As the 2020 Democratic field fills with moderate white male candidates, we’re again hearing the calls to put identity politics aside in favor of a focus on economic justice. On Saturday, Democratic contender Pete Buttigieg warned of the “divisive” effects of identity politics, arguing that the lines between different identity groups in the country have created a “crisis of belonging” that Donald Trump has capitalized on. In reflecting on the “very real walls that we are putting up,” Buttigieg seems to suggest, effectively, that the most productive way forward is to limit our focus on race, gender, and ethnicity on the road to 2020.
But supporting female candidates and candidates of color is not a backburner issue, a “nice-to-have” once we get past Trump. If we are going to get serious about fighting bigotry and the political agenda bigotry fuels, not just one man who’s benefited from it, we need to commit to leaders whose very lives negate what white nationalists stand for. Moreover this primary must confront the lie that the left’s commitment to fighting bigotry has come at the expense of serious work uniting people in the fight against economic inequality, a belief that gained steam after Trump’s election with Mark Lilla’s appeal for “The End of Identity Liberalism.”
The reality is, there is no such thing as identity politics; the work of ending racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, and other forces of hate is just plain politics. That’s because throughout our country’s history, especially in the last century, conservative political leaders have succeeded in advancing an agenda that widens the gap of economic inequality in part by exploiting the prejudices and fears of low-income white voters, justifying their bigotry in an arbitrary sense of white pride.
White supremacists understand this tactic, laid bare in the 2016 presidential election tactic where Trump compelled poor communities to vote in an administration that would make the rich richer by stoking their fears of “the other,” and persuading them their well-being relied on defending the superiority of their race rather than tackling the challenges of their class. The question is if Democrats still get it, or if they’re more concerned with picking a supposedly more electable candidate to beat Trump than they are with confronting the beliefs Trump stands for and benefits from.
It’s an old question, one correctly answered by what President Lyndon B. Johnson told Bill Moyers more than a half-century ago: “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.”
Johnson, builder of the Great Society, exposed the fallacy of efforts, still ongoing, to separate identity politics from class politics. White supremacy is the gasoline driving the engine of economic inequality. To elect a president who will champion policies for the 99 percent and address the needs of the disaffected heartlanders who voted for Trump, we must elect someone equally committed to undoing the white prejudices that enabled Trump’s rise. A focus on ending anti-black racism, Islamophobia, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, and other “isms” isn’t auxiliary to the 2020 campaign trail — it needs to be at its center.
It must be said, as well, that efforts to combat hate aren’t just part and parcel of a campaign for economic equality—they are, in themselves, life-saving. The number of lives lost to bigotry continues to climb, even in 2018 alone: 11 Jews dead in Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life, two black people killed in a Kentucky Kroger, 26 transgender lives taken. It isn’t just a matter of political leaders who exploit bigotry so they can “pick the pockets” of the country’s poor; it’s about how easily white nationalism turns violent, even lethal.
Seasoned organizers and political strategists have increasingly recognized that those best positioned to lead in the fight against hate are people who have directly experienced its impact. Joshua Kahn Russell, author of Organizing Cools the Planet, writes that people most affected by an injustice are “the best equipped to know, and to articulate, workable solutions to their problems.” Taj James, founder and executive director of the Movement Strategy Center, has argued that centering the leadership of marginalized people enables a deeper level of accountability and integrity.
In an interview this week, Danica Roem, the first openly transgender person elected to a state legislature, told me that centering the leadership of those most impacted builds “people power,” a deep connection between those in office and the constituents that they serve. She noted that we’re in a political moment when people are realizing that they can run for office even without traditional sources of electoral power, like corporate relationships and other financial assets—they can build their campaigns on visionary policy ideas and connections to grassroots communities.
Then there’s the fact that advancing leaders who come from vulnerable communities—people of color, immigrants, women—is a powerful rebuke to the current administration, whose agenda is rooted in the notion of white and male superiority.
If countering prejudice is core to the race for 2020, lived experience can’t be discounted. Having directly felt the effects of racism and misogyny is something that can inform both a candidate’s rhetoric and policy platform. Take Kamala Harris’ campaign launch speech as an example; when she spoke to the truth that “too many unarmed black men and women are killed in America, too many black and brown Americans are locked up,” she spoke from a place of having personally felt the manifestations of this country’s structural racism. When Elizabeth Warren said that she believes Lucy Flores, Joe Biden’s harassment accuser, her words carried the weight of her own experiences with misogyny, including the personal stories she has shared of encountering harassment as a young law professor.
As the 2020 primary season builds, we’ll continuing hearing the argument that the lesson of the 2016 election is the mistake of running on identity politics. We’ll continue hearing that a candidate’s gender or race is beside the point. These are dangerous misconceptions that undermine leadership emerging from marginalized communities.
We can’t snip the threads labeled “identity politics” from the larger tapestry of issues shaping the 2020 primary. White supremacy and bigotry have been powerful drivers of economic inequality; they’re also, like poverty, matters of life and death. We need a candidate who can tackle their whole, complex interplay.