the pandemic, experience, prior experience with the law. Those things are just remarkably remote to you, right? It’s hard for you to understand what that’s like, because you’ve never struggled to pay the rent.

That’s not an experience that you have, right? But what you do have is you’ve just spent four years in an idea generating machine that has given you Ibram Kendi to read, that has given you Gloria Anzaldúa to read, that has given you bell hooks to read. And so your approach is going to stem from these fundamentally symbolic linguistic approaches.

CHAKRABARTI: So you’re saying that the conclusion is that people who emerge from these idea-generating and elite institutions often confuse virtue signaling with actual progress. But you also, you keep referencing George Floyd and the murder of George Floyd. I would argue that this goes back well before that terrible day in America.

Because don’t you see evidence of elite capture of the social justice movement for years prior to that, even if you just want to focus it in terms of how it’s discussed within the Democratic Party, for example. I see the same patterns that you’re talking about there.

deBOER: Yeah, and I’ve been writing about it for a long time.

So if you go back to the early to mid-2010s, excuse me, 2010s, I was writing a lot about what was sometimes referred to as the campus uprising, which was a series of heated protests, typically regarding race at elite colleges with students making a lot of major demands on these institutions and decrying them as hotbeds of racism and white supremacy, et cetera, which is interesting in the sense that those campuses are probably maybe the most left leaning places in our country.

The presaged the George Floyd moment. In other words, back when I was writing about those things, about protests at Oberlin or Amherst or Wesleyan, or things like that, I was frequently told, “Who cares? They’re just college students, right? Let them do their weird stuff on campus. It doesn’t matter.”

The problem with that attitude is that those people graduate, and they go on to be the masters of the universe, right? This is how we generate our leadership class, our financial elite, our educated elite. And so when the match was struck with the George Floyd murder, after a decade of these social justice norms spreading out farther and farther in our culture.

They were there to define what was happening.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. I just want to emphasize something that you’re saying. Is that a natural consequence of the way that elite institutions work, again, as you’re saying in higher education and those idea generating institutions. Is that those are the folks who, when they merge from them, have both the network, the means and the time to advance their ideas, versus the actual George Floyd’s of the world who have none of those things.

So we’re going to come back to that in a second. But Freddie, I was thinking also in your looking to these specific places, as how the quote-unquote elite ate the social justice movement.

It seems to me that for decades there’s been, of course, the emergence of postmodernism as a way of thinking. And then that coupled with identity studies, right? And you could say, you could see that when those two things come together and lead to the, quote, ridiculous demonstrations of the current social justice movement, as you point out in the book, that they come together and dilute the power of each way of thinking down to a level of meaningless and virtue signaling.

I don’t disagree with that. But on the other hand, I do wonder if we’re being too critical of these elite institutions or unfairly critical because a lot of these systems of thinking have also given us brand new ways of looking at the world. I’m just thinking about Claudia Goldin, who just won the Nobel Prize in Economics for her decades-long focus on women in the labor force.

I don’t think she could have done that research without the support of these same institutions that say, “No, we think it’s worthy because of the idea of seeking equality in this world. We think it’s worthy to support this kind of research.”

deBOER: Yeah, and I think I try to take time in the book to say that, look between the opinions of the most diehard social justice inflected, comes from the 1% activists at Brown University or Republican, obviously, I’m much, much more closely aligned with the first.

I think that people have kind of tended to miss this because of the thrust of the book. I’m easily one of the top 10% most woke Americans. If you actually were to take my opinions and my positions on things and to go through a list in that way, I’m far to the cultural left of the average American. My critique has never been that the ideas aren’t an expression of very genuine anger and frustration over persistent injustice.

My critique has always been they suck at fighting it, right? That their tactics have failed, but that there’s such, they created such a censorious atmosphere and so much illiberalism in their spaces, that everybody was afraid to say that they were failing.

CHAKRABARTI: I would also say that it seems to me that one of the weaknesses in terms of how modern, or today’s social justice movements work, it comes back to that identity issue, right?

