Stop Falling for Bullshit About 'Identity Politics'

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Now that the victorious glow for several high-profile candidates of color has worn off slightly—an inevitability expedited by the final concessions of Andrew Gillum in Florida and Stacey Abrams in Georgia—the time was ripe for a BEWARE OF PLAYING IDENTITY POLITICS, DEMOCRATS piece.


That piece comes to us this morning from Politico. It carries the baffling headline, “2020 Democrats go all-in on ‘identity politics.” It opens (emphasis mine throughout):

Democrats thinking about running for president in 2020 are dramatically changing the way the party talks about race in Donald Trump’s America: Get ready to hear a lot more about intersectionality, allyship, inclusivity and POC.

White and nonwhite Democratic hopefuls are talking more explicitly about race than the party’s White House aspirants ever have — and shrugging off warnings that embracing so-called identity politics could distract from the party’s economic message and push white voters further into Donald Trump’s arms.

The first rhetorical pitfall here: What, exactly, is the Democrats’ “economic message” to its base? Being the party that doesn’t actively want to use poor people as human footstools isn’t much of an affirmative message. Also, for the love of god, “identity politics” need not—and shouldn’t, in my opinion—run independent of “economic” (read: class) concerns. But here I am, probably talking too much about “intersectionality” and “POC” for this middle-of-the-road writer’s taste!

Politico goes on to credit this “shift”—2020 Democratic primary voters caring about issues like systemic racism—to Donald Trump’s presidency, which absolutely has thrust issues of identity to the forefront. Were these issues not on white liberal voters’ minds before? Broadly yes, but that’s another debate for another day!

Karthik Ganapathy, a spokesman for Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign, smartly told the site: “I think people on the left are really looking for someone that can take on corporate power and eradicate systemic racism.” I’m nodding so vigorously my neck is starting to hurt!!

After going on to recount various (white) 2020 contenders’ steps, and missteps, on race in recent months—Elizabeth Warren’s strange messaging about that DNA test and Bernie Sanders’ talking about racismamong them, before getting to these two guys, who would seem to negate any argument about the Democrats’ embracing identity politics at their own peril:

Other white potential candidates, such as former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Vice President Joe Biden, are receiving renewed scrutiny over their records. Bloomberg stirred controversy this fall when he defended his controversial stop-and-frisk policy as mayor and said he thinks Democrats will agree with him on policing.


Good!!! We’ve written before about the absurdity of Bloomberg’s rebrand, and no older white guy—even if he reminds you of your raunchy uncle—can run without answering a record like Biden’s. For his part, the former vice president has expressed frustration with being asked to answer for his mishandling of Anita Hill’s Senate hearings or the 1994 crime bill he helped write. You can’t run as a Democratic candidate for president in 2018 (or 2019 or 2020) without having to answer for things like this! If you can’t, you shouldn’t be our guy! Pardon my focus on “identity politics” at a time like this!

I promise we’re nearly done. The piece winds up to this conclusion:

Trump’s dog whistles have made white liberals far more receptive to discussions of systemic racism. From May 2015 just before Trump declared his candidacy to June 2017, Democratic support for the statement “immigrants today strengthen the country,” increased 20 points, from 62 percent to 82 percent, according to Pew Research Center. The percentage of Democrats who agreed that “racial discrimination is the main reason why many black people can’t get ahead these days” went from 44 percent in February 2014 to 66 percent in June 2017, also according to Pew Research Center. Among white liberals, 79 percent agreed with that statement.


This may only be the beginning. Survey and polling data suggest that the partisan divides on race and identity are only going to grow, political scientists John Sides, Michael Tesler and Lynn Vavreck write in their new book, “Identity Crisis.”


Juxtaposing these two paragraphs reveals a bizarre logical underpinning. Trump’s overt appeals to white identity have, according to these polls, inspired white liberals to rally around underrepresented groups—a positive response to a dark, evil thing!—but these numbers going up mean must mean the other side’s numbers are going down, leading to the widening of the fabled “partisan divide.” By acting less racist, liberals are making things worse, somehow! They’ll have to be just a touch more racist if they want to win back those mythical white suburban moms who voted for Trump, so please stop leaning into “identity politics” so hard, Democrats, lest you lose even more (racist) white people.

This framing sucks, and it’s one we can expect to see much more of over the next two years. On the left, we need to reject the false dichotomy—perpetuated by conservatives and working its way out as a Serious Issue through outlets like Politico—that fighting racism is “divisive” or that actually seeking out and voting in qualified, diverse candidates is a ploy for “identity politics.” There are legitimate arguments to be made about identity politics—but they won’t come from centrist—or right-of-center—actors.

Managing Editor, Splinter