Does the Democrats’ ‘Better Deal’ Include People of Color?
Democrats have unveiled their roadmap for electoral victory, but is it enough to win over voters, particularly communities of color? Author Steve Phillips of Democracy in Color and writer David Dayen discuss
AARON MATE: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Mate. After a string of losses, Democrats are rebranding. They recently unveiled their plan to win back voters. It’s called A Better Deal.
CHUCK SCHUMER: President Trump campaigned on a populist platform, talking to working people. That’s why he won. But as soon as he got into office, he abandoned them, making alliances with the powerful special interest Koch brother dominated hard right wing of the Republican Party, which appeals to the very wealthy, not the working people, leaving a vacuum on economic issues. We Democrats are going to fill that vacuum. Democrats will show the country, we are the party on the side of working people.
AARON MATE: The new Democratic agenda calls for increased oversight of corporations and cracking down on monopolies, a jobs program through infrastructure spending and tax credits, a sweeping plan to lower the cost of prescription drugs and a $15 minimum wage. All of these are apparent nods to the Bernie Sanders wing of the party, but the plan does not include what many progressives see as a litmus test for the next election: single payer healthcare.
This absence has helped fuel the ongoing debate inside the left over Democratic Party’s future. I’m joined now by two guests. David Dayen is a contributor to The Intercept and The Nation and a weekly columnist for The New Republic. Steve Phillips is the founder of the group Democracy in Color. He’s also a columnist for The Nation, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and the author of Brown is the New White: How the Demographic Revolution has Created a New American Majority. Welcome to you both. Steve Phillips, I’ll start with you. Your assessment of the Democrats’ plan, A Better Deal.
STEVE PHILLIPS: Well, it’s inadequate and most importantly, it’s misdirected. Some of the core components outlined in Schumer’s op-ed piece around higher wages, lower expenses, retraining, that’s all fine, but the premise of it is what is the problem. The premise is that there are all these voters who were formally Democratic or who are drawn to the Democrats who defected to Trump because of Trump’s populist economic appeal, and that Democrats have to work to actually try to recapture those voters, and that’s the way they’re going to get back power.
Even in that clip, Schumer’s saying that that’s why he won, because of his economic populist appeal. That’s not why he won. The most important reason why he won is actually that African-American voters did not vote at the same rate that they voted in 2012 and many progressive whites defected to third and fourth parties. That’s the most important. The reason that’s linked to that, or secondarily is that the people who did gravitate to Trump, many of them were responding to his inflaming of racial resentment in this country.
Rather than draw a line in the sand, speak out against that, summon people to their highest and best selves to actually embrace a multi-racial country that we have, the Democrats are putting their head in the sand and ignoring that and simply trying to go after this economic message, which is both mathematically unfounded as well as morally delinquent in terms of speaking up to the outrages and the attacks on the various communities of color and the other marginalized groups in this society that this administration is doing.
AARON MATE: Steve, I guess my only question there is, is your analysis setting up a sort of zero sum binary, where why does it have to be mutually exclusive? Why wouldn’t a populist economic message appeal to both types of voters that you’re talking about? White voters, working class voters who voted for Trump and also people of color and progressives who did not vote for Democrats?
STEVE PHILLIPS: Well because the presumption is people are trying to disentangle the intersection of that he may have said a few populist thing, with he said a whole bunch of racist and misogynistic xenophobic things. We’re hoping by ignoring those other pieces, that then he’ll, people will gravitate towards us.
Trump did not rise in the polls until he demonized Mexicans. He further rose in the polls when he said he was going to ban all Muslims. People, the people who did support him, gravitated towards him on that front. The more important point is the mathematical point. Is that the underpinning, that Hillary got three million more voters than Trump did, and even in the three states that were critical to losing, he did not get the majority of vote. There was a bigger increase for Jill Stein voters than there was, than was the margin of difference in Michigan and in Wisconsin.
It’s not that it’s a zero sum, it’s not that we should not be. The most economically disadvantaged people in the country are people of color. So there should be a social justice economic equality message that deals with the racial wealth gap in this country and then the overall economic problems that we face. But we’re not going … My problem is the premise of all of these efforts is targeting a group, which is not, there is no evidentiary basis that we would be able to actually get back. Meanwhile we’re ignoring the groups that we actually need to win.
There’s been no discussion, no big panels or conferences or initiatives dealing with increasing black and Latino voter turnout, but there’s all this drama around the white working class. We’re squandering precious resources and time and that’s the strategic fallacy of the current situation.
