An Economic Perspective on Accusing Political Opponents of Racism
Allegedly, Republicans appeal to racism via “dog whistles” or the “Southern Strategy” and the like, but that brings up the question, “Do Republicans have an economic incentive to appeal to racists?”
If racism is a “winning” issue, why don’t Republicans win more frequently? Republicans lost in 1992, 1996, 2008, 2012, and 2012, and—as Democrats never fail to mention—they lost the popular vote in 2000 and 2016, essentially winning by flukes that no one could have planned. That’s scarcely a record that justifies the claim that racism wins, so are we accusing the Republicans of racism or stupidity?
In other words, let’s think about this problem like an economist. If you were a political entrepreneur seeking to maximize your votes, why would you appeal to racists? Obviously, the number of people alienated by such appeals exceeds the number of people attracted by such appeals (hence, the losing record detailed above), so why would you persist in following such a losing strategy?
And consider the Republicans who won. Does anybody think George W. Bush was more racist than Trump? Yet, he had the better record, no? Why would anybody respond to George W. Bush’s wins by saying “we need to go more racist”? It’s just risible.
Indeed, if Republicans—mistakenly or otherwise—believed racism works politically, then shouldn’t they be emphasizing their racism? Why would their political opponents emphasize their allegedly “winning” attribute (their racism)? If Burger King spent millions to persuade you that McDonald’s hamburgers are made from frozen patties, would you believe that McDonald’s believes consumers prefer frozen patties? If frozen patties were a plus, wouldn’t McDonald’s emphasize that their patties are frozen?
Perhaps you believe that the vote-maximizing position is to be a racist while denying it, but then wouldn’t Democrats do the same thing? Why would they loudly denounce racism while engaging in it? Don’t they like to win?
In short, the “racism” thing assumes that Republicans don’t want to win, for some reason, and that Democrats don’t either (because they too should adopt the “we’re secretly racist” strategy). If secret racism works, then there’s no reason for anyone to eschew it. BK could make burgers from frozen patties while not talking about it, if that strategy worked; yet, lots of chains emphasize that their burgers are never frozen. Why? Do they not realize that using secretly frozen patties is the profit-maximizing position? Are they too stupid to see the truth?
Here’s what really happens: Democrats accuse the Republicans of racism because it allows them to maximize their antiracist vote while pursuing policies that attract other voters who either don’t care about that issue or who prioritize something else. If, for example, you want to reward unions with policies that crush the economy, then you need to maximize your antiracist vote to offset the losses you’ll suffer as a result of your terrible economic policies. That is, the only rational explanation of the Republican Party’s “racism” problem is that Democrats know antiracism wins votes, so they want to attack the Republicans on this issue in order to maximize their antiracist vote without actually needing to do anything that might lose votes.
So, for example, Democrats could support reparations, but that’s expensive, and it might lose votes, so they accuse the Republicans of racism. That way you get all the voters who wanted reparations without suffering any of the consequences.
From the Republican perspective, you can’t do much about the accusation of secret racism precisely because the whole point of secret racism is that it’s secret. Of course, you’d deny being a secret racist, it’s what makes you a secret racist!
Democrats, naturally, have now gone to the next level: even black Republicans are secret racists! Remember the allegation is that denying you’re a racist while being a racist is “vote maximizing,” and what better way to deny that you’re a racist than to be black! You’re just a super effective secret racist.
Just as Republicans accused Democrats of being Confederates long after that claim had any basis in fact, Democrats will accuse Republicans of being racists as long as the accusation works, but economics tells us the accusation can’t possibly be true. If Trump—or anybody else—thought racism works politically, you wouldn’t learn that from their opponents; they’d tell you themselves. If anybody thought “secret racism” worked, they’d all do it.
(There’s no real market for secret racists for the same reason and in the same way there’s no market for secretly frozen burgers; either consumers don’t care about frozen burgers, or they prefer them—there’s no such thing as “features” consumers don’t want to know about.)
How long will consumers/voters prefer “antiracist” candidates? Answer that, and you’ll know the future of American politics. But let’s stop pretending racism works politically—it doesn’t. If Americans truly were racists, then allegations of racism wouldn’t be allegations: they’d be compliments or descriptions. The fact that virtually everyone considers these allegations to be allegations utterly refutes the proposition that America is a racist nation. The fact that an “antiracist” party does so well at the polls is simply the coup de grace to such nonsense.
Economics is a powerful tool for analysis, and one of its greatest attributes is its ability to cut through rhetoric; let’s use economics to rebut this highly destructive and highly divisive myth. If you prefer Democrats, then—by all means—vote Democratic, but don’t pretend it’s because the Republicans are racists. The Republicans are many things, incompetent politicians seeking the nonexistent secret racist majority isn’t one of them.