By Jim Miller
Last week I had the pleasure of going to see a talk at Alliance San Diego by Steve Phillips, author of Brown is the New White: How the Demographic Revolution Has Created a New American Majority. The central point that Phillips makes is that, at present, we already have a new American majority of 51% of the electorate comprised of progressive people of color and like-minded whites.
The problem we face, Phillips argues, is that we are failing to mobilize that majority because many in the consultant class and the upper reaches of the Democratic Party don’t believe the numbers and/or are stuck in an old pattern of chasing after the elusive “swing voter” typically identified as white who could be persuaded to vote for a Republican or a Democrat.
Hence, those of us in progressive and Democratic circles may be missing a historic opportunity by wasting a huge amount of resources nationally and locally on organizing and electoral tactics that fail to deliver. Instead, Phillips insists, we should be investing in short and long term efforts to talk to and mobilize the new majority of voters, many of whom are currently being ignored.
Those underrepresented voters, largely people of color, have become completely invisible to campaigns that focus exclusively on the “likely voter.” Such voters may not have shown up in the past but, Phillips’ argument goes, would show up if they were offered bold policy proposals that had a real impact on their lives.
What kind of proposals? In an excerpt from his book published in The Nation, Phillips notes that:
America has a gargantuan racial wealth gap, and that gap impacts nearly all public policy issues affecting the New American Majority—an electoral bloc I define as made up of progressive people of color and progressive whites. (That’s 51 percent of all eligible voters.) The median wealth, or net worth, of a white family in 2013 was $134,000, while the median wealth for a black family was $11,000. Latino families have a net worth of $13,900, and Native American families have a net worth of $5,700. For Asian American families that amount is $91,440, and much of that is attributable to the fact that 74 percent of all Asian American adults are immigrants, with many of them coming from the professional class of their home countries . . .
Today’s racial wealth gap is a modern-day manifestation of the fact that America was built on land stolen from Native Americans and Mexicans and developed by the backbreaking labor of African Americans, Latinos, and Asian Americans. Given this reality, we all have to ask ourselves what is the right and just thing to do from a public policy standpoint to close this gap in a country that professes a belief in justice and equality. If progressives want to vastly improve the conditions in underserved and underdeveloped communities, capture the imagination of the New American Majority, and secure its lasting loyalty, then bigger and bolder policy solutions are required.
In that same piece, Phillips argues that proposing things like reparations for African Americans and returning stolen lands to Native Americans might be the kinds of ideas that start to excite and activate those who have previously been on the outside of the political process. The point is not that these things are politically “realistic,” but rather that they would stir the imagination.
Phillips continues by admitting that:
I don’t expect these things—returning of land and reparations—to happen anytime soon, but if they sound outrageous, then by comparison, other policy proposals to correct injustice—making massive investments in public education, enacting comprehensive immigration reform, establishing universal voter registration, ending mass incarceration, adopting “Polluter Pays” taxes nationwide, and imposing a wealth tax on the richest 1 percent—should seem modest by comparison.
Championing economic justice is more than moral and just. It’s also the way to win elections. In a changing population where people of color are nearly 40 percent of the country and white allies and advocates of justice make up another quarter of the country’s population, speaking boldly and unapologetically to the causes of inequality has proven to be good and smart politics. Ironically, progressive leaders and influencers are doing exactly the wrong thing by going after small goals. Politics and policy are inextricably intertwined. People of color vote in lower numbers because many of them feel that most of the US public policy agenda has little relevance to their lives.
Thus a politics that asks “What is Justice?” should be seen not as an impractical exercise to be dismissed; instead it is a practical tool to mobilize a winning majority for progressive goals. The night that I saw Phillips, he spoke not of reparations as a solution to the racial wealth gap but of a “wealth tax” that could end poverty in the United States.
As I sat and listened to Phillips’ proposal, I thought of both the energy that similar ideas have brought to the Sanders campaign nationally and the irony that a big part of the new American majority that he speaks of is now being seen by the Clinton campaign as a “fire wall” against the “political revolution” Bernie is trying to spark. By emphasizing the politics of identity as opposed to the politics of class rather than looking at the profound ways in which they intersect, the Clinton campaign may successfully divide and conquer to win the primary but end up diffusing rather than coopting populism on the left. This would be a shame.
At the same time, I could also not help but think of the potential power of a movement that was able to overcome this dilemma and marry these political ends as Phillips suggests. Of course, to do this would mean moving away from neoliberal politics and charting a course that many in the Democratic Party establishment are loathe to engage.
Finally, it was hard to miss how aptly Phillips’ critique of the failure of many in the pundit and consultant class to envision the possibility of mobilizing this new majority applies to San Diego. The fact is that we live in a city where the potential of the demographic shift has simply not lured enough people in progressive circles to see the benefit of bringing in less likely voters and building a new San Diego majority. Instead, we are trapped in a defeatist narrative that only sees a road to victory that leads North of 8 and West of 5.
But perhaps, following Phillips’ lead, as we limp through the sadly wasted opportunity that is the 2016 election cycle where (Godspeed to the last minute candidacies of the moment) local Democrats have failed to offer a well-planned, strategic challenge to Faulconer, we can start the hard, long-term work that it takes to build a progressive base for the future making use of the minimum wage fights in June and November and other issues as focal points.
This means we need to dedicate more resources to organizations like Alliance San Diego who are already engaging and mobilizing underrepresented voters but could do so at a much larger scale. It also means fostering progressive candidates rather than waiting for saviors from the political establishment. As I’ve written before, we need to build a bench.
In addition to this, we should take Phillips’ advice and offer not bland moderates and gutless triangulation but true progressives and big ideas that might actually get people to start thinking about what a more just San Diego would look like even if that scares a few white suburban swing voters.
The bottom line is that before progressive ideas can win the day, we need to change the narrative rather than accommodate ourselves to the story that we are doomed to fail.