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A progressive problem- Voters against affirmative action

Virus immunity is likely to last a long time. Biden plans a “climate administration.” And affirmative action highlights a progressive problem.

Affirmative action is one of those divisive subjects on which both sides can use polling to claim that their position is the popular one.

Polls that ask broadly about affirmative-action programs for racial minorities find most Americans to be in favor of them. Polls that specifically ask whether employers and colleges should take race into account when making decisions find that most Americans say no. These two patterns are contradictory.

But the contradiction disappears when affirmative action appears on the ballot. Again and again since the 1990s, voters have banned affirmative action. It’s happened in Arizona, California, Michigan, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Washington.

This year in California — America’s biggest blue state, where only 37 percent of the population is non-Hispanic white — progressive groups thought they had a chance to reverse the trend. They sponsored an initiative that would have repealed the state’s 1996 ban. And it lost in a landslide: 57 percent to 43 percent, based on the latest vote count.

“All 14 of California’s majority-Latino counties voted it down."

The Times’s Michael Powell notes. When forced to choose, most Americans evidently think that the policy is unfair and unlikely to benefit them.

Affirmative action’s losing streak is part of a larger issue for Democrats: America is more culturally conservative than progressives wish it were. Many voters — across racial groups — are moderate to conservative on affirmative action, abortion, guns, immigration and policing.

One option for Democrats is to keep doing what they’ve been doing, political costs be damned. Some progressives argue that each of the issues I just listed is a matter of human rights and that compromise is immoral. Ultimately, they say, the liberal position will become popular, as it did on same-sex marriage.

The other option is to assume that not every major political fight is destined to have a left-leaning resolution — and to look for ideas that are both progressive and popular. Such ideas certainly exist, including some that reduce racial inequities.

Typically, these ideas are economically populist and race-neutral on their face while disproportionately helping Black and Latino Americans, as Matthew Yglesias points out in his excellent new newsletter.

Medicaid expansion is one example. “Baby bonds” — federal grants for children, advocated by Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey — are another. A higher minimum wage is a third, the economists Ellora Derenoncourt and Claire Montialoux have explained. Florida this year voted for both a $15 minimum wage and President Trump.

“This is the challenge for liberal Democrats. In a diverse society, how do you enact politics that may advance racial equality without reinforcing racial divisions that are counterproductive and hurt you politically?”

said Omar Wasow, a Princeton professor who studies race and politics.

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