If Black and Latinx voters are not monoliths, why do media outlets continue to use categories like “the Black vote” or “the Latinx vote”? TRNN Editor-in-Chief Maximillian Alvarez interviews Ben Jealous, president of People for the American Way, about the media’s rush to draw conclusions from 2020 exit polls and make sweeping generalizations about Black and Latinx voters.
The following is a rush transcription of this interview and may contain errors. It will be updated.
Maximillian Alvarez: Welcome everyone to The Real News. My name is Maximillian Alvarez. I’m the editor-in-chief here at The Real News, and it’s really great to have you all with us. All right. So deep breath. The 2020 election was nine days away as of this recording, and I think many millions of us understandably hoped that this might be a turning of the page, right? A punctuation mark, a culmination of a very long year and an even longer election season, but of course we are not fully out of the woods yet. 2020 would never allow such a nice resolution to our collective woes. That should have been expected, I think, right? Elections are never the end-all, be-all of our country’s political struggles. In many ways as my guest today has often noted, the real work is just beginning.
To be clear, there are still unresolved questions relating to the election itself that will determine what political possibilities are even available moving forward, including the runoff elections in Georgia where Senate seats will be the deciding factor on whether or not Democrats can control the chamber. On top of that, there is this week’s announcement from Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger that the state will be conducting a hand audit of presidential election votes. As AP reports, Raffensperger has said that the decision to trigger a hand audit is not related to pressure from Republican colleagues or to Donald Trump’s baseless accusations of voter fraud and his administration’s refusal to accept the results of the election.
So like I said, there are still many unresolved questions that will determine the meaning and force of this election. To help us navigate those unresolved questions, I am really excited to welcome Ben Jealous to the program. Ben serves as president of People for the American Way and the People for the American Way Foundation. He has previously served as the national president of the NAACP and he was the Democratic candidate for Maryland governor. Ben has decades of experience as a leader, coalition builder, campaigner for social justice, and a seasoned nonprofit executive. Ben, thanks so much for joining us today, man.
Ben Jealous: Thank you, brother. It’s good to be here with you.
Maximillian Alvarez: So all right. Let’s start with the unresolved questions thing, right? Because like what’s playing out in Georgia right now, a lot of these questions will not be answered until we have more time, data, and results to actually work with. Right? So nevertheless though, that predictably hasn’t stopped mainstream media pundits from drawing a lot of bold and perhaps even irresponsible conclusions from the limited data that we have from last week’s election. Just like with the immediate aftermath of the 2016 election, and I’m thinking particularly of the whole white working class narrative that exploded, we saw a media frenzy this past week as outlets rushed to over-interpret exit polls from the election particularly regarding the Black and Latino votes. I mean exit polls from by and large and the conclusions that we can draw from them should always have a big asterisk next to them. That goes double for exit polls in 2020 when so much of the vote came from early and mail-in ballots. Yet, a lot of oxygen has been spent taking exit poll data-
Ben Jealous: And we’re about to spend some more, but let’s just get-
Maximillian Alvarez: Right. Here comes some more. So a lot of oxygen was kind of taking this data and extrapolating from it these apparent gains that Trump made with Latino voters particularly in Florida and Texas and Black votes, particularly Black men. So there’s a great conversation that you and I can have about what those dynamics might mean if they in fact are borne out by the data that we’re going to be getting in the coming weeks, but before we even get there, I think we have to take a step back.
Ben Jealous: And just ask what’s going on with all these brothers voting for Trump.
Maximillian Alvarez: Exactly. So I wanted to ask from your perspective, from the PFAW’s perspective, what’s your read on these exit poll-based media narratives about Black and Latino voters and how these narratives are already shifting, and more importantly, could you talk a little bit about how these narratives are kind of a red herring and this is not really the conversation that we need to be having right now?
Ben Jealous: Sure. I mean look, there’s a lot there. One thing, I think we have to discern between sort of what’s remarkable and what’s meaningful. It’s remarkable that Trump may have got as much as 19% of Black men to vote for him. What’s meaningful as far as his numbers, I mean most of his votes came from white folks overwhelmingly. It’s remarkable that Venezuelans and Cubans in South Florida supported Trump in much higher numbers. What’s meaningful is that Trump won Florida because of overwhelming amounts of white voters. So we got to sort of not lose sight of the meaningful just because we want to talk about what’s remarkable.
