They’re shrugging off fears of driving more white voters to Donald Trump.
Democrats thinking about running for president in 2020 are dramatically changing the way the party talks about race in Donald Trump’s America: Get ready to hear a lot more about intersectionality, allyship, inclusivity and POC.
White and nonwhite Democratic hopefuls are talking more explicitly about race than the party’s White House aspirants ever have — and shrugging off warnings that embracing so-called identity politics could distract from the party’s economic message and push white voters further into Donald Trump’s arms.
While the 2020 primary will feature debates about Medicare for all and college affordability, the Democratic base also wants to know how candidates will address systemic racism and what they think it means to be an ally to people of color.
The shift is largely a response to Trump. His words and actions on issues infused with race — from NFL players protesting police violence during the national anthem, to proposing a ban on all Muslim immigration, to family separations at the southern border — have roused Democratic activists to demand a full-throated response, according to interviews with dozens of progressive activists and aides to several potential 2020 candidates.
“I think people on the left are really looking for someone that can take on corporate power and eradicate systemic racism,” said Karthik Ganapathy, who served as a spokesman for Bernie Sanders during his 2016 presidential run.
So with mixed results, white Democrats such as Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Kirsten Gillibrand are earnestly embracing the language of racial justice advocates. And potential candidates of color like Cory Booker, Kamala Harris and Julián Castro are leaning into race in a way that Barack Obama did not — and felt he could not — throughout his first campaign and much of his presidency.
“Let’s just start with the hard truth about our criminal justice system: It’s racist,” Warren said this past summer. In another speech, Warren dismissed “the pundits” who argue that “Democrats have to choose between being the party of the white working class and the party of Black Lives Matter.”
After coasting to reelection this month in New York, Gillibrand declared in her victory speech that “it all started with the Women’s March — an intersectional moment when you could march with your sign — regardless of what it said — women’s reproductive rights, Black Lives Matter, clean air and clean water, LGBTQ equality.”
In a letter to her supporters, Gillibrand again nodded to intersectionality — a framework that considers overlapping prejudices people face — writing that “resistance is female, intersectional and powered by our belief in one another.”
And in Sanders’ forthcoming book, “Where We Go From Here,” the Vermont senator argues that “[s]everal years ago, the abominations of our criminal justice system were not widely discussed.” He goes on to credit Black Lives Matter and the ACLU for fighting a system “that was racist and that criminalized poverty.” It’s a shift in emphasis for Sanders, who said after the 2016 election that “[o]ne of the struggles that you’re going to be seeing in the Democratic Party is whether we go beyond identity politics.”
The embrace of inclusivity-focused politics on the left has been growing for years with the rise of groups like Black Lives Matter and Dreamers. But Trump has pushed it to the forefront of the progressive movement, especially among younger voters.
“Intersectionality feels obvious to younger progressives in the way that LGBTQ rights do,” said Amanda Litman, co-founder and executive director of Run For Something, which recruited thousands of young progressives to run for local and state office in the aftermath of the 2016 election.
Many progressive grass-roots organizations are instituting new training and programs to improve their approach to race. Indivisible, the largest “resistance” group of the Trump era, recently held its first mandatory virtual training; more than 300 group leaders across the country tuned in. The topic: “Direct Voter Contact through a Racial Equity Lens.”
Regan Byrd, the host of the training, formed her own “anti-oppression consulting” firm in December 2017 and she said business has been good. “I’m a little shocked about how much momentum there’s been,” she said.
Indivisible said its leadership and grass-roots members will be evaluating 2020 candidates with these issues in mind. “We … expect candidates — and the broader progressive movement — to commit to an inclusive and motivating message in 2020 that addresses both economic and racial inequality,” said Maria Urbina, the group’s national political director.
The recent, more explicit rhetoric on race among potential 2020 Democratic hopefuls — who, to varying degrees, have addressed racial issues for years — is at least partly strategic. Black voters are likely to be decisive in many 2020 primaries, especially in the South.
“It’s fairly simple–s/he who wins the black vote, wins the primary,” one adviser to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign said in a text message.
It was no accident that Clinton’s first major policy speech during her 2016 campaign was about race and the criminal justice system. “It’s time to end the era of mass incarceration,” she said at Columbia University in April 2015. Clinton frequently discussed implicit bias on the campaign trail and used the term“systemic racism” in her Democratic National Convention speech accepting the nomination, the first major party nominee to do so. But she was an imperfect messenger for those policies given that her husband signed the 1994 crime bill that contributed to the era she was condemning.
Trump has helped bring race to center stage for the 2020 Democratic primary and in the process has raised questions as to whether the party can maintain the tenuous coalition of enormous black majorities and white working class voters outside the South it has maintained since the 1960s. People across the Democratic Party agree that race should be part of the discussion, but there is disagreement about how big a part of the discussion it should be compared to issues like health care and jobs.
Potential 2020 candidates publicly profess that it’s not an either-or scenario. But Clinton herself has said that her focus on issues disproportionately affecting black voters, such as the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, may have alienated white voters. “I don’t know if my advocacy for the heavily African American community of Flint alienated white voters in other parts of Michigan but it certainly didn’t seem to help, as I lost the state narrowly in both the primary and the general election,” she wrote in her post-election book, “What Happened.”
Ultimately, choices will have to be made about which issues to focus on and how much energy to expend on turning out the Democratic base versus persuading white voters who’ve been leaving the party.
But the answers to these questions could determine whether Democrats zero in on trying to win back the Midwestern and whiter states they lost in 2016, such as Ohio, Iowa, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — or to go through states with more diverse populations like Arizona, Texas, Georgia and Florida.
“There is no strategy to get the presidency back that doesn’t include winning or being competitive in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. Period,” said Tom Russell, who recently managed the Democratic Party’s independent expenditure group in the Wisconsin governor’s race, a big success for Democrats. “The diversity that exists in our coalition that doesn’t exist in the Republican coalition is something that has to be discussed, but at the end of the day they also have to have a sort of meat and potatoes message.”