Democrats Can’t Ignore Identity Politics to Make Themselves Electable

Nine months before the first vote is cast in the presidential primary, the electorate is being deluged with arguments from pundits about “electability” and “identity politics.” The latter is usually defined as an appeal to certain narrow interests in the Democratic Party, which is why engaging in identity politics is often assumed to be a liability when it comes to electability.

What that misses, of course, is the way that Republicans engage in identity politics. A good demonstration of that comes from Carolyn Meadows, the new president of the National Rifle Association. She lives in the Georgia district where Democrat Lucy McBath, whose son was the victim of gun violence a few years ago, defeated Republican Karen Handel in the 2018 midterms. Meadows said it is wrong to suggest that McBath won because of her position on guns. Instead, she said: “That didn’t have anything to do with it—it had to do with being a minority female.”

Because of her current position with the NRA, Meadows has a reason to downplay the success of a candidate who focused on common sense gun-safety measures. But Leaonard Pitts provided an astounding example of how identity politics plays out with a conservative voter. He read Jonathan Metzl’s book, Dying of Whiteness, which I mentioned recently, and relays this story:

One of his more compelling illustrations involves “Trevor,” a 41-year-old white former cabbie in Tennessee whom Metzl describes as “yellow with jaundice,” hobbling on a walker, with hepatitis C and an inflamed liver, dying, yet resolutely opposed to the Affordable Care Act, even though it might provide medical treatment he desperately needs and cannot otherwise afford. “Ain’t no way I would ever support Obamacare or sign up for it,” he told Metzl. “I would rather die. We don’t need any more government in our lives. And in any case, no way I want my tax dollars paying for Mexicans or welfare queens.”

I’ll grant that being willing to admit that you’d rather die than have your tax dollars pay for programs that also benefit “Mexicans or welfare queens” is a bit extreme. But as Pitts writes, “from the beginning, white fear has been a great, unspoken driver of this nation’s sins against difference.” Metzl’s point is that white identity politics, as it exists in this country today, is literally killing white people.

The idea that Obama-Trump voters were not motivated by white identity politics was dealt yet another blow in a recent study conducted in Iowa, the state that launched Obama’s campaign and, eight years later, went for Trump.

“Economic distress is not a significant factor in explaining the shift in Iowa voters from Democrat to Republican between 2008 and 2016,” write Iowa State University sociologists Ann Oberhauser, Daniel Krier, and Abdi Kusow. “The election outcomes do not signify [a revolt] among working-class voters left behind by globalization.”

Rather, in 2016, “the nativist narrative about ‘taking back America’ and anti-immigrant sentiment became stronger forces than economic issues,” Oberhauser said in announcing the findings.

All of this suggests that there is no way for Democratic candidates to avoid the issue of identity politics as we head into the 2020 election. The only remaining question is how they talk about it.

Joe Biden, who is being touted as the most electable candidate because of his appeal to white working-class voters, focused his video announcement on condemning the white supremacist views being promulgated by the president. But he didn’t stop there. He offered a competing story of America.

Folks, America’s an idea, an idea that’s stronger than any army, bigger than any ocean, more powerful than any dictator or tyrant. It gives hope to the most desperate people on earth, it guarantees that everyone is treated with dignity and gives hate no safe harbor. It instills in every person in this country the belief that no matter where you start in life, there’s nothing you can’t achieve if you work at it.

That’s what we believe. And above all else, that’s what’s at stake in this election.

We can’t forget what happened in Charlottesville. Even more important, we have to remember who we are.

This is America.

Kamala Harris has been very vocal about identity politics, but ties it into our identity as Americans.

In fact, at an NAACP event in Detroit, Harris tied the issue of identity politics to the notion of electability.

A lot of pundits stopped listening to what Harris said at the end of that clip and assumed that she was promoting their narrow version of identity politics as focused on women and people of color. But here’s what she went on to say.

As a party, we can’t let ourselves be drawn into thinking in those boxes or falling into those assumptions. We cannot get dragged into simplistic narratives or yesterday’s politics. Why? Because it’s a conversation that ignores our commonality and complexity. Our party is the UAW line worker at GM worried about getting laid off. Our party is the young entrepreneur looking for access to capital so he or she can participate in the economic rebirth of their city. Our party is the teacher who is underpaid and undervalued in Dearborn. Our party is the senior citizen in Lansing who deserves to retire with dignity. Our party is the mom in Traverse City who is caring for her children and other people’s children. Our party is not white or black…Hispanic or Asian…immigrant or indigenous. It is all of us.

The Democratic candidate who is most electable will be the one who doesn’t shy away from identity politics, but addresses it head-on with a story of America that captures both our commonality and our complexity.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.