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Bernie Sanders — and many Democrats — keep confusing identity politics with tokenism

Comments like “I’m a woman! Vote for me!” show why progressives talk past each other.

bernie sanders Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

After Hillary Clinton’s devastating election loss, the Democratic Party has naturally been doing a lot of soul searching over how it can do better. One particularly fraught debate has been over how, or even whether, liberals and progressives should reach out to white working-class voters who favored Donald Trump this November.

Sen. Bernie Sanders chose to frame that debate this way: “One of the struggles that you’re going to be seeing in the Democratic Party is whether we go beyond identity politics,” Sanders said in Boston on Sunday.

He said that it’s “enormously important” to “end all forms of discrimination,” and that representation does matter. “We need 50 women in the Senate,” he said. “We need more African Americans.” But he also said that representation alone is not enough — with a remark that could easily be read as a criticism of Clinton.

“It is not good enough for someone to say, 'I'm a woman! Vote for me!’ No, that's not good enough,” Sanders said. “What we need is a woman who has the guts to stand up to Wall Street, to the insurance companies, to the drug companies.”

Sanders’s comments infuriated some progressives who prioritize issues like racial and gender justice, and who saw his comments as a dismissal of the importance of those issues.

Others pointed out that Sanders’s comments were more nuanced than that, and that the same speech also discussed racism and sexism as real problems.

Both of these criticisms are totally valid. It’s true that Sanders gave a lot more than lip service to issues of racial and gender justice in this speech. But it’s also true that he painted a dismissive, inaccurate picture of what it means to care about identity and representation in politics.

It’s a perfect illustration of why the debate over “identity politics” in the 2016 election has been so maddening. Sanders’s comments represent a flank of the Democratic party that partly blames Clinton’s loss on her strong embrace of race and gender issues, which could have turned off white male voters in particular. Meanwhile, the marginalized groups who overwhelmingly vote for Democrats fear being thrown under the bus, as they have many times before, so that the party can curry more favor with white Americans.

The Democratic Party is at a major crossroads about its own identity. But it really doesn’t have to be the zero-sum game that some treat it as.

“Identity politics” is not the same thing as tokenism

The biggest problem with identity politics might be that nobody can agree on what “identity politics” actually means.

To those who criticize it, “identity politics” is a distraction. They see it as what happens when a focus on categories like race and gender becomes so narrow that it discourages intellectual rigor, draws focus away from “bigger” issues like economic insecurity, and breaks potential bonds of solidarity between different groups.

Mark Lilla took this basic view in a controversial New York Times op-ed called “The End of Identity Liberalism.” Lilla fears that American liberalism “has slipped into a kind of moral panic about racial, gender and sexual identity that has distorted liberalism’s message and prevented it from becoming a unifying force capable of governing.”

Sanders suggested something close to that in his speech, when he characterized “identity politics” as something Democrats might want to consider going “beyond.” He elaborated on this idea by warning that while having an African-American CEO is a “step forward,” it’s a very limited step if that CEO is also “shipping jobs out of his country and exploiting his workers.”

But to people who actually practice “identity politics,” Sanders is presenting a straw man. He’s describing tokenism — the idea that you need a certain quota of “token” members of marginalized groups for the sake of “diversity,” regardless of whether those members are actually qualified or actually represent their group’s interests.

The very idea of tokenism has some offensive implications, though. And it’s not at all what identity politics are really about.

Generally speaking, identity politics is about recognizing and acting on the fact that different groups can have different interests, goals, and policy needs. It doesn’t require pitting those groups against each other, although it’s often presented that way. Rather, it’s about acknowledging that American politics tends to treat the “white male” identity as the default — and every other identity as some sort of optional bonus feature.

For the people who actually inhabit those identities, though, they are anything but optional. New York Times Magazine reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones succinctly explained why this matters, and what a more one-size-fits-all approach to politics misses:

Many advocates say that in truth, all politics is about identity, which very much includes the “white working class.” And if Sanders’s vision for broader “class” solidarity came to fruition, that would also become an identity.

“Identity” and “economic” progressives share many of the same values, but they often talk past and distrust each other

Progressive identity politics certainly values things like equal representation in government for women and people of color. But if Sanders’s “I’m a woman! Vote for me!” line was actually relevant to that discussion, a lot more progressives would embrace candidates like Carly Fiorina.

Most of them don’t, of course. And that’s because “identity” progressives care about a lot of different things — just like Sanders and his supporters who focus more on “economic” progressivism do.

If you ask a Sanders supporter whether she thinks it’s important to fight for racial justice and reproductive rights, she will probably say yes. If you ask a Clinton supporter whether he thinks it’s important to fight against wealth and income inequality, he will also probably say yes.

It’s possible, even likely, that the two will disagree on priorities and tactics. Yet there’s a tendency for each “side” of this debate to view those differences as intractable, and to treat the other side as an existential threat instead of an ideological ally.

Sanders was criticized by Black Lives Matter activists during the campaign for not being vocal enough about racial justice issues, but he was responsive to those criticisms. Both on the campaign trail and in his speech on Sunday, Sanders made very clear that he values equal representation and understands why it’s important. He also made clear that he cares about racism and sexism, and understands why they are real problems.

What Sanders doesn’t seem to understand, though, is that these issues are at the heart of “identity politics.” He gives identity-focused progressives much too little credit for their willingness to support other progressive issues — and also gives himself too little permission to champion identity issues without the “yes, but” qualification.

This is the real choice Democrats are going to face: not whether to “go beyond” identity politics, but how to practice it.