After Alabama, It’s Time For Democrats To Get Over Their White Working-Class Fixation

It’s time for the patterns and practices of the Democratic Party — the candidates we put forth and the voters we pursue — to change.

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?