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Debunking the myth that “identity politics” is bad for the Democratic Party

Racial justice energized the party in the past. It can today too.

John L. Lewis (R), president of the Congress of Industrial Organizations, talking with other leaders at the National African American Congress, in January 1940.
David E. Scherman/LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

As the Democratic Party struggles to regain its once-solid national majority, journalists, academics, commentators, and politicos keep reverting to an irresistible narrative: that the party’s commitment to racial equality has alienated it from the white working and middle classes — perhaps irreversibly. As a result of this misstep, Democrats now seem to be the “party of minorities, the marginalized, and their young and elite liberal patrons.”

Those are the words of the journalist James Traub, which appear in a provocative piece in the Atlantic. Traub is only the latest in a long line to make this claim.

But where most commentators trace the Democrats’ downfall to the late 1960s, when the party broke with the allegedly “colorblind” universalism of Martin Luther King Jr. and embraced something these critics call “identity politics,” Traub makes the case that the Democrats’ decline can be traced all the way back to 1948, when Hubert Humphrey persuaded the Democratic National Convention to endorse a platform in favor of civil rights, over the objection of Southern conservatives and risk-averse Northerners.

By morally committing the Democrats to racial equality, Humphrey set the party and the country on the path that led to desegregation, LBJ, the Great Society, mandatory busing — and, finally, white “backlash.”

“Did the commitment of 1948 lead inevitably to the electoral calamity of 1968 and beyond?” Traub asks. “That is, did the Democrats doom themselves to lose much of the white middle class simply by demanding equal rights for black people?”

The defection of white Southerners, the loss of support among white working- and middle-class voters in the North, the rise of George Wallace, Ronald Reagan, and now Donald Trump — each might have been avoided but for this commitment to racial equality. In Traub’s words: “Thanks to Humphrey and the ADA [Americans for Democratic Action], the Democrats had done something even more dangerous than they understood: They had exchanged a politics of self-interest for a politics of moral commitment.”

It has now become common to argue that the downfall of the New Deal can be attributed to the belated addition of “identity-based” claims — namely, claims to racial equality — to what had been a broad-based coalition rooted in the economic interests of workers, albeit one focused at first mainly on whites. The universal — or at least, seemingly universal — appeal of the New Deal was lost as the particular interests of African Americans and other minorities came to the fore. Mark Lilla, author of The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics, is another prominent exponent of this view.

In the 1930s and ’40s, “liberalism” came to mean support for both economic and racial justice

But this argument misses something New Deal liberals recognized early on: By the late 1930s, without racial justice, there would be no program of economic equality. It is New Deal liberalism itself that upended the supposed distinction between identity politics and class politics.

Rejecting the choice between “self-interest” and “moral commitment,” liberal New Dealers drew on a moral vision that linked fighting the gross injustices facing African Americans and other minorities to the shared interest of all workers. By the late 1930s and early 1940s, the core constituencies backing the New Deal were groups that supported civil rights: industrial labor unions, African Americans, and urban liberals.

Conversely, it was Southern white Democrats who not only opposed civil rights but also adopted a virulently anti-union stance. Leading Southern white Democrats worked with Republicans to attack the same labor unions that were essential to electing New Deal Democrats in the North. These same Southerners increasingly worked with Republicans to block a range of New Deal initiatives, not just those relating directly to race.

Long before civil rights rose to the top of the national agenda, in sum, it was evident to labor leaders, African Americans, and other liberal New Dealers that they had to act together to defeat the Southern Democrats who stood in the way of both civil and labor rights.

Debating the “universalism” of the New Deal programs, and coalition

Hubert H. Humphrey pushed for a civil rights plank at the 1948 Democratic National Convention. A much-discussed article argues that this moment was the beginning of the end for Democratic popularity among whites.
Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

Traub’s point of departure is that the strength of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal coalition derived primarily from white voters. That helps explain why the introduction of racial issues to the Party by Humphrey and others was so destabilizing, in his view. “FDR had created the modern Democratic Party by deploying the state on behalf of ordinary citizens — ordinary white citizens,” he writes.

There is an element of truth to that: To hold on to Southern white Democrats, the New Dealers enacted numerous policies that excluded African Americans, particularly from 1933 to 1938. Most black Southerners were initially barred from receiving Social Security, for example, because farmworkers and domestics were not included.

But Traub misses the extent to which, from an early moment, the New Deal set in motion changes on the ground that linked racial and economic concerns. The Democrats’ ultimate, if incomplete, embrace of racial liberalism was not the top-down creation of Humphrey in 1948 or Lyndon Johnson in 1964.

Instead, the core groups behind the New Deal — industrial unions, African Americans, and urban liberals — transformed the party from below. Claims for racial justice were a key part of the liberal program, as understood by New Dealers themselves in the late 1930s and early 1940s.

