The Democrats lost the presidential election, while failing to regain control of the House or the Senate. This necessitates some hand-wringing and strategizing. But so far, the lessons that have emerged from Nov. 8 have largely been the wrong ones. Buoyed by the notion that this election was swung by a white, populist uprising, Democratic rhetoric since Election Day has largely focused on the need to appeal more strongly to white, middle and lower class voters, still the largest voting bloc in the country.
Senator Bernie Sanders (I-vt) — who has become a more prominent and vocal leader in the Democratic Party since his presidential bid — has called for Democrats to move beyond “identity politics” in an attempt to better appeal to white voters. “One of the struggles that you’re going to be seeing in the Democratic Party is whether we go beyond identity politics,” Sanders said at a recent talk at Berklee College of Music in Boston. “Some people may not agree with me, but that is the fight that we’re going to have right now in the Democratic Party. The working class of this country is being decimated. That’s why Donald Trump won.”
Even stalwarts of the left like Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-mass) have made the same calculation. As reported by Politico’s Gabriel Debenedetti, Senator Warren privately told donors that “Democrats need to step up their economic appeal to everyday voters.” And, to be clear, “everyday voters” means mostly white voters.
This kind of rhetoric is dangerous, especially for people of color. There is a very good argument to be made that Democrats need to alter the rhetoric they use when talking to Republicans on a face-to-face level. Calling someone a racist or a bigot ends the conversation; it does nothing to sway someone’s opinions nor does it foster a productive conversation. However, there is a fine line between using more tactful rhetoric and normalizing the policies that Trump and the Republican Party have promoted. Not everyone who voted for Trump is a racist; many voted along economic lines that they perceived would be fiscally advantageous for them. But, these voters nonetheless disregarded racist, sexist, xenophobic and Islamophobic rhetoric from the Republican nominee, and all of them voted to promote policies that I believe will have a racist effect. As a society, we cannot afford to accept these views.
Political parties have abandoned people of color before. Republicans abandoned Reconstruction and black Americans after the Civil War. In the wake of the Great Depression, Democrats excluded African Americans from policies like the G.I. Bill and Social Security to make New Deal policies more politically palatable. And, far more recently, former President Bill Clinton adopted a “tough on crime” stance that led to the passage of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, a law that created much of the mass incarceration of black men that exists today. Each of these moves was a calculated stratagem from a political party to appeal to white voters.
The difference today is that people of color constitute a larger share of the voting bloc than they ever have before. As a percentage of the electorate, non-Hispanic whites declined from 85 percent in 1986 to 74 percent in 2012. These trends will only continue as the Baby Boomer generation — which was 75 percent white as of 2015 — continues to die out. In contrast, just 55.8 percent of millennials are white. Diversity is the future, and Democrats are poised to capture those gains.
On election night, millions of Americans watched Van Jones distance himself from a shockingly white and conservative panel on CNN by announcing that this election was a “whitelash,” a white, populist movement fueled by hatred and fear. These were brave, bold words and they needed to be said. Trump’s appeal in rural and suburban white America was absolutely motivated by these sentiments.
However, it would be a mistake to make this the central narrative of the election or the fundamental reason why Trump won. After all, Trump secured fewer votes than either John McCain in 2008 or Mitt Romney in 2012. No, this election was about turnout, specifically from young and minority voters who had turned out in such impressive numbers for President Obama.
While numbers are still being counted, it appears that about 55 percent of the voting age population cast ballots in this year’s election. That would be the lowest turnout since 1996, when just 53.5 percent of voting-age citizens voted. Republicans didn’t win the election — Democrats lost it by not showing up to vote. This is the narrative that the Democratic Party should be focusing on: how to increase turnout from young voters and minority voters.
Let’s not forget, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by two million and counting. In the wake of the election, Democrats must double down on an agenda that appeals to and excites their base: young people and people of color. A myopic attempt to be more politically competitive among white voters now could jeopardize the party’s future as well as demonstrably hurt people of color.
This isn’t just about rhetoric. A shift in Democratic strategy will have real implications. A Democratic Party that is attempting to avoid racially-charged issues and appeal to white voters will almost certainly have to abandon platform issues such as criminal justice reform, immigration reform and attempts to narrow the educational attainment and wealth inequality gaps.
After a tough defeat, the Democratic Party is at a crossroads. The road that they choose to travel will make all the difference.
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