I remember the discussion of ‘identity politics’ from the 1980s and 1990s. I’ve also spent a significant number of years on college campuses. So I’m well aware of the bonfire of the identities you can find in the hothouse atmosphere of academia. But after Hillary Clinton’s shock loss to Donald Trump the intra-Democratic debate rapidly set on the idea that Hillary Clinton had run an ‘identity politics’ campaign when what was needed was a populist economic message which (in the very hackneyed version of the argument) would appeal to working class whites or (in the less hackneyed version) would appeal to middle and working class Americans across the boundaries of race, culture and region that so divide and bedevil our politics. There are realities, real decisions and strategies embedded in these arguments. But without getting too deep into those particulars, what I think is most important to say is that this is an argument mainly based on straw men that say more about the angst of inter-party antagonism and stinging defeat than the realities of what we’ve seen or face going forward.
First, there were many things the Clinton campaign was. One was a candidate who carried immense baggage into the campaign, whether we think that was her own doing or because of unfair treatment. Another was a candidate running for a what amounted to a third term in the presidency, who embodied the establishment in what was in many respects a upheaval-bound, anti-establishment year. Another key fact of the campaign was that the Clinton campaign spent much of the fall pursuing a strategy of disqualifying Donald Trump, focusing on his unfitness to hold the presidency. Given the avalanche of crushingly damaging information coming out about Trump through the summer and fall, that seemed like a pretty decent strategy. The result, combined with the final polls and exit polls suggested that voters basically bought the critique – Trump was unfit to hold the presidency – but voted for him anyway. With 20/20 hindsight, this clearly was not an effective strategy.
What the Clinton campaign simply wasn’t, in any way that I at least can see having any meaning, was an ‘identity politics’ campaign.
A couple weeks after the election Bernie Sanders gave a speech that sparked a lot of turmoil among Democrats, even some blowback at us for the way we headlined an article about it. The gist of that speech was that Democrats needed to move beyond, get past, drop ‘identity politics’ in favor of a populist politics which focused on the needs of the working class. I think a sympathetic read of what Sanders was saying was that diversity, inclusion of all races, faiths, genders, orientations, cultural and regional backgrounds is very important, especially for those who have a history of marginalization. But diversity in this sense isn’t a enough if the policies leaders espouse are bad ones. Or to look at it from a different perspective, inclusion of different groups isn’t enough if we’re all sinking together into an oligarchic society where ordinary people have no hope of basic dignity, economic opportunity or anything else.
This is, I guess, true as far as it goes. But Sanders framed it in a needlessly divisive and I would say reductively oppositional way. As much as he may have thought (and his defenders claimed) he was showing how race and class are intertwined, what he actually said amounted to a construct where ‘identity politics’ and class politics are two oppositional if not irreconcilable modes of progressive politics.
A few quotes.
“But, but here is my point, and this is where there is going to be division within the Democratic Party. It is not good enough for someone to say, ‘I’m a woman! Vote for me! No, that’s not good enough. What we need is a woman who has the guts to stand up to Wall Street, to the insurance companies, to the drug companies, to the fossil fuel industry.”
Or at another point.
“But it is not good enough for somebody to say, ‘Hey, I’m a Latina, vote for me.’ That is not good enough. I have to know whether that Latina is going to stand up with the working class of this country, and is going to take on big money interests.”
As far as it goes, I agree with this. If someone’s policies are bad, it doesn’t really matter that she’s not a white man. I think it’s a good thing as a general matter that a Indian-American woman of a Sikh background was elected governor of South Carolina. That’s a good step forward for the country in general. It certainly wouldn’t have happened half a century ago and probably not years ago either. But I’d never vote for Nikki Haley. It was great as a general matter that Republicans were ready to vote for a female vice president even though Sarah Palin herself was and is totally nuts.
But does anyone really say this? I’m a woman, vote for me! I’m a Latina, vote for me! Regardless of what my policy views are?
Frankly I don’t hear anyone saying this. Not literally or figuratively. This is a classic strawman argument, positing a clownish version of what you oppose so that you can easily knock it down.
What I do see a lot of is a push to add to the number of men and women from marginalized groups ascending to positions of influence and power – especially from the party which now defines much of its identity and raison d’etre as representing the interests and aspirations of people from these groups. That is quite different from the way Sanders presented this. It’s not only unhelpful in the context of stitching together a diverse coalition of different people and groups and unique histories and aspirations. It’s simply not accurate to the reality of what is happening or the challenges the Democratic party or progressive politics faces. And I should add that I’m focusing on Bernie Sanders because he is internal to this conversation and, to my reading, proposed it in such an oppositional way. But it’s not just or primarily him. There’s a whole oped page, big think pundit chorus saying the same thing, just with less genuine interest in addressing the issues I think people on both sides of this question care about and in many cases simply speaking in something close to bad faith.
