Steve Phillips and the Promise of Today

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In Brown Is the New White: How the Demographic Revolution Has Created a New Democratic Majority, published last winter by The New Press, Potrero Hill resident Steve Phillips argues for a national politics that works to combat racial injustice and wealth inequality while extending relief to undocumented immigrants and protecting the environment, without what Phillips characterizes as the compromises that’ve slowed the progressive movement.

It’s a vision rooted not in idealism but in numbers. Phillips presents a statistical analysis of America’s rapidly changing demographics as the basis to assert that the traditional liberal strategy—which, he writes, seeks to appease and reassure moderate European-American voters prior to determining what can be done to energize progressives—has become an increasingly impractical pathway to elected office for the Democrats.  Phillips quotes Connecticut governor Dannel Malloy: “We have to speak to majorities. And we’re probably never going to have a majority made up of middle-aged White men.”

While elucidating the historical and psychological reasons behind the Democratic Party’s tendency to undervalue its reliable minority base, Brown Is the New White employs U.S. Census and exit poll data to make a compact, yet far-reaching, case for the increasing irrelevance of America’s coveted “swing voters”—the shrinking, mostly White segment of the population that vacillates between voting Republican or Democrat. People of color now constitute at least 29 percent of the electorate; Phillips characterizes 80.5 percent of them as “progressive.” These voters, along with the 39 percent of European-Americans who consistently support Democrats, comprise 51 percent of all eligible voters.

The number of these eligible voters that have shown up at polling stations has varied between elections, in part as a result of the attitudes and strategies of the candidates put forth by the Left. According to Phillips, liberals—who incorrectly blamed their losses in the 2010 and 2014 midterm elections on scarce support from working-class Whites, without seeing that the real problem was a lack of voter turnout in Black and Latino communities—haven’t yet come to understand the full power of what he terms the “New American Majority.”

In Phillips’s view, “much of modern-day politics is still conducted as if the population of America is as White as it was fifty years ago.”  Democrats continue to chase “exurban voters” and “soccer moms,” neglecting the more pressing requirement to enact legislation and embrace policies that would ensure that people of color—who, in terms of U.S. population growth, outpace Whites seven to one—are inspired enough to go to the polls. Phillips’s argument appears to have caught on: his book made the New York Times bestseller list in March and April.

Nearly all of Phillips’s 247-page text was composed inside Philz Coffee, at 17th and De Haro streets. Phillips, an Ohio native who came to California to attend Stanford University, has lived with his wife, philanthropist Susan Sandler, on the Hill since 1992, first on Connecticut Street; then Arkansas Street. As reported in the View, President Obama made a fundraising visit to the Phillips-Sandler home last May.

Phillips called the neighborhood “politically progressive and down-to-earth” and enjoys “the level of continuity” on the Hill amidst a changing City and increased property values. “Our next-door neighbor has grown up on this street, and next door to him is his mother, who grew up on this street,” he observed. “The essential character has been retained.”

Initially, Phillips moved to San Francisco to work on a school reform project with the nonprofit law firm Public Advocates Inc. That led him to run, at the age of 28, for a seat on the San Francisco Board of Education. He served for eight years, including one as president. In 1998, he led a controversial effort to diversify the San Francisco Unified School District’s literature curriculum, which ultimately made San Francisco the first in the nation to adopt a mandate that public school reading lists include works by writers of color.

In the same year, Phillips—who had been working toward his Juris Doctor degree at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law—opened his own law practice. He returned to politics in 2002 with a bid for the California State Assembly. After losing the Democratic race to Mark Leno, he focused on building political advocacy groups, including Vote Hope and PowerPac, which, by Phillips’s calculation, “coordinated the largest independent effort in the country supporting Obama’s presidential run” in 2008. Phillips’s work in this sphere has centered on voter mobilization. In 2012 he teamed with California Common Cause on a successful campaign to pass online voter registration in the state.

In 2014, Phillips paused his advocacy work to write his book. He said it was “a sabbatical to a certain point, where you get to step back and think about things.” He’d been an English major in college, but “I hadn’t had a chance to immerse myself in writing in a long time, so I enjoyed that, and that is what I want to be doing more going forward.” He now writes a monthly column for The Nation and, with his social justice organization PowerPac+, has launched the “multimedia platform” Democracy in Color, to which he contributes regular articles. He plans to update Brown Is the New White to reflect, in its second edition, the stories that’ve emerged during the 2016 election, including the rise of Donald Trump.

Phillips believes that Democrats must be “forceful about painting [Trump] as a bigot,” but worries that “there’s still too much timidity and fear of alienating White swing voters.” He acknowledged that “Clinton gets the need to embrace voters of color better than most people in the Democratic Party, so there’s progress in that regard,” but wished she’d chosen New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, instead of Virginia’s Tim Kaine, as her running mate.

“Almost all of the top positions in the Democratic Party are controlled by Whites,” Phillips pointed out, “and this is a party that is 46 percent people of color, so it remains a big problem.”

Brown Is the New White is, in large part, a chronicle of similar frustrations: according to Phillips’s landmark 2014 audit of Democratic Party spending, “97 percent of political contracts go to White consultants.” Yet the book is optimistic, not just for the future but for the present. As Phillips states in the introductory chapter, “America has a progressive, multiracial majority right now that has the power to elect presidents and reshape American politics, policies, and priorities for decades to come. Not in 2044. Not ten years down the road. Today.”