clock menu more-arrow no yes

Democrats neither can nor should ditch “identity politics”

There’s no other kind of politics. They just need to do it better.

For as long as I can remember, white male left-of-center intellectuals have made opposition to “identity politics” a core part of their identity. When the Democratic Party wins some elections, this opposition usually takes the form of dark warnings that “identity politics” constitutes a form of creeping totalitarianism, whereas when the Democratic Party loses an election, it takes the form of a dark warning that identity-based appeals are the cause of the loss.

Mark Lilla, a humanities professor at Columbia University, has a very prominent entry in the latter category of essay out this weekend calling for “The End of Identity Liberalism” in the wake of Donald Trump’s election.

As always with these essays, there is a profoundly true part, namely that you cannot effectively mobilize a political coalition for economic equality, environmental justice, or anything else unless you are able to secure the votes of a large number of white people. Which means, among other things, that even the cause of defending the rights and interests of ethnic minority groups requires political arguments that touch on other subjects and appeal to other groups of voters.

The reality, however, is that politics is not and will never be a public policy seminar. People have identities, and people are mobilized politically around those identities. There is no other way to do politics than to do identity politics.

But to win a national election, you need to do it well. In particular, to get 270 electoral votes or 51 Senate seats, Democrats are going to need the votes of more Midwestern white people than they got in 2016. But to think that they can do that by somehow eschewing identity is ridiculous — white Midwesterners have identities, too, and nobody votes based off detailed readings of campaigns’ policy PDFs. The challenge is to speak more clearly and more effectively to the identity of people who feel left behind in the 21st century as well as those who experience contemporary problems as part of a longer-term struggle to get a fair shake.

Identity is complicated

The beginning of wisdom on this subject is to recognize that human identity is more complicated than a quick glance at an exit poll table would suggest. If I describe my father to you as a “white male over 60 with no college degree,” you would say it is overwhelmingly likely that he is a Donald Trump voter. But if I describe him to you as a “Hispanic union member who didn’t graduate high school” or a “Jewish screenwriter and novelist who lives in Chelsea,” you would say it is overwhelmingly likely that he is a Hillary Clinton voter.

Now, my dad happens to be a demographically unusual person. But we’re all beautiful unique snowflakes in one way or another.

And identity exists beyond easy demographic summary statistics. In recent cycles, for example, Democrats have done well with scientists. This is in part thanks to direct issues appeals — they support money for basic research and higher education. It’s in part thanks to abstract issue appeals — Democrats support action on climate change and mostly avoid pandering to anti-GMO and anti-vaccine activists. And it’s in part thanks to representational identity politics — President Obama talks about how he likes Star Trek and has appointed two nuclear physicists to serve as his two secretaries of energy.

By the same token, for a long time now the political behavior of the “white working class” (i.e., white people who don’t have a college degree) has varied substantially from region to region. Republicans traditionally won overwhelming victories with the white working class in the South and among regular churchgoers, while Democrats won with less devout Northerners.

That regional divide is key to understanding what happened in 2016. A Republican Party that was broadly identified with religious Southerners nominated a secular Northerner who was not identified with the Republican Party leadership. Not surprisingly, that helped him win the votes of secular Northerners who’d traditionally distrusted the Republican Party. Meanwhile, his campaign very much emphasized whiteness as a theme, and in an ultimately failed effort to win the votes of traditionally Republican-leaning white women in the suburbs, his opponent joined with him in dissociating the Trump agenda from the Republican Party we’ve known for years.

Democrats are going to need some better identity politics

Justin Gest’s book The New Minority: White Working Class Politics in an Age of Immigration and Inequality has the advantage of being substantially about exactly the question on everyone’s minds — the political behavior of white working-class Midwesterners — while also being written before the 2016 election results were known, so it’s a little separate from all the hot takes out there.

Gest’s main analytic idea, somewhat transcending the “race versus economic anxiety” debate, is that the people he studied both quantitatively and ethnographically feel an acute sense of political marginalization. They have heard that national demographics have shifted and that the nonwhite vote is now more important than it used to be. They hear Republicans talking a lot about social issues they don’t really care about, and associate the GOP with both the literal bosses at work and with bossy, devout Southerners (or in Mitt Romney’s case, Mormons) whom they don’t identify with. But they also see a Democratic Party that is dominated by white professionals who seem obsessed with mobilizing nonwhite voters.

A key point Gest makes is that Democrats have gotten accustomed to relying on labor unions as the means through which they do representational politics aimed at the white working class. When Democrats are putting a big group together, they make sure African Americans and Latinos and Jews and AAPIs and LGBTQs get their due, and also that labor gets its due.

But labor’s position in the Midwest has eroded massively. The most unionized states (New York, Hawaii, New Jersey, Washington, California, and New Jersey) are the deep blue ones, and the modern labor movement has also become less working-class. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics there are about twice as many union workers in “professional and related occupations” (mostly teachers) as in “production, transportation, and material moving occupations.” Unionization levels are currently very low in the retail and food service fields where most working class people work.

Gest has a lot of thoughts about what either party can do to reach out to and mobilize white working-class supporters in the Midwest, but his most basic suggestion is probably his most interesting one — recruit and support working-class candidates who can speak directly to working-class job experiences. Do it with black and Hispanic working-class candidates as well as with white ones, but obviously in a whiter state you probably want more white candidates, while in a heavily Latino state you want more Latino ones.

Identity politics is inevitable

At the end of the day, an awful lot comes down to what you mean by identity politics. In a conventional frame, “identity politics” means outreach to nonwhite groups but nothing else. And it’s true that, mathematically speaking, practicing that kind of politics is going to doom you to lose elections.

As Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels explore in their recent book Democracy for Realists, any plausible account of political behavior by actual human beings needs to concede that politics has always been practiced largely by mobilizing people around salient aspects of group identity rather than detailed policy proposals. Gilded Age Republicans would “wave the bloody shirt” to remind Northern voters of the Democratic Party’s openness to dividing the Union during the Civil War.

Conversely, the Democrats lasted more than a century as the predominant party of the South based on opposition to Abraham Lincoln. But that didn’t stop them from being the party of Irish Americans. And that meant that in most of the urban Northeast, the GOP was traditionally the party of Italian Americans. But John Kennedy successful mobilized support from all Catholic subgroups in the 1960 election. In both 1976 and 1992, Democrats were able to compensate for growing structural weakness in the South by nominating Southern candidates who spoke with noticeable accents.

In terms of 2016, one identity issue that particularly plagued Clinton is that, in Gest’s words, the political culture of the white working-class Midwest is “pervaded by a nostalgia that reveres, and seeks to reinstate, a bygone era.”

Trump’s campaign theme of making America great again was perfectly tailored to this group. What’s more, Clinton’s status as a quasi-incumbent running as the heir to Obama’s eight years in office would have made it inherently difficult for her to run a restorationist campaign. The fact that Clinton’s base among working-class people of color had a decidedly more optimistic view of overall social trends despite similar economic circumstances made it even more difficult to thread the needle.

The Democrats’ 2020 nominee, whoever it may be, will almost necessarily be positioned as a change candidate and can probably count on African Americans and Hispanics shifting to a more negative outlook in the age of Trump. That could lay the groundwork for a return of the kind of cross-ethnic, class-based coalition that Democrats have traditionally counted on in states like Michigan. But it would be a different — more electorally effective — brand of identity politics, not a rejection of the underlying concept.