aka How Black Folks, Shelby County Soccer Moms, and Sir Charles Made for an Alabama Dream Team
There were many joys in watching CNN’s Special Election Coverage Tuesday night. Bakari Sellers rhetorically dunking on Rick Santorum time and time again. Wolf Blitzer toggling between CNN’s John King, with the county-by-county map, and Alabama’s drawling Secretary of State Adam King (no relation, but lots of name confusion). John King scribbling new numbers up on the board like they were drawing up the final play in a twenty second timeout. (Election as full blown sport catharsis achieved!) The two Alabamas on display at the two campaign headquarters: young black activists and long-time-broken-hearted white liberals thrilling at the Doug Jones jam; creepy Roy Moore pacing and clucking that “God is in control,” to a cultishly quiet crowd, flanked by three softly amen-ing rod-straight white bros in suits.
But the best moment had to be the Charles Barkley interview. This is what he said: “Yeah, we got a bunch of rednecks and a bunch of ignorant people, but we’ve got some amazing people here and they rose up today. This is a wake-up call for Democrats. It’s time for them to get off their ass and start making life better for black folks and people who are poor. We’re in a great position now, but this is a wake-up call for Democrats to do better for black people and poor white people.”
It contained all kinds of truths, and had my man Bakari Sellers on CNN getting all kinds of happy, and Jennifer Granholm high-fiving him over Rick Santorum in a moment that has to be the political equivalent of political TV posterization.
It was a wild upset, a huge win for progressives, a preview of a possible coalition for Democrats to get elected in Red States, and yet the only graphic flying around my social media feeds has been that black folks elected Doug Jones. Period.
Indeed, African-Americans turned out in big numbers, reaching 75% of the turnout for Hilary in 2016, which is high for a non-presidential election year. In big urban counties, such as Jefferson, that houses Birmingham, Doug Jones got 68% of the vote where Hilary got 52%. And Jones actually flipped Madison County, which houses Huntsville, getting 57% of the vote to Hilary’s 38%. This was a huge part of the story. All reporting indicates it was an impressive GOTV effort, that black churches and HBCU’s were deeply involved in organizing and getting turnout among African-Americans. And that crucially, Doug Jones resonated in a way that Hilary didn’t. Sure he didn’t have the “super-predator” comment baggage, nor was he associated with Bill Clinton’s omnibus crime bill. But he reached out, and was embraced. And black folks led a truly impressive turnout operation, eventually accounting for 28% of the electorate. I second the thank yous to black folks in Alabama.
But there was indeed another big part of this story. Doug Jones got high turnout and votes among white voters in the suburban counties of and around Birmingham, Montgomery and Huntsville. On the face of it, the numbers seem pretty underwhelming. Doug Jones won 30% of the overall white vote in Alabama. Pathetic, given who he was running against, right? But in 2012, Obama won 15% of the white vote in Alabama. That means Jones doubled the support from white people for a Democrat in Alabama. No, he didn’t do it by peeling off lots of small-town and rural Conservative voters, (though a significant percentage did stay home and not vote for Roy Moore). He did it by peeling off well-educated and wealthy white moderate Republicans and independents in the suburbs of Birmingham and Huntsville.
Now, I get it. A majority of white women voted for Roy Moore, a dude credibly accused of sexual assault by nine women. Disturbing. But break down the numbers and it’s a little more complicated. While only 24% of white women without a college degree voted for Doug Jones, 46% of white women with a college degree did. And if you look at the key suburban counties, such as Shelby, outside Birmingham, where 83% of the population is white, Jones got 42% of the entire vote, almost doubling Hilary Clinton’s percentage of 23% last year.
So to recap: Jones doubled Obama’s 2012 percentage of white voters, and got 20% more of the vote than Clinton did in 2016 in several highly populated and overwhelmingly white counties. Certain white Alabamans showed up and turned out in big numbers. They’re not exactly a profile in courage, and makes for a tough crowd to salute on social media. Nobody’s about to be posting:
“Raising a glass of Chardonay to my highly-educated wealthy suburban white women for having just enough decency to not vote for an accused child molester. #alabama!”
Or “Clinking my pearls and shaving my poodle in honor of the soccer Moms of Shelby County. Way to draw the line at nine sexual assault accusations! #decency #sorta #stillweird.”
Not exactly a viral tweet. But it also points to the fact that while white urban liberals love to show their haghtag solidarity with people of color, there is no love for anyone with a whiff of past Trumpiness. Now I agree it’s important to have the backs of folks who are vulnerable and under threat in this Presidency and with white nationalism on the rise. And there are legit reasons why white urban liberals identify way more with urban minorities than, say, white working-class rural folks, or even wealthy, suburban white women. We live together, we share the same public spaces, we take the same buses and play at the same parks. We grew up together. Imma keep it real: I feel a lot more comfortable, and have a much better time hanging out with urban black folks than I do with wealthy, conservative suburban women, or even small-town working class white folks. Yes, white urban folks have always wanted to be down with black and brown folks.
But we gotta get beyond just wanting to be down with people of color. (One way is to actually get down with working class black and brown folks, like in their communities, instead of just posting about your downness, but I’ll try to stay on topic here). Because to build coalitions that win multiple elections, we have to make alliances with folks we don’t naturally want to be down with. And that’s hard. Half of the Left is already sick of hearing about the white working-class, or small-town and rural white folks. As though to have been troubled to even think about them for a year— since Trump’s election brought them into focus — has been enough.
The reason this all matters is because the big debate in the Democratic Party right now is whether we should register, mobilize and turn-out urban minority voters, or try to persuade more white independents and moderates to vote Democratic. But it shouldn’t be an either or choice. Doug Jones won because he built a coalition of both, plus young people in college towns. Yes, 98% of black women voted for him. But in 2016, 94% of black women voted for Hilary. Hilary Clinton did not lose the election because she spent too much time courting white working-class voters. She doubled down on the base of urban liberals and minorities. Bill Clinton was screaming at her campaign manager Robby Mook that they had to go out and campaign among white working class folks, and they didn’t. They stuck to the base. And they lost.
White working-class voters made up 40% of the electorate in 2016. 40%! African-Americans make up 13%. So to write-off 40% of the electorate is just not mathematically smart. Win just a third of white working class votes, that’s another 13% of the electorate right there. And white working-class voters are no less a monolith than any other large demographic. And outside of deep red Alabama, they are easier to persuade. Remember it was margins of 20,000 votes or less in the three key swing states of Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania that swung the election to Trump. On a certain level, it’s insane that a small handful of rust-belt states will continue to be the key to winning the Presidency. On the other hand there is a savage poetry that presidential candidates have to wade through the social wreckage and bitterness of post-industrial America, and we have to embrace this reality.
So can we please not start cannibalizing ourselves even in the thrill of victory?! Charles Barkley hit it on the head when he said the Democratic Party needs to do more for both black and poor white voters. Both. Yes we can work on voter protection laws, AND establish Democratic Party infrastructure in rural counties. Yes we can do massive minority voter registration AND work on messaging that doesn’t alienate white swing voters who are persuadable (to wit, there are an estimated 7–9 million folks who voted for Obama and then for Trump. I want some of those votes back in our column in 2018 and 2020).
Presumably, Republicans will stop throwing up sexual predators as candidates, so we cannot expect a blue tide to sweep the south. But Trump (who bragged about his predatory tactics on tape) won Alabama by 28% in 2016, so the fact that Doug Jones was able to thread the needle has to offer some hope, and a possible blueprint for the future. A blueprint that involves both more investment in urban minority votes and issues, while courting persuadable moderate and independent white folks who are thinking twice about having voted for Trump.