Immediately after giving his victory speech in November 2008, Barack Obama said to Howard Dean, then chairman of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), “I wouldn’t have won without you. Your fifty-state strategy laid the groundwork for my campaign.” Dean’s strategy, implemented in 2005, funded full-time DNC staff in every state so that the party had a presence and the capacity to do organizing everywhere. Now the Democrats are in the process of selecting a new chairperson for the party, and that new leader’s team, strategy, and work over the next four years can pave the path for a Democratic victory in 2020.
But just as Dean’s then-controversial strategy put in place the pieces necessary for success in 2008, the next DNC chair must respond to this moment in history with effective plans and programs tailored for the specific conditions that we face today.
The single greatest force shaping American politics today is the demographic revolution that is transforming the racial composition of the US population. Since passage of the 1965 Voting Rights and Immigration and Nationality Acts, tens of millions of people of color have joined the electorate, rapidly swelling the ranks of people of color from 12 percent of the population in 1965 to 38.4 percent today. The force of that revolution propelled a black man into the White House, and then Donald Trump rode the backlash to that revolution to his apparent narrow Electoral College win. If the Democratic Party is going to effectively rebuild from the ashes of this defeat and reclaim control of the federal government, it must put in place new leadership that has the lived experience, cultural competence, and electoral sophistication to build power and win elections in a highly racially charged environment.
That is the context for the contest for new DNC chair, and it is the framework for the Democracy in Color Chair Candidates Forum that will be held on Monday in Washington, DC, at George Washington University. I am helping to organize the forum, along with the teams at Democracy in Color, mitú, and Inclusv. We will explore three areas that demand immediate attention and complete rethinking if we are going to win in the years ahead.
Racial and Cultural Competence
First and foremost, the Democratic Party must be race-conscious and not be race-neutral or color-blind. This flies in the face of much contemporary liberal orthodoxy, but the hard truth of the matter is that a color-blind approach does not work in a country still seared by contemporary racial inequality, discrimination, and oppression.
There has been a lot of talk since the election about whether the Democratic Party should target disaffected white workers or people of color (we’ll set aside for the moment the fact that people of color are pretty disaffected too, and most non-disaffected whites also voted for Trump). The larger point that this argument and false dichotomy misses is that we need to speak to the racial realities of the entire American electorate—the fears of most whites and the hopes and dreams of people of color and progressive whites.