There’s always been something problematic about the Democratic Party’s fixation on white working-class voters. After Alabama, it’s clear that obsession isn’t just fraught with bias. It’s also dumb.
Exit polls showed that black voters were decisive in electing Democrat Doug Jones to the United States Senate. White voters under-performed their past turnout in general and special elections, but a strong majority of those who did show up cast their ballots for a race-baiting homophobe accused of molesting young children.
Cook Political Report editor Dave Wasserman wrote on Twitter: “turnout is at 72%-77% of ’16 presidential race in heavily black counties, but just 55%-60% in rural white counties. Black voters punching above their weight tonight & giving Jones a chance.” Washington Post exit polls suggested that while black folks make up just 26 percent of the population in Alabama, they were 28 percent of voters.
These are precisely the voters that the mainstream Democratic Party has taken for granted for decades. The assumption that black folks will always vote Democratic may in fact largely be true, but taking that for granted is not only fundamentally ungrateful and obnoxious but dampens turnout. Even the people that generally like you don’t show up if you don’t encourage them to do so. Here it’s worth noting that while the entire rest of the marketing and outreach universe has moved toward niche markets, toward recognizing what it means to have super-fans and catering to their needs and interests, the Democratic Party continues to treat its black base like an afterthought, or worse, an inconvenience.
As electoral strategist Steve Phillips has written, “much of the progressive movement and many progressive campaigns are still dominated by White leadership, fixated on White voters.” And, as just one example of the implications for this on the ground, Phillips notes, “Of the first $200 million allocated by progressive outside groups for spending in 2016, zero dollars were directed to African-American voter mobilization. Zero.” Yes, the modern Democratic Party’s policies have generally been better when it comes to communities of color. But shouldn’t we celebrate, embrace, and expand that strength—rather than undermine it through our patterns of candidate recruitment and voter outreach?
There’s always been a strong whiff of racial bias or even white supremacy in what seems to be an implicit belief on the part of the Democratic establishment that the only way to win elections—or perhaps the only “legitimate” way—is with the support of white voters, especially working-class white men. Of course that’s not the only way. Simple math suggests otherwise, and the elections of Barack Obama and Doug Jones and many others prove it.
We are not a country that has yet fully come to terms with the injustices of its past and come to understand how we rectify those injustices not merely by acknowledging but foregrounding the communities that have been most marginalized. We are, instead, a country that continues to center whiteness and maleness, in spite of the continually mounting evidence of all the damage both have generally done.
In 2008, when Barack Obama was elected president because a majority of our nation’s black and brown citizens voted for him, even though the majority of white people did not, the right-wing attacked voters of color as “illegitimate” and “low-information voters” (i.e., stupid). But Democrats themselves also played into this dynamic.
“I have a much broader base to build a winning coalition on,” Hillary Clinton said in May 2008 in the midst of her primary campaign against Barack Obama. She then went on to tout her support among “hard-working Americans, white Americans”—as though black and brown Americans aren’t hardworking; and said: “These are the people you have to win if you’re a Democrat in sufficient numbers to actually win the election.” She didn’t win.
As a moment where we’re seeing the white supremacist patriarchal power of abusive men suddenly toppling, it’s time for the patterns and practices of the Democratic Party—the candidates we put forth and the voters we pursue—to change. Yesterday, black voters in Alabama turned out in droves and chose Doug Jones, putting him in the Senate. Can Democrats follow their lead and chose an inclusive and effective new way forward?