The “Strategy” of Abandoning Identity Politics

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.

"Risk" by Islam Hassan, CC BY-SA 2.0
“Risk” by Islam Hassan, CC BY-SA 2.0

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.

The “Strategy” of Abandoning Identity Politics

9 thoughts on “The “Strategy” of Abandoning Identity Politics

  1. 1

    Yea. All these hasty and data-free pronouncements about What Chastened Liberals Must Do To Make This Right With The White Working Class that are so popular are very frustrating :/

  2. 2

    I dunno, but it always seemed to me that the problem with identity politics is all the idiots shouting out *hatred of those identities*. Like why would say proposing antidiscrimination legislation or expanding healthcare coverage for trans people be an issue if it weren’t for all the bigots and transphobes shouting bloody murder, hellfire and apocalypse. If these people were all “Meh, not my issue.”, why would they then vote against their interests on healthcare, minimum wage, tax breaks for the rich? So no the problem with identity politics has always been the widespread othering of people with those identities and the success of politicians in weaponising bigotry through scapegoating and ignorance. Shutting up about identities never stopped the demonization of them.

  3. 3

    (plus a blatant example of how “making it an issue” by the left isn’t the causal factor: anti-trans bathroom bills and the surrounding uproar weren’t some leftist sidetracking of other issues: these came about as a direct result of changing popular opinion on gay marriage, the SCOTUS decision and rightwing nutjubs looking for a new minority group to bash and torment outrage against.)

  4. 4

    especially with Trump in office–facts matter. Truth matters. Being able to model reality matters.

    Yup, I’d personally like to see something like epistemology identity politics be a big deal.

    Maybe like: how do YOUR people try to tell the difference between true and false? How cavalier are we, VS how cavalier you are? Who actually weighs the different options accurately, VS who doesn’t, or who does a poor job? Who self-corrects, or accepts correction from others? VS who seems incapable of being corrected even on matters that are fairly certain?

    I’d hope this could be more unifying than dividing, but who knows.

  5. 6

    The two are not mutually exclusive. It is possible to both care about marginalized groups and also care about white middle aged laid off steel workers who can’t find jobs. If they can’t put food on their table, they are going to vote for the candidate who seems to care about them, and it won’t necessarily be because they hate marginalized groups. Though you’re right that some of them do hate marginalized groups, but it’s what they think is their own economic well being they’re voting for.

    Trump won Ohio and Michigan and Pennsylvania because he promised to fix the plight of white middle aged laid off steel workers who can’t find jobs. And it’s a genuine plight, and snarky comments about white privilege don’t change that it’s a real plight. They feel abandoned by the Democrats, and until that changes, they’re gone.

  6. 7

    I’m not going to attempt to deal with the “arguments” put forth here, but instead I’ll ask a couple of questions:
    1. Are you familiar with Bernie Sanders’ original statements on diversity, or did you just read the hatchet job at Talking Points Memo?
    2. Are you supporting Keith Ellison’s bid to become DNC chairman?

  7. 8

    Actually, Krychek_2, the two are mutually exclusive. I’m being told to choose. That’s part of the impetus for this article, and I laid it out explicitly. I’m not, however, being told to choose by the people being accused of playing identity politics. So if you’d like to preach peace and reconciliation, you’re talking to the wrong person. Also, there’s no mention of the word “privilege” in this post, so I’m really the wrong audience for your comment.

    Gerard O, of course you’re not going to deal with my arguments. My expectations of you were not that high. Yes, I have read Sanders full comments, as well as his pre-campaign statements about targeting his message toward the white working class, various conflicting statements during his campaign about how issues based on identity either have importance on their own or should be subsumed by class, and some relatively private statements he made that have been passed around by progressive organizers. This is not my position out of ignorance, however much you’d like to insinuate it is.

    Ellison is my representative. He does an amazing job in a challenging district, and the way he does that job would make him a good choice for DNC chair given some of their current challenges. He’s less suited for other challenges, but I expect Obama’s upcoming work to obviate some of those. Knowing that he’d be giving up his seat to do it leaves me ambivalent, because there are other good choices for chair who wouldn’t be giving up seniority to take the job.

  8. 9

    I’m having a real tough time feeling a ton of empathy for “white middle aged laid off steel workers who can’t find jobs” if their reaction to feeling let down by the system is to say “screw your rights, women and minorities! Where’s MY stuff?” Does this expectation of empathy ever work both ways?

    They are far from the only group of people who is suffering in this country, or that feel the system has let them down, and yet they seem to be the only group whose suffering is supposed to matter. I suppose we should all just focus exclusively on bringing their factory jobs back (lets pretend automation isn’t a thing, right?) and meeting whatever other demands for special attention they have first so they stop blowing everything up? (Also, what happens when one of their demands is that women and minorities and LGBTQI people all learn their places and shut up about inequalities?)

    In point of fact the democratic platform did include them, it just didn’t center them to the exclusion of every other group and that, apparently, will forever be an affront too large to bear.

    Hey, maybe once we get them everything they could possibly want we could talk, quietly, in the proper tone, about unimportant things like not allowing cops to murder black people in the streets and possibly even letting women control their own reproduction. You know, all those silly “fringe” issues not important to “Real Americans”.

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