Triangulation is traditionally described as persuading voters from the other side of the aisle while nevertheless staying true to one’s own core beliefs. Dick Morris, political operative that worked on Bill Clinton’s reelection campaign defined triangulation as such:
The idea behind triangulation is to work hard to solve the problems that motivate the other party’s voters, so as to defang them politically… The essence of triangulation is to use your party’s solutions to solve the other side’s problems.
This conception of triangulation is a mischaracterization of how triangulation actually operates. Instead of creating a third way that conveniently fulfills the goals of the opposing party by utilizing the means of one’s own party, it refers to the process of trying to woo certain voters from the other party by demonizing a crucial segment of the population while taking for granted one’s own base.
Bill Clinton vilified African-Americans with his draconian crime bill while pushing for economic deregulation policies that he hoped would woo Republicans while also not upsetting the labor base of the Democratic Party too much. By the time Obama came around, African-Americans went from being vilified by the Democratic Party to the ones being taken for granted. Obama denounced race-based policies for more universal policies that were intended to raise all boats, including African-Americans. He instead turned to Latinos to vilify. During his administration, Obama was given the moniker of ‘deporter-in-chief’ because of the record number of Latinos being deported under his watch. This was all in order to woo moderate Republicans who were ravaged by the 2007 economic recession.
Trump is doing something similar, albeit from the Republican side. Trump’s triangulation involves taking for granted centrist Republicans while vilifying people of color in order to woo white voters. Trump’s constant demonization of Muslims, immigrants, blacks, athletes, protestors, women, and gays is impossible to ignore. Another less shocking aspect to his administration is how easy and often he throws Republican leaders under the bus. It is almost as if he is daring the Republican establishment to defy him. The one group he does seem sympathetic to, however, are those who show up to his rallies, which includes white supremacists, white populists and white nationalists.
An apt distillation of Trump’s triangulation is his comments regarding American sports. American sports generally consists of a unionized workforce made up mainly of young people of color, an ownership cabal that is a good representation of the 1% and a viewership that is an interesting composite of the American electorate. As was the case with the election, Trump is trying to energize one group (viewers) by vilifying huge segments of the workforce (players) while hoping not to alienate the third group too much that they switch allegiances (owners).
One common thread running from Clinton and Obama to Trump is that each alienates one segment of the population in the hopes of forging new alliances. All three of them attempted and attempt to exploit the structural weaknesses inherent in the American two party system for short-term gain. The risks include internal dissension, party switching for those on the margins, and threat of impeachment. The benefits, on the other hand, consist of independence from partisan gatekeepers, new sources of financial revenue and GOTV campaigns, as well as a novel kind of legitimacy that comes to those who buck the system.
The other tragic similarity spanning the administrations is the persistent vilification of people of color. Whether it was Clinton’s criminalization of blackness, Obama as deporter-in-chief or Trump’s Muslim ban, the politics of triangulation relies on a constant vilification of people of color. Racism is a bipartisan issue that political triangulators seem only too ready and willing to exploit.
Is there a way of pursuing a strategy of triangulation that does not vilify people of color? Perhaps an economic populist message that tries to woo working class voters by vilifying the corporate elite. This, however, has been done before. It was called the New Deal, which, sadly, was undergirded by the yoke of segregation. And in this current climate, it is hardly self-evident that any economic populist message will necessarily embrace people of color as allies as opposed to scapegoats as to why America is no longer great. Whites, across different socio-economic statuses, have shown a disturbing propensity to exploit racism to the extent that any notion of class solidarity would seemingly only further exacerbate the color line than eradicate it.
With that said, I would like to propose a reform policy that should be the primary platform for any national candidate – dismantling the carceral state. The United States has an overly racist and classist carceral state that is enormously costly, counter-productive and immoral. A sensible policy platform when it comes to mass incarceration would include repealing mandatory minimums, truth-in-sentencing, and habitual offender laws, like three strikes statutes as well as a commitment to reentry, rehabilitation and re-enfranchisement. When it comes to the policing arm of the carceral state, it includes a call to end the practice of civil forfeiture, the demilitarization of law enforcement, revamping the guidelines surrounding the use of deadly force by police, and resuscitating federal investigations of local police departments. Regarding the judicial side, it is crucial to end money bail, reinvigorate the public defender’s office and overhaul the incentivized prosecutorial bias toward punitiveness. By no means is this list exhaustive, but is meant as a launch point in order to imagine how a populist agenda might be able to avoid the racialized pitfalls of triangulation politics.
Focusing on dismantling the carceral state is not a foolproof way of avoiding triangulation, however. The recent fervor on the opioid crisis and the tragic ways it devastates predominately white communities is an example of how some drug users can be directed toward treatment centers while others are still locked away. With that said, centering a candidacy squarely on dismantling the carceral state is not only a better anchor than relying on some rhetorical device about change, togetherness, or even revolution but it also expands the voter base and creates a ratcheting effect amongst newly re-enfranchised voters.
People of color are skeptical of any politics of triangulation, regardless of which party it is coming from. In order to avoid such political scapegoating, it might now be necessary and strategic to focus on issues that have become racialized but that are not necessarily exclusive to people of color. The carceral state is one such issue. Although sometimes characterized as the New Jim Crow, it also impacts huge swaths of Americans. To focus on dismantling the carceral state means that people of color are less likely to be vilified and class inequities might also get addressed. It also might just be the bridge that leads the Democrats to victory.
Daniel Kato is a lecturer of Politics at Queen Mary University of London and author of Liberalizing Lynching.