When it’s so focused on one’s self identity, all you have to do is satisfy that self to feel as if you’ve made progress. When, truthfully, progress, across the board is a longer, harder slog than that. But I want to just get a little bit of clarity here on something. When you say the elites overtook and transformed the social justice movement, are you saying that they have become too focused on a narrow set, subset of what social justice means in a part, and particularly race?

deBOER: So we should be careful here not to hang this problem just on today’s social justice too much, movement too much. Every left leaning social movement ever has had a debate within itself about the fact that there is an elite class within the movement that does a lot of the organizing and the thinking and the directing, even though these are up from below egalitarian movements.

So for example, the Bolsheviks, if you read their writings from Russia, prior to the revolution. Were constantly talking about, “Okay, what does it mean to have a people’s revolution? If you have people who are very educated, who are directing that revolution?” Che Guevara was a doctor, right?

He was not a peasant working in in the sugarcane fields. So that in and of itself is not necessarily a knock against them, right? The issue is not that a lot of college educated people tend to be the ones who are most focused on the social justice issues, but that despite their best intentions, they can’t fully understand the actual structural oppression that’s lying underneath of these issues.

For example, affirmative action, I am a defender of race based affirmative action. Affirmative action is like the definition of a solution that leaves the problem alone, right? There’s absolutely nothing structural that’s being addressed by affirmative action.

And those kinds of things tend to be the kind of things that people in these elite climbs pursue. And then again, the really unfortunate thing about this is that partly because of the influence of social media, they developed a atmosphere that said anyone who questions or criticizes our movement must necessarily be one of the enemy, and they are subject to being socially destroyed.


deBOER: Sorry.

CHAKRABARTI: No. I didn’t mean to interrupt you there. I’ll let you come back. Excuse me, come back in a second, but this actually is the perfect opportunity for me to introduce just some thoughts from another person on this, Freddie, because when I hear you say that affirmative action does nothing to make deeper structural change, I think a lot of folks out there would just vehemently disagree with you. Because why else would people fight so hard to get rid of affirmative action if it wasn’t actually creating some kind of measurable or meaningful structural change.

So with that in mind, though, let me just have us listen to a minute or two from Dr. Christopher Stout, because he’s an associate professor of political science at Oregon State University and author of “The Case for Identity Politics: Polarization, Demographic Change, and Racial Appeals.”

And he told us that there’s plenty of evidence showing that political organizing using things like race-based appeals, not just class-based appeal, can be very effective. It worked for the leaders of the civil rights movement.

CHRISTOPHER STOUT: Most of these were racialized strategies, right?

It was an argument around racial equality, specifically. And it played to the fact that even if you don’t necessarily benefit from giving voting rights to African Americans, there was this call to equality and this belief that it’s the right thing for you to do.

CHAKRABARTI: And Stout finds that particularly for Democratic lawmakers, campaigns that fail to explicitly reference race in their appeals to voters, risk low turnout for voters of color.

STOUT: These individuals weren’t necessarily going to go to the Republican Party, but they weren’t going to turn out to vote if there weren’t direct appeals to topics that they cared about. And this could be disastrous for a campaign. So Bernard Fraga, who’s a political scientist at Emory, wrote something that was influential in shaping my thoughts about this book, which was that turn out amongst African Americans was the same in 2016, as it was in 2012.

Then Hillary Clinton wins Michigan. She wins Wisconsin and she wins Pennsylvania. And that shapes the election, because then she ultimately wins the electoral college. So then I thought, all of these discussions that are talking about let’s stop talking about identity politics are missing the big wrists of this.

CHAKRABARTI: Stout also disagrees with Freddie deBoer’s assertion that nothing of significance changed after the mass protests following the murder of George Floyd. Stout says true, the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act has not passed Congress. But:

STOUT: If you looked at state and local level policy changes, they were significant across the country.

Many cities passed bans on chokeholds. Louisville passed the no-knock warrant ban tied to Breonna Taylor. Mississippi removed the Confederate flag from their state flag. Then there were massive cultural changes. People for the first time thought about racial and ethnic inequality in a way they had not in the past.

And I think even things that aren’t directly related to police reform, we’re still driven by the Black Lives Matter movement, right? So I don’t know that Joe Biden makes the promise to nominate a Black woman as a Supreme Court justice with Ketanji Brown Jackson without the Black Lives Matter movement.

