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Why this man says Democrats should stop worrying about white swing voters

Voting booths are set up for early voting in Waterloo, Iowa, for the 2012 election. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

The first pages of Steve Phillips’s “Brown is the New White,” make no effort — none at all — to ease the reader into a new and noteworthy reality in American politics. Crack open the book and within the first three pages of the introduction, there's this:

Most of the attention paid to the country's changing demographics focuses on the trends showing that whites will one day be a minority of America's population. … According to the most recent census projections, that year is expected to be 2044. [But] the focus on 2044 overlooks the equation that's been hiding in plain sight, one that shows what happens when you add together the number of today's people of color (the vast majority of whom are progressive) and progressive whites. It's this calculation that reveals that America has a progressive, multiracial majority right now that has the power to elect presidents and reshape American politics, policies and priorities ... today.

Phillips has just published a book — supported by all kinds of census, voter registration and turn out data — that signals a major moment in the life of American democracy is upon us right now. And if what Phillips is arguing is true, the Democratic Party's multi-decade pursuit of the white swing voter is not only largely pointless, but may also amount to a tactic delaying the redistribution of political power and whatever social dominance comes with it.

If the rise of Donald Trump and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) are, as many reporters have claimed, manifestations of growing white anxiety about the loss of economic security and/or the sense of social dominance, then Phillips’s book should be put on a high shelf. It needs to live somewhere that these readers could grab it but will have to make an intentional decision to do so. Otherwise, heads are likely to explode in book stores and libraries all over the country.

So, The Fix put a few questions to Phillips, a political consultant active in Democratic Party politics who has made donations to both the Clinton and Sanders campaigns. But Republicans, fear not: There is some stuff below that may also make you quite happy. What follows has been edited only for clarity and length.

THE FIX: Most Americans know that the nation is on track to become one in which no single racial or ethnic group comprises the majority of the population sometime in the 2040s. A smaller group knows that this is already true about children under the age of five and about the population of kids in public schools (ages 5 to 18). But you argue that politically, Americans are far too focused on that first fact. Why?

PHILLIPS: Most of the attention paid to the country’s changing demographics focuses on the trends showing that whites will one day be a minority of America’s population. Many articles and analyses look to a distant date when the United States will become a “majority-minority” nation. According to the most recent census projections, that year is expected to be 2044.

There are two major problems with emphasizing the point when whites will lose their majority status. First, it presumes that all white people are and will continue to be at odds with all people of color [politically], which is untrue and unfounded. A meaningful minority of whites have always sided with people of color throughout U.S. history.

The second problem is that the focus on 2044 overlooks the equation that’s been hiding in plain sight, one that shows what happens when you add together the number of today’s people of color (the vast majority of whom are progressive) and progressive whites. It’s this calculation that reveals that America has a progressive, multiracial majority right now that has the power to elect presidents and reshape American politics, policies and priorities for decades to come — not in 2044, not 10 years down the road. Today.

THE FIX: What does the demographic composition of the two major parties look like right now?

PHILLIPS: The Democratic Party is mainly a coalition of progressive people of color and progressive whites. The Republican Party is mainly white conservatives. Conservative people of color are a marginal part of the party base, though some Republicans are working to change that.

THE FIX: What’s the conventional wisdom on voters of color during presidential election years? What parts of that are, in your view, wrong?

PHILLIPS: Conventional wisdom in U.S. politics is that, in order to win, you have to avoid alienating white swing voters, which usually results in distancing yourself from people of color and their [political] agenda. But the demographic revolution of the past 50 years has transformed the U.S. to where the percentage of people of color in the population has grown from 12 percent to 38 percent.

Now, there is what I call a “New American Majority” consisting of progressive people of color and progressive whites. That’s the coalition that elected Obama, and when it has been uninspired and ignored — as happened in 2010 and 2014 — voters of color have stayed home, and Democrats have lost badly. We need to run toward people of color instead of away from them in order to win. I want to drive that message home in [2016], the first election of the post-Obama era.

THE FIX: How did the white swing voter chase play out in 2012? What evidence of it have you seen in the 2016 primaries?

PHILIPS: The leaders of the Democratic Party in 2009 and 2010 defunded and dismantled the constituency desks targeting voters of color because they preferred a “color-blind” approach to voter outreach. In 2010, a top Obama adviser tried to pull the plug on a large march for jobs planned by a coalition of civil rights and labor groups for fear that it would alienate white swing voters.

In early 2012, the Democratic Party focused its policy priorities on the wrong people and nearly lost Latino voters for being too conservative on immigration. After the president’s June 2012 executive order to provide relief to “Dreamers,” people under age 18 without documentation, Latino support shot up, and Democrats won.

