I’ve seen a lot of thinkpieces about why the Democrats were defeated last month. Where did we go wrong? Did we make bad choices? Is there something structurally unsound in our outreach?
It is natural for us to reflect like this after being stunned. But we Democrats and good liberals are beating ourselves up unnecessarily. So badly, in fact that we are considering abandoning our core mission, which is to stand up for the mistreated and misunderstood elements of our society.
In other words, we did not lose by employing what is called “identity politics”. The phrase seems to have taken on a pejorative quality. We’re afraid to say it, lest the other side use it against us.
Fact: Hillary Clinton was more popular than Donald Trump.
Fact: The nature of the Electoral College screwed us.
Fact: Donald Trump tapped into white ressentiment. Bigly.
Everyone seems to be forgetting the real causes of why we could not win this past election. Instead, many of us seem ready to tear up our coalition and retool the Democratic message.
I don’t see how you can be liberal and not want to defend the voting rights of minorities. I don’t see how you can be liberal and not defend equal pay for equal work. I don’t see how you can be liberal and not want to defend the right to love who you want to love. I don’t see how you can be liberal and not want immigrants to live in fear.
These problems, whether we like it or not, are shackled to specific identities and we’re foolish to pretend otherwise.
The beginning of the liberal revolt against identity politics here in America can be traced back to what appears to be a misreading of some quotes in a speech by Bernie Sanders two weeks after the election. He allegedly said:
“Boston Magazine reported that an audience member told Sanders that she wanted to become the second Latina elected to the U.S. Senate and asked for his advice. Sanders responded by urging the crowd to move the Democratic Party away from what he called “identity politics.”
“It is not good enough for somebody to say, ‘I’m a woman, vote for me.’ That is not good enough,” he said, according to WBUR. “What we need is a woman who has the guts to stand up to Wall Street, to the insurance companies, to the drug companies, to the fossil fuel industries.”
Sanders’s big finish: “One of the struggles that you’re going to be seeing in the Democratic Party is whether we go beyond identity politics.”
This caused an avalanche of editorializing about how we should stop focusing on things like race, sexual preference, sex, and culture. That’s how we lost the election, they say. This British fop exemplarizes just how far this thinking goes:
“In America, as in Europe, older, white men are the only group that liberals can abuse and exclude with impunity.
British liberals, of whatever party, have spent the past six months fleeing one trauma after another, hurling insults over their shoulders. But as John Stuart Mill said: “He who knows only his own side of a case, knows little of that.”
The apostles of identity liberalism have fallen into Mill’s trap. They see authoritarianism in others, but not in themselves. They see discrimination in others, but not their own.”
If those older white men are anti-democratic, then yes, they will be excluded and dismissed. If they are racists and homophobes, you bet we don’t need you in the tent. I don’t think that just because someone was brought up in a different “time”, he’s allowed to hold discriminatory values. There’s nothing authoritarian or discriminatory about it-I’m intolerant of intolerance and I think I can speak for most liberals when I say that.
I could dig up other examples of this backlash against identity politics, much of it penned by white males who identify as liberal. They believe that class structures need to be attacked instead. Well, I have news for them-being “working class” is an identity too. There’s really no escaping the understanding that groups have similar and often unique problems. Furthermore, there’s intersections aplenty with your class status and your “identity”.
What I’m going to say is important, at least to me: groups were not created by liberals. Groups were created when the first African American received the first lash on their back. Groups were created when men refused to allow women to vote or do what they feel is right with their body. Groups were created when the first National Guardsman fired on the first striking mine worker. Groups were created when gay people were murdered because of religious hatred. When we started treating people different because they were just that-different or lesser-that’s when we created identity politics. We’ve been divided because that is how we chose to be. And speaking directly to those myriad groups who have had negative experiences in a white/hetero/christian dominated society is no sin-it’s what makes us good. We hate the injustice. And we will beat injustice’s ass someday soon. It is our principal fight.
Fortunately, it is very likely Bernie Sanders was misunderstood . “Going beyond identity politics” means we can go deeper and still not abandon civil rights. Interweaving class struggle and identity politics is exactly where we need to go as strategies for winning. It’s unclear at this point how many poor white Christian males can be brought to our side, if of course that’s the quarry we are chasing. The propaganda has been laid on thick and they vote against their own interests time and time again, because the right wing plays a nasty version of identity politics themselves. In the meantime, let’s stop being ashamed of what it means to be a liberal.