Opinion | How Much Is America Changing?

Trump, and the strategists running his campaign, are desperately looking for an opportunity to force current events back onto turf favorable to the right.

On June 7, the Trump campaign sent out an email with the all-caps headline “DEMOCRATS WANT TO DEFUND THE POLICE” that went on to warn:

While ANTIFA THUGS are destroying our communities and burning down our churches, the Radical Left is shouting “Defund the Police.”

Trump is gambling that the language some protesters have adopted, combined with the commitment of big-city mayors like Bill de Blasio and Eric Garcetti, to cut or divert police spending, along with the pledge of a majority of the Minneapolis City Council to dismantle the city’s police department, will keep moderate voters who supported Trump in 2016 in the Republican fold.

A May 29-30 YouGov poll found that when voters were asked whether they support calls to “cut funding for police departments,” both Democrats (62-16) and Republicans (75-15) were solidly opposed.

A Morning Consult national tracking poll conducted June 3-5 further revealed some of the potential conflicts within the public response to the protests.

Morning Consult posed the question: “Who would you say is most responsible for inciting violence during the nationwide protests,” the protesters or the police? The result: 45 percent placed responsibility for the violence on the protesters, 35 percent on the police and 20 percent could not decide.

There are some scholars of race relations who think that the current movement to the left may be temporary.

Ashley Jardina, a political scientist at Duke and author of “White Identity Politics,” cautioned in an email:

The leftward shift we’re observing is certainly not among all white Americans. White Republicans’ conservative attitudes on matters of race haven’t changed much at all over the past two or more decades.

Jardina notes that

since 2016, white Democrats have become notably more racially progressive, widening the partisan opinion gap not only in terms of racial prejudice, but in support for racialized policies like affirmative action, welfare, and policing reform.

The key question, she argues, is “how persistent white Democrats’ solidarity with black Americans on racial issues will be,” adding the caveat:

In the wake of the Civil Rights Movement, we certainly saw both white Republican and Democrats’ sympathy for racial equality wane, especially after persistent protests. Hopefully the attitude change we are observing now is less fragile, but the march toward racial equality in the U.S. has historically been long, winding, and marked by setbacks.

Todd Gitlin, a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia and author of “The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage,” wrote that the George Floyd protests stand, to some degree, in contrast to the movements of the 1960s:

Young/student/white passion 1960-68 was driven initially by solidarity with blacks; that passion then morphed into the antiwar movement and the larger New Left. It had a utopian edge, driven by hope for a whole new world, thus bleeding over into what came to be called the counterculture. The lasting impact was cultural more than directly political; in fact, the New Left was downright anti-political.

Today, Gitlin wrote,

I see strong signs of the new activists getting serious about registering voters, doing local politics, then turning to turnout in the fall. They want laws to change. They want policies changed. They know they’re not going to accomplish such goals by cursing the police.

Ronald Inglehart, a political scientist at the University of Michigan, said that for liberals, this moment is

a delicate balancing act. Trump’s clumsy handling of the demonstrators and his misuse of the military to clear the way for a photo op — on top of his inept response to the pandemic — have damaged his credibility. He is vulnerable.

But, Inglehart continued,

the white working class has a deep-rooted — and well-founded — sense that the system is failing them. A facile lurch to the “left” that doesn’t take into account their concerns — which once were the dominant concerns of the left — would be costly.

In order to make progress in race relations, Inglehart argues,

We need to move there with a balanced approach, not a one-sided lurch — especially since today’s context of economic and physical insecurity makes people increasingly vulnerable to xenophobic appeals.

Trump’s handling of the protests has been disastrous, in the view of Bruce Cain, a political scientist at Stanford, who wrote in an email:

Playing the race card so transparently, misusing the military as a political prop and disrupting peaceful protests have so far proved to be bad tactics, and Trump is paying for it.

Particularly worrisome for Democrats, according to Cain, “is the growing popularity of defunding the police.” He noted that

terms like defunding the police or abolition are ready made for Republican 30 second ads. The Republicans are just much better at coming up with slogans that are harder to attack.

Where Biden comes down on reform policies, will matter on Nov. 3, according to Cain.

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