The Danger of Courting White Swing Voters

Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt, left, and Hillary Clinton take the stage before a Democratic pr
Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt, left, and Hillary Clinton take the stage before a Democratic presidential primary debate at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Thursday, Feb. 11, 2016, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Tom Lynn)

It must be pretty sweet to be a white swing voter. Political campaigns blow millions of dollars catering to your every whim. Politicians ask what you think before they step out on a major policy program, despite the fact that your views aren't representative of the majority of Americans. The changing demographics of this country mean it's well past time to stop obsessing over a shrinking population that's out of sync with the right direction for this country. Continuing to cater to those voters can have dire consequences, in politics and more importantly in policies that deeply impact people's lives.

Michelle Alexander captured the devastating consequences of fixating on white swing voters in a scathing piece about the Clinton legacy on racial justice. She chronicles how much Clinton strove to be seen as "tough on crime" on the campaign trail, even flying back to Arkansas before the New Hampshire primary to oversee the execution of a mentally impaired black man. He followed through on his campaign promises:

Bill Clinton presided over the largest increase in federal and state prison inmates of any president in American history. Clinton did not declare the War on Crime or the War on Drugs--those wars were declared before Reagan was elected and long before crack hit the streets--but he escalated it beyond what many conservatives had imagined possible. He supported the 100-to-1 sentencing disparity for crack versus powder cocaine, which produced staggering racial injustice in sentencing and boosted funding for drug-law enforcement.

Clinton championed the idea of a federal "three strikes" law in his 1994 State of the Union address and, months later, signed a $30 billion crime bill that created dozens of new federal capital crimes, mandated life sentences for some three-time offenders, and authorized more than $16 billion for state prison grants and the expansion of police forces. The legislation was hailed by mainstream-media outlets as a victory for the Democrats, who "were able to wrest the crime issue from the Republicans and make it their own."

When Clinton left office in 2001, the United States had the highest rate of incarceration in the world. Human Rights Watch reported that in seven states, African Americans constituted 80 to 90 percent of all drug offenders sent to prison, even though they were no more likely than whites to use or sell illegal drugs. Prison admissions for drug offenses reached a level in 2000 for African Americans more than 26 times the level in 1983. All of the presidents since 1980 have contributed to mass incarceration, but as Equal Justice Initiative founder Bryan Stevenson recently observed, "President Clinton's tenure was the worst."

Alexander notes that the Clintons have expressed regret for their role in passing those policies, but so much damage has already been done. It's important for them to act to undo the impacts of mass incarceration, but it's that much harder to reverse damage that has reverberated throughout communities of color for decades than it is to avoid those unjust policies in the first place.

In his essential new book Brown is the New WhiteSteve Phillips shows that more than twenty years later, Democrats are still "ma[king] decisions that have harmed millions of people, and they made those decisions because they have been blinded by the perceived power of White swing voters." He cites the example of Barack Obama's inept immigration reform strategy early in his presidency. Rather than embrace the diverse constituency that elected him and use the momentum he had for bold action, he started deporting people at record rates in an effort to demonstrate toughness. Those deportations bought him nothing from Republicans in Congress or voters, and they tore families apart.

The good news is that shifting gears and embracing the growing diverse majority in this country could elect more progressive politicians and allow for the ambitious policymaking on racial and economic justice that this country sorely needs. Phillips' book captured frustrations I've felt for a long time working in and around electoral politics, and pulled together solid numbers to demonstrate why this shift in strategy can be a winning one. Democrats ignore it at their peril, and the country's.

The white population is growing at a much slower rate than communities of color. Phillips identified 33 states where the coalition he calls the "New American Majority" (people of color and progressive whites) makes up a majority of eligible voters. He cites examples of how strategies to mobilize this majority have been effective--as when Rep. Keith Ellison's campaign increased voter turnout by 5 percent in 2014, a year when turnout in the state overall was down 3 percent. He finds hope in states like California, that turned from a Republican stronghold to a national progressive leader.

As Phillips points out, Republicans recognize these demographic shifts as well. It's easy to dismiss any likelihood that they will capitalize on these changes when watching the GOP presidential candidates blather on about building walls and scary Muslims. But they have had some successes on a local level, and their presidential field is far more diverse than the Democratic one. Representation is only one piece of the puzzle, but Phillips notes that "since 2008, most of the people of color elected to statewide office outside of California and Hawaii (two of the earliest majority-minority states) have been Republicans."

There are some positive signs that Democratic politicians on the national level are taking this to heart. Both Clinton and Sanders have criticized Obama on immigration. They are talking more frequently about racial justice and police brutality (in no small part due to the smart and persistent organizing of the Black Lives Matter movement). It's a start, but only a start and we need to see it reflected by Senate candidates, governors and others all the way down the ticket.

Far too many pundits in this country claim we need more moderate politicians, which to them means some kind of carefully calibrated average of two extreme positions. Those pundits and advisers carry sway in Democratic politics. But a progressive social justice platform isn't extreme. It represents the majority in this country, a majority that is only going to grow. I hope many people involved in Democratic politics will read Phillips' book and take real steps to implement change. Building a new coalition is going to be essential to winning elections in the future. Democrats can't continue to take voters of color for granted; they must stop tiptoeing around white swing voters and push for the policies the majority of Americans want to see. And in the end, economic and social justice will help those white swing voters too, whether they like it or not.