Kamala Harris
Credit: Kamala Harris/Flickr

On Saturday, Pete Buttigieg gave a speech at an event sponsored by the Human Rights Campaign in Las Vegas. We were told by reporters like Josh Lederman that he used the opportunity to call Democrats out for playing “identity politics.”

In a risky speech to the Human Rights Campaign, a major LGBT rights group, Buttigieg warned of a “crisis of belonging in this country,” arguing it was exacerbated by “so-called identity politics” that emphasize how one person hasn’t walked in another’s shoes — “something that is true, but it doesn’t get us very far.”…

“What I worry about is not the president’s fantasy wall on the Mexican border that’s not going to get built anyway,” Buttigieg said. “What I worry about are the very real walls that we are putting up between us as we get divided and carved up.”…

Buttigieg offered the most pointed critique of his own party so far in the campaign, in a moment that had echoes of Bill Clinton’s “Sistah Souljah” moment in 1992 when he distanced himself from a black political activist who had made controversial comments about race.

“When an auto worker, 12 years into their career, is no longer sure how to provide for their family, they’re not part of the country we think of ourselves as all living in together. That’s why we can’t seem to get on the same page,” Buttigieg said

Those are the kinds of quotes that have led to criticism of Buttigieg from women and people of color. They not only sound dismissive of the issues those groups face on a daily basis, they also contribute to the narrative that has developed about Buttigieg being yet another white male candidate who has prioritized reaching out to white working class voters at their expense.

But before jumping on that bandwagon, I decided to actually listen to Buttigieg’s speech and soon realized that it had nothing to do with how it was being reported in the media. I encourage you to watch it yourself. The part where he talks about identity politics starts at about the 19:00 minute mark.

If you watch from the beginning, you’ll note that Buttigieg spends the first several minutes expressing his gratitude to the LBGTQ movement that paved the way for him being the first openly gay elected official in Indiana and secured his right to marriage. That doesn’t sound like the words of a man who is eschewing the importance of political advocacy on behalf of those who have been marginalized.

Buttigieg begins talking about identity politics by rightly noting that many of the objections to it come from conservatives, which is ironic, given that they are currently consumed with white identity politics. But the point he wants to make is that the crisis we face is actually about one of belonging—who gets included and who doesn’t. Utilizing a word that has been foundational to every liberal movement, Buttigieg says that “we could begin to see in our identity a new form of American solidarity.” He then goes on to tie the knot between different forms of marginalization felt by a gay white man, a trans woman of color, an undocumented mother of four, a disabled veteran, or a displaced auto worker. Buttigieg notes that each of those people have a story that “can be the building blocks, not only for empathy, but for the impetus to action.”

That is a powerful message that Mayor Pete undercut when he implied that identify politics have introduced “divisive lines of thinking” that have entered Democrats’ mindset. I’m sure that it is possible to find Democrats who use identity politics to divide, but as even Buttigieg noted, that is the wheelhouse of Republicans these days.

Kamala Harris is another 2020 presidential candidate who has addressed the issue of identity politics. At a recent speech, she described the Democratic Party this way:

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.

Stacey Abrams defended identity politics in a written dialogue with Francis Fukuyama and again during a speech she gave at Chatham House. Here’s how she did so in response to a question from Abby Huntsman.

So while Buttigieg is right to criticize the way that Republicans have played identity politics, there isn’t much difference between the message he sent and the one we’re hearing from Harris and Abrams.

The most powerful part of Buttigieg’s message was about how affirming our individual stories can lead to solidarity in action. It echos what Barack Obama told Morehouse graduates back in 2013.

As Morehouse Men, many of you know what it’s like to be an outsider; know what it’s like to be marginalized; know what it’s like to feel the sting of discrimination. And that’s an experience that a lot of Americans share…

So your experiences give you special insight that today’s leaders need. If you tap into that experience, it should endow you with empathy — the understanding of what it’s like to walk in somebody else’s shoes, to see through their eyes, to know what it’s like when you’re not born on 3rd base, thinking you hit a triple. It should give you the ability to connect. It should give you a sense of compassion and what it means to overcome barriers…

So it’s up to you to widen your circle of concern — to care about justice for everybody, white, black and brown. Everybody. Not just in your own community, but also across this country and around the world. To make sure everyone has a voice, and everybody gets a seat at the table.

In the end, the problem is in how we utilize identity politics. The crucial question we have to answer in this country is whether our differences will drive us apart, as Donald Trump is attempting to do, or bring us together in solidarity. Democrats must embrace the latter or our democracy might not survive.

Nancy LeTourneau

Follow Nancy on Twitter @Smartypants60.