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The battle over identity politics, explained

Identity politics isn’t just a tool of the left. The right has used it again and again.

Yana Paskova/Getty Images

Steve Bannon thinks identity politics are great for President Donald Trump.

That’s what the president’s adviser told Robert Kuttner over at the American Prospect. “The Democrats,” he said, “the longer they talk about identity politics, I got ’em. I want them to talk about racism every day. If the left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats.”

The argument invokes a question that picked up steam after the 2016 election: Either Trump’s election was a rejection of identity politics or his election was a validation of the prominence of identity politics in the US.

Whichever you believe, there are very different implications on how the country — and especially the Democratic Party — should move forward. Should the emphasis be on finally addressing America’s long history of systemic racism, going from slavery to the criminal justice system? Or is the more pressing issue the massively corrupt, unequal economic and financial system that benefits the top 1 percent far more than the rest of the nation, regardless of race?

On one hand, some people say that America needs to continue discussing and fighting on all of the issues relevant to identity politics — racism in the criminal justice system, if gay people should be protected from discrimination, whether transgender people should be allowed to use the bathroom that aligns with their gender identity, and so on. With some progress made on these issues in the past few years, advocates say that it’s too late to abandon them now. And Trump’s election creates a new sense of urgency to discuss these issues, because he’s so at odds with many of the ideals promoted by the left in discussions about identity.

On the other hand, some people, particularly on the left and now Bannon, argue that identity politics have served as a distraction from issues they view as more important and politically palatable — the growing income gap between the rich and everyone else, the shipping of jobs overseas, and the abuse and corruption in America’s financial system. By focusing so much on issues of identity, the argument goes, Democrats and liberals surrendered all of these issues to Trump, letting him tap into an economically populist message that drew in enough of white rural and working-class America to seal his victory.

But both of these explanations of the election have problems. They simplify and obfuscate what actually happened on Election Day. (For one, it’s unclear if Trump really is pursuing any sort of economic agenda, given that he’s passed no major bills.) They also tend to create a potentially false either-or scenario; it really may be possible to talk about economic and identity issues at the same time.

And most importantly, this debate has been far too narrow. It typically looks at what liberals and Democrats have been doing, particularly in the past few months. But it doesn’t pay much attention to how Republicans and conservatives have leveraged identity politics for decades, pushing minority groups and women to demand that the opposing political party and liberals finally fight back. Bannon’s comments, in fact, speak to exactly how Republicans have embraced identity politics — to turn white Americans against Democrats.

Identity politics is American politics

“Identity politics” is a very vague phrase, but it generally refers to the discussion of and politicking around issues pertaining to one’s, well, identity. The focus typically falls on women, racial minorities, immigrants, LGBTQ people, and religious minorities, such as Muslim Americans. All the social issues you may have heard of in the past several years — same-sex marriage, police shootings of unarmed black men, trans people in bathrooms, the fluidity of gender, discussions about rape culture, campus battles about safe spaces and trigger warnings — are typically the kinds of issues people mean when they refer to identity politics.

There’s another side to identity politics that you hear less about in the US, particularly white identity. This is by definition an identity, but it’s one that’s so widely assumed to be the norm in America that issues pertaining to white identity are typically not regarded as identity politics.

But it is a huge part of identity — and American — politics nonetheless. In one recent study of the 2016 election, UC Santa Barbara and Stanford University researchers told white voters that minority groups would outnumber white people in the US by 2042. They found that voters who strongly identified as white became significantly more likely to support Trump after they were reminded of the country’s shifting racial demographics.

The conclusion is clear: White identity and issues surrounding it can play a big role in electoral outcomes. That helps explain why Trump won: All his dog whistles about making America great again (by perhaps reverting to a time when white people held a much stronger grip of government), political correctness, immigrants, Muslims, and “the African Americans” may have helped prime white people into voting for the racially regressive candidate. (There’s a lot more research backing this priming effect, which Dylan Matthews broke down for Vox.)

It’s important to understand this to understand how identity politics works. It’s a two-sided debate: One side wants to preserve a status quo that has historically protected a white identity that many white, straight, cisgender (non-trans), Christian Americans identify with. The other side wants to carve out an opening for other groups to be more accepted in mainstream America: black people, Latino immigrants, LGBTQ individuals, and Muslim Americans, to name a few.

