An earlier form of this post was originally published on Facebook a few days ago.
I was dealing with a “You’re why Clinton lost” guy the other night. I’ve dealt with them before. My usual go-tos have been “What exactly do you mean by lost, given the popular vote?” and pointing out that this isn’t supported by the data we have so far. Then he said the fatal words “I’m just trying to improve our strategy”, and that little portion of my brain lit up.
So let’s talk strategy. Let’s talk about ditching “identity politics”, strawman version and what people are really objecting to. Let’s talk about not allowing deflections from discussing racism, because of course, that’s what this guy was advocating against. (Disallowing deflection is rude, people.)
However, we’re not going to pretend this can happen in a vacuum. That’s bad strategy. If we’re going to do this, we’re going to have to look at the choices this forces on us. Because make no mistake, the people advocating for this are telling us to choose between them (or not them, exactly, but all those nameless, faceless people for whom they’re carrying water) and other people.
So, strawman identity politics. This is the Bernie Sanders et al version, in which representation is happening for its own sake regardless of positions on issues. Since no one in the Democratic Party is saying Sarah Palin or Carly Fiorina should be in office, and since many people stop being impressed with Tulsi Gabbard when they know her positions, we know this is a strawman, but let’s pretend it’s not.
That leaves us with a choice to apply more rigid standards to candidates from marginalized groups than we do to white men. Really, it does. The standard test for a white male Democratic candidate is “the guy who can get elected in that district”. You don’t have to believe me on that. Ask Collin Peterson. Ask the progressives in his district. There’s a reason we have the term “Blue Dog Democrat”.
As long as we continue to have white male Blue Dog Democrats, the only thing we accomplish by insisting that candidates from marginalized groups meet different tests for ideological purity is to keep diversity artificially low. This is discrimination in action, which makes it unacceptable for its own sake. It also causes strategic problems I’ll get into.
Now, real identity politics. This is the banding together of a group of people based on one or more shared characteristics that bring shared political challenges. Class solidarity is identity politics. Atheist activism is identity politics. White Christian nationalism is identity politics. Gamergate is identity politics. So are feminism, BLM, LGBTQ activism, etc. So is a bunch of white men in power, even if they never call it anything other than “What? This is how it’s always been.”
That means that when a bunch of white men say the reason the Democrats lost the election is identity politics, they’re actually advocating for their own identity politics over anyone else’s. They’re saying, “If you insist on bringing up women’s political concerns or feature the Mothers of the Movement on stage with you, you lose us. We’re a bloc you don’t want to lose.” Again, “us” may not be the white guy saying this in his own mind. He’s just speaking for people who share his identity, even as he says identity politics needs to go.
He might even be right. One of the lessons of this election may well be that white men will not vote for anyone who doesn’t put them front and center. (Not our first opportunity to learn this, but it’s harder to avoid the conclusion this time around.) The questions then become: Is this new information that changes anything and what is the cost of giving white men what they demand?
The answer to the first of these is “No.” This isn’t new information. This is the reality that the Democratic Party has been dealing with my entire life, dealing with since the implementation of the Republican’s Southern Strategy. White men as a group don’t want anyone else to come first or even a close second in terms of attention to people’s political needs. This is why the majority of white men reliably vote Republican. The Republican Party reliably puts them first, foremost, and only.
So what would happen if we were to try the same thing? What would the cost be? We don’t have to guess. We’ve tried it. The Democratic Party has plenty of presidential elections under its belt in the last few decades. It’s varied in how hard it’s worked appeal to women, to black people, to LGBTQ people. It’s never won the white male vote according to the data we have.
It has, however, won elections. It’s won more of them with candidates who specifically reached out to broader coalitions: Clinton, Obama, arguably Clinton again, except for the electoral college. So we know that when we treat all identity politics except white male identity politics as less valid, we don’t gain the white male vote. We just lose elections. This is not a hard choice.
Finally, let’s talk about the choice between people who will work to dismantle or undercut racism and people who will object to that on strategic grounds. If you’re going to make me choose between you, I’m going to go with the person working on racism. I could make an ethical appeal here, but it’s also an easy decision to make for strategy reasons.
The people who tried to tell me that racism was a solved problem, that it would disqualify Trump, or that racism was a problem we had to be extra cautious to not go “too far” in working on? These are the same people who told me Trump wasn’t going to happen. These are the people who told me Trump couldn’t happen.
When you get something that vital that badly wrong, you don’t get to just come back and tell me you’re right about everything else. You particularly don’t get to do that on exactly the topic you were wrong about. You don’t have the credibility. Even with Trump in office–maybe especially with Trump in office–facts matter. Truth matters. Being able to model reality matters. If you can’t or won’t, your opinion is worse than useless. It’s a dangerous distraction.
It is, in fact, bad strategy to listen to you at that point, so maybe you don’t want to put us all in a strategic frame of mind as part of your appeal to listen to you.