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Where Do We Go From Here? Political Organizing after the 2016 Election
The election results are a backlash against the changes associated with the demographic revolution and a blow to the movement for justice and equality. Here is how to reorganize.
By Steve Phillips
Today, I am mindful of the words from the Sweet Honey in the Rock song, Ella’s Song — “We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.”
After last night’s election results, the admonition from that ode to the civil rights era are more pertinent than ever. The election results are a backlash against the changes associated with the demographic revolution and a blow to the movement for justice and equality, but if we who work for freedom recognize that this is a temporary setback on a centuries-long march towards justice and equality, we can pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and move forward towards a new era of progress and justice.
To properly appreciate both what happened and what’s next, we have to place last night’s results in their proper historical context. Since shortly after 1607 when the first English settlers arrived in Jamestown, Virginia, there has been a consistent effort to make and keep America a white country. The United States Constitution defined African Americans as 3/5th’s of a human being; the first immigration law in 1790 limited citizenship to “free white persons,”; Native Americans were driven at gunpoint across the country on the Trail of Tears in the 1830s; Texas and other Southwestern states were violently taken from Mexico through war and bloodshed in the 1840s; a bloody Civil War was fought over whether Black folks were more than chattel slavery; and legal racial discrimination was the law of the land until 1965. Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan was little more than thinly-veiled code for “Make America White Again.” It is no accident that his campaign came at the end of the presidency of the first Black president.
Progress towards racial justice and equality does not come easily in America, and it is not coming easily now. The post-Civil War Reconstruction era was followed by the KKK-backed dismantling of those reforms for justice and equality. After the successful conclusion of the Montgomery Bus Boycott’s legal battle, there followed weeks of beatings, bombings, and sniper fire. But if we step back and see this election in the context of the sweep of U.S. history, we can appreciate that setbacks are usually followed by bigger, better, and broader changes and progress. That is the task before us.
In a nutshell, what happened is that Trump tapped into a powerful cauldron of racial resentment, and Democrats and progressives were ill-equipped to fight back. Much of the analysis that Democrats neglected the white working-class who turned to Trump is incomplete and inadequate. In Pennsylvania, a bigger part of the story was Democratic failure to mobilize Black voters. In Wisconsin, it was progressive whites who stayed home, dealing defeat to both Clinton and Senate nominee Russ Feingold. But in places such as Florida, Ohio, Michigan, and North Carolina, large numbers of whites either defected from the Democrats or came out to vote for the first time in support of Trump’s campaign.
The most salient aspect of the white vote, however, is the fact that Trump won college-educated whites despite polls consistently showing them siding with Clinton by sizable margins. Somewhere along the way, it became acceptable for many whites to vote for Trump, and that is a failure of Democratic and progressive strategists who, by and large, don’t know how to fight a fight where race and racism are explicit and front and center. It’s not their lived experience, and it’s not their comfort zone. They’d rather ignore it. But what do you do when your opponent is making a naked and unapologetic appeal to white nationalism? Racism is so prevalent and insinuated into the fabric of our society that you have to constantly call it out, or else people who would otherwise know better will excuse it, overlook it, and gravitate to a candidacy they’d normally be embarrassed about associating with.
When challenged and summoned to their best selves, enough white people will do the right thing. People don’t want to be with the racists (even the racists don’t want to be with the racists), but when Trump’s campaign was no longer defined as racist, then it becomes acceptable to support it. That’s what happened in this election. When it was clear Trump’s campaign was a misogynistic, racist, xenophobic dumpster fire, his polling numbers plummeted to the 30s. When the storm passed and the criticism receded, otherwise decent people drifted back to his campaign.
That a campaign as racist as Trump’s could get normalized in the minds of enough whites is a tragic indictment of the lack of cultural competence of Democratic party and progressive strategists and consultants. Unfamiliar with even talking about race, let alone fighting racism tooth and nail every day for decades, their preference is to say nothing. In the silence, it became okay to side with Trump. For whatever reason, the progressives’ preferred line of attack was that Trump lacked the temperament to be president. It was a line repeated enough that it must have tested well in focus groups. But saying he lacks temperament signals that there is something wrong with him, and every candidate has flaws. When you make it clear — every day ad infinitum — that his is the candidacy of the racists, then there is something wrong with you if you side with him. Inability to make that distinction was a fundamental failure of the progressives.