AARON MATE: That lack of effort put into recruiting people of color, enlisting them in politics, why do you think that is?
STEVE PHILLIPS: Well, I mean the flip answer is 400 years of racism and white superiority in the country, which is not that flip. I actually wrote a piece for The Nation right after the election about the need to diversify the leadership of the Democratic party and the progressive movement. I highlighted in that how every organization, every single organization that had a budget of over $30 million on the Democratic and progressive side of the $1.8 billion was spent, was run by a white person.
It’s not a malicious thing necessarily. It’s just a, people relate to who they know. People like people like them. They know people like them. You have to expand the composition of who was in leadership, so then you have a different set of understandings and priorities and inclination. They keep putting in place white people who know white people. Then they think the most important people to go get are white people whether, regardless of what the actual underlying data shows. They have not put in, given checkbook power historically to people who both come from and understand the communities of color.
AARON MATE: David Dayen, you’ve written about A Better Deal and you’ve covered in general the dynamics of progressive politics. What’s your take on this new Democratic plan?
DAVID DAYEN: Well, I think I had lower expectations going in than Steve might have had. I really don’t expect the Democratic Party, from the top down, to craft a message, given past history, that speaks to the broad community of people and what they’re feeling. However, I do believe that the biggest problem that we face right now as a country is this dominant corporate power that we’ve seen through all sectors of the economy and how that translates into both the concentration of economic and political power and soaring inequality that we see.
I was pleasantly surprised that, from a policy standpoint, if not a political standpoint, that the Better Deal agenda really put that at the center of their argument. I think that would be terrific for policy, if we returned to what we did in the 1930s on up through the period of 1950s and 1960s, which was attack levels of concentration. Give people the economic liberty to actually display and use their talents against dominant economic forces, against dominant corporations.
I just think that would be better for all regions of the country, black, white, Latino, whatever, to have these situations where it isn’t the Wal-Mart or the Amazon or the Facebook or the Google that is securing all the profits. We’ve seen the top 1% capture virtually all the gains post-recession. I think that this focus, which is really specific and direct in the Better Deal Agenda. They’re talking about moving away from the standard that if a merger or a combination of ownership helps consumers and helps efficiency gains and helps allegedly with consumer prices, if the companies can make that argument, then we should allow that merger to occur.
They’re talking about moving completely away from that, moving towards the anti-competitive behavior being at the top. That concentrations of power are by their very nature distorting to society. This filters down through virtually every sector and every part of American life that you can actually imagine. I was pretty pleased with that aspect of it. It’s an agenda that I believe is being rolled out and I don’t think it’s complete in any way. I’m not sure what the political implications are. I’m looking at it purely on policy. On policy this really is a throwback to the kinds of economic democracy that we used to see throughout the New Deal, that really lifted communities across the country.
AARON MATE: Yeah. There’s a headline today in the Washington Post that says, “Centrist Democrats begin pushing back against Bernie Sanders’ liberal wing.” It talks about a group called New Democracy, which is now voicing criticism of those Sanders-esque elements of the Better Deal platform. In terms of the Democratic civil war, what do you expect to be happening now. If you could comment on that in the context of this recent controversy over Senator Kamala Harris, which is some opposition of her or some criticism of her, has sparked some infighting amongst leftists in recent weeks. Part of it was based actually on a piece that you wrote not too long ago about her.
DAVID DAYEN: Yeah. I wrote this story, which was really about the Treasury Secretary nominee, Steven Mnuchin and his bank, One West Bank, which foreclosed on tens of thousands of Americans, disproportionately people of color actually. In California, I obtained this memo that showed that there was widespread misconduct and violations of California state foreclosure laws that One West was engaged in.
The State Attorneys General Office wanted to file a civil enforcement action against One West Bank for that. This would have had obviously damage to the reputation of Steven Mnuchin. I’m not sure that if his bank was indicted and convicted of all these crimes that he would have been able to become Treasury Secretary.
Kamala Harris was the Attorney General in California when that, she decided not to bring forward that case. A lot of people on the left have brought up this in the context of Harris being maybe too close to Wall Street, too close to her donors. Steven Mnuchin was a donor of Kamala Harris. So was One West Bank. So were other investors in One West Bank, like George Soros.
