The Inevitable Crash and Burn of Democrats’ Identity Politics

This blog has long warned of the inevitable failure of the Democrats’ “identity politics” strategy. When viewed in the macro the strategy makes sense – in lieu of a broad-based coalition White House number crunchers figure out how to cobble together a group of unrelated constituencies and then setting out to give speeches or pass executive orders meant to draw their votes.

For instance, you back off marijuana enforcement to woo young people, you fight against the Keystone pipeline to entice environmentalists, or you push immigration changes to court Hispanics. In these situations the goal is not a well-though-out piece of legislation—because you have no intent to pass a bill, or sometimes even vote on it—the goal is merely to pay lip service to the idea in order to court particular voting bloc.

But the strategy comes with costs. A recent poll found that 55 percent of Americans said President Obama is a divider, while only 38 percent said he is a uniter. Moreover, the “identity politics” strategy also whittled away at the support of key parts of his coalition. This is unsurprising. Although promises of future action may be enough to win one election those individual demographics eventually demand action. By promising so much to so many President Obama found himself spread thin. The result was an unwillingness (he despises retail politicking) and an inability (he had zero political capital) to follow through on his assurances.

The result was clearly political disaster for the beleaguered president and Democratic candidates. A pre-election poll found that Obama’s approval ratings had plummeted among young adults, women and Latino voters – groups that were key to propelling him into the White House and voting blocs that would need to support Democrats en masse if they were going to have a chance of dampening a Republican wave.

Those diminished approval ratings translated into historic wins for GOP candidates come Election Day. Republicans outperformed already-high expectations nearly across the board – they dominated red states like Kentucky, they won handily in purple states like Iowa, and they nearly pulled off stunning upsets in blue states like Massachusetts.

One of the main reasons for Republicans’ dramatic election successes were the gains made among youth voters. Across the board the GOP—with a large assist from the CRNC—was able to win a larger share of youth voters than in past elections. And in many cases our party won the youth vote outright.

So what does this mean? Mark Bauerlein offers one theory in the New York Times:

This doesn’t mean that the youth vote is going Republican. Party identity is meaningless to half of them, and that rate will rise. They pose a new kind of constituency, fluctuating and unpredictable, socially liberal but willing to back conservatives now and then, interested less in party ideologies than in actual individuals put forward as candidates, such as the cool young black senator in 2008. They form one-sixth to one-eighth of the electorate. If politicians take anything away from 2014, they must find a way to cultivate these voters that moves beyond party labels — indeed, beyond identity politics entirely.

Bauerlein, who coincidentally is the author of a book called “The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30), comes to the right conclusion, even if his history is a bit off.

The truth is that young adults have never been a constituency that is beholden to Democrats or Republicans. A majority of young adults supported Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush just as a majority of young adults supported Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. We’ve always been a constituency that responds to great candidates who espouse innovative ideas. That’s why President Obama’s identity politics was never going to work in the long-term, it was too focused on a stagnant caricature of who young adults are and what they should want.

The simple fact is that Republicans had better candidates than Democrats did this year. We had a slate of people who were well spoken, who understood the modern economy, and who offered up ways to harness the power of free markets to encourage entrepreneurship and economic growth. The challenge is to keep finding them.