Notably, this debate is not new. While the term “identity politics” rose to prominence in the past few years, it is really a broader national conversation that has been going on since the country was founded. Every single step in the push to end systemic racism — from the abolition of slavery to the civil rights movement to Black Lives Matter — was and is part of what’s now known as identity politics today. This historical push-and-pull has been at the heart of US politics forever, leading the country to establish the odd system with which we elect our presidents, fight a civil war, pass its first federal anti-terrorism law to fight the KKK, and take 220 years to elect its first black president.

A Black Lives Matter march in Washington, DC.

Mladen Antonov/AFP via Getty Images

“Class has always been racially determined in this country,” Heather McGhee, president of the left-leaning public policy group Demos, told me. “In a country where you can have a credo of equality and social mobility and the ability of any man to rise as far as his talents and drive can take him, that has always had to be put in relative terms.”

Conservatives have long been tapping into this fact of American life by combining identity politics with their other messages. Before Trump, there was the Southern strategy championed by Richard Nixon — in which Nixon tapped into white Americans’ racial resentment of the civil rights era to begin flipping white Southern voters from Democrats to Republicans. This continued through coded rhetoric about “welfare queens” and other dog whistles that suggest that big government is really a tool to help minority people at the expense, through higher taxes, of white working people. (Never mind that the plurality of food stamp recipients are white.)

This strategy has been baked into Republican politics since then. Trump was “the culmination,” McGhee said, by bringing together an explicitly racist message and a conservative economic message focused on repealing Obamacare, slashing entitlement programs, and cutting taxes. Again, these weren’t exclusive messages — they played to white rural Americans’ sentiment, as captured by Arlie Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, that big government tax-and-spend programs are simply a means to take from them and give to other groups.

Obviously, not all people who oppose some or all entitlement programs do so on racist grounds. There are economic, budgetary, and philosophical arguments against how entitlement programs work today. But racial attitudes are a motive for a lot of people, based on Hochschild’s work and many studies.

Modern liberal identity politics is in large part a reaction to this US history and attitudes surrounding race. After centuries of what many people justifiably see as oppression, they think it’s time the country has an open conversation about what has been going wrong all this time and how the country can move forward to be more tolerant and accepting of a diverse population. So they have pushed Democrats, who used to take a more conservative tone on race (see: President Bill Clinton’s “tough on crime” rhetoric and policies) or stay largely quiet about race (see: President Barack Obama), to speak more strongly about identity issues.

Sometimes the push to change the conversation can come off clumsily. There are many examples of students on college campuses acting out in ways that many people perceive as ridiculous — by, say, trying to ban speakers with different views or policing language. These kinds of stories are often dismissed as political correctness run amok.

But whatever you make of those stories, they are only a small part of identity politics. The bigger battle isn’t about restricting speech on college campuses, but who exactly is accepted in America.

People don’t want to get left behind

At the crux of both sides of identity politics is a simple problem: No one wants to get left behind.

Minority groups and women don’t want to go back to a day where it was legal for employers and businesses to discriminate against them. In fact, they want to move past the progress that’s already been made and solve other problems — such as the vast racial gaps in economic and educational attainment, the racial disparities in the criminal justice system, and the gender wage gap.

But many white Americans, especially those in rural and Rust Belt areas hit hard by globalization, see identity politics as a zero-sum game, one in which they will lose out more and more as minority groups make gains.

Hochschild, a sociologist and author of Strangers in Their Own Land, provided an apt analogy for many white Americans’ feeling of neglect: As they see it, they are all in this line toward a hill with prosperity at the top. But over the past few years, globalization and income stagnation have caused the line to stop moving. And from their perspective, other groups — black and brown Americans, women — are now cutting in the line, because they’re getting new (and more equal) opportunities through new anti-discrimination laws and policies like affirmative action.

In addition to this, many white Americans feel like they can’t even talk about how they feel due to what they call “political correctness.” Michelle Goldberg, a columnist at Slate who’s interviewed dozens of people at Trump rallies, wrote that she consistently heard this from Trump supporters: “Again and again, people told me how much they resented not being able to speak their minds, though none of them wanted to articulate what exactly they were holding in. They said they hated being shamed on social media, though they usually didn’t want to say what they had been shamed for.”

People ride a truck in Kentucky. Mario Tama/Getty Images

The undertone here is that a lot of Trump supporters want to be able to say racist, sexist, or otherwise bigoted things without consequence.

But another possibility is that these people want to be able to speak about issues — sometimes in a clumsy, accidentally offensive way, because they just don’t know the new language for these topics — without being shamed. Writing them off as simply racist, sexist, or otherwise bigoted only makes them feel like their actual concerns about the economy, state of the country, size of government, and so on are going ignored. To these people, political correctness — and identity politics more broadly — have, in their view, oppressed them.

