The future of identity politics

So, that Mark Lilla Op-Ed (which I quoted in quick hits) has done a great job starting a conversation on identity politics and the Democratic Party.  For my money, Lila may have undersold the value and importance of a politics that sticks up for disadvantaged minorities, but I’ve also seen too many responses setting up Lila (a liberal Democrat) as a straw man apologist for white supremacy.  For example, this widely-shared piece by another Columbia University professor, Katherine Franke:

In the new political climate we now inhabit, Duke and Lilla were contributing to the same ideological project, the former cloaked in a KKK hood, the latter in an academic gown.  Both men are underwriting the whitening of American nationalism, and the re-centering of white lives as lives that matter most in the U.S.  Duke is happy to own the white supremacy of his statements, while Lilla’s op-ed does the more nefarious background work of making white supremacy respectable.  Again.

Seriously??!!  Given that I’ve made somewhat similar comments as Lila, I guess that means I too am trying to make white supremacy respectable again.

Or this from Franke:

Lilla blames people of color, women, and gay and trans people for Trump’s election — a “repugnant outcome” he concedes.

Oh, please!  Lilla did not in the least blame these groups for Trump’s election (and nor do I).  It is a far cry from saying that a politics too centered on entirely non-economic, personal identity politics, has turned off many white voters, than to actually blame these groups.  Surely, a Columbia University law professor should know the difference.

Or, let’s follow up the blame theme with Rebecca Traister:

Lilla warned, “Those who play the identity game should be prepared to lose it.” As if the centuries’-long push toward enfranchisement, civil rights, equal pay, and reproductive autonomy, and against domestic, sexual, and police violence were a game, and as though those who dared to play it were virtually asking for the punishing reprisals they received for their trouble.

It is unconscionable, this know-better recrimination, directed at the very people who just put the most work and energy into defeating Trumpism, coming from those who will be made least vulnerable by Trump’s ascension.

Is Lilla against these advances?  I sure don’t think so.  Is he blaming groups that push for these kind of advances?  Again, pretty sure he’s not.  Is he arguing that in seeking, broad, election-winning coalitions, (yes, winning elections is a form of game), requires more than focusing on identities of dis-advantaged groups.  Yep.  Traister then spends half her column raging against a fringe group of asshole, young white guys who call themselves “The Dirtbag Left.”  From what I can tell, there’s plenty of dirtbag, not a lot of left.  And not clear to me how this, at all, suggests the Democratic party is not too narrowly-focused on identity politics.

Okay, then, easy enough for me to dismiss these.  But then I came across Yglesias post, “Democrats neither can nor should ditch ‘identity politics.'”  I’m sure I just liked this one better because Yglesias is a white male (though, of Hispanic descent)😉.  Actually, what Yglesias does is not attack Lilla like a straw-man and provide some terrific historical context in making his argument:

As always with these essays, there is a profoundly true part, namely that you cannot effectively mobilize a political coalition for economic equality, environmental justice, or anything else unless you are able to secure the votes of a large number of white people. Which means, among other things, that even the cause of defending the rights and interests of ethnic minority groups requires political arguments that touch on other subjects and appeal to other groups of voters.

The reality, however, is that politics is not and will never be a public policy seminar. People have identities, and people are mobilized politically around those identities. There is no other way to do politics than to do identity politics.

But to win a national election, you need to do it well. In particular, to get 270 electoral votes or 51 Senate seats, Democrats are going to need the votes of more Midwestern white people than they got in 2016. But to think that they can do that by somehow eschewing identity is ridiculous — white Midwesterners have identities, too, and nobody votes based off detailed readings of campaigns’ policy PDFs. The challenge is to speak more clearly and more effectively to the identity of people who feel left behind in the 21st century as well as those who experience contemporary problems as part of a longer-term struggle to get a fair shake…

By the same token, for a long time now the political behavior of the “white working class” (i.e., white people who don’t have a college degree) has varied substantially from region to region. Republicans traditionally won overwhelming victories with the white working class in the South and among regular churchgoers, while Democrats won with less devout Northerners.

That regional divide is key to understanding what happened in 2016. A Republican Party that was broadly identified with religious Southerners nominated a secular Northerner who was not identified with the Republican Party leadership. Not surprisingly, that helped him win the votes of secular Northerners who’d traditionally distrusted the Republican Party. Meanwhile, his campaign very much emphasized whiteness as a theme, and in an ultimately failed effort to win the votes of traditionally Republican-leaning white women in the suburbs, his opponent joined with him in dissociating the Trump agenda from the Republican Party we’ve known for years.

Good stuff.  And as much as anything, he’s arguing we need to think more broadly about identity politics.  Yglesias, and I think he would admit this, is a little too dismissive of policy. No voters don’t read campaign PDF’s, but they do respond to broad messages and themes.  And it seems pretty clear to me these broad messages and themes of the Democratic Party need to include not only racial justice, anti-sexism, etc., but also, clearly and strongly, messages and themes that appeal to the economic concerns of less-educated white voters.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

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