My experience running as a Democrat against a Republican incumbent for governor here in Maryland is, and really getting to know Black voters deeply beyond my community of West Baltimore where my family’s been for 80 years or in my historic community or Montgomery County for example where my kids go to school, but really throughout the state, it becomes clear that Trump really appeals to kind of three feelings in the American people. One is white supremacy, another is male supremacy, and a third is national supremacy. There are a fair number of Black men who are willing to look past your white supremacy if you’re about male supremacy and national supremacy. Our experience as Black men has taught us there’s a lot of racist white people out there who will disappoint you. So you can excuse somebody for kind of, if you will, taking with a bit of a grain of salt.
With that said, Trump is the most racist president I’ve seen and what you saw is that Black women overwhelmingly voted against him. Black young people, male and female, overwhelmingly voted against him, but in the kind of middle-aged band, that’s where you saw that Blacks were more willing to consider voting for Trump. The other thing some folks would say it really was about the economy, perceptions about the economy. Now, that would hold out for the fact that where Trump’s support seemed to peak generationally amongst Black voters of both genders was in the 30-to-44 band. I’ve often told folks, “Look, the activists come from the young and the old, and it’s middle-aged folks like myself that you got to watch out for,” because we’re worried about paying for the kids’ school or paying for their sports or paying for the mortgage or paying for the car note.
It’s what 30s, 40s, 50s are really about and what we saw in general is that people who were more concerned about the economy tended towards Trump, people who were more concerned about COVID tended towards Biden, and of course we’re in the midst of a terrible recession. 8% unemployment nationally, 13% in the Black community. That’s been accelerated by COVID. For a lot of folks, all that’s intertwined, but I think that when the dust settles, what you’ll find is that there are some patriarchal brothers out there and they tended towards Trump. What you will find was that there were some folks who felt like Trump was better for the economy of all races, but again, what’s meaningful is that Trump disproportionately got the support of white voters. What’s remarkable is that at the margins, there’s a little bit more Black support, a little bit more brown support.
Now, what I would say is this though. If there’s a lesson here for Democrats, it is that we have to market ourselves to every single voter. We can’t take any demographic for granted. Most importantly, the question should never be so blunt as, “Are we winning with women? Are we winning with Blacks? Are we winning with the Latinx community?” Rather, we should do what Donald Trump appears to have done, which is to say, “Who’s willing to buy what we’re selling,” and then sell to everybody. One of the interesting things back in August, we at People for the American Way run a program called Latinos Vote! since 2012. It’s the brainchild of Dolores Huerta who’s very active on our board even at 90 years old. In many races, Beto’s race, Andrew Gillum’s race, we have been the only group running statewide advertising targeting Latinx swing voters, key statewide races. And so it was in a lot of states this year that we were the only ones, for instance, up on Spanish-language radio for Biden and Harris.
At the end of August, Trump had outspent Biden 10 to one on Spanish-speaking media. 10 to one. Biden never closed that gap even with groups like us trying to help. That can never happen again. Similarly, we found ourselves having to hurriedly put together an effort to really reach out to young Black folks in the upper Midwest, fearing a possible repeat of 2016 knowing just the thin margin that those states are won or lost by. The Democratic Party absolutely has to have a real vision for inspiring the loyalty of young Black folks. Our young people are right on the front lines of the COVID crisis. They’re right on the front lines of this whole crisis in our public safety system and police killings. They’re right on the front lines of student debt. We have to really see them as the canary in the coalmine. If we have a compelling vision for uplifting young Black folks and young people of color, it means we will have an uplifting vision for uplifting young people of all colors. That ultimately is what the Democratic Party should be about.
So again, I would focus on what’s meaningful, but I would also focus on the lessons that we need to learn. We can never allow the GOP to outspend us on Spanish-language media 10 to one again, and we can never allow for there to be a question that we have the best agenda to uplift young people of color.
Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah. I mean that’s a staggering kind of statistic. God, there’s so much that I want to ask about there, but I know we only have you for a limited amount of time. But I just really love the way that you framed it. Right? Again, there’s only so much that we can extrapolate from exit polls, but as you said, there are very kind of clear longterm lessons that we need to learn from just the bare fact of this race kind of being as close as it was, the dynamics being what it was, the run up to the election with these kind of gaping holes in Democratic strategy being what they were.