Showing that this attempt to put Harris at the forefront of maybe a 2020 presidential run is misguided. Personally, I think that’s three years away. I would be more interested in putting issues at the top, at the head of the agenda, and forcing, whether it’s Kamala Harris or Bernie Sanders or anybody, to come to the people who are calling out for these different policies, whether they be free college tuition for all, whether they be single payer healthcare, whether they be a skeptical eye towards the growing financialization and corporate concentration that we see across the economy, whether it be criminal justice.
AARON MATE: Let me go To Steve Phillips. Let me go to Steve Phillips. Steve Phillips, your thoughts on this unfolding debate that continues past the 2016 primary, now between centrists and progressives of the Democratic Party, the debate as you’re now seeing it unfold.
STEVE PHILLIPS: Yeah, well I think that’s only part of the debate first of all and so too often, to be frank the discussion is what do the white centrists of the Democrats think and what do the rest of us think. Whereas 47% of the Democratic voters are people of color. The Democrats have not won a presidential election in the past 20 years without an African-American, but a person of color on the ticket, and yet decided to go with an all-white ticket in 2016.
So first of all, I think the debate is too narrow, and second of all, I think when one just looks at the issue around this centrist versus progressive, there’s a danger of a level of purity that is, we’ll just generously call it unintentionally discriminatory on race and gender. There’s at least a dozen or more people being talked about and looking at running for president.
What is all this focus on Kamala Harris? Another article about Kamala Harris, Deval Patrick and Corey Booker, three African-Americans, which is notable, but more importantly it’s out of perspective and unbalanced. Every person, you can find something to criticize about everybody, but if you’re going to talk about something Kamala Harris did not do around a bank, you also have to talk about how she fostered a $25 billion foreclosure settlement from a lot of the different big banks as well.
You have to look at people in their perspective, but the most fundamental underlying piece is what is being done to inspire, galvanize, organize the full constituency that actually elected Obama. Some of it is, yes, to be more progressive. Yes to go after the top 1%, but how to do that and to do that in a race conscious way and not a color blind way. Even the New Deal was actually, had fundamentally racist components of it, where they excluded field workers and they excluded domestic workers, largely Latinos and African Americans consciously because the South demanded that actually take place.
We need to have a robust populist transformative progressive agenda, but it also has to explicitly champion bringing about justice and equality in eliminating the racial wealth gap as well as the gender wealth and pay gap.
DAVID DAYEN: Can I just respond to that quickly?
AARON MATE: Sure David, yeah.
DAVID DAYEN: That $25 billion settlement was a joke. I wrote a whole book about this. The majority of money that … First there was only $3 billion in hard dollars. The rest was credits, and the majority of that money, at least in California went towards short sale forgiveness, which the IRS said was valueless to the consumer.
The majority of that policy was more transactions in the national mortgage settlement actually removed people from their homes than actually left them in their homes to, you know and aided them with a modification of their mortgage. The financial crisis was what one former Congressman called an extinction event for the black and Latino middle class. It was the largest destruction of wealth for people of color in modern history in this country.
You cannot divorce these issues. These issues are intersectional. When you’re talking about economic inequality, you’re talking about racial inequality. When you’re talking about the overweening power of the financial sector to be predatory upon their customers, you’re talking about them being predatory upon black and brown people. I just don’t think that you can separate these issues out at all.
If people want to make the argument that Senator Harris dropped the ball on getting some accountability for this overweening corporate power and this financial power and this predatory element that we saw with the banks perpetrating in 2008, then I think that’s a completely legitimate thing to say, and something that affects people of color distinctly.
AARON MATE: Right. You know, so on this point of not separating these two issues, I want to go to a clip of Jennifer Palmieri and then get your response, Steve Phillips. She was speaking to MSNBC a few months ago and she appeared to make a pretty clear binary, a pretty clear distinction between identity politics and a progressive economic message. This is what she said:
J. PALMIERI: I think that a lot of this energy is not the base. The base is there, but you are wrong to look at these crowds and think, that means everyone wants $15 an hour.
Speaker 6: Don’t assume this is a policy push.
J. PALMIERI: Don’t assume that that’s … Don’t assume that the answer to big crowds is moving policy to the left. I think the answer to the big crowds is engaging as much as you can to be as supportive as you can and understanding. What these people want, they are desperate. It’s all about identity on our side now. They want to show he does not support me. I support you, refugee. I support you, immigrant in my neighborhood. I want to defend you. Women who are rejecting, who are rejecting Nordstrom’s and Neiman Marcus, they’re saying this is power for them. Donald Trump doesn’t take me seriously? Well like I’m showing you my value and my power. I think it’s like our own version of identity politics on the left that’s more empowering. Then I think that’s where, that’s a safer place to be.
