Turn Out or Get Out (July 2018)

Will the Democrats’ Big Tent be Big Enough?

Amid all the mea culpas and finger pointing that followed Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s stunning victory in her Democratic primary last month, a hot-take consensus congealed around the notion that the 28-year-old’s win was a straightforward exercise in demographics. The logic was simple enough to follow: Twelve years ago, the incumbent Joseph Crowley — middle-aged, white, male — won a landslide in a district that was 25% white and 42% Hispanic. This year, he lost a primary to Ocasio-Cortez — young, Hispanic, female — in a region that was now home to fewer whites and more Hispanics than ever before. The clickbait just about wrote itself.

Ocasio-Cortez wasn’t having it. She chalked the victory up to an alchemy of her resonant socialist message and old-fashioned shoe leather — and had the footwear to prove it. Meanwhile, the exit polling and census data came together to cut the legs out from beneath the demographics theory. Sure, the white population in the district had dropped slightly, from 25% in 2006 to 23% in 2016. But the combined black and Hispanic share was nearly flat (59% vs 60%) over the same period, which isn’t exactly the hallmark of an oncoming demographic sea change.

Those population shifts probably didn’t do Crowley any favors. They also didn’t explain him getting trounced by 15 points in a race that he’d been winning comfortably for almost two decades, especially once exit data revealed that Ocasio-Cortez’s strongest support came from communities that aren’t predominately Hispanic but instead dominated by young, white and affluent voters. Really, the numbers seemed to suggest that it was gentrification throughout her district — and not an expansion of the brown and black population — that made Ocasio-Cortez’s victory possible. Soon enough a new narrative took hold: Ocasio-Cortez ran a hard and smart campaign that caught Crowley flat-footed, and her efforts were rewarded by a gentrified base that turned out for her in droves.

Gentrifiers are seen on both the right and left as critical to the Democrats’ fortunes. But, if Ocasio-Cortez’s win foreshadows their ascent to the party throne, it also spotlights the tensions that their new-found political power exacerbates. The basic problem is that gentrifiers’ interests often run directly counter to those of poor minorities, whose needs the Democrats are ostensibly also committed to championing. The conflict is everywhere — it’s synonymous with the growing gap between the winners and losers in modern capitalism — but most glaring in the context of housing, where gentrifiers are, by definition, complicit in displacing huge numbers of poor people from their communities. In theory, the influx of money and diversity brought by gentrifiers might benefit disadvantaged areas, but in practice the sociologist Patrick Sharkey has shown that the poor minority neighborhoods that improve the most over the course of several decades are the ones that white people don’t move into. Beyond that, the urban planning professor Richard Florida has identified housing inequity as the single most important driver of overall economic inequality. Housing disparities, both by themselves and as a proxy for wider wealth inequality, are driving a wedge between two of the Democrats’ bedrock constituencies.

Of course, for Democrats, finding a way to balance the competing priorities of various interest groups is just the cost of doing business. Still, an intraparty showdown between the “affluent” and “minority” wings is an ominous prospect. The best case scenario reads something like a 2016 redux, where the two sides dig in behind their preferred candidate, and promptly descend into an internecine slapfight that depresses turnout and hands a slew of contested races to the GOP. Bernie Sanders, by the way, is still trying to figure out how to talk to Hillary’s people.

Worse yet, the party might opt to prioritize one group over the other, which, given the widely-held view of the minority vote as captured, and the gentrified vote as comparatively up for grabs, hardly suggests an agonizing choice. The idea that the lion’s share of minority votes unconditionally belong to the Democrats is a product of more than just the common misconception of minority voters as a homogenous left-leaning monolith. Take black voters, for instance. No Democratic presidential nominee since Lyndon Johnson has won less than 80% of the black vote, and the GOP’s platform of vote suppression tactics is remarkably hostile to the idea of blacks voting at all. For African-Americans, it’s the Democrats’ way, or the highway.

This understanding of minorities as an electoral sure thing is empirically defensible but unavoidably puts a thumb on the scale in favor of white voters. Politicians do the math and find themselves incentivized to focus mostly on the concerns of NASCAR dads, or suburban soccer moms, or, more recently, Park Slope professionals. Meanwhile, it’s assumed that minorities will continue to deliver enormous margins more or less irregardless of whether their needs are being met. This tendency towards absent-minded expectation might be one reason why the Democrats have steadily lost ground among black, Latino and Asian voters over the last three election cycles. Still, even despite recent setbacks, Democrats remain highly reliant on these groups; a lack of minority voters was a likely contributor to the GOP triumphs in 2010 and 2016, and Obama’s 2008 and 2012 wins are now considered an expression of strong minority turnout (as opposed to shifting demographics). Many times, it seems that the way blacks and other minorities exercise their political muscle is by deciding whether to show up at all.

Which brings us back to Ocasio-Cortez’s victory. Overall voter turnout was only about 13% — low, even for a midterm primary — and, according to Ocasio-Cortez’s camp, skewed heavily towards the gentrifying neighborhoods that made up her base. Meanwhile, Crowley’s strongest support was found in predominately black areas. But blacks only made up 11% of the electorate (down from 17% in 2006) and appear to have collectively declined to come out in the large numbers needed to save the erstwhile King of Queens. For Crowley, their silence was deafening.