The failure of the Democratic Party

Image by Gage Skidmore.

Image by Gage Skidmore.

The Democratic National Convention failed. They failed to meet the racialized challenges of a modern presidential election. They had too much faith in White voters, took voters of color for granted, and it cost them the election. And it started early with the backing of Hillary Clinton at all. Clinton’s credentials aside (she is certainly qualified to govern the U.S. imperialist state), elections are not necessarily won on credentials, but rather are on feelings and emotions, and Clinton was unprepared to generate the emotional fervor necessary to defeat an opponent like Donald Trump.

Clinton was a candidate for White people: a staunchly moderate political pragmatist who the Democrats thought could help them win the votes of White moderates. Couple those White moderates with the momentum Barack Obama initiated among voters of color in 2008 and 2012, and the Democrats felt that Hillary could safely secure a victory, particularly against a candidate like Donald Trump, whose antics would alienate college educated White voters. They could not have been more wrong. Clinton and the Democrats didn’t engage honestly with Whiteness and the racial facts of the election. The percentage of White people voting for the modern Democratic party peaked at 44 percent in 1996 after the party’s neoliberal turn--after getting destroyed in the pre-Clinton elections. Since 1996, the percentage of White people voting Democrat has slowly declined each presidential election, dropping to 39 percent for Barack Obama in 2012. Hillary Clinton only won 37 percent of the White vote.

That 37 percent (the lowest of a Democratic candidate since the 1980s) and Trump’s victory represent a shift in how elections must be run if Democrats are to reclaim the presidency. Barack Obama proved in 2008 and 2012 that the Democrats could win without winning the White vote. Indeed, it didn’t even have to be close.

The Republican candidate won White people by 12 percentage points in 2008 and 20 percentage points in 2012, similar margins to the two previous Democratic candidates who lost to George W. Bush. The difference for Obama was that he was able to garner record voter turnout numbers among people of color, particularly black people, to compensate for the gap in White votes. This prompted Republicans to reconcile themselves with the fact that maybe they couldn’t win with only White votes, that maybe they needed to broaden their appeals to voters of color. Trump just proved that they can win with Whites dominating the votes, particularly if the Democrats can’t field a candidate that can galvanize voters of color. Hillary Clinton was not that candidate.

Democrats neglected to acknowledge the strengthening of White people as a Republican voting bloc and expected voters of color to continue to turn out like they did for Barack Obama. With that in mind, the Clinton campaign relied heavily on the idea that they could steal White moderates from Trump and failed to engage sincerely with the needs of communities of color--the party’s attempts at the latter revolved around cheap tricks like doing popular dances, garnering celebrity endorsements, and projecting disgusting condescension.

It didn’t work. Hillary earned an abysmal percentage of the White vote and was unable to make up the difference with the votes of people of color like Barack Obama. Ultimately, we also have to question whether Hillary Clinton, who, regardless of the reason, had terrible approval ratings from the beginning. In the future, Democrats have to expect Republicans to double-down on Trump’s “White is right” strategy and realize that White people are moving away from their party. If they expect to win presidential elections, they must present candidates that excite the voters of color who will ultimately win them the election.

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Robert L. Reece

Robert L. Reece is a sociology PhD candidate at Duke University where he studies how slavery shapes contemporary racial inequality in the American South. He puts his sociological training to use with Scalawag on the editorial team and the business team.