This post was updated Nov. 5 at 9:27 a.m.
A blue tent in a far-off desert.
That’s the American political party that claims to represent me.
I’ve lived in this country my entire life. I hold progressive opinions and stand for equity and inclusivity. I would have marched for women and for science if I didn’t work for a newspaper.
I’m not a Democrat, though. The party is run by a lot of old white people, and it’s hard to feel like one of the pack when you’re neither old nor white.
It’s not that I don’t gel with the Democratic Party on ideological lines. The party fronted Hillary Clinton as its 2016 presidential candidate. I voted for Clinton. The party fought to uphold the Affordable Care Act. I rooted for the effort. The party opposes the construction of a border wall. I agree a 30-foot-tall reminder of Donald Trump doesn’t belong in my home city of San Diego.
But ideological alignment doesn’t beget political loyalty. After all, blue flags and a mere opposition to the Grand Old Party’s deplorable presidential candidate didn’t guarantee Clinton a win in 2016.
The party that prides itself on being a big tent is surprisingly lacking in the basic qualification of any successful federation: representative leadership. The history of American politics is such that a majority-white Democratic caucus has sought to represent a camp of numerous identities and ethnicities. At a time when the nation continues to diversify and young people of color grow more politically active, it’s clear the Democratic Party needs a change of face.
If the party is going to get the undying support of people like me, its leadership needs more people who look like me. The same goes for young black Americans. The same goes for young Latinx Americans. The same goes for young Pacific Islander Americans.
The same goes for any person of color.
The big blue tent’s caucus-elected leadership is enough of an explanation for that. The House of Representatives’ and U.S. Senate’s minority party leaders, California congresswoman Nancy Pelosi and New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, are both white. Of the four central House Democratic leadership positions, only one – the assistant Democratic leader – is a person of color. Senate Democratic leadership fares even worse, with only one of the 11 of its leaders coming from a nonwhite community.
Compare this to the Democratic Party’s constituency: According to CNN’s 2016 exit polls, 38 percent of white voters, 88 percent of black voters, 67 of Latinx voters, 65 percent of Asian voters and 56 percent of other nonwhite voters went blue for House races. It’s hard to imagine these predominantly nonwhite voters seeing Pelosi or Schumer as someone who adequately represents them.
That’s because the day-to-day struggles of a black man living in South Central Los Angeles, for example, are hardly represented by an upper-middle-class, white congressperson who hasn’t had the color of their skin define their Angeleno experience. It explains why Los Angeles’ congressional representatives, including incumbent candidates Ted Lieu and Maxine Waters, are predominantly people of color, and why 92 other national Democratic representatives come from minority racial communities. That includes Kamala Harris from California – the first Indian-American senator and California’s first black senator – and Catherine Cortez Masto from Nevada – the first Latina senator.
The challenge, though, is getting that diversity to percolate to the upper echelons of the party.
Nearly all Democratic Senate and House majority or minority leaders in the past century have been white men. Political ascendancy for other positions has also skewed the same way. For instance, Joe Crowley, a white House representative from New York first elected to Congress in 1998, was elected the Democratic Caucus chair in 2016. Linda Sánchez, a Latina congresswoman from California, was first elected in 2002, but chosen as the caucus’ vice chair in 2017. Sánchez is the first Latina elected to a leadership position in Congress.
More sobering is the fact that diversity even within Democratic committee members’ staffs may be waning, if not plateauing – meaning the party can’t just wait out the problem. The staffs for 16 Democratic senators have become less diverse in the last year, and only six senators have a staff that is at least 50 percent nonwhite, according to reports released by the Senate Diversity Initiative.
Representation apparently isn’t a focus for the Democratic Party. Yet the party is banking on minority voters to propel it to the majority – a shoddy political strategy even if we looked past the hypocrisy.
That’s not to say Democratic leadership isn’t contingent upon political deftness. Political neophytes naturally, and rightfully, face an uphill battle when seeking a higher position in the party. But it’s ludicrous to think the Democratic Party’s most talented politicians are all white – especially for a big tent that claims to represent minority voters.
The party’s diversity impasse, after all, is why young voters of color cast their ballots in this year’s Democratic primaries for people like Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, a 29- year-old Latina candidate, and Ayanna Pressley, a 44-year-old black candidate. These candidates both unseated 10-term congressmen and ran on platforms calling for, among other things, single-payer health care and subsidized college tuition – policies that resonate with historically marginalized communities.
Call it identity politics or diversification, but representing marginalized communities requires representation from those communities. That’s an inescapable truth Democratic leaders have to contend with.
Otherwise, the party will only continue to be a blue tent in a far-off desert – one minority voters will have long deserted.