You don’t have states like California talking about reparations commissions without the Black Lives Matter movement. So I think these interpersonal discussions have permanently changed how people think.

CHAKRABARTI: And finally, he says that the Black Lives Matter movement is still relatively young. Stout points out that the Civil Rights movement, and in the 19th century, the movement for abolition, each took decades to achieve their signature policy outcomes, those structural outcomes.

And given the country’s history of racism and racial discrimination, Stout says justice and equality cannot be achieved over that long run without organizing around race.

STOUT: The first step to addressing a problem is recognizing that problem, and ignoring problems really never lead to any policy solution.

And so I think because there are systematic differences between people of color and whites in this country, that if we do truly want to live up to the goals of our Constitution, to the goals of what we think of as the American Dream, that we have to address those issues. And social movements are key in that.

They just play such an important role in highlighting these topics. Making sure they never fall off the agenda.

CHAKRABARTI: That’s Dr. Christopher Stout, Associate Professor of Political Science at Oregon State University. He’s author of “The Case for Identity Politics: Polarization, Demographic Change, and Racial Appeals.”

Now, Freddie deBoer, I know you’re going to have a lot to respond to what Christopher Stout just said. Just so you know, we only have about 30 seconds before our next break, but you can, I’ll go ahead and let you start.

deBOER: Yeah, I guess the first thing I’ll say is I find it odd to endorse the George Floyd Justice in Policing bill, which is a great bill.

As something that Black Lives Matter could achieve, because that bill was derided as a half measure, as reformist, as not actually changing anything by many people within Black Lives Matter. It was derided as not radical enough. So I think that’s shifting the goalposts a little bit.

Part III

CHAKRABARTI: Freddie, you’ve probably said this a couple of times in different ways through throughout our conversation so far, but I just wanted to be sure I’m understanding with clarity.

When you say elites captured the social justice movement and, therefore, thereby made it, neutered the potential of the social justice movement, can you just one more time explain clearly what you think they did to cause that?

deBOER: Sure. I talked about the problem with having a certain class of people being so deeply involved in creating the messaging for and the sort of policy agenda, for lack of a better term, for that protest movement. But I also said that there’s the question of the institutional capture. And I think that this is really important, which is the scale of this was unprecedented. I have to keep reminding people, I think people are burying this.

There was a period after the death of George Floyd when a majority of Republicans in some polls were expressing support for the protests. Okay? Republicans. Previously completely apolitical bodies felt the need to put out statements and to indicate support. We really had a very fertile moment.

Now there’s the whole Defund the Police conversation, which we don’t really have time to get into. But there’s also the issue of institutions, right? Never let a good crisis go to waste. And a lot of corporations, a lot of the major nonprofit groups, certainly many politicians began to use this movement as a way to advance their own image in their own political goals.

I don’t doubt that there was sincerity of wanting to fix racial inequality in the country. When you get to the state where you have a ton of corporations who are hiring a ton of new workers of color. Okay, that is something that I can get on board with that. That sounds like a good way to address racial inequality.

The problem was, is that overwhelmingly the people that they hired came from the top half of the most upwardly mobile people of color already. It didn’t address the underclasses of various groups of color.

But also, the creation of all these DEI offices in many of these institutions, some of which are now being torn down quietly, now that it’s out of the spotlight, that creates a great public cynicism. Because people correctly understand that those things are really about protecting yourself from being exposed to bad PR, then anything else. And I have to say, to give credit to the activist class that was working in 2020. None of them took that stuff seriously.

If you talked to the average Black Lives Matter activist in 2020 or 2021, you said, “Oh, look, Apple just changed their company handbook. Now, McDonald’s is capitalizing the B in Black on its website, or the Ford Foundation is hiring another 50 DEI officers to make sure that everyone in their office is in compliance.”

The activists all said, “That’s not what we’re asking for. It’s not addressing our problems.” Right? And the sort of really depressing thing about all of this is that the stuff that everyone is cynical about, the Academy Awards making a big show about caring about Black people at an award show where millionaires hand each other golden statues, the cynical stuff looks like it’s the stuff that’s going to endure while, there’s still no major policy change, right?