Historically, however, identity politics has been used to oppress not white people but people of color. The Southern strategy gave way to administrations that passed “tough on crime” laws, weakened the enforcement of civil rights laws, enacted legislation that suppresses voters, opposed same-sex marriage and nondiscrimination laws that legally protect LGBTQ people, and took on other actions that targeted or disproportionately hurt minority Americans and women. These kinds of policies are why we see such big gaps in all kinds of outcomes, from the gender wage gap to white versus black life expectancy.

These outcomes, in fact, are why identity politics is big today. The current movement is a reaction to decades of oppressive policies and inequality, with people now trying to change how US society and politics talk about and handle these issues to hopefully push the country in a more equal direction. It’s not that people suddenly decided to proactively bring up these issues that never existed before; it’s that they’re fed up and want the current circumstances to change.

Take, for instance, how transgender writer Julia Serano put it: “I would *love* to stop talking about being transgender. It would be absolutely wonderful to live in a world where I didn’t have to constantly consider that aspect of my person. But you know what? I don’t have the privilege of not thinking about it, because there are shit-tons of people out there who hate me, harass me, and who wish to criminalize and silence me *because* I’m transgender.”

Democrats need to find a way to balance their message

For Democrats, the issue now is finding a way to balance identity politics with other issues.

Trump won the election, as has now been well-established, by convincing white working-class voters to back him much more than they backed the previous Republican candidate, Mitt Romney. The shift was enough to overcome the demographic changes — mainly, the growth of Latino voters — that have benefited Democrats over the past few years.

It’s not just presidential politics, either. Democrats’ struggles to connect to the white working class have contributed to the party’s losses down the ballot, leaving it with no control of any level of government in America come 2017.

Democrats don’t want to see this trend continue. So they want to find a way to speak to the white working class to avoid even more of them from going to Republicans. But they also feel like they can’t stop talking about identity politics altogether, given that much of the current Democratic base is made up of millennials, people of color, and women who really care about these issues.

A protester holds a Bernie Sanders 2020 sign. Mark Wilson/Getty Images

The closest thing to a consensus so far seems to be that Democrats need to advance a more economically populist message — one that decries the excesses of Wall Street and pushes policy ideas that could benefit the white working class along with the rest of Americans, like universal health care, free college, paid family leave, and a massive infrastructure program.

This is what key Democratic leaders have said in the aftermath of the election: Sen. Bernie Sanders argued that the party should signal that it will help all working class people regardless of race. And Sen. Elizabeth Warren reportedly told donors, according to Gabriel Debenedetti at Politico, that “Democrats need to step up their economic appeal to everyday voters.”

Beyond that, there’s basically no consensus. Some people suggest that Democrats should abandon identity politics altogether as part of taking up a populist message. Others argue that it’s possible for the party to balance both identity politics and a more economically populist message. (No one I’ve talked to in my reporting since the election has suggested that the party should change nothing or follow a solely identity politics–focused message.)

This debate is essentially an extension of one that became much more prominent during the Democratic primary. Back then, some leftists, many of whom supported Sanders, argued that Democrats need to focus more on issues pertaining to class through an economically populist message. But some liberals, many of whom backed Hillary Clinton, said that the party must excite its diverse coalition by speaking to identity issues. Now that Democrats lost to Trump, this debate has continued after the election.

One side wants an end to “identity liberalism”

Mark Lilla, a liberal historian who wrote “The End of Identity Liberalism” in the New York Times after the election, argues that the party’s messaging on identity politics has ostracized white Americans — many of whom would otherwise be receptive to the party’s economic policies.

He wrote:

Hillary Clinton was at her best and most uplifting when she spoke about American interests in world affairs and how they relate to our understanding of democracy. But when it came to life at home, she tended on the campaign trail to lose that large vision and slip into the rhetoric of diversity, calling out explicitly to African-American, Latino, L.G.B.T. and women voters at every stop. This was a strategic mistake. If you are going to mention groups in America, you had better mention all of them. If you don’t, those left out will notice and feel excluded.

“It’s crucial to develop a message that focuses on what we share,” Lilla told me. “Not on our identities at all, but what we share about certain principles in this country.”

Lilla argued that it is not that he doesn’t care about identity politics issues. He said, for one, that he supports many of the efforts to expand and protect LGBTQ rights. But he argued that Democrats are going to be unable to do the work to expand and protect minority groups and women’s rights if Democratic lawmakers are not in power first.

