Fetishizing “Identity Politics” Could Cost Democrats in 2020

The 2016 Bernie Sanders campaign terraformed the landscape of political possibility: “Socialist” is no longer a slur, “Medicare for All” is a litmus test for 2020 hopefuls, and Americans are no longer so inured to the influence of money in politics. To millions on the left, the then-relatively unknown Vermont senator’s unexpected surge in the 2016 Democratic primary (and consistently strong approval ratings) demonstrate that electoral victory in 2020 requires adopting much of his platform and approach to politics. This means, among other things, making economic inequality central to any prospective presidential agenda.

Yet the very concept of “economic anxiety” has become a punchline at best, and a third rail at worst, among a loud swath of the Democratic coalition. Because economic concerns have, at times, been used as a pretext to avoid recognizing the role racism and xenophobia played in Donald Trump’s popularity, many Democrats now bristle at the notion that the Democratic Party should reach out to working-class whites at all. Understandably fearful that “wooing” white voters might require an appeal to bigotry, it’s now commonly argued that the Democratic Party should concentrate its efforts on nonvoters of color instead.

The divide between “team economic justice” and “team demographic destiny” now informs how different factions of the left, broadly defined, decipher the results of Democratic primaries and special election battles. And unfortunately, this has led to dangerously inaccurate and biased prescriptions for 2020.

Nonwhite and/or female candidates are praised for advancing “identity politics” if they win — regardless of how they campaigned. And efforts to include white voters in one’s coalition are blamed for faltering campaigns — regardless of a candidate’s more substantive failures. If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. And with a belief that demographics hold the key to unlocking a Democratic victory, Democrats stand poised to ignore the most important lesson of 2016: People turn out for material change.

Last month, The Nation columnist Steve Phillips argued that Stacey Abrams’s Georgia gubernatorial primary win over Stacey Evans “provided empirical evidence about how to win in a highly polarized, racially charged political environment.” His takeaway? A winning strategy is a “campaign rooted in the country’s demographic revolution.”

According to Phillips, Abrams’s victory can be attributed to demographic changes in the state, which once held “too few progressive whites,” and “too few people of color” (people of color are, apparently, presumptively progressive) to carry statewide elections. He balks at “conventional wisdom” that advocates “empathy for the anxiety of moderate white voters while decreasing the volume at which they champion racial justice.” Now that people of color are 47 percent of the state population and 40 percent of all eligible Georgia voters, Phillips argues, Democrats should be able to win using the “proven success of the Obama model.”

In Phillips’s telling, the way forward is an “explicitly progressive coalition of people of color and progressive whites.” Tacitly excluding moderate whites, who make up the bulk of America’s voting population, Phillips argues that, “[i]n the wake of the 2016 election … many Democrats have lost their nerve, and in too many cases, lost their minds, allocating millions of dollars to the fool’s errand of securing support from the very voters who hated our first black president and everything he represented.”

Phillips is not alone in his diagnosis. Brittany Packnett, writing for The Cut, claimed that “Evans focused on the conventional strategy of the Democratic Party: winning back rural white voters who were once party loyalists,” —“the Hillbilly Elegy set” — while Abrams “bucked the party’s big bet, and stitched together a multiracial coalition of voters and placed her bet on their turnout.” Her evidence seems limited to the observation that “Abrams is black” and “Evans is white.”

Similarly, the title of a piece by Vanessa Williams in the Washington Post announces that “Abrams’s Supporters Aren’t Afraid of Identity Politics,” locating Abrams’s victory in that claim. But although Williams makes a number of insightful observations about how Abrams’s identity and personal presentation resonate with black female voters, she fails to make the case for how Abrams’s messaging reflected an embrace of “identity” as an electoral strategy.

It’s necessary, here, to define “identity politics,” since a failure to do so is at the root of most of the controversy around the subject. Critics on the right generally define identity politics as any reference to racial, sexual, or gender identities, whether as calls to solidarity or a recognition of the particular harms those groups face because of their identities. This is wrong. But critics from the left don’t generally question the political or cultural relevance of identities, or the extent to which they serve as important axes for political mobilization.

Instead, the leftist critique condemns the “weaponization” of identity — the cynical emphasis on personal identity over political beliefs in order to advance candidates whose interests are inapposite to the needs of the groups they’re presumed to represent. See, for example, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders’s claim that Democrats who “support women’s empowerment” but critique Gina Haspel’s nomination for CIA director are “hypocrite[s].” Or the idea that Kamala Harris, a former prosecutor who once criminalized truancy and oversaw the country’s second largest non-federal prison population as the attorney general of California, is necessarily a good standard bearer for political justice reform.

The effect of conflating these two very different critiques of “identity politics” has been that in order to discredit the leftist critique, which is associated with an enthusiasm for economic justice arguments, some commentators try to “prove” the value of identity politics by attributing electoral victories to the winning candidates’ embrace of “identity politics” — this without any evidence beyond the race, gender, or sexual identity of the candidate. At the same time, those who trade in “white identity politics” (e.g., identity politics emphasizing whiteness), are not identified as embracing identity politics. Ironically, the failures of those candidates are, at times, blamed on their choice to adopt a class-based economic justice approach — even when they haven’t done so.

This is what happened in Georgia.

To prove that she embraced “identity politics,” Phillips argues that Abrams “publicly and repeatedly expressed solidarity with and welcomed support from LGBTQ groups, labor unions, pro-choice groups, and gun-control advocates.” He writes that by emphasizing identity and focusing on mobilizing voters of color who overwhelmingly vote for Democrats, red states like Georgia can go blue.

Phillips is right, of course, that it is essential for any 2020 Democratic hopeful to make confident and meaningful outreach to marginalized groups, labor, gun-control advocates, and others — not just because it’s politically expedient, but because it’s the right thing to do. He’s also right to embrace the 50-state solution abandoned by the Democratic Party but embraced by Bernie Sanders — Southern states, and the low-income people who live there, are worth the electoral effort.

But Phillips’s analysis ignores several facts: First, both Abrams and Evans expressed solidarity with marginalized groups and had very similar policy platforms, making “expressed solidarity” a control, not a variable. Second, Abrams, not Evans, spoke more broadly to the bread-and-butter “material” concerns of the electorate, including emphasizing Medicaid expansion. And third, although neither candidate was especially focused on “identity,” Evans, not Abrams, is more accurately described as the “identity” candidate.

Phillips argues that Evans “based her candidacy on the belief that she could use the fact that she grew up in a trailer park to win more support from white, working-class voters than prior Democratic candidates could.” Doing so was a “fool’s errand,” he suggests, because Democrats are subject to a 23 percent “ceiling” of white support that even Barack Obama could not exceed. (An argument betrayed by the fact that every Georgia governor of the 20th century was a Democrat.)

Evans did frequently reference her childhood stint in a trailer park — a living situation shared by many black Americans, but which is coded strongly as “white” in the public sphere. But that type of signaling, unconnected from policies which might provide material support for working-class people, is merely identity politics. Referencing one’s own childhood poverty does not an “economic anxiety” narrative make.

As her cornerstone campaign issue, Evans…

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