In the origin myth of post-1960s liberalism, all the defeats that the Democratic Party suffered in the years of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan were owed to the party’s heroic support for civil rights, which rectified a great injustice but opened the way for the Republicans to build majorities on racial backlash.
Like most myths, this story contains pieces of the truth. The battle over civil rights did accelerate the regional realignment of the parties; racial backlash did help the GOP make gains in the once-Democratic South. But what ultimately doomed the old liberal majority wasn’t just support for civil rights; that was on the ballot in 1964, when Barry Goldwater won the heart of the old Confederacy but Lyndon Johnson won everywhere else. Rather, liberalism unraveled amid the subsequent nationwide wave of crime, unrest and disorder, which liberal mandarins and liberal machine politicians alike were unable to successfully manage or contain.
The riots of the ’60s, from Watts to Washington, D.C., were only part of this story; the wider surge of murder, battery and theft probably mattered as much to realignment. But there is a striking pattern of evidence, teased out in the research of the Princeton University political scientist Omar Wasow, showing how peaceful civil rights protests helped Democrats win white votes, and then violence pushed white voters toward Republicans.
Looking at data from the civil rights era, Wasow argues that “proximity to black-led nonviolent protests increased white Democratic vote-share whereas proximity to black-led violent protests caused substantively important declines” — enough to tip the 1968 election from Hubert Humphrey to Nixon. More broadly, in news coverage and public opinion from those years, nonviolent protests (especially in the face of segregationist violence) increased support for civil rights, while violent protests tipped public opinion away from the protesters, and toward a stronger desire for what Nixon called law and order, and Wasow calls “social control.”
Some of this research was published in the spring of 2015, when the protests-turned-riots in Ferguson and Baltimore attracted left-wing and radical defenders. Back then, the center-left writer Jonathan Chait cited Wasow’s findings in an essay accusing the pro-riot radicals of being politically delusional: “The physical damage inflicted upon poor urban neighborhoods by rioting,” he wrote, “does not have the compensating virtue of easing the way for more progressive policies; instead, it compounds the damage by promoting a regressive backlash.”
In response, the more left-wing columnist Ryan Cooper argued that, in effect, that was then and this is now: Maybe riots weakened liberalism in the past, but the riots of 2015 were more localized and therefore less threatening, the America of 2015 was less white and therefore less easily threatened, and the Republicans of 2015 were “talking about prison reform, not Willie Horton.”
I would submit that subsequent events vindicated Chait, and that in hindsight the riots of 2015 — as well as the late Obama-era crime spike, and a cluster of high-profile cop killings in 2016 — helped create a late-1960s backlash moment in miniature. Republicans didn’t abandon prison reform; indeed, they eventually helped pass a criminal-justice reform bill. But they stopped talking about that issue, or talking like civil libertarians in general, and they nominated a figure for president who sounded like Nixon on a good day and George Wallace on the rest. Which meant that 18 months after the Baltimore riots, the violence’s major legacy was a still-wounded city — and the presidency of Donald Trump.
You can’t take this as proof that rioting never works, that it never succeeds in calling attention to an injustice that a more peaceful protest might incline the comfortable to downplay or ignore. But the political history of both the 1960s and the 2010s suggests a strong presumption against the political effectiveness of looting or vandalism or arson, to go along with the direct costs for the communities where riots are most likely to break out.
For radicals, this presumption doesn’t require shedding tears for the insurers of, say, a ransacked Minneapolis Target. It just requires recognizing that most spasms of robbery or arson aren’t the revolution but often a ritual reaffirmation of the status quo — a period of misrule that doesn’t try to establish an alternative order or permanently change any hierarchies, as a true revolution would, but instead leaves the lower orders poorer and the well-insured upper classes more or less restored.
For liberals, meanwhile, or anyone committed to reform without revolution, recognizing how the politics of riots usually play out imposes a special burden to forestall and contain them — and when that isn’t possible, to clearly distinguish the higher cause from the chaos trailing in its wake.
My suspicion is that this will be more easily accomplished in 2020 than it was in 2016 or 1968. Across his presidency Trump has been more a Wallace than a Nixon, less “law and order“ than “the law for thee but not for me,” and his obvious disregard for civic peace makes it hard for him to campaign as its custodian. At the same time, the manifest injustice of George Floyd’s treatment by the Minneapolis police has imposed a limit on Trump’s demagoguery; even the president claimed to be honoring Floyd’s memory in the same breath that he attacked the rioters. And unlike four years ago, in 2020 Trump’s waning reelection hopes probably depend on winning a higher-than-usual number of black and Latino men, which mean that the politics of racial backlash are more fraught for his strategists than one might usually expect.
Meanwhile Joe Biden, as a moderate Democrat with a law-and-order past who won his party’s nomination with strong African-American support, is arguably better positioned than some Democratic politicians to balance outrage over racial injustice with a message of peace, nonviolence, calm. Biden probably won’t go to war with the parts of his coalition that are inclined to portray riots as necessary uprisings or cathartic wealth-redistribution, but he has a primary season’s worth of experience ignoring them. So if Minneapolis is the beginning of a season of protest, he may find it much easier to balance moral outrage with reassurance than a nominee more beholden to the left.
And in striking that balance he would carry on, rather than betray, the legacy of the most successful civil rights activists. Martin Luther King Jr. became more politically radical in his last years, but his opposition to rioting was a constant. “Every time a riot develops,” he warned just months before his death, “it helps George Wallace.”
If we are headed for a long, hot, virus-shadowed summer, those are words that a liberalism that doesn’t want to help Donald Trump would do well to keep in mind.