We have seen this movie before. Donald Trump is fanning the flames of white racial resentment. Many people are shocked and appalled. The poll numbers look bad for Republicans and good for Democrats. Not wanting to jeopardize their perceived prospects for victory, many in the Democratic leadership proceed cautiously and largely ignore the rampant racism, misogyny, and outright hatred spewing from Trump.
This game plan didn’t work out so well in 2016, but many Democrats are hewing to the same playbook in 2018. The consequences could be catastrophic—again.
In 2016, I warned in the first edition of my book, Brown Is the New White, that Democrats were failing to invest properly in the rainbow revolution that had propelled Obama into office. Over the ensuing two years, the demographic math has gotten even better for progressives, and the political conditions for expanding a progressive majority are even more favorable. But realizing this potential requires tackling Trump’s racism head-on—not ignoring it and hoping for the best.
Lest we forget, everything looked good in 2016. Republicans had just nominated one of the least popular and most polarizing nominees in decades. The Democratic response was to play it safe. They chose to return to the days of an all-white presidential ticket. Meanwhile, their allies directed hundreds of millions of dollars toward white swing voters while neglecting the black voters that comprised the core of the Obama coalition. They trained their attacks on Trump’s temperament rather than his not-subtle-at-all appeals to white voters.
This “see no racism, say no racism” strategy failed with white voters and voters of color alike. For white voters, it let them off the hook. Ignoring racism and sexism only served to normalize it. At the same time, a color-blind response to Trump left black voters cold and uninspired, and African-American voter turnout fell off the cliff in 2016, plummeting to the lowest levels in 16 years.
Heading into the 2018 elections, Democrats face a similar situation. The outrageous racist (and sexist, and xenophobic, and homophobic) proposals and statements of 2016 are now the official policies and practices of the president of the United States of America. Trump has called those who attended a white-nationalist march “fine people,” lamented the criticism of monuments to white supremacy, and held the fate of millions of immigrants hostage to his demand that the country abandon the immigration laws that brought an end to the “whites-only” policies that kept America white for most of its existence. The administration has foreshadowed the specter of fascism, and the scale and scope of the assault on the country’s multiracial, multicultural democracy has been breathtaking—from attacks on transgender people to cowering to the NRA after mass murders to dismantling sexual-assault policies on college campuses so that young men can follow in the footsteps of their president and grab women by their private parts with little fear of rigorous investigation or consequences.
The United States has hardly seen this scale and intensity of pro-white public policy since black folks first won freedom after the Civil War, when the red-state voters of the 1870s launched the dismantling of Reconstruction and reversed the laws and protections put in place to address the legacy of centuries of chattel slavery.
Given all of this, what are Democratic consultants and strategists advocating as the preferred course of action? Apparently, it’s to focus attention on everything but the restoration of white power. You hear multiple messages relating to Russia (including the new lawsuit filed by the Democratic National Committee), the new tax law, and the opioid crisis. Candidates now believe that Democratic voters are somehow repulsed by the notion of Nancy Pelosi as speaker of the House. And despite the shift in national mood and polls showing a majority of voters support gun control, some candidates still have not disavowed their love of guns.
This pattern shows that Democrats and their consultants fail to appreciate what happened in the recent past, and they can’t see what is happening right now. First, they still don’t understand the strategic centrality of the black vote, even after the decisive role that that constituency played in the Virginia, New Jersey, and Alabama victories in 2017. If they truly got it, a party that is on course to spend close to $1 billion in the 2018 election cycle would have long ago launched a $100 million crusade to dramatically increase the number of African Americans who vote.
While the contempt for black voters is, sadly, old news, the disregard for young people is a new and alarming development. The obsession with courting conservative white working-class Americans who voted for Democrats in the past has obscured the much more hopeful and promising future that can be found by focusing on cultivating young people. The number of 17-year-olds in Florida and Arizona is larger than the margin by which Trump won each of those states in 2016. High-school students across the country walked out of school and participated in marches to protest Trump’s election and inauguration, and many of them took to the streets again last month to demand action on gun control in the wake of the tragic shooting in Parkland, Florida.
These young people not only represent the margin of difference in the 2018 elections. They can comprise the cornerstone of an electoral majority that could shape policies and priorities for decades to come in ways that advance social justice. But Democrats won’t get them by stepping back and piping down. They need to take a cue from young people and stand up and speak out. Forty-five percent of 17-year-olds are people of color, and young white people usually have much more contact with people of color than their parents. This is not a generation that is afraid of speaking about race and racism. If Democrats were to clearly draw lines in the sand and clarify which party stands for a rainbow coalition committed to justice and equality and which party stands for restoring the capitalist, straight, white-male patriarchy—the contours of party identification would be set for years to come.
2018 is a year of profound political promise. It can mark the beginning of the end of the Trump era, and the beginning of a new era of inclusion, justice, and equality. But we won’t get there by replicating the 2016 approach of ignoring the pro-white agenda of Republican standard-bearers. We’ll get there by linking arms with the very people Trump is demonizing—the New American Majority of people of color and progressive whites.