Identity Politics Has Failed, But Democrats Stand Behind It

The ascendency of Donald Trump to the highest office in the United States was sure to cause a crisis for liberalism. Inevitably, liberals—mostly those with their own blogs—would deign it necessary to figure out what went so wrong that a candidate like Hillary Clinton could get beaten by a candidate like Donald Trump.

For several weeks that didn’t happen. Instead, they angrily pointed fingers in every direction and began wondering if voter fraud really was a problem after all. But the race for House Minority Leader, which pitted a fresh-faced Tim Ryan against an old-hand in Nancy Pelosi, finally caused some Democrats to begin pondering their mistakes.

The fault line appeared to be the continued use of identity politics as a means of communicating to their voters.

“I think, in part, we try to slice the electorate up. And we try to say, ‘You’re black, you’re brown, you’re gay, you’re straight, you’re a woman, you’re a man,’” Ryan told Meet the Press moderator Chuck Todd. “The reality of it is there’s no juice in that kind of campaign. There’s no energy in that because it’s divided.”

It’s not just divided, it’s divisive. And oddly enough, it arose out of the Obama presidency. It’s not easy to forget Barack Obama’s 2004 speech to the Democratic National Convention in which he proclaimed that we all make up one America.

“Even as we speak, there are those who are preparing to divide us, the spin masters and negative ad peddlers who embrace the politics of anything goes,” Obama said. “Well, I say to them tonight, there’s not a liberal America and a conservative America; there’s the United States of America. There’s not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America.”

And yet his legacy is anything but that of a uniter. Instead, Obama became reliant on a strategy that used wedge issues designed to appeal to certain groups to cobble together a legislative majority. In hindsight, the strategy itself was not the key to success, it was the unique abilities of the man implementing the strategy. That’s why so many down ballot Democrats failed, even as Obama succeeded, and why Hillary Clinton failed, even as she was sold as a shoo-in.

It’s unsurprising then that Democrats are reconsidering the use of identify politics, although they appear to be doing it because it’s failing them politically, not because it’s failing society by fostering strife. New York Times’ columnist Ross Douthat explains what went wrong:

“2016 exposed liberalism’s twofold vulnerability: to white voters embracing an identity politics of their own, and to women and minorities fearing Trump less than most liberals expected, and not voting monolithically for Hillary.

So now identitarian liberalism is taking fire from two directions. From the center-left, it’s critiqued as an illiberal and balkanizing force, which drives whit-cis-het people of good will rightward and prevents liberalism from speaking a language of the common good. From the left, it’s critiqued as an expression of class privilege, which cares little for economic justice so long as black lesbian Sufis are represented in the latest Netflix superhero show.”

But it’s not completely clear that identity politics is going the way of the Clintons. After all, Nancy Pelosi was reelected Minority Leader, roundly defeating Tim Ryan, and sending a clear signal that the party intends to largely remain on its current course. And the liberal intelligentsia still appears to believe that their mistake had nothing to do with identity politics and everything to do with their inability to weave together a broader economic message that appealed to the working class.

If anything, that demonstrates the problem rather than the solution. Identity politics, which focuses on group experiences rather than individualism or even broad-based policy efforts, precludes the type of economic discussion they want to have. Even focusing on the needs of the working class ignores the vast needs and wants of the middle-class, who also feel left out of a system that rewards the top and coddles the bottom of the income ladder.

So although some liberals seem to have diagnosed the problem, it appears they’re going to be labeled within the party as short-sighted defeatists. Perhaps they can form their own identity. It may be what’s required to gain recognition within the party.

Photo Credit: Nancy Pelosi