Not only were Democratic strategists out of their depth in fighting on a foreign — to them — battlefield of racial resentment, but they squandered hundreds of millions of dollars on paid advertising that could have been used to turn out enough voters to flip closely contested states such as Georgia, Arizona, and Pennsylvania. Television ads are the tool of choice for nearly all consultants, but if 2016 proved anything, it’s that such ads don’t work. In the primary, Jeb Bush spent more than $100 million on ads and was crushed by Trump. Democrats spent close to $1 billion on ads and lost the White House and the winnable Senate seats necessary to take control of that body.
I titled one of the chapters of my book, “Fewer Smart-Ass White Boys,” borrowing a quote from civil rights leader Andy Young to highlight the need for cultural competence in politics. As I’ll discuss in my column next week in The Nation magazine, all of the organizations that collectively controlled $1.5 billion in Democratic spending were run by white people. People of color made up 48% of the Democratic voters last night. The Party’s strategists didn’t know how to fight on a racial battlefield. All of that has to change. Now.
New Leaders for a New Era
Going forward, progressives in general, and Democrats in particular, need a complete overhaul of strategy, spending, and staffing. The strategy has to shift from chasing, futilely, conservative white swing voters and be replaced with massive investments in organizing and mobilizing people of color and progressive whites. That requires a strategic shift as well as championing a bold and inspiring policy agenda that can capture the imagination of the New American Majority and motivate them to turn out and vote. To effectively implement the strategy necessitates spending money in much different ways. Instead of squandering hundreds of millions of dollars on television ads, resources should flow — continually, not just in the days before an election — to the human infrastructure necessary to sink deep roots and build loyalty in communities of color. And, lastly, to carry out the new strategy and smarter spending, the Party needs new leaders and consultants and operatives who come from and understand the communities that provide the lion’s share of Democratic votes.
Fortunately, there were some bright spots last night and promising signs for the future. California’s Kamala Harris became the second Black woman ever elected to the U.S. Senate (Kamala is also Asian American, also swelling those small ranks). Catherine Cortez-Masto of Nevada became the first Latina ever elected to the Senate, and Tammy Duckworth, an Asian American from Illinois, also won election to the Senate. Staunch progressive Pramila Jayapal won her race for Congress, At the local level, 26 year-old Michael Tubbs made history by becoming the youngest and first African American Mayor of Stockton, California. In Minnesota, Ilhan Omar became the first Somali-American legislator in the country and the first Muslim woman to hold office in Minnesota. These leaders join other bright lights in the progressive firmament such as Cory Booker, Georgia’s Stacey Abrams, Texas’s Mary Gonzalez, Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, and many others. These are the leaders with whom we should work — and in whom we should invest — as we rebuild from the rubble of last night.
Democracy in Color Declaration
It is time for a change, and we need to move now. We who believe in freedom cannot rest. Next week, a coalition of social justice organizations and leaders will roll out the Democracy in Color Declaration calling for a fundamental overhaul of Democratic Party strategy, staffing and spending. You can sign up to join the cause and be notified here.
I have a photograph hanging in my office of African American sharecroppers working in a cotton field. It is there to remind me of the perspective offered by Jesse Jackson in response to someone commenting on how hard Jesse was working. Jackson’s reply, “It beats picking cotton.” Last night was a setback in the struggle of those who sacrificed, sweated, bled, and died to move America closer to being a multi-racial nation rooted in principles of justice and equality. But because people worked so hard to get us to this point — and because so many are counting on us to carry on the struggle — we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and move forward with steely determination to transform the progressive movement and Democratic party into instruments of change for social and economic justice. And when we do, we will win.
This appeared at Democracy in Color.
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