The way to win again is not to buy into the “identity politics” formulation. It is to remind the white working class that only one party protects them from the worst of Trumpism and Ryanism.
(Update: it turns out that Slate’s Jamelle Bouie wrote a piece with the same ideas as this last night, using Jesse Jackson’s brilliant 1984 campaign as a model. I promise I didn’t see it before writing this. Read his piece. It is really great.)
There are only a handful of phrases in American politics that are more pernicious than “identity politics”, a phrase that is always used critically, cruelly, and since the election of Trump, as a sad symbol of defeat. “Identity politics” is the term used to describe what has become the main focus of the Democratic Party in the last generation: women, LGBTQ, blacks, Hispanics, etc. The implication is that the party has become so concerned with feel-good social-justice-type politics, that they’ve ignored the vast white middle, and that led us to Trump.
Critiques of these politics have flowed from the right in the form of gleeful grave-stomping (the “see? No one cares about your cripples!”) to concern trolling (“Here’s the once-great Democratic Party can come back from its extended experiment in social justice”), as well as from Democrats who have decided above all else to take all the wrong lessons from the Trump disaster.
The problem here is that, without anyone really agreeing to it, we’ve decided to accept “identity politics” as a legitimate phrase, and as one that should be used unthinkingly. But that’s nonsense for two reasons.
The first is that “identity politics”, when broken down, is exactly the same as any other politics: it’s an attempt to get the most people to vote for you. Cynically, it is saying that you’ll do something for someone if they help you get power, or that you’ll play on their emotions and desires in order to gain something for yourself. Idealistically, it is forming coalitions of people in order to pursue the common good. But whether you are appealing to Appalachian miners or to the LGBTQ community, that’s just basic politics.
The second objection to the phrase is contained in that last sentence: the implication (hell, it isn’t even an implication) that there is one baseline of people whose rights and desires matter, and that everyone else is a deviation from that. It is, of course, the “white working class” (or straight conservative whites in general) who are the standard by which all other politics can be seen as “identity”.
It is maddening that Democrats have internalized this way of thinking. It is incredible that the media has as well, instead of recognizing that by one standard–that of normal politics, trying to cobble together the most votes by appealing to specific groups–Donald Trump ran the most blatant “identity politics” campaign since George Wallace: he tailored his campaign specifically and pointedly to white people and against everyone else (the wall, law and order, Muslim registration).
But of course that is somehow not “identity politics”, and worse, it is something the Democrats have to emulate. That’s exactly how they would continue to win: to force Democrats to stop expanding the circle of empathy that has led to greater rights than at any time in our country’s (and maybe world) history. To tacitly agree to pit one group against everyone else.
Because, overblown fears of PC censorship aside, Democrats never take rights away from the “baseline” in order to give more rights to someone else; but Republicans, led by Donald Trump, explicitly promise to make lives harder and less free for anyone who steps away from that line. When a party’s electoral success hinges on voter suppression, you know they have moved away from anything resembling decency.
That’s why “getting away from identity politics” it is the exact wrong lesson to take from this lesson. For one thing, and it is maddening to even have to type this, Hillary Clinton got more votes (Trump’s insanely dangerous tweets about voter fraud notwithstanding). Democrats have won the popular vote in 6 out of the last 7 elections. They have done so while moving strongly to “the left”, in terms of expanding rights for people, which shouldn’t be considered leftist at all, but rather just basically American, but regardless.
It is electorally wrong, and it is morally wrong as well, since “moving away” won’t just be rhetorically. It will be in terms of policies as well. You can already see it, can’t you: Democrats try to block assaults on gay marriage or Hispanic deportation or whatever, and are met with cascades of clucking tongues, “are Democrats still too obsessed with identity politics, and how will this hurt in 2020?”, and then we’ll quail. Meanwhile, real people are hurt, lives torn apart, made colder and meaner and more cruel.
So no: we shouldn’t back away. We should keep expanding our coalition. The only thing to do is to keep growing it, and to add another “identity”: the white working class. Because here’s the thing: Democratic policies are way better for the working poor. We have the capability to protect unions, to expand the social safety net for those who are hurting, to defend health in general (pollution and a deregulated food industry hurts white people, too), and to make life in general more fair. Where Democratic policies have been bad for the working class has been where they are indistinguishable from Republicans.
The lessons come in the story from last week about Clay County, Kentucky, and the citizens who by voting for people who explicitly promised to take away their health care, they have made their own lives immeasurably harder. It’s sad and tragic, and if you feel schadenfruede, that’s probably understandable but not fair.
These are people who have been targeted by the worse of “identity politics”, been told that their lives are bad because of someone else, and keep voting in people who make their lives worse, by removing worker protection and gleefully encouraging capital mobility, and are now shredding the one net that barely protects them from disaster.
So this is the new identity: it isn’t about ignoring the other groups; it is about tying everyone together. It is appealing to the white working class by scaling back on our ideas about capital mobility (which the party seems to be doing), and by working to protect them from the ravages of super-empowered Trumpisn and Ryanism. It’s standing up to policies that will hurt the Republican base. It’s reminding them that our politics are about working with each other, and not against.
It is basically doing what Democrats try to do: make the government work for people. They’ve tried to make it work for everyone, but the message hasn’t gotten out. It now needs to be explicit, and in terms that many voters seem to understand: we alone can fix this. We alone are working for you. We alone are in this together.