As we survey the wreckage from the 2016 election, the lessons we draw will have implications for years to come. Everyone has a pet theory about why things went so terribly wrong for Democrats in a year when most thought victory was assured. The decisions made in the wake of this election will determine whether the left can stem the tide as Republicans now control the vast majority of state legislatures as well as the federal government. They will determine whether the Democratic Party will be a vibrant, relevant vehicle for implementing progressive policy in the future. They will determine how effectively we can fight in the meantime and protect the people who have the most to lose under a Trump presidency.
One of the most dangerous theories gaining traction in some corners is that Democrats’ failure can be laid at the feet of “identity politics.” It’s embodied in a New York Times op-ed by Mark Lilla that, depending on your viewpoint, was either the “whitest thing [you’ve] ever read” or a road map to return to the glory days. Without saying it explicitly, Lilla argues for treating white people as the default and using a color-blind message that ignores the lived experience and specific struggles of people of color and LGBT people in this country.
Advocates of this approach call for a one-size-fits-all message that unites us around common concerns. But as Rebecca Traister points out, past attempts to appeal to white voters in this way have resulted in policies that are still devastating communities of color decades later:
Lilla praised Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton as political exemplars, capable of communicating “commonality” and “captur[ing] Americans’ imaginations about our shared destiny.” He did not describe the ways in which these men cemented their appeal to some of the voters Hillary failed to inspire: Reagan ran on the vilification of “Welfare Queens,” and Bill Clinton interrupted his 1992 presidential campaign to preside over the execution of a cognitively disabled black man named Ricky Ray Rector.
Hillary Clinton made admirable shifts away from this tradition in her campaign, calling out systemic racism and embracing criminal justice reform. There is a lot more work to do to match the rhetoric with action, but it was an important rejection of this brand of politics and improvement over her approach in the 1990s or even the 2008 campaign. But some white people can’t handle it. As Traister says, “It is unconscionable, this know-better recrimination, directed at the very people who just put the most work and energy into defeating Trumpism, coming from those who will be made least vulnerable by Trump’s ascension.”
Unfortunately, there is reason to worry that Democrats will take this advice. German Lopez argues that people of color should be concerned that “the pendulum may swing too far in the direction of empathizing with white working-class voters remains a concern for people of color”:
But among people of color, there’s a worry that more outreach to white working-class voters could effectively throw people of color under the bus. Not only has this happened before, but there’s a plausible, if cynical, political calculation behind it: Even if Democrats do neglect people of color, it’s not like people of color will have anywhere else to go, especially if the only realistic alternative is the political party led by Trump.
This would be an incredibly shortsighted move. Young people are voting Democratic and support progressive policies. The demographics of the country are changing rapidly. Brown is the New White author Steve Phillips points out:
This obsession with white swing voters is mathematically unsound and unsupported by data and evidence. There are fewer swing voters than at any time since 1965, when black folks were finally allowed to vote and the United States abandoned its official “whites only” immigration policy.
The future of the Democratic Party isn’t white people who were able to safely ignore Trump’s bigotry and misogyny. The future is a coalition of people of color and progressive white people that can speak to concerns about both racial and economic justice.
More important than the fact that abandoning people of color is not a winning strategy, it is a deeply immoral one. What good is winning if it is a victory on the backs of immigrants, Muslims and black people who have already suffered greatly in US culture? The Democratic Party should be a vehicle for progressive change (with necessary pushing from the outside to make that happen). It’s an epic failure if it attempts to become a watered-down version of the Republican Party that does not represent the values or interests of the majority of people in this country.
So what do Democrats do next? Phillips makes a compelling case in his book for a path forward focusing on grassroots organizing rather than expensive and impersonal media campaigns. It’s predicated on building leadership that is much more reflective of the nation it aims to represent, and backing up rhetoric about inclusiveness with resources to organize in those communities. He has helped launch a new campaign to make that happen:
In the coming weeks and months, new leadership will be put in place in the institutions and organizations that will control hundreds of millions of dollars in future campaign spending. This is an opportunity that must not be missed, and fortunately, many people are rallying to the cause, standing up, and saying enough is enough. I’ve been proud to help create the Democracy in Color campaign, and lend my voice to a national coalition of organizations and individuals who have issued a Declaration for the Transformation of the Democratic Party that calls for appointing leaders who look like America, are committed to investing in communities of color, and determined to implement a strategy that is aligned with the demographic revolution. Decisions about who will lead progressive and Democratic institutions will speak volumes about how much the party understands and is committed to making changes.
Addressing economic security and specifically talking about racial and gender justice are not mutually exclusive. The Democratic leadership must take heed of this concern, and those of us on the outside need to push with all the levers we have to ensure they don’t cave and repeat what feels like a safe strategy to them. It’s essential to being able to win, and to live up to the progressive principles we espouse.