Pushing Back

Here’s Why Democrats Must Not Abandon Identity Politics

It’s all the rage now: Dump on multiculturalism and identity. But identities are vitally important in motivating voters. And besides, white people have them, too.

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

Since Hillary Clinton lost the presidential election, the victors and the vanquished have disparaged identity politics—coded language for multiculturalism. Most notably, in a New York Times op-ed, Mark Lilla argued, in part, that Democrats are so enmeshed in linguistic minutiae they can’t develop effective messaging. Predictably, Democrats are apoplectically tripping over one another to distance themselves from the term, a core tenet of the party. (Hearing Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio use Obama’s word “shellacked” while discussing the Democrats’ need for better messaging is humorously ironic, as there is very little original messaging in reusing a word someone else introduced into the vernacular.) A Democratic retreat from identity, however, could prove just as costly as anything we experienced last month. It is time for Democrats to get a backbone, own its identity as a liberal tent, and stop retreating at the smallest hint of criticism.

Lilla’s broader premise for identity abandonment is an affront to liberals who are not white, male, and straight, because it asks them to subjugate their political goals to the larger group, a presumably heteronormative one focused on that group’s economic needs—very similar to how Donald Trump campaigned. We are also left to assume the notion that meritocracy, a false concept if ever there was one, would sort out leadership and policy concerns. Yet institutional structures will work against groups that have made gains in recent decades. Without a conscious effort for inclusiveness, the Democratic leadership risks alienating the very constituency it needs to remain viable.

Even more frustrating, as many decry identity politics, Trump supporters proudly brandish their identity labels. Now, as Democrats shy away from the label, they play into conservatives’ hands yet again. Conservatives have explicitly and successfully integrated identity politics into their platform, while branding Democrats with a derisive moniker for doing the same. (Remember how liberals once were afraid to call themselves “liberal,” opting for the term “progressive?”) They and timid Democrats argue that the left focuses too much on issues like transgender bathroom access or marriage licenses. No, Republicans continue successfully to drive such wedge issues as identity markers for their voters. As proof, “values voters” who readily accepted a thrice-divorced philanderer as their candidate are very receptive to the idea that their identities as Christian conservatives are under siege when they support laws in Indiana, North Carolina, and Texas to ward off threats to traditional marriage, bathroom stall etiquette, and religious freedom.

Further, “white working class” seems to be the identity that matters when considering how Trump won. I hear continually this is the group we should concern ourselves with understanding to the exclusion of others. How absurd. I cannot recall any of those who exhort us to empathize with the white working class asking us to question their racist or sexist motives, as if this group’s decision-making occurs in economic isolation. Additionally, white supremacists who outright advocate for an all-white state supported Trump’s candidacy. If that is not identity focused, I’m not sure what is.

The reality is that both parties necessarily indulge identity to appeal to voters. Economic issues do not operate in a political vacuum, yet identity abandonment asks us to assume it does. Race and gender are outsized determinants that correlate closely with income, social outcomes, and yes, political power. It is unfair and unrealistic to ask holders of these demographic markers to suppress the very real roles they play in their political existences. Indeed, Bernie Sanders continues to struggle with black voters because he believes that if we address the economic component of what plagues many Americans, the rest will take care of itself.

The suggestion that subgroups abandon their identity to a larger goal is the ultimate identity grab: Fall in line, and we’ll sort it out when we win. Bull. Wrangling commitments out of politicians before an election is one of the few ways the electorate holds politicians accountable. Yet as Democrats seek short-term expediency, they are likely to dig themselves into a deeper hole. Such behavior is reminiscent of the 2010 midterm and 2012 general election. Then, many candidates distanced themselves from President Obama’s successes but still got buried politically. Voters notice such fright and flight. It signals lack of conviction in one’s policies and beliefs—hardly confidence inspiring to the marginal voter.

Finally, individuals care about a multitude of economic, political, social, environmental, and visionary issues that transcend individual identity. As proof, consider that Trump, who offended so many groups that comprise distinct political bases he attacked, outperformed Romney’s 2012 totals with blacks and Latinos and won the vote of white women. This should serve as an indicator that identity politics alone does not motivate voters but may be a factor. Voters of all persuasions want an acknowledgment of their concerns. Identity and economics need not be mutually exclusive in the political realm. To signal to large swaths of the public that their needs will have to wait until leaders solve the economic pieces risks alienating them and defection from the party.

Millennial, boomer, veteran, senior, female, black, Latino, gay, Muslim, white. These are but a few groups both parties court for a reason: Identity personalizes politics. Addressing income alone will not address badly needed police reform, education disparities, or a woman’s access to reproductive services. Neither will it address religious freedoms or climate change. Nor will it address the institutional structures that make dismantling barriers to fairness difficult. National parties and politics are messy because of the multiple interests—identities—they encompass. Until and unless we move to a multiparty political system, we must focus on speaking to those identities.

The world does not come with equality; it is something we must work to achieve. If we engage exclusively in economic politics and desert identity liberalism, we will not accomplish this. If the identities of the right matter, however, so do mine.