My friends, it is time to have a conversation about ‘identity politics,’ which appears to be the dirty word of the week as Democrats thrash around trying to figure out why they lost the election so spectacularly. The story goes like this: If Democrats hadn’t focused on ‘identity politics’ (acknowledging that people other than white men exist), they totally would have won the election, because they would have appealed to their rural working class base and really sewn this baby up.
There are so many layers of problems here that it is honestly hard for me to begin, so let’s try to pick a few things apart. First, yes, the Democrats failed pretty spectacularly here and you can go read reams about it in pretty much every publication imaginable. But I’m not here to talk about that. I’m here specifically to deconstruct this notion of ‘identity politics’ and drill down on what people are talking about here, because this is being positioned as a ‘choice between supporting the working class and supporting ethnic and religious minorities,’ as everyone from Bernie Sanders to Think Progress has put it.
This is a false choice. It’s a false choice because the dichotomy as presented does not exist, and this is a profound reflection of the fact that there aren’t enough identity politics in the Democratic party. There’s a reason that I have always been registered nonpartisan and why this is the first year that I worked on a Democratic campaign and supported any Democratic candidate, not just for president, but for any office. (I also worked for a Democratic congressmen many years ago, so I have received a small glimpse of how the sausage is made.)
Prior to the election, I wrote a piece for Bitch discussing the myth of Trump’s ‘working class’ support. It’s a good piece, you should read it. I can chill and drink cocoa while you’re out. The piece gets into a lot of issues around the mythical construction of a ‘working class’ that Democrats and Republicans alike have bought into, namely that the working class is filled with white people. Salt of the earth rural white people with conservative backgrounds. That means that identities like ‘working class’ and ‘person of colour’ are antithetical, as are ‘working class’ and ‘anything other than Christian.’ Therefore, bringing up the existince of other people is somehow alienating, dragging identity politics all over everything and getting it dirty.
Newsflash: The working class is not white. In very short order, people of colour are going to make up the majority of the working class. That includes rural and urban working class — and, incidentally, it should be noted that in rural communities, class stratifications still hold strong. Immigrants in rural areas make less than their white working class counterparts, for example. The heart of the working class is not a white guy going to work at the car factory anymore. Truth be told, it never was: People of colour were just invisibilised in this mythical ‘working class’ ideal that obsessed politicians.
So if you want to help the working class, you have to perforce help people of colour. The two are yoked together. If you want to lift people out of poverty, you have to address racialised inequalities. You have to talk about Muslims and others who are persecuted for their faith. You have to discuss disabled people. You have to admit that rural counties, which have been aggressively blamed for the outcome of this election, may account for a majority of the land area in the U.S., but they contain just 15 percent of the population and shrinking. People need to understand rural America because their ignorance is constantly on display, and not necessarily in the ways that they think, but starting with the assumption that rural voters are somehow responsible for everything wrong with America.
The ‘working class’ is in many ways the class of identity politics. People at the intersections of social systems tend to also sit towards the bottom of them — if you are disabled, LGBQT, Muslim, a person of colour, or a member of another underrepresented group, you are more likely to be working class. Lifting up the working class lifts everyone, and people in the working class know this, and get very tired of being patronised by people who do not. The upper classes are heavily white — and it’s telling that it is many white, middle class liberals who are screaming about how ‘identity politics’ is ruining everything. They’re clearly upset that their role in the social hierarchy is being destabilised by people who say that they want candidates to actually consider and talk to them, rather than just assuming that their votes will automatically go Democratic because the alternative is worse.
If the Democrats truly want to take back Congress in 2018 and the White House in 2020, the best possible thing they could do would be to take this election as the mandate it is to go all out on the line and get identity politics all over everything, in every direction. Show us why you deserve our votes. Involve us in your policymaking and political proposals. Give us a reason to show up for you that is more that just ‘the other side is a monstrous evil that will destroy society as we know it.’ That is not enough. You know that. You can do better than that. I know because I saw glimmers of it in Secretary Clinton’s campaign — which was criticised by some on the left for not going far enough to mobilise marginalised voters and give them a reason to get to the polls. While liberals screamed at the like of Elon James White for a year because he dared to discuss this problem, he was stating the simple truth that may have cost the election, and no one wanted to hear it. Now that the election is over, the lesson they’re taking is that they should blame people like him and their ‘identity politics’ for the failure of their candidate, instead of taking a closer look at themselves.
To retreat into the safe shell of dominance is to take the wrong lesson away from this election, and it will be the death of the party — and while I am not a Democrat, I do value having an opposition party that stands for something other than Trumpism.
Image: CIW March, Carlos Fernandez, Flickr