That strategy, the thesis of Phillips’s best-selling 2016 book, “Brown is the New White,” is what got the country’s first black president, Barack Obama, elected in 2008 and reelected in 2012.
Yet, since 2016, Democrats have seemed more focused on winning back white voters who defected to Donald Trump.
“I wrote my book in 2016 really as a warning to Democrats about the importance of embracing the demographic revolution, and they didn’t do that,” Phillips said in a recent interview. He is the founder of Democracy in Color, a San Francisco-based organization focused on cultivating the multicultural political power base about which he preaches. He also is co-founder of PowerPAC+, which backs candidates who embrace that multicultural approach to liberal politics.
This week, Phillips launched a political podcast in which he will continue to push his argument that, rather than trying to capture swing voters, party leaders and activists should focus on energizing groups that are all-but-certain Democratic voters.
The podcast, “Democracy in Color with Steve Phillips,” will bring an unapologetic “color-conscious” point of view and analysis that he says is missing from the mainstream political discussion.
“Still too much of the Democratic default strategy is to ignore or run away from issues of race and racism and white supremacy, and that’s not what this president is doing,” Phillips said. “So we have to both push and encourage progressives and Democrats to embrace what we call a color-conscious point of view.”
The biweekly podcast launched Thursday with three episodes, including a chat with Georgia Democrat Stacey Abrams, a look at how race figures into the ongoing impeachment inquiry against President Trump and an examination of why many of Iowa’s white voters swung from Obama to Trump.
About US spoke with Phillips recently about his views on race and politics. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Many people, including Democrats and liberals, say the problem is that there is too much talk about identity and demographics, and that it turns off white voters. What do you say to that?
This is the battle that has to be joined in terms of can you, in fact, simply ignore racism and white supremacy at a time when the president of the United States is waging a racist and xenophobic campaign against large segments of the population. So a common value is that the United States of America does not rip brown children from the arms of their parents and place children in cages. There should be a multiracial majority of people who stand against that, but too many people in progressive politics are afraid to stand up for those populations because they fear it will turn off white voters. But that’s not what the data shows in terms of Obama’s election and reelection. There are enough progressive whites, in alliance with people of color, to win elections, but we have to be unafraid and unapologetic in tackling these issues.
Actually, most Democrats and liberals have come out against separating families at the southern border. It seems there’s more ambivalence over how or when to respond to some of Trump’s rhetoric attacking people of color, including some members of Congress like the so-called Squad.
Again, this is the battle that has to be joined in the progressive movement. One of the episodes we’re going to do is how to run against a racist. We’ll have [author and activist] Tim Wise, who was involved in the campaign against David Duke [during his bid for Louisiana governor in 1991]. The Democratic consultant advising the candidate running against an actual Klansman used the same arguments: Don’t bring the racism issue up, etc. But they did better when they called out racism and summoned people to their highest and best selves by explicitly tackling these issues. Now much of Democratic and progressive politics operate by fear rather than confidence as a multiracial majority that supports economic and racial justice.
Do Republicans have a responsibility to confront racism in their party?
Yes, we’re going to be really calling out explicitly how, in essence, the foundation of Trump’s support is white supremacy. And are there then Republicans, moderates who are going to take a stand against that, and what can be done by Democrats and the rest of us to challenge people to take that kind of stand.
Do you think Trump’s election and presidency has forced the country to talk more openly about racism?
It’s definitely pushed the conversation more to the fore in society overall. It’s no accident that there were more women and people of color elected to Congress last year than any point previously, and you’ve got open discussion about reparations that has not been advanced since Reconstruction. So the public is more ready for the conversation, but still too many of the leaders and operatives are unable or unwilling to tackle it. … We don’t talk about race and culture directly in progressive Democratic politics. Our leaders lack knowledge around how to talk about it and have these fears and insecurities that even bringing up the issue would be catalyst for causing white voters to flee.
Who do you see as the audience for your podcast?
I identify in my book the new American majority as the population that elected and, even more importantly, reelected Obama, and that’s overwhelmingly a majority of people of color and the meaningful minority of whites who are supportive of racial justice. That constellation doesn’t have sufficient platforms or voices advocating for that vision of what this country should be.
But isn’t that just preaching to the choir?
When the choir is the majority of people, you need to get that majority crystallized and inspired. People need to carry themselves with the confidence that we are, in fact, the majority, and there’s too much tiptoeing around all these outrageous abuses of power and public policies out of fear that we’re going to lose.