“People of color will become a majority of the American working class in 2032,” the Economic Policy Institute reports, based on data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The shift will occur even faster among the young. “The prime-age working-class cohort, which includes working people between the ages of 25 and 54, is projected to be majority people of color in 2029.” For workers between 25 and 34, “the projected transition year is 2021.”
If the Democratic Party is to determine how to truly connect with this new universe of voters — and young people overall — the party must grasp that the high support for Sanders from those voters in the 2016 primaries and his enduring popularity are markers for a sustained progressive wave. The Democratic Party can learn to ride that wave or choose to duck under it.
For the party, the changing demographics and long-term upsurge for progressive socio-economic policies are opportunities and challenges. Emerging sectors of the electorate are compelling the Democratic Party to come to terms with adamant grassroots rejection of economic injustice, institutionalized racism, gender inequality, environmental destruction and corporate domination. Siding with the people who constitute the base isn’t truly possible when party leaders seem to be afraid of them. Retaining control of the national party apparatus has meant locking the doors of the Democratic National Committee to ward off groundswells of participation.
This metaphor turned literal on July 25, 2017 when the president of Our Revolution, former Ohio State Senator Nina Turner, went to deliver 115,000 signatures in support of a progressive “People’s Platform” at the DNC headquarters in Washington. She was turned away at the door. “When I stepped on this side of the barrier, I was told I had to step on the other side, and that’s indicative of what’s wrong with the Democratic Party,” Turner said. Speaking to activists outside the DNC offices, she declared that the party needs more than “a fancy new slogan to reform itself” — a reference to the “A Better Deal” slogan and agenda rolled out by the party leadership earlier that week. Her words speak for many: “We need a new New Deal.”
The stakes couldn’t be higher, yet the party seems intent on doubling down on its approach, despite the trendline. As Robert Borosage points out, “The scope of Democratic reversals over the last eight years is staggering. Hillary’s loss was only the last insult. Democrats have lost everywhere — the Senate, the House, and in state legislatures, and governor’s mansions. Since Obama was elected in 2008, Democrats have slowly lost the House and the Senate, and over 1,000 state legislative seats. The Republican Party can now claim 34 governors, a record high for the party. Republicans are in full control in 26 states; Democrats in six.”
Operating from a place of defensiveness and denial will not turn the party around. Neither will status quo methodology. When discussing the loss of the presidency, we deny ourselves a deeper assessment if the conversation is limited to Clinton and Sanders, what their campaigns and supporters did and didn’t do, and what should have been done. In fairness to Clinton, much of the party’s weakness was in place well before her 2016 run. What must now take place includes honest self-reflection and confronting a hard truth: that many view the party as often in service to a rapacious oligarchy and increasingly out of touch with people in its own base.
Revitalized progressive populism — multicultural, multiracial and multigenerational — means fighting for genuine democracy. Outmoded narratives and facile calls for “unity” must be replaced with a new vision of politics that is explicitly inclusive and participatory. The party must learn how to speak a populist tongue that is in sync with real advocacy for a clear agenda, putting public needs above corporate profits. An imperative is to find common political denominators that are inspirational and practical, cutting across demographic lines while building foundations for social advancement and a humane future.