Are Identity Politics Hampering the Current Progressive Movement?

The reason John Judis explored why the radical left of the 1960s failed is because he wanted to issue a warning to the progressive movement that is forming today. Here is how he defines that movement.

For nearly a decade now, arguably dating to the Occupy movement of 2011, a new generation of left-wing activism has been stirring. A host of organizations (Indivisible, the Sunrise Movement, 350.org, People’s Action, the Working Families Party, Black Lives Matter, the Justice Democrats, a revived Democratic Socialists of America) and new publications (Jacobin, the Intercept, Current Affairs) are doing what groups like SDS did in the ’60s: elevating left-wing causes and promising dramatic societal change.

Judis goes on to specifically align those efforts with the presidential candidacies of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. He notes that Sanders is advocating for a “political revolution” and Warren is running on a platform of “big, structural change.”

While he points out that today’s radical left is positioned to fare better than their predecessors, Judis warns that they are making some of the same mistakes that he identified as the reason the movement failed in the 1960s. But before he articulates those, Judis catalogues the conditions that led young people to be more amenable to radical ideas. In doing so, he points to things such as instability in the workforce, the cost of housing, and the decline of unions. Those were coupled with the disasters of the Iraq War and the Great Depression, followed by the threat of climate change and Donald Trump’s presidency.

What stands out is that, even though Judis listed Black Lives Matter (but not organizations like United We Dream) as part of the new progressive movement, his list doesn’t include anything about the racism of police shootings or nativist immigration policies. That becomes even more critical when his warning to today’s progressives echos what he identified as the failure of their predecessors: identity politics.

[T]oday’s left has become fond of a political strategy that discounts the importance altogether of winning over the white working class. Such a strategy assumes Democrats can gain majorities simply by winning over people of color (a term that groups people of wildly varying backgrounds, incomes and worldviews), single women and the young…the left is again dividing into identity groups, each of which feels justified in elevating its concerns above others…

While activists focused on identity politics have, like their predecessors from the ’60s, made perfectly reasonable demands—for instance, an end to police brutality, or equal wages for men and women—they have also made extreme demands that display an indifference to building a political majority. Some have backed reparations for slavery—an idea rejected by broad majorities of the electorate, most of whom are descended from immigrants who came to America after the Civil War. Other groups have demanded “open borders,” defying a majority of Americans who think the country should be able to decide who to admit as citizens and who will be able to enjoy the rights and benefits of being an American.

In the context of talking about the presidential candidacy of Bernie Sanders, the idea that today’s left has discounted the importance of winning over the white working class is simply not factual. Sanders has made that the cornerstone of his entire political career, including his current run for president. Back in 2014, Simon Van Zuylen-Wood interviewed Sanders for an article in the National Journal. Here is how Sanders described his efforts to spark a political revolution.

“Let me ask you,” he says, his gangly frame struggling to contain itself to our couch, “what is the largest voting bloc in America? Is it gay people? No. Is it African-Americans? No. Hispanics? No. What?” Answer: “White working-class people.” Bring them back into the liberal fold, he figures, and you’ve got your revolution…

“How do you have a party that created Social Security lose the senior vote?” Sanders asks me. The answer, he believes, is that seniors have been distracted from the pocketbook issues that should matter most in politics. The Left, in turn, can win them back, along with other white working-class voters, by downplaying the culture wars—what Ralph Nader once called “gonadal” issues—and instead focusing on economic populism.

Here is Sanders expressing that same view at a campaign stop in Georgia last year.

As you can see from that tweet, the criticism of Sanders is often that he attempts to appeal to white working-class voters at the expense of acknowledging racism as a factor.

Judis goes on to suggest that the current left is failing because they have made “extreme demands” when it comes to dealing with racism. But he ignores the possibility that white working-class voters might find that a Democratic socialist advocating for “political revolution” is equally extreme. In a subtle way, Judis seems to be acknowledging the fact that racism is a factor when it comes to appealing to white working-class voters by calling for moderation on racial issues while embracing extremism on those related to economics.

There is a case to be made that most Americans—including white working-class voters—are not prepared to support extremism on either front. The real test when it comes to building a progressive majority is the challenge of bringing together a coalition of voters. As Stacey Abrams suggested, that doesn’t mean eschewing identity politics, it means letting voters know that “we see all of you.”

If that message is articulated clearly and some white working-class voters continue to object, it is very likely that racism is involved and they are never going to join a progressive coalition.

Support Nonprofit Journalism

If you enjoyed this article, consider making a donation to help us produce more like it. The Washington Monthly was founded in 1969 to tell the stories of how government really works—and how to make it work better. Fifty years later, the need for incisive analysis and new, progressive policy ideas is clearer than ever. As a nonprofit, we rely on support from readers like you.

Yes, I’ll make a donation

Nancy LeTourneau

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