How Identity Politics Works- And How It Doesn’t.

From the moment Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 Election, there has been a fight going on within the Democratic Party over what the future will look like. Some of this is just basic “team” politics- people who supported one candidate or the other in the primary, blaming the other for why we lost. Some of this is substantive though- should the Democrats continue to argue a case that is identity/Civil Rights based, as Hillary Clinton did, or should they argue a class-based economic argument, as Bernie Sanders did? The reality of this fight is that it’s far more complicated than that, though I generally come down on the side of identity/Civil Rights based politics. A few points here:

  1. The most successful progressive political figures of the past 60 or so years did both. RFK and MLK Jr. certainly argued both for Civil Rights and class based identities, and in fact both fused those arguments into one. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama both reached the White House by making an explicit appeal to non-white voters, and making a full-throated economic argument.
  2. Hillary Clinton did lose the election making an identity based argument to many voters. There’s no solid evidence either way on whether Bernie’s class-based argument would have worked though. Candidates of the same style as Bernie Sanders (Russ Feingold, a ballot initiative for single-payer health care and Zephyr Teachout come to mind) were not successful either. It is next to impossible for anyone to say with any certainty whether one argument would have been better than the other.
  3. We all like to hear the story we like to hear though, whether we win or lose. The Democratic Party, in the aftermath of President Obama’s wins, liked to tell a story about him winning in 2008 and 2012 because of a “rising electorate” of non-white voters, who were going to carry us to victories forever. In reality, President Obama made an explicit appeal on economics in both elections as well, and rode a lot of norther, blue-collar white votes in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and other states to his two victories. As I said in point number one, successful politicians can walk and chew gum at once.

All of this leads me back to the argument of what went wrong in 2016, and the “discussion” the left has had during the DNC Chairman’s race. Is it best that we “drop” identity politics and just make a class appeal in hopes of getting back “white working class” voters? Honestly, it’s not. They have been trending away from us for many cycles of elections now, and all we’d do by going hard the other way is lose our own base of voters (who largely aren’t white), and probably push the GOP to even more explicitly racist appeals to these voters (which does not guarantee that we would win them, by the way). Doing the opposite of what we just did will not guarantee us any better results.

With that said, let’s be honest- Democrats have to do better with people outside of our core demographics if we want to govern in this country. The minute you mention this to some operatives and leaders in the party, they re-coil and go on the attack, because they perceive it as threatening their position in the party. It doesn’t. Democrats should not, and in fact cannot compromise our positions on Civil Rights issues for people of color, the LGBTQ community, women, religious minorities, or any of the people we seek to protect from potential pain and suffering inflicted by bigoted policies in our government, unless we want to be left as a party that literally represents nothing and no one. With that said, we also don’t have to pretend that this is all we represent, and that Democratic campaigns are perpetual Civil Rights struggles. Whether all white voters are racists or not, it’s fairly obvious that the product we are selling them here has less and less appeal to them.

So, what are a few steps we can do to appeal better to white voters while not dropping our Civil Rights platform as a party?

  1. Our next Presidential nominee should do more than visit large metro areas. Hillary Clinton loved going to Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, because the algorithm the campaign was using told them to, but Pennsylvania is won in Scranton (she visited one time in the general election), Harrisburg (twice), Erie (none), and Allentown (none). Wisconsin can’t be won if you don’t visit, and again, dropping into Milwaukee and Madison once each might not be good enough. Stopping into a UAW Hall in Michigan, a VFW in Ohio, a John Deere plant in Iowa, or a high school gymnasium in Wilkes-Barre may not be the best appeal to our base, but I have some news for people who argue against it- Barack Obama did it; Bill Clinton did it; Jimmy Carter did it; People who win statewide and national elections tend to dig a little deeper into the electorate, and talk to more people.
  2. I wouldn’t go to a Vegan Food Conference and try to sell steaks, nor would I talk about the same issues in Scranton as I do in Philadelphia. DO NOT confuse this with changing ones positions while riding on the Northeast Extension north-bound, but perhaps you want to talk about Hillary’s plan to increase apprenticeships through Building Trades Unions when you’re in Scranton, and gun violence prevention while you’re in Philadelphia. The Democratic Party has a rather large and deep platform document that gives candidates lots of things to talk about on the policy front, depending on where they are going to talk. A one-size fits all message that focuses on policy positions that only appeal to a narrow cross-section of the electorate ends up losing voters even who agree with you on those issues. While a huge portion of the Trump electorate were turned on by his nativist rhetoric, some were simply turned off by the sense that the Democratic Party wasn’t even attempting to talk to them. We have things to talk to them about, we have things they care about, let’s make sure they get that.
  3. Let’s stop pretending that “identity politics” means speaking to each group in a vacuum, where all African-Americans or all Latinos care about the same issues, and are going to vote for us because we call the other side racists or intolerant. African-Americans in the suburbs (yes, there are millions of people who fit this description, Democratic operatives) may have more in common from a political want and need standpoint with their white neighbors than African-Americans in urban or rural areas. Latinos have long shown us political divisions, and did so again in 2016, where the immigration issue hurt Donald Trump very badly across the Southwest, but was less potent as a political weapon in Florida and on the East Coast. Quite obviously, the Puerto Rican population on the East Coast is less concerned about immigration than the Mexican population in California or Texas. Seeing the “shades of gray” in our messaging would be very helpful when we are “playing identity politics” in the future, at least if winning is a goal here.
  4. This point is pointed directly at any other white, straight, Christian men who might read this- you have to be advocates for people not like you, when you are talking to people who are like you. Look, “identity politics” is inevitable, and Donald Trump played them like a fiddle in the 2016 election. White, progressive men have to stop running away from issues that impact women, people of color, other sexualities, and other religions. That might feel uncomfortable at first, but no one is going to have a bigger impact on changing the attitudes of white voters than white, straight, Christian men who happen to agree with “the left” on social issues. This means not running away from the Affordable Care Act in your “white” Congressional district, not running away from the good that Medicaid and Food Stamps does for all of us when talking to “blue-collar whites,” and not conceding that there is something radical about women who want to make their own health care decisions. If we (yes, I’m talking to “we” here) are going to concede that these are the positions of some sort of “urban, leftist fringe,” as the GOP tries to portray social justice and social issues of all kinds, we’re not going to win elections, we’re not going to ever stop being attacked for siding with these positions, and (and this is the important part) we’re never going to make any progress towards actual equality and progress in this country- which is supposed to be our goal. If it’s just women, people of color, the LGBTQ community, and religious minorities arguing for their own rights forever, it’s too easy for white voters to dismiss their plea for basic humanity, it doesn’t ever seem real to them. These issues will always be “identity politics” if we don’t force that very barrier to break down.

I don’t believe that “dropping” identity politics from the Democratic Party is a moral or electable option moving forward. I also know that if we don’t at least take back suburban America from the conservative movement, Democrats won’t ever control Congress and the White House together for long enough to make any meaningful difference. Democrats don’t have to make a choice between talking about union organizing and racial justice- Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t, Barack Obama didn’t, and Ted Kennedy didn’t. It’s not “class OR Civil Rights,” it’s both, or it’s defeat. How we put forward our message, how many people we try to reach with our message, and how honest we are with ourselves about how we try to sell our party and our message are the questions we really need to answer, as opposed to some sort of battle where we re-litigate the primary and argue about who’s message is better. While that may stoke our passions, the answer we get from that question won’t make us feel any better. The answer is neither, which is why we are where we are. The minute we start being honest with ourselves about the product we’re putting forward, Democrats might just find ourselves with a governing majority that can take this country forward. It’s there for us, if we want it.