State of Disunion

Shocker! We Have an All-White Dem Debate


The remaining 2020 contenders for the Democratic Party's nomination are homogenous by design.



After more than a year of campaigning, the most diverse Democratic primary field in history has been whittled down to a lily-white debate stage. The departures of Kamala Harris, Julián Castro, and, most recently, Cory Booker, mean that with only three weeks until voting begins, key constituencies and their needs will be not be represented in the last meaningful discussion about the Democratic nominee. This is not an accidental absence, either; it is the natural result of a misdiagnosis of 2016’s ailments and the stubborn denial about the power of white supremacy.

There were scattered post-mortems of the Democratic Party’s losses in the last presidential election cycle, but the broad consensus was crystal clear: It was Hillary Clinton’s fault. It was her fault that we lost the Midwest. It was her fault that a scandal about poor data management turned into an October surprise. It was her fault that the white working class completed their exodus from the Democratic Party. The fault of Hillary Clinton was a seductively facile narrative to write, and it held.

The result is the reality that every single white candidate has built their campaigns on the assumptions that Democrats lost the White House, Senate and Congress for Hillary Clinton–shaped reasons, and that absent those reasons, 2020 is a sure victory. From Pete Buttigieg to Elizabeth Warren, Tom Steyer to Bernie Sanders, these campaigns are tailored to white votes, leaving suffering Black and brown voters outside of their scope.

The narrowness of this perspective aggressively neglects the problems of Black and brown communities. For all the arguments about economic anxiety, it is more difficult for Black and brown families to build wealth, and easier for us to lose it. As white constituents bemoan the costs of healthcare, Black and brown people are paying them in the form of worse outcomes and increased mortality compared to their white counterparts. Most tellingly, when we try to exercise our rights to change anything about this system, we find significantly longer wait times than white citizens with voter ID laws screening us when we arrive.

White Democrats have largely responded to this lived reality for marginalized people with slogan-esque, vague and consistently insulting rhetoric around our issues, half-baked policy to address them, and an appalling ignorance of how these problems not only predated Hillary Clinton in 2016, but underwrote her loss.

It is one thing to see the diminished turnout in the Midwest; it is another to recognize that many of the “missing” votes were in urban, minority-dominated counties in states with Republican-run governments. It is one thing to know about Russian disinformation; it is another to understand how it sowed confusion and apathy among potential allies, even as it stoked the fear and anger of the Republican opposition. It is one thing to assemble a multiracial, majoritarian coalition; it is another thing for that coalition to emerge victorious after the end of preclearance in Shelby v. Holder, a protection that shielded marginalized voters from electoral interference. And it is a political epiphany to comprehend that we are facing a damning electoral Catch-22: The only way to protect our citizenship is to win elections rigged by suppressing it.

Moreover, many of the white voters within the focus of the Democratic nomination process are stubbornly attached to Trump. They have forgiven his provocations, shielded his corruption, and cheered his cruelty. White voters continue to bolster Trump’s approval rating to a floor that enables a successful reelection campaign, and whether writing large checks or making small donations, white voters fund his vast general election war chest. Neither the threats of (nuclear) war nor the unforgivable crimes against humanity nor the brazen and expansive corruption exposed by impeachment have shaken white voters’ faith in Donald Trump; it is absurd to believe that a Democratic campaign would do the trick.

Rather than confront the complexity of this perspective and what it says about the deep inequality of racialized citizenship, the white political class across the spectrum has embraced the convenient lie that Hillary Clinton lost the election more than Donald Trump won it. Republicans have happily consumed this untruth for obvious reasons, but it is the Democratic Party that has internalized it, sworn by it, and built their electoral and legislative strategy around it.

And it has given the party an all-white debate stage.

In this last moment, before primary voting commences in two of the whitest states in the Union, the six candidates on stage will argue about their relative electability. They will bring up polls; they will insult the previous nominee’s campaign; they will tout their own ability to draw white voters. But what they won’t do is talk about the success of racist propaganda on social media or the correlation it has with hate crimes; they won’t discuss the extraordinary costs still being borne by marginalized communities under this administration, and they won’t mention that our supposedly representative government is alarmingly unrepresentative of its citizens. None of the white candidates on that stage is running on the assumption of revitalizing a suppressed Obama coalition; they are running on the belief that it was never real to begin with.

It’s not just about the stories. Journalism is also about who is telling them.

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