In appealing to white working class, Democrats must not forget their base

Ohio Congressman Tim Ryan spent weeks after the election trying to tout his white working-class credentials.
Ohio Congressman Tim Ryan spent weeks after the election trying to tout his white working-class credentials. AP

I am unnerved by Democrats’ scramble after their stunning defeat in November’s presidential election.

As a black man who is part of the loosely linked coalition of voters that has fueled the Democratic Party for decades, the party’s direction is troubling.

The party has not sought to reward or reassure its strongest demographic – black voters, 88 percent of whom voted for Hillary Clinton.

Rather, Democrats have kowtowed to white voters who have abandoned the party. Some will deny Democrats are abandoning blacks to pursue voters who already left the party, but the proof is in the pudding.

Let’s start at the national level, where, in their most vulnerable moment, Democrats spoke unabashedly about returning to prominence by chasing down white working-class voters.

Bernie Sanders, the popular Vermont senator who ran as a Democrat in the presidential primaries, was among the first to jump on the white working-class bandwagon.

That’s interesting, given Sanders – an independent – is in many ways part of the liberal elite he now derides.

Sanders’ platform included many of the socialist ideals he has long held dear – elitist policies that work well in theory, but not in reality. That’s partly why Sanders spent decades in Congress pushing those ideas and achieving none of them. It’s also partly why Sanders lost to Clinton.

But Sanders isn’t the only one crowing about his “white working-class” roots.

Tim Ryan, the 43-year-old Congressman from Ohio – one of the Rust Belt states Clinton lost – spent weeks after the election trying to tout his white working-class credentials. He hoped to use them to oust his onetime mentor, Nancy Pelosi.

Ryan lost his bid to replace Pelosi as House minority leader, and, if the Democratic Party is not careful, it will lose on every front going forward.

That’s because Donald Trump didn’t win the white working class with a conventional economic message. He won by appealing to racism and bigotry.

Trump convinced white voters all their problems are someone else’s fault, lambasting Muslims, refugees and immigrants. He stoked their belief – following the 2008 election of the first black president – that black progress equals white regression.

Democrats have a choice. They can reach out to a dwindling white population with a similar race-based message. Or they can shore up support among the party’s most loyal demographic – black people – by really addressing their needs.

Democrats must go beyond rewarding a few black political operatives for keeping the status quo.

They must go beyond the political deal-making that gives plum seats to a few black politicians while refusing to address the systemic racism that keeps blacks unemployed at twice the rate of whites.

They must untangle the party from discriminatory unions and contractors that keep black workers off construction sites funded with our tax dollars.

Democrats must stop the lip service because black voters can’t afford to wait anymore. Not with Trump taking office on a platform driven by bigotry. Not with Jeff Sessions dragging a record of racist statements into the attorney general’s office. Not with chief strategist Steve Bannon bringing a rebranded version of racism to the White House.

Yes, Democrats must appeal to white working-class voters.

But in doing so, they’d better not forget the black people who are already there. Otherwise, they’ll lose us, too.