Hillary Cllinton, Bernie Sanders (Reuters/Brian Snyder/Jim Young/Photo montage by Salon)

"People of color ... have to be the first thought": Why it's time for Democrats to give up on swing-voting whites

Unless Democrats invest in a multiracial coalition, they'll lose, expert and author Steve Phillips tells Salon


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Elias Isquith
February 12, 2016 5:57PM (UTC)

As the Democratic Party primary moves to Nevada and South Carolina, the issue of race, never far from the surface, is now coming to the fore.

Earlier this week, the Congressional Black Caucus endorsed Secretary Hillary Clinton. On the same day, Georiga Rep. John Lewis, a hero of the civil rights movement, took a shot at Sen. Bernie Sanders' frequent claims to have been part of that movement, saying, "I never saw him, I never met him." Reports that the Clinton campaign will rely heavily on its superior ties to communities of color suggest that there is more of this to come.

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What better time, then, for "Brown Is the New White: How the Demographic Revolution Has Created a New American Majority," the new book from activist, lawyer and politician Steve Phillips, which argues that it's time for Democratic Party leadership to give up on the so-called white swing voter and focus on its real base, people of color?

Recently, Salon spoke with Phillips over the phone about his book, how his experiences both in and out of elective office inform his analysis, and whether he's happy with what he's seeing so far from the Democratic Party's presidential candidates. Our conversation is below and has been edited for clarity and length.

So beyond its value as a reference to a popular show ("Orange Is the New Black"), what were you trying to communicate with your book's title?

I was trying to show with the title that the composition of the country’s electorate has changed fundamentally in a way that needs to reorient the focus of U.S politics. So instead of people of color being an afterthought as they have historically been in politics, they now have to be the first thought.

The concept, historically, campaigns have had is: How do we win over conservative white swing voters? as their starting point. Now their starting point has to be: How do we increase the votes of the ever expanding communities of color?

The point of this book was to make the mathematical argument that progressive people of color comprise 23 percent of all eligible voters, progressive whites comprise 28 percent of all eligible voters — and that's 51 percent of the eligible voter population; what I’m calling the “New American Majority.”

Why is it that the Democratic Party has seemingly become more obsessed with the white conservative swing voter in the years since the civil rights movement?

It’s been pretty uninterrupted throughout the history of the country.Even Abraham Lincoln has this whole speech before the 1860 election saying that he’s not for equality between the races; he just wants to end slavery.

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I describe in the book what I call "the tyranny of the white swing voter,” and how whites have broadly been divided into thirds — “progressive whites,” “conservative whites” and “white swing voters.” This whole notion around competing for white votes in the middle is a long-standing tradition [of American politics], and it continues up through the 2010 and 2014 midterm elections, when the Democrats ran away from Obamacare and immigration reform and policies that spoke to voters of color in a failed attempt to appease the more conservative white swing voter.

You have experience not only as an activist but also as a politician. Typically, when folks urge the Democratic Party's leadership to take the course you're recommending, they're told they're being "unrealistic" or the like. How have your experiences in "the real world" — electoral politics — led you to this analysis?

I would argue that the incontrovertible evidence of the past eight years is that the winning strategy is mobilization of voters of color, and the losing strategy is the attempt to win all of those white swing voters. That’s why, in 2008 and 2012, Democrats won; and that's why in 2010 and 2014, they lost. That’s the vocal point we have to prioritize.

I came to this through my experience as a political activist who was drawn to, and inspired by, the civil rights movement; and who then came into politics through Jesse Jackson’s "Rainbow Coalition" presidential campaigns, where I saw Jackson go from 3.5 million votes in 1984 to 7 million votes in 1988. The highest second-place finisher ever.

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So I saw the power in potential of a multiracial coalition with strong, unapologetic politics. Then, in the 20 years between 1988 and 2008, the country got even more diverse; and that is the fundamental reason Obama got elected. My alarm is that too few people in the hierarchy of the Democratic Party understand that.

Is the Democratic Party's anxiety about appealing to white swing voters ultimately self-defeating?

Much of it was self-defeating in 2010 and 2014.

The winning formula requires large and enthusiastic participation by people of color. If you get that, then that and the meaningful minority of progressive whites, who almost always vote Democratic, adds up to a majority. But if people don’t turn out then Democrats are actually not going to prevail. If the black vote level falls back to the pre-Obama level, the 2004 levels, Democrats would lose Ohio. If the Latino vote level falls back to the pre-Obama level, they'd lose Florida.

That’s what happened in 2010. Democrats ran away from healthcare, ran away from the black president, and then their voter turnout fell by 26 million people, whereas Republican voter turnout only dropped by 7 million people. And that's how Democrats lost the House.

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Some supporters of Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign say she represents going all-in with the Obama coalition in 2016. Some Sanders supporters, meanwhile, say he can bring in apathetic working-class whites. So are we seeing the debate at the heart of your book playing out in the Democratic Primary right now?

It’s not clear yet — and the next few weeks will be telling in terms of how the campaigns see an electorate and what their strategies are.

I think neither campaign has yet moved sufficient resources into partnership with the communities of color, in terms of large voter registration and mobilization efforts. Neither candidate has put any of their resources toward [recruiting people of color] to run for district attorney offices in the communities that are facing police violence. We have to get more people like Marilyn Mosby from Baltimore elected.

We’ll see what the candidates are going to do in terms of putting people of color on the ticket and desegregating the office of the vice presidency. Those will be telling steps for how significantly they see these communities being part of their core winning strategy.

If the logic and arithmetic is so straightforward, why do you even have to make this argument? Shouldn't it be self-evident?

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I think there’s probably two reasons.

One, which I talk about in the book in a chapter called “Blinded by the White," is that old habits are hard to break. There’s also implicit racial bias people have; they prefer to gravitate toward people like themselves. So the consulting world, the political hierarchy, is more naturally attuned to focusing on white voters. That’s what they know, that’s what they’re used to, and that’s what they think is most important.

The other reason is, they think it’s easier to just do 30-second commercials targeting the swing voters than it is to organize a large-scale voter contact mobilization program. So there’s a laziness factor at play as well.

Democrats now recognize that they're way behind on the local and state level, and there's a lot of talk about making big investments into rebuilding capacity down-ballot. I'm guessing you'd recommend that if they're going to do this, they do it by putting that time and money toward building relationships with communities of color.

Yes, absolutely. I think that it’s both an investment in the down-ballot candidate pipeline, as well as moving meaningful amounts of resources into partnership with community-based organizations and leaders who have credibility.

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Part of the way that Obama got 200,000 more black votes in Ohio in 2012 than he did in 2008 is that [his campaign] had a strong partnership with lots of churches and church leaders. They built the relationships and the trust and the credibility.

[The Clinton and Sanders] campaigns have already raised $200 million — so they need to be entering into partnerships with and engaging with community-based leaders and organizations as the point-people regarding their voter-contact and their voter-mobilization [strategies]. And I’ve yet to see that from either of the candidates.

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Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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