Op-Ed: Why did Doug Jones win in Alabama? He can thank people of color
Tuesday’s stunning victory for Doug Jones, Democrat of Alabama, is, for many pundits and party leaders, a vindication of an opinion they have held since Donald Trump took the stage at the 2016 Republican convention, and which was not shaken even by his defeat of Hillary Clinton: that the key to Democratic victory is in appealing to the better angels of conservatives, focusing on the ethical shortcomings or lack of decorum shown by Republican candidates like Roy Moore or President Trump.
Even a cursory look at the numbers out of Alabama, however, proves this theory has no basis in reality.
Jones did not win because Republicans en masse chose “country over party,” as Republican Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona said when he crossed party lines to donate all of $100 to Jones.
Rather, he won because black voters turned out in unprecedented numbers for an election of this kind. According to exit polls, the 2017 Alabama electorate was 30% black. In 2012, with President Obama at the top of the ticket, it was 28% black. Some majority black counties voted at around three-quarters of their presidential turnout, while some of the largest majority white counties were closer to 55% of their presidential average, according to initial returns. This made the difference between Sen. Jones and Sen.Moore.
Millennial Alabamians appear to have voted for Jones by a margin of at least 22 percentage points. But a GenForward survey released earlier this year found that white millennials hold views largely in line with older white Americans. The reason millennials overwhelmingly support Democrats in 2017 is not that the average millennial is further left than the average baby boomer — it is because the average millennial is far more likely to be a person of color than the average baby boomer.
White conservatives did not flip to Jones in a significant way. And even if they had, that is not a sustainable electoral model, as Democrats will eventually have to run against candidates who, unlike Moore and Trump, have a moral compass and a vague sense of decency. Jones won because white conservatives stayed home, while black liberals and leftists turned out.
These are the facts the Democratic Party must learn to continue to win around the country. The party’s future is not in appealing to “the suburbs of Philadelphia,” as Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York predicted in July of 2016, but in giving nonwhite voters a compelling reason to continue to support Democrats.
That means understanding the intersection of issues facing communities of color, not just paying lip service to criminal justice reform or showing up in a church right before an election.
In Alabama, where voters must show identification at the polls, the state closed ID-issuing motor vehicle offices in multiple majority black counties. Voters overcame this structural barrier to elect Jones, and the Democratic Party can repay them by working to remove it.
The Democratic Party cannot take its voters for granted, and must push a platform of real economic and social justice. It must work actively to dismantle white supremacy and systemic racism, and it must take a strong stance against voter suppression tactics that seek to silence nonwhite voters. Any of these actions would be more beneficial than fretting over whether a Democratic candidate is working hard enough to appear pro-business, post-partisan or moderate on issues such as reproductive choice.
Jones made his career by standing up to racists, putting Klansmen on trial for the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., that killed four young girls. His commitment to racial justice is clear. But the Democratic Party still must actively recruit and promote candidates whose life experiences match those of the voters the party represents.
We cannot continue to ask black voters to turn out in record numbers for candidates with a learning curve on the issues that matter to them. When Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders were asked at a 2016 primary debate “whether black lives matter or all lives matter,” both candidates delivered the correct answer. (“Black lives matter.”) But I’m sure I wasn’t the only progressive Democrat to hold my breath, not at all certain they’d gotten the message.
This is the lesson of the Alabama upset. The Democratic Party doesn’t need to win over people with wildly different values — it doesn’t need Bill Kristol, or Jeff Flake, or George W. Bush — it needs to give its base a reason to vote. The base of the Democratic Party is Americans of color, and the party can win by showing that it understands that.
Joshua Goodman is a political consultant and Democratic Party activist based in Burbank.
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