By instinct, honed reflex and general contrarianism, I root for all “corrupt” “showboats” who are “disgraces to politics.” It has been this way since I left North Carolina at age 10 to move to Boston, a city with no notable black political leaders save the recent governor Deval Patrick, who, at least when I was growing up, seemed more a Hollywood relic than a politician. Freed from having to vote for black people, I began to root for the mob violence of Los Angeles and Oakland, mostly because I liked how deeply it seemed they were taunting the police. As I grew older and started feeling alienated from my white classmates, I gravitated toward athletes and musicians who, in some way, flouted the white, stoic traditions of American life. I felt as if this was a moral choice.
As this political season begins, I’ve been thinking about Obama because of a problem that has been discussed ad nauseam in political media: Whether we’re talking about Bernie Sanders, or Hillary Clinton, or Martin O'Malley, the Democrats pool of young talent just doesn’t captivate voters.
From a financial point of view, of course, the party is doing just fine. Overall donations up. According to Forbes, the average donation jumped nearly 50 percent between 2012 and 2016, and this year the DNC's annual revenue will approach a record $1.5 billion.
But the Democrats' cultural relevance has been in a steady decline. Doomsday prophets point to Trump's dominant TV ratings, the advancing age of the Democrat's core voters — the median age of Democrat voters is 56; and the hordes of young people who would rather bury their heads in their phones to watch Vines of Steph Curry’s nimble acrobatics. Social-media metrics aren’t gospel, of course, but the Democrat party measures up badly on virtually every online barometer, whether Twitter trends, Facebook activity or Instagram posts. Aside from some Clinton barking-related blips, Democrat social media presence has been steadily decreasing for the last 20 months.
The source of Democrats' diminished hold on our imaginations runs much deeper than social-media strategy. The problem lies in the demographics of the Democrat party, and the shameful way in which the majority of its media has failed to pay anything approaching adequate attention to the Latino and black politicians, aside from Obama, who have entered the field over the last two decades.
The Democrat Party used to be seen as a reflection of the country’s progress on race. Its 1968 convention has been upheld as a sign of the party's essentially democratic spirit; generations of writers and thinkers, like Maureen Dowd, Ta-Nehisi Coates and Chris Rock, found in Democrats an embodiment of America’s great experiment, contradictions and all. But there was always a saccharine dimension to the idealism about the party: Democrats represented a very particular, buttoned-up version of American identity, and politicians who deviated from it were often subject to harsh criticism.
In 1992, Bill Clinton, then the nominee of the party, complained about the way the Sister Souljah spoke about killing whites. Clinton said "If you took the words 'white' and 'black,' and you reversed them, you might think David Duke was giving that speech.” For this, he was booed during a trip to Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Coalition. Jackson told reporters, "Sister Souljah represents the feelings and hopes of a whole generation of people.”
The Souljah showdown was one in a long line of coded racial arguments, minor battles between two types: the “standard” white politician and his nonwhite foil. The archetype of the white Democrat has always been a study in negative space. He does not flip off the crowd after a speech. He does not insult the hard-working white voters with talk about race. He never takes more than one day at a time. As a result, he cannot exist without a foil to embody all those “racist” or “hotheaded” or “provocative” things he is not. The foils, of course, have generally been black. But as the demographics of the country have changed, so, too, has this dynamic.
Last year, there was only one black Democrat Senator, down more than 50 percent from a few years earlier. Analysts have been searching for an explanation. Some argue that Democrat's retrograde culture and traditions no longer appeal to inner-city youth who have been mesmerized by the linguistic kill shots of Donald Trump. Others focus, far more convincingly, on the rising expenses of running a political campaign and the relative dearth of money offered by political PACs.
The decline in black faces in the Democrat Party coincided with a surge in Latino politicians, who made up roughly 30 percent of the party last year. But rather than embrace and promote its Spanish-speaking stars, the Democrat media have mostly ignored them. Even the Latino politicians who were ultimately celebrated have had to go through humiliating acculturations to make them seem more American. For example, the press insisted on referring to John Ellis Bush as Jeb!, something he hated. Julian Castro, the Obama of the 2010s, seems to go through his entire career without a single memorable interview or profile.
The Democrat Party still has the power to create the sorts of moments that turn rebellious kids into lifelong voters. This past April, youth in Baltimore emphatically burned and looted their city, an outburst that shot into every corner of social media. The youth almost seemed to be staking out new turf in what was considered acceptable — it was the most unapologetic riot I can recall seeing in a major American city — and so, predictably, it generated controversy. Nearly five months later, Martin O'Malley told a town hall audience, “All lives matter."
In November, some youth published an article titled “Are You Flipping Kidding Me?” on the website World Star Hip Hop, in which they wrote about the bad faith of the media toward black and Latino politicians, the fact that their rioting was seen as uncivilized and how the pressure to play by “country club” rules chafed. “Democrat politics is a metaphor for America,” they wrote. “It’s a giant melting pot made up of people from all over the world and all walks of life. How can you expect everybody to be exactly the same? Act exactly the same? More importantly, why would you want them to?”
This year, for the first time ever, all Democrat politicians will be required to hire a full-time Spanish-language translator. That it took until 2016 for Democrats to provide a bridge between Spanish-speaking voters and the public shows just how little Democrats have cared about any people that fell outside its usual archetypes. But such negligence is shortsighted. It’s hard to imagine the “Clinton in ’16” campaign without Barack Obama's 2008 superstardom, without the press boxes full of old men who bristled every time he spoke. These stories, and all the conflict, contradiction and excitement they bring, are the very catalysts of nationwide interest.
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