And I have to just briefly respond to the professor. He’s absolutely right that the abolition movement and the Civil Rights movement took a long time to get going. There’s a lot of complicated and difficult organizing that had to happen. But he said that they were able over time to reach their policy goals.

And this is the fundamental problem more than anything else. It remains the question, what is the right policy goal to address racial inequality? I would argue that question has bedeviled the racial justice movement under whatever name since the mid 1960s, mid to late 1960s. It’s widely commented on that the movement seemed to lose steam after the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act.

The Black Power movement was in part a reaction to frustration about the lack of momentum. What is the thing that we want? I think the George Floyd Justice in Policing bill is a good start. But obviously it’s not going to fundamentally change the condition of the average Black American.

CHAKRABARTI: So just to recap what you’re saying here, because now that the threads are coming together for people listening, because you talked about the self-satisfaction, right? That corporations and certain leaders of the movement or even outside the movement feel by throwing money at a problem or issuing the right kind of statement and how, when you really look at it, that is, that amounts to meaningless change.

You also mentioned the censoriousness of some of the cultural norms of Left led elite social justice movements, and to your point that you made a second ago, internal self-criticism in the movement that certain efforts are not radical enough, so therefore they will not garner support from important leaders of the social justice movement.

Again, the George Floyd Justice and Policing Act being an example. That’s the sort of righteous to ridiculous journey, I think, that you’re describing. But with that in mind, Freddie, though, I’m wondering, what is the difference between leftwing elite capture and right-wing elite capture? Because I look at a myopic focus on identity politics as totally rampant on the right for many decades, right?

Segregation, Nixon’s southern strategy, Lee Atwater helping George W. Bush win the presidential race by basically turning it into a referendum on criminality and Black men, then yet layer on religious identity, right? In the ’80s, the moral majority saying, “We are morally superior simply by virtue of being evangelical Christians and nothing else.”

So in a sense, Trump is like the apotheosis of white Christian identity politics. But the thing is, they’ve been massively successful in shaping policy in changing structures in this country. How are they so much more successful than the left-wing progressives that you’re analyzing in your book?

deBOER: Sure. There’s several different answers to that question, but the predominant one is that even today, the American electorate, so not the overall population, but the American electorate, is 70% white. And the identity politics of the Republican party are white identity politics. And if you are playing identity politics speaking to 30% of the electorate, and the other guys playing identity politics is speaking to 70% of the electorate, you lose.

And it’s not just that —

CHAKRABARTI: Resonant with those, that 70%, which apparently it is, right?

deBOER: Yes. You suggested that the conservative movements are captured by elites. Of course, they are. They absolutely are. If you actually look at the Tea Party, it was constantly sold as this populist movement.

We have massive evidence that it was a coordinated effort by well-funded conservative organizations. Look, number one, conservatives have home field advantage because they win. When things don’t change, we have to actually achieve change. Number two, again, just like I think a terrible blow was done to the progressive movement when people began to convince themselves that changing demographics meant that we were guaranteed to win in the future.

Ruy Teixeira, who’s a political scientist, wrote, he was one of the authors of the book, The Enduring Democrat Majority, I think, or The Coming Democrat Majority, which made the argument that was going to happen, that more and more Hispanic people meant that it was going to become a permanently progressive nation.

He has now walked that back entirely.

CHAKRABARTI: Oh, yeah, and he’s focused on the education gap as one of the big dividers between Democrats and Republicans. Yeah, go ahead.

deBOER: Unfortunately for the Democrats, nobody told Hispanic Americans that they are obligated to vote for Democrats. And since the John Kerry election, Hispanics and particularly Hispanic men have broken hard for the Republican party in terms of the movement of where the voters are going.

But also, there’s the Senate, and the electoral college and the Supreme court, right? In other words, the structures of American democracy are built in a way that give inherent advantages to the Republicans. So for example, in the Senate, one white voter in rural Pennsylvania is simply more valuable than one, let’s say, a Black voter in San Francisco.

Because of the way that the Senate works, that white person’s vote is dramatically overrepresented relative to population and also relative to the dynamics of what’s a battleground state or not. So that’s why the right can wage identity politics and win.

