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The Disappearing Backlash to Black Lives Matter

Americans are slowly, but surely, growing tired of broad societal injustices—and less susceptible to the right’s mechanisms of racial resentment.

Scott Heins/Getty Images

Over two weeks after the protests against the killing of George Floyd began, America remains firmly in the year 2020. 1968, with its sustained chaos and broad white backlash, is still a distant memory and, one hopes, a less potent allusion for our times. But many are still determined to believe the demonstrations we’ve seen will take a toll on the Democratic Party and the American left. Disdain for the protests on the right was carried into this week by National Review’s Kyle Smith on Monday. “After more than two months of frustration and boredom stemming from the lockdowns, the riots looked like a combination of outburst, festival, and religious observance,” he wrote. “The new religion is anti-racism; displaying one’s devotion requires mass gatherings, incantation of approved liturgy, and displays of self-mortification.”

This will likely be the image of the protests the president and his backers continue pushing through the election; the possibility of a campaign focused on these uprisings has scared some liberals from the outset. “The bulk of [Trump’s] comments have focused on ending protesters’ violence rather than addressing the cause behind the demonstrations, with invocations of the upcoming presidential election,” Vox’s German Lopez wrote last week. “If that works to get Trump reelected, the protests almost certainly won’t accomplish the policy changes that many movement leaders want. We don’t know if history will repeat itself, but there are signs that it could.”

But there are already signs that it isn’t. Polls since the protests against the killing of George Floyd began have consistently shown broad public support for the movement.

One of the latest, published Tuesday by The Washington Post, shows 74 percent of Americans support the protests, including a 53 percent majority of Republicans. That poll also produced a figure much more striking than the headline result. While the Post found that Americans were about evenly divided on the question of whether the protests have been mostly peaceful or mostly violent, a 53 percent majority of those who believed the protests were mostly violent supported them anyway. The Post also reported that 69 percent of Americans believe Floyd’s killing reflected “broader problems in treatment of Black Americans by police.”

That finding, the Post’s Scott Clement and Dan Balz wrote, “marks a significant shift when compared with the reactions in 2014 to police killings of unarmed black men in Ferguson, Mo., and New York.”

All this is consistent with another survey published Wednesday in The New York Times, which showed that support for Black Lives Matter has jumped dramatically since the protests began. “Over the last two weeks, support for Black Lives Matter increased by nearly as much as it had over the previous two years, according to data from Civiqs, an online survey research firm,” the Times’ Nate Cohn and Kevin Quealy wrote. “By a 28-point margin, Civiqs finds that a majority of Americans support the movement, up from a 17-point margin before the most recent wave of protests began.”

None of this should be terribly surprising—public opinion on race has swung dramatically to the left since the protests in Ferguson in 2014. Within just a few months of those demonstrations, in fact, the percentage of Americans who believed the country needed “to continue making changes to give blacks equal rights with whites” jumped over a dozen points to a 59 percent majority of the country. In their poll write-up, Cohn and Quealy reference figures from Monmouth that show 76 percent of Americans now consider racism and discrimination a “big problem”—a 26-point increase, they noted, from 2015.

Some pundits have dubbed this shift the Great Awokening and focused heavily on the white liberals who’ve been responsible for the bulk of it. But it should be noted, too, that opinions on race shifted even among Republicans. The Washington Post’s poll on the protests, for instance, showed that 47 percent of Republicans believe Floyd’s killing was the product of systemic racism in policing, compared to just 19 percent who said the same of killings in 2014—a 28-point leap despite years of efforts by conservative pundits and politicians to brand Black Lives Matter as a hysterical, if not dangerous, movement driven by hyperbolic activists.

In a fully representative piece of conservative writing on the matter from the middle of the last decade, National Review’s David French dismissed Black Lives Matter as a “serious political movement,” calling it instead “the grown-up equivalent of a student temper tantrum.” “It’s not reasonable,” he wrote. “It’s not rational. It might even be racist. It’s part of our national racial problem, not part of the solution.” Commentary like this has succeeded mostly in making the right apprehensive about endorsing Black Lives Matter as a slogan—support for it is still underwater among Republicans according to The New York Times—even as they become more sympathetic to the movement’s concerns. And there are notable exceptions, even to that: Mitt Romney caused a stir this week by tweeting “Black Lives Matter” and joining demonstrators in a march on the White House.

That was a publicity stunt, of course, and it remains to be seen whether the empty symbolism of kneeling policemen, kente stoles, and the moderate reforms now supported by Democratic and Republican lawmakers alike will give way to more fundamental shifts in the way Americans think about the role of law enforcement. Joe Biden, it should be said, has responded to the demonstrations with a reiteration of his support for giving more federal dollars to police departments, not fewer. But what we can say with some certainty is that the mechanisms for inducing white backlash, as we’ve understood it in modern American politics, are fundamentally broken in important ways. The upheaval of 1968 was over half a century ago, and the underlying dynamics of American politics—from the ideological polarization of the electorate to its demographic composition—have changed in innumerable ways since then.

For example, while Republican candidates in the Obama era, right up through Donald Trump, have ridden the erosion of support for Democrats among rural and white working-class voters to electoral success in the last decade, we’ve also seen a significant erosion of Republican support in suburban America. Democratic success in the suburbs during the 2018 midterms was attributed largely to Trump’s unpopularity. While that was undoubtedly a factor, it shouldn’t be forgotten that the Republican Party has not won an outright majority of the suburban vote in the last three presidential elections. In a 2017 piece written more than a year before the midterms, Politico’s Charlie Mahtesian noted that while Trump had eked out a narrow plurality against Clinton among suburbanites in 2016, the ground was clearly falling out from under the GOP in these onetime strongholds. “A combination of demographic change and cultural dissonance is gradually eroding its ability to compete across much of suburbia, putting entire areas of the country out of the GOP’s reach,” he wrote. “It’s a bigger crisis than the party acknowledges, a reckoning that threatens Trump’s reelection and the next generation of Republican office-seekers.”

In short, America is already in the middle of a broad and electorally significant cultural backlash against radical politics. But it’s a backlash against the right, not the left. On a remarkable range of cultural and identity-political issues—from LGBT rights to immigration—the conservative movement has either lost outright to the left in the court of public opinion or adopted positions extreme enough to alienate important constituencies like Latinos or white college-educated women. Commentators whose political instincts were shaped decades ago might insist otherwise, but in the here and now, the right is losing the culture war and losing it decisively.

None of this is to say that left messaging is entirely cost-free or that it will be impossible for the right to conjure up counter-messaging on cultural issues that might succeed. And it cannot be denied that as far as presidential elections are concerned, broad public opinions matter far less than how constituencies central to an Electoral College victory perceive the issues. But the conventional suppositions about how the broad public might react to demands from the left over the past few weeks and the past few years have been flatly wrong.

The closest available analog to the drive to abolish or defund the police now troubling centrist and center-left pundits is the movement to abolish U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which pushed Democrats left on immigration enforcement and swelled the ranks of activists who might finally see ICE abolished someday without any discernible negative impact on Democrats at the polls. It’s unlikely that many national figures or candidates in swing districts will embrace dismantling law enforcement as we know it any time soon, but politicians in Democrat-controlled cities are already being forced by activists to consider policies more ambitious than standard reform proposals. As is well known by now, a majority of the Minneapolis city council have signaled their intention to disband the police department. It’s unclear what concrete measure the city will enact as a replacement; the country will follow whatever comes next with great interest. But abolitionists can already claim an important victory, and there are likely more to come.