Op-Ed: No, white suburban women alone didn’t flip the House

Supporters of Harley Rouda shout for their candidate during a get out the vote rally at Main Beach in Laguna Beach, Calif. on Nov. 6.
Supporters of Harley Rouda shout for their candidate during a get out the vote rally at Main Beach in Laguna Beach, Calif. on Nov. 6.
(Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

Much of the conventional wisdom about the 2018 midterm election says that suburban women were the key demographic responsible for Democrats taking back the House.

Republicans enjoyed a 10-point advantage among white women voters in 2016, according to exit polls. In the 2018 midterm, that margin was cut to zero, with white women showing equal support for Democrats and Republicans (49% each).

It follows, the logic goes, that tailoring future strategies and messages toward this demographic — white women — is the best path back to the promised land for the Democratic Party in 2020.

But this conclusion misses the mark. Pundits and analysts are ignoring the most significant factor: It’s groups that bear the brunt of inequality who bring about political and social change in this country.


It’s groups that bear the brunt of inequality who bring about political and social change in this country.

If Democrats want to win back the White House, they need to focus their time, energy and resources on voters and leaders in the country’s communities of color — and especially on women of color.

Effective strategies have to be rooted in reality, and the reality of this moment is that the president of the United States is acting with unrelenting hostility toward efforts to foster equality and justice for people of color, women, brown-skinned immigrants, Muslims and a whole host of other groups that have historically been oppressed and discriminated against in this country.

His slogan, “Make America Great Again,” is a not-so-thinly-veiled battle cry to make America white again.


It is no accident that this president was elected immediately after the nation’s first African American president. Multiple academic studies have shown that the racial fears and anxieties of white voters were critical factors in support for President Trump.

Trump’s policies have an indisputable impact: They are reducing the number of people of color in this country. His defense of white supremacists is correlated with an increase in hate crimes based on race, gender and religion.

This moment, in other words, is in many ways a resumption of the conflicts that unfolded during the civil rights movement.

In determining the appropriate path forward, Democrats would be wise to look to the example and heed the lessons of Rosa Parks. Reflecting on this moment through the prism of Parks and her allies will clarify what strategies are needed in order to prevail in 2020.


During the civil rights movement, there were white women who were concerned about the mistreatment of people of color, and who did speak up in opposition to the worst abuses.

The drivers of change, however, were people like Parks and the leaders of the Montgomery Improvement Assn., who launched the bus boycott, organized an alternative transportation system consisting of carpools and sustained the long effort to break the back of the segregationist public transportation system.

Throughout history and across the world, those who experience exclusion and discrimination every day are usually at the forefront of efforts to fight back. Such was the case in Montgomery, Ala., in 1955, and such is the case in the current political moment.

The ugliest expressions of racial discrimination in the United States have historically led to concern and calls for improvement from sympathetic whites. Even in slave days, a popular mantra was “we treat our slaves well,” so that slave owners could redress concerns about the treatment of human beings held in chattel slavery, if not the fact of that slavery.


But recoiling from the ugliest aspects of racism and sexism is different from organizing to eliminate racism and sexism. It’s the difference between writing a letter to the editor to complain about segregation and organizing your neighbors to boycott the buses and break the back of the segregationist system.

Trump’s behavior and policies are ugly. He is separating families at the border, trampling the norms of our democracy and showing outright contempt for others. As a result, he is alienating more voters, including suburban white women, many of whom have finally had enough.

It is not a coincidence that the movement to take back America from the man who bragged on tape about forcibly grabbing women by their private parts — and who placed on the Supreme Court a man credibly accused of sexual assault — is being led by women, people of color and, in particular, women of color.

Electoral success depends on securing support from multiple constituencies, and suburban women are absolutely part of the solution. The first part of the solution, however, is prioritizing, investing in and engaging voters of color.


This constituency is the foundation of Democratic success, as was demonstrated vividly in the election of Sen. Doug Jones in Alabama in 2017, when 96% of black voters — and 98% of black women voters — backed his bid.

In Tuesday’s midterm election, black women were again the most dependable demographic for Democrats, with 92% voting Democratic.

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In at least 11 of the congressional districts flipped by Democrats, the population of people of color exceeded the national average.


The 116th Congress will be the most diverse ever. It will include many political descendants of Rosa Parks: people like Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, the first Muslim women elected to Congress; Xochitl Torres-Small, a Mexican American from New Mexico; and Lucy McBath, an African American mother who lost her son to gun violence.

These will be the new voices on Capitol Hill as the United States government debates a ban on Muslims, deportation of Mexican and other immigrants and the necessity of gun control.

Looking ahead to 2020, white suburban women have a role to play, as they did in lending support to Rosa Parks and her colleagues in Montgomery, Ala. But in order to win, Democrats must prioritize and elevate those who are most under attack.

Steve Phillips, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and the founder of Democracy in Color, is the author of “Brown Is the New White: How the Demographic Revolution Has Created a New American Majority.”


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