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How Democrats learned to love identity politics

A commitment to diversity has become the party’s unifying principle.

Delegate Leonarda Duran and others at the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.
Delegate Leonarda Duran and others at the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.
Drew Angerer/Getty

PHILADELPHIA — For a moment, it was a Democratic nightmare.

Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) — a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and a former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus — got chants of "NO TPP!" in the middle of his speech on racial and economic inequality.

It was what Democrats have been trying to avoid throughout this entire primary season: the idea that there’s an irreducible conflict between emphasizing economic inequality and emphasizing issues of "identity politics" — the disadvantages faced by people whose race, gender, sexual orientation, immigration status, or (dis)ability isn’t the one society prefers.

The truth about the Democratic Party in 2016 is this: Identity politics and economic progressivism aren’t two factions of the Democratic Party. But they are forces that operate in opposite directions. At a time when there are visible fault lines within the party on economic issues — many of which were on full display during the convention’s first night — a commitment to diversity brings the Democratic Party together. It’s both meaningful to party activists and a painless concession to its power brokers: a sweet spot for party unity.

This hasn’t been the case for long. Over the course of the Obama administration, progressive activists have had to pressure Democrats on both economic and "identity" issues. But it’s on questions of race, immigration status, and sexual orientation, in particular, where the Democratic establishment has been most eager to move to the left.

Democrats have embraced marriage equality and Black Lives Matter and validated unauthorized immigrants and refugees as real Americans. And on Monday night, they showcased it on the convention floor. Yes, Sanders supporters were shouting down speakers of color like Rep. Cummings — but that’s because so many of the speakers were people of color.

That’s a pretty powerful statement to make — especially against a Republican Party represented by Donald Trump. Identity politics is a strong enough center of gravity to keep the party from flying apart. But if part of the reason Democrats moved leftward so quickly on identity issues is that it’s easy to embrace diversity, they might be in for an unpleasant surprise in the medium term: The hard part of identity politics is yet to come.

Democrats have finally embraced an identity as "the party of identity"

There are genuine differences among Democrats on many economic issues. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) disagrees with Sen. (and possible future Senate Majority Leader) Chuck Schumer (D-NY) about the role of the banking industry in the US economy. As secretary of state, Hillary Clinton stood with one wing of the party in supporting the (then-under-negotiation) Trans-Pacific Partnership; as a candidate for president, she’s stood with the other in opposing it.

Ultimately, these are differences of opinion about whether global financial capitalism is a good thing with some downsides or vice versa. They’re not small questions. They can be compromised on, but they’re unlikely to be deferred indefinitely.

But for as long as it’s been a progressive, ideologically unified party — which is to say, for the past half-century — the Democratic Party has been committed (at least as a matter of principle) to racial integration and diversity. The Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act created the Democratic Party we know today.

Leah Daughtry at the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.

As convention CEO Leah Daughtry said to attendees Monday night: "When Democrats say ‘we the people,’ we mean all the people. … Our diversity is not our problem, but our strength."

One consequence of that: If you have committed your career to the Democratic Party, you’re not the sort of person who believes that racial integration and diversity poses a direct threat to you. And it’s easy to extend that logic to, say, integrating the institution of marriage to include same-sex couples: You don’t feel you lose anything, personally, by supporting it.

To the contrary, in a demographically changing party and country, embracing the principles that are important to (especially) nonwhite voters is the only way for a Democrat to stay in office. Embracing "identity politics" is the easiest way for an official who might have been elected during an earlier era to secure her political future.

The convention floor is a showcase for diversity — but it’s also an easy thing to give

Before the convention speaker lineup was released, observers (some of them critical) of the Democratic Party’s minority outreach told me to pay attention to who got primetime slots to see if the party was willing to put some muscle into diversity.

It most certainly did.

On Monday night, unauthorized immigrant Astrid Silva spoke about the fight to pass immigration reform; 11-year-old US citizen Karla Ortiz spoke about her fear that her mother (who stood alongside her) would be deported, and how Hillary Clinton has helped her be brave. Former NAACP head Ben Jealous and Sen. Cory Booker talked about the need to end mass incarceration. Former NBA player Jason Collins talked about LGBTQ acceptance.