CHAKRABARTI: I also see that, I’m not sure this is a fair comparison, but you let me know, that on the right, with its use of identity politics, there is a willingness to rally around a small set of desired demands or desired changes, right?

Changing the U.S. justice system, like who sits on the bench at various levels, anti-abortion movements, reducing taxes, things like that, whereas on the left, you pointed out earlier in your book, that we’ve often seen where not only is it hard to come to specific, to come to agreement on what the policy prescriptions should be, but oftentimes even doing that is rejected.

Like in the Occupy movement, part of one of its hallmarks was, “No, we’re actually not going to come up with a specific demand, of a list of demands for change until there’s 100% consensus across all members of Occupy.” Which then took the wind out of their sails immediately. So that makes a lot of sense to me, Freddie.

I’d like to spend the last couple of minutes using the protests that occurred after George Floyd in a different way. Instead of the temporary surge of awareness around this form of racial injustice and the minor changes that happened in various institutions, which then fell off pretty dramatically, what do you think that activists or anyone who cares about this kind of injustice should have done differently in order to get closer to long term structural success?

deBOER: Right. I mentioned this before. I don’t want to give it short shrift, but I will just quickly say Defund The Police was not the right approach. Nobody knew what it meant. If you asked two different people, they would have radically different ideas about what the actual goal was. It was not popular, and I stress, this is very important, in the book, I cite a bunch of polls, it was not popular among Black Democrats, okay?

The constituency that we were ostensibly fighting for did not want to defund the police. Why did that become the policy demand? It became a policy demand, again, because of this problem where we don’t know what the policy demand is. At least that’s something. Right? That becomes a thing that people started to reach for.

It was just a drain on public goodwill. It created a ton of infighting, and it really didn’t do anything that was useful. I think I would look at support for the child tax credit as something that everybody who’s of a progressive bent should be pursuing right now. Not all politics is electoral politics.

Activists do good work in the streets. I’m not disputing that. The child tax credit expansion. So we had a year of an expanded child tax credit that put cash in the pockets of poor families, thanks to the largess of the COVID relief bills. That is a program that is race neutral on its face, so white kids, as well as Hispanic and Asian and Black all got money. But because of the structure of American poverty, it was heavily racially progressive. So that Black and Hispanic children and families were dramatically disproportionately likely to get those funds.

That’s the sweet spot. Okay? Like a program that benefits our constituencies, like Black people, who we need to help, but that does so without giving the republicans the cudgel of race war is the kind of things we want to pursue. It’s also not that expensive. And it came very close to surviving. But the Democrats have to pick up two or three senators in order to make it happen.

We cannot allow the Democrats to forget about that program. They need to keep fighting for it.

CHAKRABARTI: I think I’m hearing the Marxist say we should rally around class. Or progressives should rally around class and not race, right?

deBOER: Right. But it’s again, like it’s not a denial of race, right? It is not a thing that we are doing independent of race. One of the best things about child tax credit expansion, or almost any social safety net program.

For example, food stamps are race neutral, but they are also heavily racially progressive because of the structure of American poverty. That’s not ignoring race. That’s not sidelining race. What we’re doing is saying, “Okay, this is a very white country. The Republicans have certain inherent structural advantages. We need to play smart politics, right? You win and then you can help Black and Hispanic people and everybody else. But if you don’t win, even if you’re being righteous in your racial message. What have you accomplished?”

CHAKRABARTI: Can this happen for as long as the way that influence works in this country, it’s going to predominantly be held by the very same elites that you were talking about, who hijacked the social justice movement.

Is there a way, any way to bring a larger voice or more influence to the folks who, as we talked about earlier, don’t have the networks or the material means, or time to do the kinds of things you’re talking about?

deBOER: The first thing to do is if you can get programs on the books, it becomes much better, much easier to defend them than to pass them.

If you tried to pass Medicare and social security today, you couldn’t do it. Because the ideas would be so controversial. In reality, where they have been on the books for a long time, they’re impregnable, right? They’re the third rail of American politics. So you have to have a bold legislative agenda.

I got to tell you, I’m not in the habit of praising Democrats, but Joe Biden has presided over the most sort of aggressive liberal democratic policy of my lifetime. I think progress is happening and it’s possible.

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