[This election cycle], Sanders’s unwillingness to embrace reparations for African Americans — despite his calls for socialism and a political revolution — show that his instincts are still to prioritize the reaction of white swing votes. Clinton’s reticence to take a strong stand against Homeland Security’s plan to deport children in Texas and Arizona who have fled violence in Central America is another example of how the fear of white swing voters tempers the actions of political candidates.

THE FIX: You argue in your book that the Democratic Party in particular is “wasting resources” on chasing swing voters, election after election. What is it that you consider waste? 

PHILIPS: Hundreds of millions of dollars are being wasted in the futile pursuit of winning back white swing voters when a permanent progressive governing coalition could be established by investing those same millions in organizing the diverse communities that make up the New American Majority.

In 2012, Democrats and progressives spent $2.7 billion on political campaigns, and that's just at the federal level. Since 46 percent of Democratic voters are people of color, roughly half of all political spending should target voters of color — hiring of staff, running ads, organizing and mobilizing voters. We need to take advantage of technological tools that enable us to examine campaign-spending reports. For instance, ProPublica has developed an excellent new tool called Campaign Finance API. We then need to use social media to shine a light on how campaigns are doing, and whether they are spending their money right. In my “Invest Wisely” chapter, I try to provide a framework for campaign stakeholders to hold the people accountable who are running campaigns.

In 2014, I commissioned the first-ever audit of Democratic Party spending (the Fannie Lou Hamer Report), looking at spending in the 2010 and 2012 election cycles. Of $500 million-plus in contracts awarded, 97 percent of those contracts went to white firms — in a party whose voters are 46 percent people of color.

THE FIX: Do you have the sense that Democrats, in their pursuit of white swing voters, are trying to fight a battle lost decades ago but ignoring a current matter in which they need to engage?

PHILIPS: They are absolutely trying to fight a battle lost decades ago. Too often, people in power in the progressive movement in general and the Democratic Party in particular have not seen the New American Majority as a political force to advance a progressive agenda and expand the terms of debate. Instead, they tend to see people of color and progressive whites as nuisances who need to be silenced for fear of alienating white swing voters.

THE FIX: If the Democratic Party is wasting resources, what should the party do instead?

PHILLIPS: We have to change the composition of the leadership of those who are controlling campaign spending and strategy. I'm proud to be working with some awesome organizers of color — Alida Garcia, Quentin James, Greg Cendana and many others — who have started an organization called Inclusv that is a national talent bank of people of color in politics. In the future — and by “future,” I mean next year — campaign managers, strategists, consultants, pollsters and operatives need to come from and understand the communities that comprise the cornerstones of the New American Majority.

THE FIX: Is any part of that advice applicable to the Republican Party?

PHILLIPS: Ironically, the Republicans were actually ahead of the Democrats on these issues in 2013 and 2014 when they authored a very informed and sophisticated “autopsy” that highlighted the importance of making voters of color a much higher priority. The nativist turn in the Republican Party has trampled on those plans, but donors such as the Koch brothers are still pouring millions of dollars into Latino-led organizations such as Libre [Initiative], and progressives are not matching that level of commitment.

THE FIX: In its much-talked-about 2012 election autopsy report and on other occasions, the Republican Party has been quite upfront about the need to diversify its voter base in order to remain viable in national elections. Do you think that Democrats are unaware that their party has similar needs — that it takes the diversity it does have for granted and assumes it will naturally grow without effort? Or is the Democratic Party engaged in something else entirely? 

PHILLIPS: In many ways, Democrats have been lulled into a sense of complacency by the election and reelection of Obama. The Democratic Party’s “autopsy” after the 2014 elections was not nearly as thorough or insightful as the Republicans' self-analysis following their 2012 defeat. I think people have a hard time accepting the fact that people of color will make or break the Democratic Party.

Many of the nation’s leading political reporters, Democratic pollsters, and elected officials remain skeptical about the existence of a New American Majority anchored in the country’s communities of color. After so many years of focusing on and chasing after white swing voters, many cannot conceptualize or comprehend a reality in which white people are not the most important voters to prioritize.

THE FIX: Are there any campaigns or candidates who seem to have fully grasped the meaning and import of the country’s demographic changes? Alternatively, are there any that really demonstrate what looks like disbelief, denial or ignorance?

PHILLIPS: Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison (D) has proved that a sophisticated, culturally competent voter mobilization can actually increase voter turnout in mid-term elections, and he has done so at the same time as voter turnout plummeted in Minnesota and around the country. His program eschewed the typical 30-second television ads targeting white swing voters and instead hired organizers to talk to and mobilize Latinos, renters, black churchgoers and African immigrants. Unfortunately, this kind of campaigning is still an anomaly in progressive politics.