Should Democrats abandon identity politics?
via AP

Should Democrats abandon identity politics?

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Since the 2016 election, some on the left have urged Democrats to abandon "identity politics," which they argue are divisive, alienating and the main reason Democrats keep losing. But to the contrary, many viewed the recent wins in Virginia and New Jersey as a referendum on Trumpism, and proof that Democrats don't need to stop talking about race or gender to win elections. Besides, all politics are identity politics, the right is just organized around white male identity. What do you think? ✊🏻✊🏽✊🏿

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Columbia University political theorist Mark Lilla published a book blaming Hillary Clinton's 2016 loss on what he and others refer to as "identity politics." While Lilla considers himself a liberal, he is critical of other liberals for their "absurd excesses of political correctness" and overuse of "race and gender politics." 

Lilla argues liberals who obsess over identity politics have lost sight of what elections are really about—winning—and if Democrats want to bounce back, they're going to need to reconsider their strategy and win over people from all walks of life. 

If there's one message I want to get across in the book, it's that you cannot help anyone if you don't hold power [...] People in movement politics are very worried about getting their aprons dirty, and I am sick and tired of noble defeats. We have to get dirty. This is a struggle for power. This is not a seminar. This is not a therapy session. We are out there struggling for the future of this country.

Lilla believes identity politics is the reason large swaths of the population are so turned off by liberalism and the Democratic Party, despite sharing similar beliefs about policy. Even when Democrats' attempt to campaign on the issues—issues on which most Americans agree about—liberalism has "become a dirty word."

The logic of movement politics, especially identity politics, is not the logic of electoral politics. Social movements are effective when they focus on one issue, push as hard as they can on that issue, and ignore other issues [...] A focus on groups, a focus on ourselves, and a focus on social movements rather than winning elections in out-of-the-way places, combined with campus politics and Hollywood politics, simply turned off a good part of this country.

If people really care about helping others, they ought to be singularly focused on achieving electoral power, and that means being more empathetic to people who may view things a little differently. Lilla believes moral purity is at the root of identity politics and only creates impossible standards that nobody can live up to. Forget "noble defeats," if you want to see real change, you've got to get your hands dirty.


But Democratic victories across Virginia and New Jersey suggest something else. Columnist for The New York Times Charles M. Blow argues the 2017 election results prove Democrats should double-down on their base, not leave them in the dust. 

The "identity liberalism" lamented by so many is really just Democrats talking about issues that matter to their base. Why should Democrats avoid talking about race, gender, and sexual identity when they're a party made of people who deeply care about those issues? And why should Democrats bend over backward to appease a certain contingent of angry white men who will never vote for them anyway?

These angry white men — who have shown little strong allegiance to liberalism — were being prioritized above people who have shown an undying devotion to liberalism: college-educated whites (particularly women), people of color and passionate progressives, which of course can be overlapping labels.
These people take identity politics to mean recognizing, listening to and trying to satisfy the particular needs of particular groups of people who have very different lived experiences in this country.

Virginia's governor-elect Ralph Northam didn't hide from identity politics, he dove right into them, especially when his competitor chose to run an especially ugly, Trump-style campaign. Democrats in Virginia mobilized their base by standing for something and acknowledging the needs of particular groups of people and their priorities.

We can’t warp liberalism into some sort of big-tent utopia where the lion can lie down with the lamb. We should stop trying to placate those who chafe at the very values that liberalism espouses. We don’t bend; we become a beacon.
And now the resistance has flexed its muscle in Virginia and shown that the broad rainbow coalition that is America’s future doesn’t have to kowtow to those moaning about losing the privileges from America’s past. (According to exit polls, a majority of Virginia’s white voters — both men and women — still voted Tuesday for the Republican who channeled Trump’s worst culture-war stances.)

But even if Trump's presidency has launched white supremacy to the forefront of public consciousness, many still argue identity politics will do nothing to combat racism. In a critique of Ta-Nehisi Coates' new book, Briahna Joy Gray argues in New York Magazine that even if we accept race was a key factor in the 2016 election, focusing solely on racial identity moving forward will not remedy the problem.

Of course, racism is central to understanding Trump’s election, as it is to diagnosing what ails American politics more generally, but Coates takes it a step farther, casting those who focus on the role economic anxiety played in 2016 as disingenuous “apologists” who only emphasize class in order to avoid their own complicity.
The racist nature of Trump’s agenda has had another effect: It has primed some liberal activists and writers to be distrustful of any political coalition which fails to center race. But it is class, not race, that is the best basis on which to form the foundation of a progressive coalition.

Gray argues liberals should center their message around economics and class, rather than identity politics, if they want to find any future success. Mobilizing around identity is destined to fail because while a "crucial part of policy development and implementation... racial signaling isn’t likely to have much of an effect" on "progressive deblorables" who "would support progressive policies if not for their racial animus."

Gray points to the 2017 election results as evidence of this. Danica Roem, the transgender woman who won against a trans-phobic Republican, didn't run on her identity, but rather on her district's traffic concerns.

While it may be tempting to take Tuesday as a lesson in the power of identity, it’s worth noting the political substance behind those identities. Danica Roem, celebrated as one of the first openly transgender legislators in America, confronted her opponent’s bigotry with a campaign rooted not in her identity, but the local issue of her district’s traffic concerns.

Many still believe "identity politics" is just a derogatory term for civil rights. If abandoning identity politics really won elections Bernie Sanderswho was handily rejected by voters of colorwould've been the Democratic nominee. It appears Clinton's championing of identity politics resonated better with the Democratic base than Bernie's class-only message.

And as Laurie Penny says: "all politics are identity politics."

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