2020 Election

Woke Talking Points Cost Gillibrand Primary Support

Progressive rhetoric loses politicians support, new study argues

Kirsten Gillibrand
Kirsten Gillibrand / Getty Images

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand's (D., N.Y.) campaign trail discussion of "white privilege" likely hurt her chances among voters, a new study from several prominent scholars argues.

The study—authors of which include noted political demographers George Hawley and Eric Kaufmann—found that the New York senator's explicit allusion to the protective power of her son's "whiteness" made self-identified moderates and conservatives less likely to say they would back her. While the comments earned rave reviews in the media, they reduced overall support for Gillibrand by a third in a hypothetical race.

In a surprise to the authors, exposure to the comments did not make respondents more likely to identify as conservative or to identify with other whites. Those results suggest that voters' distaste for progressive rhetoric is, contrary to critics' claims, decoupled from their ideology and ethnicity.

The findings serve as a cautionary tale for Democratic politicians, including presumptive 2020 nominee Joe Biden: While "woke" language choices may help with the party's far-left base, they likely hurt among more moderate voters.

To conduct their study, Hawley, Kaufmann, and lead author Richard Hanania assembled a sample of 817 white Americans. The respondents were each asked to read and respond to three Gillibrand quotes, with the quotes they received randomized to be more "neutral" or more explicit in their progressive racial rhetoric.

One of those quotes was drawn from a widely covered response Gillibrand offered during the 2020 primary, in which she explained the concept of "white privilege" to a Youngstown, Ohio, voter. Half of the study respondents were asked to assess a quote from Gillibrand "stressing kindness and unity," while the other half were told that Gillibrand had promised to tell white parents that "when their son is walking down a street with a bag of M&M’s in his pocket wearing a hoodie, his whiteness is what protects him from not being shot"—a line from her much-lauded Youngstown response. The other two sets of quotes indicated that Gillibrand was or was not in favor of "radical redistribution," and favored or was neutral about reparations for slavery.

Respondents were then asked to rate how likely they were to support Gillibrand on a six-point scale. Those exposed to the "bag of M&Ms" quote were significantly less likely to back her: About 36 percent of those in the "kindness and unity" group were supportive, compared with 24 percent in the "M&Ms" group. That decline, the authors noted, was mostly due to the statement turning off respondents who identified as moderate and conservative.

Surprisingly, the other two quotes had a much smaller, mostly insignificant, effect. In separate tests, the study found that the quotes from Gillibrand did not make the respondents more likely to identify as conservative or to identify with their "white identity."

"Our results show that white Americans were less likely to support a candidate promoting an explicitly progressive agenda on race," the authors write. "At the same time, we find no evidence that calls for such an agenda actually provoke a backlash in racial attitudes."

This, the authors argue, militates against the popular "backlash" narrative, in which increasingly progressive elite rhetoric prompted white Americans to become racially conscious and right-leaning—leading, the argument goes, to the election of President Donald Trump.

The authors are scrupulously silent on what does explain the negative reaction to Gillibrand's invocation of the protective power of "whiteness," calling only for further research. But the finding seems to suggest that such rhetoric is unpopular with voters, even as it becomes increasingly mandatory for Democrats trying to win the support of the party's progressive activist base.

Such language was a common prop for failed 2020 contenders such as Beto O'Rourke—who told audiences that he "acknowledge[d] the truth of the criticism that I have enjoyed white privilege"—or Pete Buttigieg, who told Vanity Fair that "I try to check myself" on his white and male privilege.

While the media seemed concerned by the whiteness of candidates like O'Rourke, Buttigieg, and eventual winner Biden, the Gillibrand study is just the latest evidence that progressive shibboleths may hurt a candidate among the general public. Polling from 2018, for example, found that fully 80 percent of Americans believe "political correctness is a problem in our country," including 79 percent under 24.

Biden, for his part, has struggled to catch up with his party's rapidly evolving lexicon and was widely panned after he stumbled over a question about the legacy of slavery in an early primary debate. Since clinching the nomination, however, Biden has moved to embrace the progressive wing of the party, most recently joining with defeated opponent Sen. Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.) to craft the 2020 Democratic platform.

Such alliances mean it is only a matter of time before the infamously gaffe-prone Biden ventures into the minefield of "wokeness"—a move which will inevitably hurt him with his base and, the new study indicates, with more moderate voters as well.