Now, having said all this, let me say the following. I do agree that Democrats need both a message and underlying policies which are rooted in economics and the interests of all working class and middle class people. This is the case first because this is something we believe in and which is central to the well-being and opportunity of ordinary Americans but because it is key to a successful politics. There were many different issues and dynamics swirling through the 2016 campaign cycle. But one key one is that Democrats needed a more policy vibrant and message resonant campaign agenda which could transcend the divisions of race, culture and region that defined this election.
We hear a lot of talk today about the ‘bubble’ that the ‘coastal elites’ live in. This is as clumsy and gross a caricature as calling Trump voters hillbillies living in mobile homes – and I don’t pretend no one has used those caricatures. By definition, more than 50 percent of the country can’t be the ‘elite’. And the 65 million people who voted for Hillary Clinton are not all journalists and lawyers and ‘symbolic analysts’ and hipsters from LA, San Francisco and New York.
What we have here is something neither new nor terribly remarkable: a basic political division between cities and rural areas and exurbs, for which there is endless precedent in American history and the history of numerous other countries and civilizations. In our current setting this division is heavily overlaid with race and education.
No current version of the Democratic Party in anything like our current political moment is going to become the party of white people or the party of rural America – in the sense of getting the majorities of those votes. And that’s fine. But it also can’t be excluded from either. What Democrats very much need are economic arguments which can transcend these divides and at least gather up healthy minorities on the other sides of these divides. (I would say they have more of these arguments and policies than the current debate lets on – but let’s leave that for another discussion.) They say in the military that you have to go to war with the Army you have. The same applies to politics. You must fight and win elections with the country you have. Were a lot of Trump voters motivated by racial grievance? Yes, that’s obvious. But people are complicated. They can act on racial grievance in some contexts and settings and economic interest or even cross-racial solidarity in others.
This unquestionably is an issue Democrats need to work on, not because we need to cater to white grievance or ‘working class white men’ because we are all one country and we can’t move it forward without winning absolute majorities in elections with some consistency. That doesn’t mean catering to white racial grievances. It means building a message and a politics in which they become less salient. This is obvious. So put me down, as I’ve always been, as someone who believes we need to find policies and common economic interests that unite people, that have a common resonance for people across the differences, even the animosities, that divide us.
But here’s the thing. The Democratic Party is a multi-racial party. Nationwide roughly half its votes come from non-whites, give or take. That means you have a lot of voters who have goals, experiences, aspirations that go beyond class politics. Yes, jobs and financial security mean as much to African-American voters as they do for everyone else. But the past and present of racial discrimination is going to be a big part of their agenda as well. Of course, the two profoundly interact. Do we really think the overwhelming majorities of non-white voters who consistently vote for the Democratic party aren’t doing so to pursue their economic self-interests? It is ridiculous and frankly offensive not to realize this is the case.
I think it’s most clarifying not to see this in evaluative terms but as a simple reality. If having aspirations for gender and racial equality and advancement as a major theme of the Democratic Party amounts to ‘identity politics’ than you’re going to have a pretty hard time having a Democratic Party without identity politics. Whether you like that or not is I think kind of beside the point. It’s a reality you’re going to need to grapple with because it is reality.
Back in the 1980s and 1990s there used to be this recurrent line in pundit talk that Democrats were only ‘holding on’ as a national party because of the black vote (yes, people talked like this). And eventually Republicans would pick the lock of the black vote and then the Democratic Party would wither away and die. (Yes, people really thought this.) So, in other words, eventually the GOP was going to get the Southern white racists and the African-Americans in one coalition and the Democrats would be toast. Needless to say, that’s a pretty tough proposition. The Democrats tried it for a decade or two in the middle of the 20th century and it failed pretty spectacularly.
It is probably true that Democrats would have more luck appealing to non-college educated white voters, especially in rural parts of the country, if the drive for racial and gender equality, advancement and aspiration were not such a key theme of their campaigns. But good luck getting rid of that as long you get or want to continue to get around half your votes from non-whites and a disproportionate amount of your votes from women.
To be clear, I don’t see this as a problem. That is the party I want to be in and the values I believe are important. I just think stepping back for a moment from what we want to be the case is clarifying about some basic political realities.
What it all amounts to is that politics involves trade offs. The Democrats aren’t going to be the party of the cities and also rural America. They’re also not going to be the party of the overwhelming majority of non-white voters and the party of working class whites or non-college educated rural white people – not as long as the divisions in our society are anything like they are. But the simple truth is that parties need to win majorities. Everything follows from that. Doing so involves lots of trade offs, lots of complexities, lots of clever ways to get the better part of cleavages in society when it’s not possible to erase them. More than anything else it takes hard work by millions of people. Standing up straw men or caricatures of arguments or clumsy oppositions of things that actually need to be reconciled accomplishes very little.