There was something that you said that really caught me in my heart because it speaks very much to my own family’s experience. My dad, Jesus, is a Mexican immigrant who grew up dirt poor, became a citizen in the ’80s, worked his way to the middle class and lost everything in the Great Recession, and voted for Trump in 2016. I think that when you were kind of talking about the ways that Trump or Trumpism may appeal to people like this, particularly when we factor in age like you said, there are a lot of hard lessons that it does feel like the Democrats have not learned from 2016, that the hearts and souls of Latinx voters, of Black voters, and of voters of all shades, a lot of them do have kind of more of a complex texture than anything that playing Despacito at a rally can pave over. So I guess I just wanted to kind of ask looking forward, what do you think really is the kind of drumbeat that Democrats should be marching to in order to make sure that this kind of messaging isn’t as effective as it might have been this election particularly with Black and Latinx voters?
Ben Jealous: We’ve got to have a vision for really rebuilding, strengthening unions in this country and we’ve got to have a vision for really making it easier for entrepreneurs to grow their success and their wealth in this country. Those are really sort of the bookends of the American dream, that your hard work will add up to a better future for your family and that if you’re willing to take a risk, this is the best place on Earth for you to be an entrepreneur. Entrepreneurs and union members historically were the backbone of this party, and yet as somebody who exists in both those worlds, what I can tell you is that there’s a lot of union members that feel taken for granted, like their dues really fuel a lot of Democratic politics, but they’re not getting … Frankly, the movement keeps getting weaker and weaker and smaller and smaller rather than bigger and bigger and stronger and stronger.
There’s a lot of entrepreneurs, my friends in tech, I’ve been a tech investor the last six years, who just feel like the Democratic Party never reads the business section and comes out and gets their money, but doesn’t prepare to have a conversation. Then what makes it glaring is when you sit with the entrepreneurs who are union members, who are 32BJ and they’re working as janitors, but they’ve got a little catering business and they want to make it a restaurant. They’re looking at a tax code that they feel like punishes young businesses, small businesses trying to break through. So when it comes to the economy, we’ve got to get back to basics in the Democratic Party.
We’ve got to have a real vision for how we strengthen unions and we’ve got to have a real vision for how we really support and foster an entrepreneurial class that, if we’re honest, exists throughout the country virtually. Certainly in the top 60% of America, there are a lot of entrepreneurs, a lot of entrepreneurs right on the edge of poverty all the way up. We do those two things, then we have a lot else going on for us, but I would say that Donald Trump’s ascendance really spoke to the need for us to convince people like your father that we’re fighting for them.
Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah. No, I think I wholeheartedly agree and I think that I would love to kind of talk more about it, but we’ll have to have you on again. I think-
Ben Jealous: Anytime, brother.
Maximillian Alvarez: Hell yeah.
Ben Jealous: I mean really I love you guys. I love what you do. Anytime.
Maximillian Alvarez: Thanks, man. Appreciate that. I just wanted to underline it in red pen for viewers because I think that you really made a poignant point that I didn’t want to get lost there. Especially I can say with the kind of very complicated dynamics of what we call the Latino voter, the Latinx vote, I think you were right that Trump’s nationalism does actually kind of provide a pathway to a purchase on whiteness and on Americanness that does appeal. I know it appeals because this is how my family in a lot of respects has felt. They immigrated to this country and they are wholeheartedly in support of being Americans and subscribing to the American dream. So if you are kind of projecting this [ethnonationalist 00:17:31] narrative that allows nonwhite people to kind of have a greater purchase on whiteness by saying, “We immigrated the right way. We are the actual American citizens that fit in the us, not the them category,” that’s an element of Trumpism that’s not going to go away even if he does.
Ben Jealous: No, it’s not and it’s something that’s inflamed and exacerbated by feelings of economic insecurity. Right? When you think about, when you’re honest about what it is to be a man, a lot of what it is to be a man comes down to your ability to provide. When you feel like the economy is weak and you feel downwardly mobile and somebody talks in terms of your demographic, whether it’s your national demographic, your gender demographic, or your racial demographic, being entitled to a certain type of supremacy, it’s a way to kind of shore up your own insecurity, right? I mean that’s why the worst leaders in history have tended to rise in moments of economic depression.
