Identity politics and the politics of resentment

Political Scientist Eric Shickler has a nice piece in Vox arguing, “Debunking the myth that “identity politics” is bad for the Democratic Party: Racial justice energized the party in the past. It can today too.”

He makes a lot of good points about how a commitment to racial justice is plenty compatible with broad, multi-racial electoral coalition:

Traub makes the case that the Democrats’ decline can be traced all the way back to 1948, when Hubert Humphrey persuaded the Democratic National Convention to endorse a platform in favor of civil rights, over the objection of Southern conservatives and risk-averse Northerners.

By morally committing the Democrats to racial equality, Humphrey set the party and the country on the path that led to desegregation, LBJ, the Great Society, mandatory busing — and, finally, white “backlash.”

“Did the commitment of 1948 lead inevitably to the electoral calamity of 1968 and beyond?” Traub asks. “That is, did the Democrats doom themselves to lose much of the white middle class simply by demanding equal rights for black people?”

The defection of white Southerners, the loss of support among white working- and middle-class voters in the North, the rise of George Wallace, Ronald Reagan, and now Donald Trump — each might have been avoided but for this commitment to racial equality. In Traub’s words: “Thanks to Humphrey and the ADA [Americans for Democratic Action], the Democrats had done something even more dangerous than they understood: They had exchanged a politics of self-interest for a politics of moral commitment.”

It has now become common to argue that the downfall of the New Deal can be attributed to the belated addition of “identity-based” claims — namely, claims to racial equality — to what had been a broad-based coalition rooted in the economic interests of workers, albeit one focused at first mainly on whites. The universal — or at least, seemingly universal — appeal of the New Deal was lost as the particular interests of African Americans and other minorities came to the fore…

But this argument misses something New Deal liberals recognized early on: By the late 1930s, without racial justice, there would be no program of economic equality. It is New Deal liberalism itself that upended the supposed distinction between identity politics and class politics.

Rejecting the choice between “self-interest” and “moral commitment,” liberal New Dealers drew on a moral vision that linked fighting the gross injustices facing African Americans and other minorities to the shared interest of all workers. By the late 1930s and early 1940s, the core constituencies backing the New Deal were groups that supported civil rights: industrial labor unions, African Americans, and urban liberals.

Conversely, it was Southern white Democrats who not only opposed civil rights but also adopted a virulently anti-union stance…

But Traub misses the extent to which, from an early moment, the New Deal set in motion changes on the ground that linked racial and economic concerns. The Democrats’ ultimate, if incomplete, embrace of racial liberalism was not the top-down creation of Humphrey in 1948 or Lyndon Johnson in 1964.

Instead, the core groups behind the New Deal — industrial unions, African Americans, and urban liberals — transformed the party from below. Claims for racial justice were a key part of the liberal program, as understood by New Dealers themselves in the late 1930s and early 1940s…

The “identity politics” argument assumes that racial justice ultimately brought down the liberal project. But this gets the history almost backward. Indeed, much of the moral fervor that fed the liberal project in the 1940s came precisely from its linkage to the cause of racial justice.

The bitter response to this program forged a clear division in which Southern conservatives were identified on one side and African Americans, unions, Jews, and other urban liberals on the other. Where Traub and others think this division was the product of liberals’ shift in focus from white workers to African Americans, racial backlash was sown into the attack on the New Deal almost from the beginning (just as cross-racial solidary was assumed by many of its supporters). [emphasis mine]

Lots of good stuff in there (and he goes a lot more into history and the role of unions in the parts I didn’t excerpt).  But, I just don’t think this is quite as true as I wish it were.  I absolutely think that there can be a successful Democratic party that embraces racial justice and economic justice (among other things, they are more than just a little related in this country).  I think there are many, many white Americans who truly believe in this.  We call them “liberals.”  And they are more likely to be well-educated and more urban.  Alas, I do think that a big problem is that for many white Americans, especially the less well-educated and less well-off, they inherently see politics as zero-sum group conflict.  I.e., what are you doing worrying about how policing affects Black people, or how “papers, please” policies discriminate against Hispanics when you should be worrying about me having better job opportunities.

In short, they are resentful of political attention explicitly focused on the basis of race, ethnic, and gender concerns.  Now, I would argue that this resentment is extremely mis-placed.  Especially because policies that see to it that everybody is treated better and more fairly in society and the workplace  ultimately benefit, you know, everybody.  But then again, the reality is that you’ve got a political party and it’s media partners selling a narrative that “the Democrats want to help others, not you.”  And that clearly works.  And, among non-college whites, it clearly works a lot better than “Democrats want to help all of us.”  Somehow, Democrats need to convince more non-college whites of this latter story without reducing commitment to racial, gender equality, etc.  Of course, if I knew what that “somehow” was, I suppose I’d be a rich political consultant, or at least have Op-Eds in the NYT, rather than this humble blog.


About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

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