While parts of Roosevelt’s program perpetuated discrimination, New Deal labor and jobs programs also offered real benefits to many African Americans in the North and even in the South. In response, black Northerners voted overwhelmingly for Roosevelt in 1936 and stuck with the president for the rest of his time in office. This new voting bloc motivated many Democratic politicians to back civil rights.

The Congress of Industrial Organizations argued that only a cross-racial coalition could defeat labor’s enemies

At the same time, the New Deal helped propel the rapid rise of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), which became a key ally for African Americans within the Democratic Party. Before the formation of the CIO in 1935, the labor movement was dominated by American Federation of Labor (AFL) unions that typically excluded African Americans.

But the CIO stood out among white-led organizations in its support for civil rights. Even as rank-and-file union workers often shared in the racial prejudice that was prevalent in their communities, the union’s leaders and organizers made civil rights a priority.

They did this for both practical and ideological reasons. The CIO’s leaders and organizers believed that African-American support was crucial in industrial workplaces where replacement workers were a recurrent threat. As long as black workers were not welcome in the union, and treated unfairly by it, they would be a potential source of strikebreakers. Many of these same union officials had roots in left-wing political movements committed to the idea that racial divisions undermined class consciousness.

The CIO pioneered a fusion of class and race, arguing that economic justice required the labor movement and the state to tackle the mutually reinforcing problems of economic and racial inequality. CIO president John L. Lewis emphasized that “no group in the population feels more heavily the burden of unemployment and insecurity than the Negro citizens. … The denial of civil liberties lie[s] with heavy discrimination upon Negroes. Only when these economic and political evils are wiped out will the Negro people be free of them.”

The CIO’s John Brophy declared, “behind every lynching is the figure of the labor exploiter, the man or the corporation who would deny labor its fundamental rights.”

Lewis and Brophy looked to African Americans as critical allies for the labor movement, both in workplace struggles and in a larger political battle to drive Southern conservatives from power.

The push for racial justice was a bottom-up movement, not a misstep by elites

African Americans, the CIO, and other urban liberals fostered a new understanding of “liberalism” in which support for civil rights was a key marker of one’s identity as a liberal. Ordinary voters, too, came to link racial and economic liberalism: By the early ’40s, Northern Democratic voters were substantially more likely to back key civil rights initiatives than were Republicans.

Grassroots African-American activists played a critical role in tightening these connections. Capitalizing on the mobilization for World War II, they pushed Fair Employment Practices legislation — to prevent racial discrimination in employment — onto the political agenda. The Fair Employment Practices Committee soon became a core element of the “liberal program.”

The energy and activism that propelled the Democratic Party in the 1940s and beyond came from this new coalition, which gradually captured the formal party organization, despite the reluctance of most top party leaders. The Democrats’ endorsement of civil rights in 1948, and beyond, was not a matter of elites steering the people the wrong way. It was the product of a long-term, cross-racial movement that viewed civil rights as integral to the liberal program — and the labor program.

The “identity politics” argument assumes that racial justice ultimately brought down the liberal project. But this gets the history almost backward. Indeed, much of the moral fervor that fed the liberal project in the 1940s came precisely from its linkage to the cause of racial justice.

The bitter response to this program forged a clear division in which Southern conservatives were identified on one side and African Americans, unions, Jews, and other urban liberals on the other. Where Traub and others think this division was the product of liberals’ shift in focus from white workers to African Americans, racial backlash was sown into the attack on the New Deal almost from the beginning (just as cross-racial solidary was assumed by many of its supporters).

Lessons for today’s Democrats

Contemporary liberals are once again confronted with the challenge of forging a politics in which reformers seeking progress for particular groups do not see themselves as isolated advocates but instead as part of a broader ideological coalition with common aims and shared enemies.

The biggest obstacle to such a coalition today is the decline of organized labor, which played a critical role in forging the expansive New Deal liberalism that took hold in the 1930s. But this decline is rooted not in a post-1965 reaction against civil rights; instead, it can be traced to the alliance between Southern Democrats and Republicans nationally that made crushing unions a top priority from the late 1930s onward.

What the cross-racial liberal vision put forward by the CIO and its African-American allies suggests is that movements for economic justice can derive vitality from attending to the identities and interests of marginalized groups.

New Deal liberalism was, in part, identity politics. Appeals to identity — whether by farmers, veterans, workers, or immigration opponents — have always been a potent political force. The main difference is that, unlike previous versions of identity politics in the US, the identity politics of the New Deal era was not limited to white Americans.

The lesson of the New Deal coalition for liberals today is not that they should turn away from appeals to the identities of particular groups. Instead, liberalism is at its strongest when its advocates understand that justice for each group is essential to achieving justice for all.

Eric Schickler is the Jeffrey and Ashley McDermott professor of political science at the University of California Berkeley and the author of Racial Realignment: The Transformation of American Liberalism, 1932-1965.

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