So yeah, I think some people, they look at Trump and they only see a racist, some people look at him and they only see somebody who’s an out-of-control sexist, and some people look at him and they only see somebody who is a nationalist. The reality is that he’s all those things and there are plenty of voters who may be repelled by one of them, but who are attracted by two. As they say, two out of three out bad. That’s just real. The best way for us to counter it is to have a real vision for building a stronger economy that lifts all boats.
Maximillian Alvarez: Hell yeah. So I do want us to kind of round out by focusing a bit on Georgia because I know that’s where you’ve got your attention-
Ben Jealous: Sure.
Maximillian Alvarez: … focused right now, but I was wondering if by way of getting there, we could stop for a second to talk about this recent op-ed that you published in the Baltimore Sun which is titled Presidents Should Be Picked By Popular Vote.
Ben Jealous: A radical idea.
Maximillian Alvarez: A radical idea, right? [inaudible 00:19:43] as a bit of a springboard to kind of talk about that question of what we can’t extrapolate from exit polls and even raw voting numbers because you talk about the Voting Rights Act in this op-ed and voter suppression. I think this has been obviously a big issue for you for a long time, but it’s something that is very much playing out in Georgia right now. Given the chicanery happening in Georgia with the recount and the run-offs, but also given the past chicanery that kind of set the stage for all of this-
Ben Jealous: Yeah.
Maximillian Alvarez: … it seems more pressing than ever to ask how much are we even able to formulate a useful narrative about voting trends in America, particularly Black and Latinx voters, if we don’t take voter suppression into account. How deep do you think our collective national understanding of voter suppression actually goes?
Ben Jealous: Well the important thing for all Americans to understand is just one thing about voter suppression, which is that the antidote to massive voter suppression is massive voter turnout. If you only get that, get that. My family, my grandmother actually turns 104 today. As soon as I get off here, I actually got to call her. It’ll be lunch her time in California and I’ll wish her-
Maximillian Alvarez: Happy birthday, grandma.
Ben Jealous: … a happy birthday. Yeah, when she turned about 95, my parents moved her out to California from the East Coast to kind of keep her close. She’s sharp as she can be. Her grandfather was born a slave. He served in the Virginia Legislature during Reconstruction. Laws were put in place to suppress the vote and it was stated at the time that the purpose for those voter suppression measures was to “ensure white supremacy is the law of the land in every county in Virginia.” That was the argument made by a man named Senator Glass at the Constitutional Convention in Virginia. I raise that to say that this evil of voter suppression has been with us for a long time, tends to be pushed when certain elements of a white community are insecure about their ability to maintain supremacy. They were more plainspoken in 1901, 1902 than they are now, but that’s what tends to drive it. What my ancestors understood then and what I teach young organizers now is there’s really only one way to overcome it, and that’s to turn out masses so that you win the election so that you can change the laws.
Now, on this issue of the presidential elections, it’s outrageous that most of the times when Democrats win the popular vote, we lose the Electoral College. That’s been kind of the last 40 years of history in a nutshell. I don’t think any American really, if they’re honest, thinks that the president should be decided any way different than the governor or the mayor which is whoever gets the most votes wins. So we just got to push forward with that. Right now, there’s a lot of states in the [pact 00:23:06] that started here in Maryland in a multi-state pact that they will give their votes to whoever wins the national popular vote. It’s triggered when there’s enough to get to 270. We’re at almost 200 now. AT People for the American Way, we absolutely believe in one person, one vote and will be pushing a number of states to join that compact this year.
Maximillian Alvarez: I know this may come off as a naïve question, but-
Ben Jealous: Sure.
Maximillian Alvarez: … after reading your op-ed in the Baltimore Sun, I was really thinking about it in earnest. Obviously as the editor-in-chief of The Real News, this is something that I’m obsessed with all the time, but if our voting system worked the way that you described, by way of the kind of state-based national popular vote campaign, do you think that our discussion about voter trends in Black and brown communities, would that look different? I ask because-
Ben Jealous: Sure.
Maximillian Alvarez: … so much of what we’re talking about here, so much of that exit poll-based narrative has been based on voter turnout in very key swing states which kind of really warped the narrative of national voter trends. It was funny because I actually read your article right after reading this one in USA Today that I thought had the most hilarious headline of all and it was Latinos for Trump, Arizona for Biden Shows Diversity of Hispanics in the US. I actually texted-
Ben Jealous: Wow. There’s a lot there.
Maximillian Alvarez: Right?
Ben Jealous: There’s a lot there.