“It’s an argument about strategy. It’s not an argument about ultimate values,” Lilla said. “It’s my attempt to get liberals’ attention and even progressives’ attention focused on winning elections.” He added, “You can do nothing to protect black motorists [pulled over by police] and gay couples walking hand-in-hand down the street if you don’t control Congress and, most importantly, if you don’t have a voice in state legislatures.”

Hillary Clinton speaks in Chicago, months after losing the 2016 election. Scott Olson/Getty Images

There’s some evidence behind Lilla’s argument: The research, as noted above, shows white people are more likely to vote through their white identity if they are primed to think of an election in racial terms. And other research on what sociologists call “white fragility” has found that when many white people are asked to answer for potential racism, they become immediately defensive — pushing them into denial that they’ve done anything wrong and, in some cases, hardening their racist attitudes. (Much more on that in a previous piece I wrote about this research.)

So it stands to reason that the more Democrats push on identity issues, the more white Americans will be primed into voting as a racial group — and potentially for Republicans in what they view as racial self-preservation.

But it’s not just Democrats who have been raising these issues for the past few years. The whole point of the Southern strategy and dog whistles is to acknowledge and wink at these issues for white voters. After all, Trump is arguably the candidate who made the election in large part about race and identity; he’s the one who called Mexican immigrants “rapists” in his first campaign event, proposed a ban on Muslims coming into the US, and described places where black people live as hellish nightmares.

Much of Hillary Clinton’s messaging was a reaction to this, and it’s hard to see her trying the same kind of messaging against a Republican like Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio. But once Trump got started, she couldn’t just ignore what was going on, and she had to speak about identity issues to some degree. Still, whether that required a message that microtargeted specific minority groups is a matter of debate.

A shift to appealing to white voters could leave behind people of color

For minority groups, there’s a big risk to Democrats simply ignoring identity politics in favor of appealing to the white working class: When progressive parties felt compelled to reach out to white voters in such a way in the past, they neglected people of color in both rhetorical and policy terms.

New Yorker writer James Surowiecki gave a few examples in a series of tweets: when Republicans abandoned Reconstruction following the abolition of slavery, leaving black people to “fend for themselves” in the South; during the New Deal, when Democrats excluded predominantly black farmers and service workers from Social Security; and in the 1990s, when the Clinton administration and Democrats embraced “tough on crime” and anti-welfare rhetoric that led to policies that disproportionately hurt people of color.

Paul Frymer, director of the Program in Law and Public Affairs at Princeton University, told me that it’s possible this will happen again. Democrats could make the cold calculation that even if they neglect identity issues, people of color and other marginalized groups will have nowhere else to go, since they certainly can’t go to a Republican Party with a history of standing against civil rights legislation, criminal justice reform, and immigration reform.

Democrats look at Republicans’ wins with the white vote and “think two things. One, they think it’s a critical vote, which it is,” Frymer said. “And two, they think, where are African Americans going to go? Latinos to a certain extent have a little more room to maneuver — and Latinos are much more diverse, from Cubans to Puerto Ricans and so forth. But I think the Democrats think the strategy they use — appeal to this white majority and rally minority voters on Election Day by getting them out to vote — has been sufficient.”

Louisiana voters at the polls. Mario Tama/Getty Images

McGhee of Demos, however, argued that the idea that Democrats should abandon identity politics and, therefore, potentially people of color for economic populism presents a false either-or scenario. She said that it’s possible for Democrats to talk about economic issues that affect people of all backgrounds while speaking to issues that affect people of color in particular. In fact, she said it could be possible to bring both of these issues together.

For example, Democrats could speak to how conservatives have leveraged identity politics in a way that’s also hurt white Americans. As McGhee put it, conservative politicians have used race to rile up their constituents on cultural issues while ignoring or even working against causes that would benefit their constituents. “The racial narrative has been the weapon,” she said, to get white Americans to vote for policies that go against their interests.

Consider, for example, that the Trump administration and Republican Congress have worked (so far unsuccessfully) to repeal Obamacare and slash entitlement programs, which would send potentially millions of white working-class Americans into poverty and rob millions of their health insurance. This would be a complete disaster for the group of people who overwhelmingly voted for Trump, even if many of them thought they were voting for their own preservation.

By communicating this kind of issue, McGhee says that Democrats can condemn racist rhetoric like Trump’s and signal to white voters that hateful rhetoric like Trump’s only masks policies that will actually hurt them.

Whether McGhee’s idea works remains to be seen. But it’s the kind of idea that Democrats will need to consider as they look for a way to balance outreach to white voters, a serious response to decades of conservative identity politics, and the many competing interests within their party.