How Democrats Can Solve Their ‘Identity Crisis’

It will come as no surprise that the latest columnist to suggest that Democrats are in disarray is Thomas Edsall. He’s been making that argument for a while now and today writes that the party has an identity crisis.

While I have a lot of issues with what Edsall wrote, I’d like to begin by pointing to something that I found very helpful. The typical “Democrats in disarray” argument usually posits a tension between the more moderate wing of the party with those who are often categorized as “insurgents.” Edsall actually identifies two groups that challenge the moderates: social and economic activists.

Social activists are those who advocate on a range of issues like immigration, women’s rights, LGBT rights and affirmative action. These are often referred to as simply “cultural issues,” even though they have profound economic effects. The economic activists are described as the “anti-corporate, anti-Wall Street wing of the party.” That’s pretty reductive as well.

Positing these as two different groups can pose a problem when applied to individuals. For example, Edsall puts Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the economic activist group, even though she is a woman of Puerto Rican descent who highlights the need for criminal justice reform, especially as it affects black and brown people.

But what I found helpful about the distinction is that it highlights one of my pet peeves. Conventional wisdom constantly attempts to place people on a linear continuum from left to right. But as we saw during the 2016 Democratic primaries, African-Americans who were very passionate about law enforcement abuses tended to support more moderate economic positions, like the ones adopted by Hillary Clinton in comparison to Bernie Sanders.

On the other hand, Sanders and his supporters often demonstrated a real tone-deafness when it came to issues that primarily affect people of color. In other words, social activists are often more moderate on economic issues while economic activists can be more moderate on social issues. If we drop the need to put a label on everyone based on a linear continuum and instead simply started listening to each other, I suspect that would go a long way towards bridging the divide.

Most of my issues with what Edsall wrote have to do with the perspective he has adopted, perhaps without being aware of it. For example, he wrote this:

The Democratic Party’s commitment to newly ascendant — and often assertive — constituencies has alienated some middle and working class voters who see their own values and interests downgraded.

To bolster that point, Edsall quotes David Hopkins, a political scientist at Boston College.

Many citizens can simultaneously take a liberal position on one or more individual cultural issues and still believe more generally that the liberal vision requires changing the country too much or too quickly…it is only natural that such massive social changes have caused anxiety, alienation, or anger among a significant proportion of the population — and liberals who fixate on the elements of their agenda that remain unfulfilled can sometimes be insensitive to the substantial degree of change that has already occurred over what is, historically speaking, a short amount of time.

Both of those quotes are likely true…if you qualify the statements as applicable to a significant proportion of straight white men. Hopkins in particular suggests that “massive social changes have caused anxiety, alienation, or anger.” Of course it would be absurd to suggest that the expansion of civil rights caused any of those feelings among people of color. The gay and lesbian people I know were nothing short of thrilled when marriage equality became the law of the land. The expansion of women’s rights isn’t quite as clear, for reasons that are probably too complex to cover in a blog post. But there are countless women in this country whose lives and livelihoods have been made possible by the expansion of their rights.

I would be willing to grant that, for a lot of straight white men, these changes have come too quickly. But in return, I’d need people like Edsall to incorporate into their analysis the fact that, for people who have been advocating for equal rights since the founding of this country, the progress has been too slow. As Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote in his letter from a Birmingham jail, “justice too long delayed is justice denied.” This particular “identity crisis” will only be resolved when/if that perspective is on the table along with the one described by Edsall.

Frankly, what I’m describing is probably the biggest impediment to making progress on these so-called “identity issues.” Because straight white maleness has been the default for so long, a lot of straight white men don’t even recognize the way that their viewpoint distorts the conversation. As things change and it becomes clear that that is a minority position, I’m sure it will make a lot of straight white men anxious and angry. The rest of us are likely to respond with, “welcome to the club.” Once that is clear to everyone, we’ll be able to figure out a way to move forward together.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.