The GOP Isn’t the Only Party That Must Face Younger, Browner Nation

Young Democrats are urging the party to spend more time and resources on cultivating the leadership of young people of color.

By Shani O. Hilton Mar 16, 2012

When it’s time for liberals to criticize how the GOP operates–and, let’s be honest, the closer we get to November, it seems to always be that time–they often go to the same well: Demographics are changing, and Republicans must either rethink how they connect with voters, or perish. A recent piece in New York magazine by Jonathan Chait followed this trend

The glue holding together the contemporary Republican agenda – the fierce defense of entitlement spending on the elderly, the equally fierce opposition to welfare spending on the young, the backlash against illegal immigration, the nationalist foreign policy, the cultural traditionalism – is ethnocentrism. Republicans are defending the shared cultural prerogatives of a certain group of people. That is why I am arguing that the shifting demographic tides will require the GOP to undertake a major reorientation in order to maintain its competitiveness. There’s simply no way to transpose their sense of what is and what is not a legitimate government function onto a progressively younger, browner electorate.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this logic. Changing demographics do lead to shifts in priorities. And to an extent, it stands to reason that the GOP will be forced to rethink its strategy as the electorate becomes "progressively younger, browner." But the GOP isn’t the only party that needs to worry about this, some young Democrats say. In fact, while Republicans develop their younger branches, and conservatives funnel money into conservative youth programs, it’s possible that young Democrats–especially young Democrats of color–will also need a bit of help getting their own party to adapt to the changing demographic tide. Gregory Cendana, a D.C.-based LGBT organizer and director of the Asian Pacific Labor Alliance was recently elected to be a delegate to the Democratic National Convention this summer, and he says he found a place in the party because of his own activism: "I wasn’t developed and encouraged to run by people within the party." Cendana notes that while there is an appearance of parity within the party, "The reality is that all of the president’s senior advisers with the exception of Valerie Jarett and Cecilia Munoz, are all older white people." Right now, Democrats are working on turning out young voters and voters of color in November. "We know this is going to be a very close election, and we’re going to have to do better than we did four years ago," one party source tells us. To that end, there are plans to help young people "take ownership" of the campaign, and remind voters of critical initiatives President Barack Obama passed. Programs like the "Greater Together Summits" included events at North Carolina Central and the Atlanta University Center–a black college nexus. There, students listened to Michael Eric Dyson, Keshia Knight Pullium and Janelle Monae talk about why they’re supporting Obama and why it’s not enough to just vote in November. Cendana says his organizing in the LGBT community introduced him to longtime Washington residents, and he saw a disconnect between local decision makers on the D.C. Council and D.C. citizens. And there hadn’t been an Asian-American delegate from D.C. to the DNC since 2000, he discovered. A few weeks ago, he ended up being the District’s first ever Filipino delegate, drawing more votes than the second runner up, former D.C. Mayor (and current council member) Marion Barry. He says his success was a sign of how poorly area Democrats had educated local voters, who are largely black and Democratic. Voters can vote for more than one delegate, but many didn’t even know that until he and his team of young volunteers took to the streets. People who voted for Barry or other candidates also threw votes Cendana’s way, he says, once they knew they had more than one option. It’s clear that on a national level, Democrats understand the importance of being a "big tent" party, representing lots of different interests. And young people have long been part of national political campaigns–they were the engine of the 2008 Obama machine. But on a local level, budding politicians must take a more traditional path to leadership–rising through the ranks to become, perhaps, a congressional candidate. And that’s a challenge that isn’t eased if local and national leadership aren’t making purposeful strides to help develop those young leaders.