It's become increasingly apparent that state and local politics are more important than ever when it comes to preventing total chaos, especially in light of the racial conflict playing out on the national stage.
Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez knows that, and he's traveling the country trying to deliver a message of unity. It is a message that focuses on the economic goals we have in common — whether we're black or white, immigrant or native-born, Christian or Muslim.
While interviewing Perez this week about several important local races, I wondered whether such a message could resonate in a time when our conflicts are so pronounced, and the flames of bigotry are being fanned from the highest levels of government.
I wondered, quite frankly, whether the message of common ground was enough to combat the chaotic forces of division that have kept Donald Trump's White House firmly at the front of the news cycle. I asked Perez what would happen if Democrats decided to address the underlying racial issues that helped to fuel Trump's victory.
"I often hear from some that you either have to focus as a Democratic Party on white, working-class voters or you focus on diverse communities, but you can't do both, and, with all due respect, I think that's also a false choice," Perez said. "I think we can do both and then some. Dr. King said, 'What good is a seat at the counter if you can't buy a hamburger?' We've got to make sure that economic opportunity is everywhere. We have to acknowledge that race still does matter."
Perez, who worked in the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department and helped to put consent decrees in place to fight police brutality in cities such as Seattle, New Orleans and Portland, said race is not the end all and be all of America's issues. Instead, he said, we must focus on economic opportunity and inclusion.
It is a feel-good message — one that might eventually resonate with voters. But can that message break through in a time when Americans are caught in a cycle of hate that is being brewed in the very halls of American power?
From his decision to equate anti-racism demonstrators with Neo-Nazis, to his administration's assault on voting rights, to his ridiculous staged dispute with black NFL players who peacefully protest police brutality, President Trump has lurched from one racial dust-up to another. And while political veterans in the Republican Party are now trying to distance themselves from the president, his white, working-class base is enamored by Trump's approach.
The rest of us? Not so much. Which means there is a political rift in this country that creates an opportunity for Perez's Democratic Party. But in the wake of a presidential election in which they lost a significant portion of the white, working-class vote, Democrats have chosen to downplay race in favor of economics.
Their opponent — a one-man political wrecking crew named Donald Trump — has chosen to pour gasoline on the racial fires that have long burned in the country.
The two approaches will be tested in key upcoming gubernatorial elections in New Jersey and Virginia, and also in a crucial district attorney's race in Philadelphia.
I asked Perez, the DNC chairman, to explain why his candidate was best suited to take the New Jersey governor's race. He made several points that centered on economics.
"The differences between Democrat Phil Murphy and Republican Kim Guadagno are night and day," Perez said. "Phil Murphy's been fighting to make the economy work for everyone. He's going to be working to make sure he has everybody's back. He wants to invest on our schools, invest in our infrastructure, invest in small business, make sure that ZIP code never determines destiny. And Lt. Gov. Guadagno—she never likes to remind anyone that she's the current lieutenant governor because [she and Gov. Chris Christie] presided over a disaster — they're all about themselves."
Within that message are goals that should be universal. But I worry about its effectiveness in an age when voters are more concerned with feelings than facts.
Donald Trump, whose policies and principles have played on white supremacy to capture the imagination of at least one third of the electorate, is stirring up the feelings of his base.
For now, the Democratic Party is the sturdiest bulwark between people of color and the power of a president whose policies are aligned against us. We must hold them accountable to go beyond the rhetoric and truly create opportunity.
But even if the Democrats' message makes sense from a practical perspective, the must say something to make their voters feel something. In the age of a reality show presidency, the facts may no longer be enough.