Maximillian Alvarez: I actually texted it to my family and I was like, “Oh, shit, you guys. They figured out that we’re not all the same person.”
Ben Jealous: So what I would say, setting that aside as somebody who has spent my life as a kid between West Baltimore and Northern California, there’s a lot in that title, but setting that aside, yes, if we have the national popular vote, look, all of a sudden we’ll be talking about Puerto Rican voters in Chicago and who they’re backing, not just Florida or Philly, the Puerto Rican voters in New York and who they’re backing. Right now, there’s these massive states. Chicanos in California and who they’re backing. Right now, there’s these massive states that are just off the map. It’s just like we don’t compete there. They’re going to be blue. We’ll be talking about Black folks in Mississippi, who they’re going to support. We don’t compete there. It’s going to be red. It’s only about 17 or 18 states that can go back and forth. That’s insane. That’s not the way American politics are supposed to work.
It’s sort of amazes me. My grandma’s 104. She’s a direct descendant of Thomas Jefferson’s grandmother by Thomas Jefferson’s grandmother’s other grandchildren. My dad descends from more Revolutionary War soldiers than any one person Henry Louis Gates, Jr. has ever found on the show Finding Your Roots. So when you come from really old American families, there’s something especially offensive about the notion that we still haven’t gotten to the place in American history where it is one person, one vote for the US presidency. OMG, WTF, how long is it going to take? So we just need to do it. There’s nothing more outrageously or understatedly American than the notion of one American, one vote in who becomes our president. Yet, it’s never been that way and it needs to be that way now.
Maximillian Alvarez: So speaking of examples of how we’re not there yet, before I let you go-
Ben Jealous: Sure.
Maximillian Alvarez: … I know that you’re focusing a lot of energies understandably so on what’s happening in Georgia right now. Right? Obviously, the kind of runoff Senate elections as I mentioned early in this episode, they’re going to really determine I think what is politically viable for the Democrats over the next four years. I guess I wanted to kind of just turn things over to you and ask. There are a couple of really important questions here like will pre-general election trends hold for the runoff and if not, what should Democrats be doing in these kind of next two months besides avoiding saying anything remotely progressive per Clyburn, Pelosi, and Spanberger? What do you think, how do you think everything that we’ve been discussing here will factor into what’s kind of playing out in Georgia right now? What do you think people should be paying attention to?
Ben Jealous: First of all, let’s be really clear we can win Georgia. If you’re thinking about sending a dollar to Georgia, send it right now. Send it Warnock. Send it Ossoff. Send it Fair Fight, Stacey Abrams’ group. Send it to People for the American Way. All of us are fully engaged in Georgia right now. The early money makes a difference. One of the things that’s very frustrating about watching all these Black candidates come close to winning for Senate and lose is the money doesn’t show up til like two weeks out. For the special, we only have … What is it? Like eight weeks, nine weeks, 10 weeks? So if you’ve got money to send, please send it right now.
Georgia will decide whether or not Democrats or Republicans control the Senate. You want to fire Mitch McConnell, got to be focused on Georgia. It’s 50-48 right now with Kamala Harris waiting in the wing to make it 51-50. All we got to do is win these two states. We get to fire Mitch McConnell. It would be huge for America. There’s something like 600 bills that are dying on Mitch McConnell’s desk right now that would, most of them, move our country forward in some pretty powerful ways. That’s what we can do.
I never think that it’s worth talking about political priority until it’s time. People want to talk about the composition of the US Supreme Court when we’re trying to elect the president. Well it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Why don’t you wait til it’s a possibility? So I would just say to folks, first things first, we got to fire Mitch McConnell if you want any hope of doing anything good in the US Senate in the next two years or longer, and the way to do that is Georgia. Raphael Warnock is an incredible candidate. Ossoff would be transformative, no doubt, but taking the man in Martin Luther King’s pulpit and making him a senator, I don’t think we’ve seen anything more transformative than that. Some things have come close or even as transformative, but nothing more transformative than that in the history of the US Senate.
Maximillian Alvarez: So that is Ben Jealous, president of People for the American Way and the People for the American Way Foundation. Ben, this was awesome. Thanks so much for coming on, man, and happy birthday to your grandma.
Ben Jealous: Thank you, brother. Appreciate you.
Maximillian Alvarez: Thank you all for joining us at The Real News Network. Stay tuned for more.