COMMENTARY: White Democrats battle demographics – and lose


The recent upset in New York’s 14th Congressional District brought some valuable political lessons.

Twenty-eight-year-old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was outspent 18-to-1 by 56-year-old Joe Crowley. But she still walloped the 10-term congressman in the Democratic primary by an impressive 15 points.

When the daughter of a Puerto Rican mother and Bronx-born Latino father ousts the son of an Irish immigrant in a district that is now nearly half Latino and 68 percent nonwhite, it is tempting to say that the torch was passed. Only, in this case, it is more accurate to say that the torch was forcibly wrested from Crowley’s hands against his will — and much earlier than he was planning to surrender it.

As for the lessons, let’s start with the three big ones.

1. Some people are afraid of rainbows. Color scares them. And you can find these timid souls in both political parties.

In 2002, I was in Texas writing for The Dallas Morning News when the state Democratic Party ran what came to be known as a “rainbow ticket.” There was a white male running for lieutenant governor, an African-American vying for U.S. senator, and a Mexican-American seeking to become governor.

What I remember was that many Texas Democrats were concerned that they could be headed into unexplored territory — a time when the leadership of their party might be entirely non-white. They didn’t say if this was a good thing or a bad thing. The fact is, they didn’t know what to make of it. They just knew their world was changing and it made them uneasy.

Today, in Texas, whites make up only about 40 percent of the population. Shouldn’t the political parties reflect that?

2. There is a difference between wanting to help people and being willing to empower them so they don’t need your help.

It’s commendable when people in politics want to use their power and influence to help improve the lot of others. Not so much when they try to use the levers at their disposal to keep themselves in power by keeping their constituents weak and dependent.

Wouldn’t it be nice if elected officials spent less time trying to get re-elected and more time grooming successors? That is almost unheard of.

In the 14th District, Crowley tried to do to Ocasio-Cortez what most incumbents do to challengers in their own party: crush her. Instead, he got crushed by someone half his age who outworked him and drove the message that he was out-of-touch with the district and the people who lived in it.

3. White Democrats would much rather play the race card against the GOP than have it played against them. They don’t have the faintest idea about how to beat back insurrections by Latino Democrats, and so they’re likely to stumble.

Crowley stumbled. Last month, he skipped a candidate’s debate against Ocasio-Cortez and sent someone to fill in for him. And get this: The surrogate — imagine the odds — just happened to be another Latina Democrat, former New York City Councilwoman Annabel Palma. The imagery of two Latinas battling it out onstage while the white Democrat plays the puppeteer was too much for some people to bear.

This included The New York Times editorial board. Lecturing Crowley in an editorial that “his seat is not his entitlement,” the board noted that Ocasio-Cortez had tweeted after the debate that Crowley had picked as his stand-in “a woman with slight resemblance to me.” And while a spokesman for the Crowley campaign insisted that Palma was not chosen because of her ethnicity, the editorial board didn’t seem to buy it.

On top of that, Crowley had the gall to accuse Ocasio-Cortez of making the campaign about race. That’s like the arsonist blaming someone else for the fire. According to press reports, Crowley told supporters that his opponent’s emphasis on race was “unnecessarily divisive” within Democratic ranks.

“I can’t help that I was born white,” Crowley said at one campaign gathering, according to an article in the Intercept.

Too many white Democrats can no longer communicate with nonwhite constituents. If this continues, it’s going to be a long century for the left. Look at the demographics. White Democrats must know the days of running a party that, every year, looks less and less like them are coming to an end.

They’ll fight that reality with everything they have, but they won’t be able to change it.

Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. His email is [email protected] com. His daily podcast, “Navarrette Nation,” is available on apps.