We had a slew of primaries in New York State last night. If you’re looking at a left-right, establishment versus progressives dichotomy it was sort of a mixed picture. Actual Democrats crushed something called the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC), a group of Democrats who until quite recently were keeping the state Senate in de facto Republican hands. That, along with other more deep-seated factors, have had the effect of taking a very blue state and giving it a fairly purple politics, something that affects not just New York but the country as a whole. (Big states like California being deeply Democratic and Texas being deeply Republican have an impact on the rest of the country.) At the same time, the state’s very establishment Democratic governor easily won renomination. The candidates he supported won the Lt. Governorship and Attorney General nominations too. So some are saying, well, it’s a mixed picture. But I would argue this is at least in part a misleading prism through which to these results and results around the country. It obscures a much clearer picture and set of trends.
It seems like week after week this summer and fall we trade back and forth between competing narratives: the failure of Bernie-endorsed candidates or the revolution from below in the Democratic party. Some of this is just the natural inclination to build narratives out of isolated and momentary evidence. But if you look more broadly at all the elections we’ve had over the last six months – primaries against Democratic incumbents, primaries to take on Republican incumbents, etc – the consistent through-line is dramatically larger numbers of Democratic nominees who are either women or people of color and in many cases both. This is the consistent pattern which you find just about everywhere. It’s not an accident that the two big House primary shockers for the Democrats were pulled off by an Hispanic woman and an African-American woman. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez fits clearly into the Bernie/Left-Liberal/democratic socialist storyline. But that’s much less the case with Ayanna Pressley in Massachusetts, where the story was more generational and demographic succession, in addition to redestricting.
This makes sense and is exactly how it should be. In the 21st century the Democratic party has already become the country’s first real multiracial party. Depending on how you choose to categorize different ethnic and racial groups, the Democratic party is already made up of half non-white voters. It also disproportionately gets its votes from women. In the nature of things, that means it’s most diehard, committed and consistent voters are women of color. These are simple, mathematical realities. Yet the elected party, through a mix of white power and incumbency, is still pretty white.
That’s changing in a big way. Another example is the fact that we have competitive African-American gubernatorial candidates this cycle in Florida and Georgia. Both also break what we might call an earlier model in which African-American candidates in Southern states had to or were perceived to have to hug more centrist politics and traditionalist cultural politics to inoculate themselves against the resistance of a majority white electorate.
Some of this gets pegged as ‘identity politics’, either as an endorsement or a criticism. Again, I think that misses what’s happening. When people get into a crisis mode they look much more closely at political questions. They pay more attention to local races. This is less ‘identity politics’ than simply moving off autopilot. There’s nothing more normal in American politics than people electorates electing people who look more or less like their constituencies. More women, more people of color. Again, it just makes sense.
This is where we get back to what happened in New York last night. The big, big news last night wasn’t the results of any particular race. It was turnout. Turnout. Turnout. Turnout. I haven’t seen precise enough numbers yet. But turnout appears to have roughly doubled from the last midterm election. That is a stunning number. That should and I suspect does terrify Republicans. That suggests a possible level of turnout in the state and a deep shift in the shape of the electorate itself which could crush the entire Republican party in the state in two months. I stress ‘could’. I’m not making a prediction. I’m saying shifts of this magnitude put in doubt the ‘fundamentals’ by which experienced political analysts mark the limits of the possible.
A primary isn’t a general election and a midterm isn’t a presidential election. But what we’ve seen most clearly in this cycle is elections happening where the shape and size of the electorate is simply totally different from what was expected. That has led in part to shockers in Democratic primaries but it’s also what’s driving the number of women and people of color being nominated or elected across the board – some of whom get pegged as ‘establishment’ and others who get labeled ‘progressives’. To be clear, this is not or not simply that more women or people of color are voting. It’s much broader than that. You have a lot more people voting. You have people voting who are newly activated by the crisis brought on by President Trump but affecting and activated about things that go far beyond him.
The earthquake is big. Don’t get me wrong. I think it’s bigger than people realize. It’s all generally to the left. But seeing it through a Bernie/establishment prism I think misses and obscures most of what’s happening.