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The Democratic Party’s energetic future is emerging from communities of color

As newly-minted Democratic congressional nominee Ayanna Pressley contends, "The people closest to the pain should be closest to power."

BOSTON, MA - SEPTEMBER 04:  Ayanna Pressley, Boston City Councilwomen and House Democratic candidate, gives a victory speech at her primary night gathering in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Scott Eisen/Getty Images)
BOSTON, MA - SEPTEMBER 04: Ayanna Pressley, Boston City Councilwomen and House Democratic candidate, gives a victory speech at her primary night gathering in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Scott Eisen/Getty Images)

Embedded within the aspirations of Democratic candidates aiming to return to both congressional and state-level power this November, there exists a rumbling — a boisterous challenge of progressive change, seeking to upend business-as-usual in Washington and beyond.

Think of it like this: there is a blue wave, within a blue wave, that’s gathering energy. It’s being led by young people of color who are both uninhibited in their rebuke of Trump and the GOP, but equally eager to pose a generational and racial challenge to the older, tradition-laden, and white Democratic establishment.

As the roster of candidates for the upcoming midterm elections develops into sharper focus, it’s increasingly obvious that Democratic primary voters are showing a fairly strong predilection for candidates who represent a future-facing image of their party. Consider, for example, the headliners among a history-making collection of Democratic primary winners, which include congressional primary winners Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York and Ayanna Pressley in Massachusetts, and gubernatorial hopefuls Stacey Abrams in Georgia, Ben Jealous in Maryland, and Andrew Gillum in Florida.

And those are only the marquee names on the ticket. Deeper down the ballots across the nation, non-traditional candidates — that is to say, not white men — are developing political strategies, organizing campaigns, raising buckets of money with the single-minded purpose of winning elections this year and pushing Democrats more to the left, much like the way the right-tilting Tea Party influenced the GOP back in 2010.

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Of course, comparisons with the Tea Party don’t sit especially well within Democratic circles. For instance, Texas Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa bristled at the notion in an interview with Politico’s David Siders, pushing back on the notion that progressive activism was a “left tea party movement.”

Nevertheless, he observed that it’s left-leaning energy that’s fueling the hoped-for Democratic blue wave. “There’s no question that people feel we need change,” Hinojosa told Politico. “That’s what this whole wave is all about,”

He added: “We are going to party activists, to county chairs, to members of clubs, to people who are coming to our trainings, and we’re telling them, if you want to win, discard all these concerns that you had in the past about these labels and brands. You need to talk about what’s important to these people and families, and if people are branded as too progressive, so be it.”

Meanwhile, as Russell Berman recently reported in The Atlantic, political operatives like Quentin and Stefanie Brown James, a husband-wife campaign duo, are working behind the scenes to “build black power in the post-Obama era” with their Collective PAC, a political action committee that recruits, trains, and funds candidates for office at all levels. 

“We wanted to figure out how to not just pass learning, but raise money and work with the media and tell stories because this stuff is important and no one else has been doing it,” Quentin James told The Atlantic, explaining why he and his wife founded the PAC in 2016.

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There’s a practical logic to what’s happening. True, some of the refreshed political activism among black and Latino voters is activated by hostility to Donald Trump and his use of racist extremism to rally a political base.  But that’s not the whole of it.

Hank Sheinkopf, an old-line Democratic strategist in New York, accurately recognized what’s going on, telling Politico recently that a new crop of Democrats seeks to replace the party’s elders. “This is the first wave of an invasion to attack the things that this [younger] generation is experiencing as pain: Student loan debt, lack of affordable health care, the anger and a sense of dis-inclusion,” he said. “And the issue is less so Trump than it is the condition of a society that they believe will have limited options for them.”

To be sure, an emerging generation of black and Latino activism on the left has been gathering steam, at times seeming to be as offended by its ostensible political allies as its bitterest enemies. Call it political self-survival, born of a history of supporting aging, pseudo-liberal white officeholders as they promised much while delivering relatively little in exchange for unwavering black and brown votes.

“They just kind of expect us to jump on board,” Ifeolu Claytor, a 23-year-old working with the Ohio Young Black Democrats, recently told NPR’s Asma Kahlid. “And that’s something that needs to change, clearly, cause black millennials will just stay at home.”

Evidence of a sense of political abandonment emerged in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election, as the old-line Democratic elites sorted through the ashes of defeat, seemingly clueless about how to move forward. Their first reaction: Double-down on failed efforts to convince working-class, white voters to reconsider their support for Donald Trump.

That strategy proved highly offensive to many black voters, who felt it overlooked their loyalty. Worse, the proposed platform included nothing that would address the need to maximize black and Latino voter turnout — or protect black and Latino voters from racist, right-wing efforts at suppression.

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“I don’t know why I was thinking or expecting the Democrats to say or do anything different from than what they did,” Philip Thompson, president of the NAACP’s Loudon County, Virginia chapter, told me in an interview as he harshly criticized Democratic leaders’ post-mortem analysis on the 2016 presidential election. “I shouldn’t have raised my hopes too high because, judging from all I’ve read and seen, the Democrats are buying into the jargon that they lost…because disenchanted white Democrats have left them behind.”

Now, those voters are returning to the polls and sending a message that’s impossible to misunderstand. If Democrats have a future, it will come from within the ranks of its most ardent, loyal and numerous supporters: Young, urban, people of color — and especially women within those ranks — who are demanding to lead the party.

As Pressley and Ocasio-Cortez often argued in their successful campaigns, “The people closest to the pain should be closest to power.”

And, in her victory speech, Pressley took that argument a step further with a clear challenge to her party. “With our rights under assault, with our freedoms under siege, it’s not just good enough to see the Democrats back in power, but it matters who those Democrats are,” she said to deafening cheers and applause.