We’re all better now, supposedly.
Our national foray into the politics of open hate and expanding fear has been arrested almost one year to the day Trump harnessed both and took the White House. The takeaway pronouncements say white voters have turned definitively against Trump and his brand of politics. Exit polling data indicates it was white women, but especially men and women of color, who showed up and served a lesson to a Republican establishment about what wins.
Ed Gillespie, a former GOP chairman, lost a Virginia governor’s race. The GOP candidate borrowed from Trump’s playbook, embracing an alternative history of the Confederacy and repeatedly conflating Latino immigrants with a violent gang then insisting that gang would get an easy ride if his opponent won. Plus, in Helena, Mont., voters elected a Liberian refugee as its first black mayor. In Charlotte, and Minneapolis, black candidates prevailed in races against white Democratic Party-affiliated incumbents. The incumbents had faced major local crises related to race and, apparently in the view of many voters, failed. A Latina won the mayor’s chair in Topeka, Kan. Residents in Hoboken, N.J., decided a Sikh man should lead that city. On top of this, in Virginia, Minnesota and Washington, transgender, Asian, black and lesbian candidates prevailed in city and state office contests.
If there was a reckoning for Republicans this week, there’s a lesson for Democrats, too. In the year since Trump’s surprise election, many voices in the Democratic Party ecosphere have insisted so-called identity politics are bad, very bad and sometimes, crude. Putting them aside to focus on the so-called real issues driving the white working class’s sense of cultural displacement and economic decline, is the smart play, this lot argues. What this week’s victories make clear is something quite different. A more diverse array of candidates and those who accept and know Democratic voters are also a diverse group may be more effective. In short, Democrats who want to win Democratic voters would do well to recognize all the identity issues like fair pay, health care access, criminal justice reform and civil rights are central to the national welfare for most of the party’s most reliable voters.
“The job of Democrats this week, in 2018 and in 2020 is to excite the base,” said Aimee Allison, president of Democracy in Color, a political organization. “The problem with the Democratic Party is that they have been trying to convert Republican voters or cajole white working-class voters to support Democratic candidates who don’t excite the party’s multiracial, multiethnic base. The real heroes, the untold story of this week, is the people who have been on the ground expanding the electorate, registering and talking to voters of color, taking them seriously for years.”
In Virginia, Democrats were so focused on courting white voters that when they sent out one set of literature related to the governor’s race, it excluded Justin Fairfax, a black man elected that state’s lieutenant governor, Allison said. The candidates for governor and lieutenant governor typically run as a ticket akin to president and vice president. Fairfax was also a major draw for voters of color which in the end helped the state’s current Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam win the governor’s race, Allison said. Fairfax and other officials have described the mailer on which he was absent as a mistake and sliver of the info voters received.
If you look closely enough, the signs that a different approach might yield better results were in place in 2016. Republicans demolished Democrats up and down the ticket on Nov. 8, 2016, the night Trump won the White House. In two cities, Chicago and Cleveland, progressive activists including people active in the Black Lives Matter Movement and a PAC operated by the tech-centered civil rights organization, Color of Change, focused on county prosecutor races and saw their candidates win.
They held community forums where issues of deep concern to many voters of color were central rather than peripheral. That included police conduct and accountability, the effects of the cash bail system and how prosecutors can use the power of their offices to decouple defendant’s race and wealth or lack thereof from punishment.
Color of Change also targeted hundreds of thousands of voters with text message reminders about the election. If requested, volunteers with Color of Change’s PAC sent to registered voters’ mobile devices other info about the candidates, the incumbents, each of their positions and even individual voters’ assigned polling places.
These things turned incumbent prosecutors out of office in Chicago and Cleveland. In early and mid-2017, some of those same groups and tactics put progressive prosecutors in office in Philadelphia and Houston.
In March, Tishaura Jones, a black female mayoral candidate in St. Louis who promised to make the work of “uprooting racism” her job, lost the Democratic primary. However, she lost to a white female Democrat with a far bigger campaign war chest, by a mere 879 votes. The victor, Lyda Krewson, went on to become St. Louis’ first female mayor in April.
In the months since, in St. Louis, Memphis, Chicago, Jackson, Miss., Lansing, Mich., and other cities, the Movement for Black Lives — the umbrella under which various civil rights organizations have formed a loose collective usually referred to as Black Lives Matter — have brought residents together for candidate forums and debates. They have also set up listening sessions and discussions about voter concerns and democracy. That’s produced additional election wins while America was fixated on protests. It’s also done something some activists say was missing from the 2016 campaign.
“All too often, candidates tend to think last minute about get-out-the-vote work and quick mobilizing activity a few weeks before Election Day,” said Kayla Reed, a St. Louis-based lead organizer with the Movement for Black Lives’ Electoral Justice Project. “What we know and have seen in 2017 is that long-term investment, education and continued engagement creates consistent voters.”
Jessica Byrd is also a lead organizer with the Movement for Black Lives’ Electoral Justice Project who works full time as a campaign strategist. Byrd will help the project identify and train 15 activists to do various campaign jobs, building what people in this world like to call “capacity,” or experience and ability in the backstage world of campaign politics. She thinks too many assessments of the 2016 election put the blame for Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s loss at the feet of young, black voters whose participation rate fell further than any other group (compared in 2012). Displeasure and ambivalence about the Democratic nominee ran high in many groups. Also, 52 percent of white female voters cast ballots for Trump.
“Not only is that just a narrative that lacks nuance and context, but I truly believe that it scapegoats black folks,” Byrd said. “It’s a way of saying we [parties and candidates] don’t have to get our act together . . . Right now all kinds of organizations spend more time telling black people what to do then letting black people participate in the writing of the policy, or the strategy.”