AARON MATE: That’s Jennifer Palmieri. She served as the Communications Director for the Clinton campaign. Steve Phillips, your thoughts on this approach. Do you agree with what she’s saying here, making this distinction between identity politics and moving to the left?
STEVE PHILLIPS: No. I think that that’s what … The challenge the Democrats have is that they do not know how to talk about and participate in an election and in a political debate in which race is central, which is really frankly every debate since the 1619 in this country.
They chose to ignore these issues rather than talk about how they are integrated and how they should be woven together. The reason they choose to ignore it is because they are fearful of alienating this mythical white working class swing voter, who’s going to gravitate towards them if they just talk about more, better trade deals.
They have to put forward an economically populist and an inclusive agenda that is embracing the full diversity of who this country is now. The recent piece by a professor at, I think it was in the New York Times recently, talking about Trump is championing the policies of white racial resentment. That’s why he’s going after immigrants. Why he’s going after Muslims. It’s why he’s going after Affirmative Action. You have to articulate those issues and those are communities which are actually the most economically distressed and talk about a progressive populist platform.
I talk in my book about a tax on the top 1%. If you tax, a wealth tax, not an income tax. If you instituted a wealth tax on the top 1% in this country of just 2% a year, that would end poverty in this country. We don’t have that level of bold audacious thinking, partly because the Democrats are too afraid of alienating their donors as well, but they cannot do it in a color blind fashion. I would argue that that was ultimately the failure of Bernie Sanders’ campaign and why he did not generate the kind of support among the communities of color that he would needed to win the nomination. It’s because he was too color blind, which then does not address and validate the driving realities that are part of the exclusions by group which are happening in this country right now.
AARON MATE: So Steve, let me ask you, do you think it’s a fair critique of centrist Democrats, so-called centrist Democrats like Jennifer Palmieri to say they’re using the identity politics, the identity politics issue, the race issue as a way to deflect, as a way to avoid taking on progressive economic platforms that could reach a wide range of voters?
STEVE PHILLIPS: I don’t … I mean, I’ve met Jennifer. I don’t know her well and I don’t know the motivation around it. I don’t … Let me more just say I actually don’t know. I guess one could argue that but it’s not a … It’s not a grouping which has championed an agenda. The Democrats have historically not championed an agenda which both targets the 1% as well as fully and enthusiastically and unapologetically embraces the communities that Donald Trump is unapologetically demonizing right now.
AARON MATE: If you could design the strategy for 2018 and 2020, what would you prescribe?
STEVE PHILLIPS: The most important thing is to understand the underlying math of the matter. That’s what I’ve been really so focused on. There is this obsession which plays into Trump’s hands that what we have to do is calibrate our message and then our resources and then our targeting to the, I would argue mythical Trump Democrat, the Obama/Trump voter.
Whereas the real way to win is to re-inspire and re-mobilize the Obama coalition. That’s key for taking back the House in 2018 and that’s key for winning the presidency in 2020. That means directly standing up to the things that Trump is attacking and saying that’s not the country we believe in. We’re not here for these immigration attacks. We’re not here for this demonizing of Muslims. We’re not here for the attacks on Affirmative Action. We believe in a country that has all these different types of people, all of these languages, all these colors and that’s the strength of this country and we’re going to build this country on that diversity. We’re not going to back away from it.
We are going to push for a more equal society that it deals with the economic inequality as well. All of that tied into a vision. That’s what’s also left out, is Trump has handed the country over to the billionaires. A bunch of his Cabinet members, all of his public policies, but there’s this reluctance to defend the things that he is attacking. That’s what has to be done forthrightly in terms of message, and that’s also what has to be done in terms of the allocation of resources. Democrats are going to spend $700 million in the next, between now and 2018. What constituencies is that targeting? Who are we trying to mobilize? We have enough number if we will inspire, organize and mobilize them to actually take back power in this country.
AARON MATE: Right, and that $700 million comes after, Steven as you pointed out in your piece for the New York Times that $1 billion as spent in 2016. David Dayen, contributor to The Intercept and The Nation, a weekly columnist for The New Republic, and Steve Phillips, founder of the group Democracy in Color, a columnist for The Nation, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. Also an attorney and the author of Brown is the New White: How the Demographic Revolution has Created a New American Majority. Thanks to you both.
STEVE PHILLIPS: Thank you.
DAVID DAYEN: Thank you.
AARON MATE: And thank you for joining us on The Real News.