NJ’s Sanctuary State Fight: Is Racial Justice Bad Politics?

Is racial justice just bad politics? 

New Jersey’s battery-dead gubernatorial race got a jump start this week when Kim Guadagno and Phil Murphy faced off over the idea of becoming a Sanctuary State. That possibility is reigniting fervor in both bases, putting the Jersey race in the national spotlight, and testing Steve Bannon’s theory that racial justice is bad strategy for Democrats. At the heart of the debate over the Sanctuary State is an uglier nativism, one that attempts to attract white voters by blaming and belittling communities of color, an ideology that just took center stage in New Jersey.

Here’s the quick recap: in late September, Phil Murphy answered a question about when data on the undocumented should be passed along to the federal government.

Then, in this week’s debate, Murphy was booed when he promised to make New Jersey a sanctuary state:

After the debate, Guadagno jumped on the difference, releasing a race-baiting ad linking Murphy’s stance to a three-time murderer and appearing on Fox and Friends highlighting crimes by immigrants. Progressive groups took their own action, protesting the ad in West Long Branch. And the Murphy campaign sent out a fundraising email tying the strategy to Trump.


In other words, New Jersey’s gubernatorial race just became another referendum on using brown faces to scare white voters into voting Republican.

Steve Bannon, former Trump White House advisor, was the latest architect of these time-honored techniques during Trump’s rise, and captured the strategy in a recent quote:

“The Democrats,” he told the American Prospect’s Bob Kuttner, “the longer they talk about identity politics, I got ’em. I want them to talk about racism every day. If the left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats.”

Let’s be clear: this “economic nationalism” is the latest nativist ideology dressing up of the idea that the challenges white people face in this country are the result of the “other”, and can be addressed by attacking that “other”. That is the thread that links scare tactics about immigrant, the polarization of #blacklivesmatters activists, and the lack of empathy for Puerto Rico. It’s the core of the Trump doctrine; that demonizing Colin Kaepernick is good politics because it animates the base while potentially attracting white voters from Democratic party more apt to defend those who look like them than an African-American athlete. The premise is that racial justice is bad politics for Democrats.

We’re about to see if that ugly, barely-concealed nativism is effective in New Jersey’s gubernatorial race.

Comments (2)

  1. Rosi Efthim

    Stephen, there’s so much dead-accurate writing in this it’s hard to know where to start.

    “New Jersey’s battery-dead gubernatorial race” < -- EXACTLY.

    “In other words, New Jersey’s gubernatorial race just became another referendum on using brown faces to scare white voters into voting Republican.” < -- YES. And the awful thing is that that works on some of those white voters.

    That quote from Bannon. < -- COMPLETELY AGGRAVATING for supporters of Sen. Sanders and some others, who saw this coming, and understood that economic issues are people’s kitchen table worries right now, and if the Democrats chose to emphasize identity politics and Hillary Clinton’s emphasis on gender, that would leave the discussion vulnerable to vultures like Steve Bannon, would exploit those worries into peeling off white people and telling them all there problems are because of brown people.

    1. Stephen Danley (Post author)

      Thanks Rosi —

      I’m thinking a lot about Ta-Nehisi Coates’ recent appearances talking about the NFL protests. He uses 538’s polling data to show that Civil Rights protests polled equally poorly.

      This is such a challenging context — and I’m still wrestling with what it means. Racial justice / gender equality et al. can’t get left on the threshing floor as the Dem party focuses on white voters. Dems also have to find a way to cut through these challenges dynamics and win close races.

      Probably deserves more discussion — and I’m always looking for pols who are doing it well.


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