All of these seem like gimmes now — token slots for token people. But just eight years ago, Democrats were trying to be tough on immigration enforcement to create "political space" for later reform. The party’s most prominent politicians were leery of supporting full marriage equality for gays and lesbians — never mind protections for transgender people. No Democrat would have uttered the phrase "mass incarceration" before a primetime television audience.

These aren’t meaningless victories, and Silva, for example, is no patsy. She won a spot on the convention stage as the result of not only her own activism (however friendly) but her movement’s, and they’re welcomed as such.

Even Erika Andiola — the Hispanic media director for the Bernie Sanders campaign and an unauthorized immigrant activist — expressed pride that Silva would be on the primetime schedule earlier in the day.

The difference between diversity and representation

But if the diversity of the Democratic Party’s ideals is represented on its convention floor, it isn’t yet represented in the establishment itself.

"One out of every five Americans walking around is a woman of color," Aimee Allison told the attendees of a panel discussion Monday afternoon sponsored by Democracy in Color, "but only 3 percent of elected officials are women of color."

Ultimately, the ideal isn’t diversity. It’s equity — inclusion and representation.

At the Democracy of Color panel, mentions of Sanders and Clinton both got ovations. But nothing was as loud or raucous as the crowd’s reaction when Allison asked, "How excited are you that Donna Brazile is now the [interim] chair of the Democratic Party?"

Some hardcore Sanders supporters are suspicious of Brazile — she won’t even become party chair until Friday, and Rosario Dawson is already calling on her to step down — but to the attendees at the Democracy in Color event, Brazile’s own record as a woman of color in the party was more important than whom she’d supported this cycle.

Asked at a book signing after the lunch how he felt about Tim Kaine’s selection as Clinton’s running mate, the group’s founder, Steve Phillips, put it this way: "I’m more excited about Donna Brazile than I am disappointed with Tim Kaine."

But as the panelists pointed out, the party’s diversity problem stretches down through federal, state, and local government. (There are only two statewide elected officials who are women of color.) It stretches past elected officials themselves to their staffs.

That limits the ability of politicians, even progressive ones, to be fully sensitive to the concerns of their diverse constituents. When activists of color call to put pressure on the legislators they’ve voted for, Garcia pointed out, they’re more likely to get results if the staffer on the other end is listening "with warmth and intimacy" — which, she said candidly, was "all too often lacking in the predominantly white" offices in Congress and state capitals.

San Francisco Supervisor Jane Kim with Bernie Sanders.
San Francisco supervisor Jane Kim with Bernie Sanders.
Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty

More importantly, though, a party of white people who say the right words isn’t genuinely inclusive. "We believe that we have a mission, a mandate, and a responsibility to work, fight, and act on behalf of those who cannot work, fight, and act for themselves," Leah Daughtry said on the convention floor Monday.

What happens once those people become able to work, fight, and act for themselves? Does the mission change? Are the people who were once voices for the voiceless now obligated to step aside?

Arguably, if the Democratic Party is fighting for a government that is truly representative and inclusive, that’s what it has to do. And in practice, it’s not there yet.

"We need more women of color running for office — but I’m not going to lie to you," San Francisco Board of Supervisors member Jane Kim told the Democracy in Color attendees, "They’re not going to welcome you."

Kim is currently running for state Senate. She didn’t get the California Democratic Party’s endorsement in her primary. And when she won the nomination anyway — thanks to a concerted get-out-the-vote effort — she still couldn’t get any respect. According to the press, she scoffed, "It was because of my consultant, who was a white man, and because I got the endorsement of another white man, Bernie Sanders."

Both the consultant and Sanders did good things: They supported a woman of color in her campaign and fought for policies that (in Kim’s view) would particularly help other women of color. But when Kim staffed up her own office on the Board of Supervisors, she made a point of hiring only women of color to make up her legislative staff.

There are a lot of speaker slots on a convention schedule. There are fewer spots available for influential Democratic policy staffers, and fewer still for elected officials themselves. Securing spots at those levels for people who represent the diverse identities that Democrats rhetorically embrace will mean that those spots can’t go to bright young straight white men.

Will it still be so easy for Democrats to be the party of identity if many of their members are being asked to give up something real?

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