Commentary Magazine

The Liberal Fight Is over Identity, Not Economics

AP Photo/Julie Jacobson

If you’re a Republican, the polls must be making you nervous. And I’m not talking about the generic congressional ballot or the president’s job approval rating.

In the Trump era, a majority of voters have told pollsters that the wealthy and corporations have too much power, that the financial industry is under-regulated, and that the economy is rigged against them. More than half of voters favor a $15 national minimum wage, regardless of the displacing effects it will have on low-skilled and entry-level workers. Six out of 10 Americans say “it is the federal government’s responsibility to make sure all Americans have healthcare coverage” and about half of all Americans support the creation of a government monopoly on health insurance.

From “tuition-free college” to forgiving student loan debt to a federal employment guarantee, pluralities support almost every plank of the democratic-socialist agenda. At least, in theory. Even the Democratic Party’s centrists and pragmatists can recognize an ascendant coalition when they see one, and nearly all the party’s 2020 hopefuls are prostrating themselves before this set of aspirations masquerading as policy proposals.

This remarkable consensus is due, primarily, to Democratic unity on policy. Where there is real internal tension and, thus, opportunity for Republicans is less about what the Democratic Party’s coalition should strive to achieve but what it should look like.

“I have a problem, guys, with that phrase, ‘identity politics,’” Senator Kamala Harris told a gathering of progressives at the annual Netroots Nation conference this weekend. “That phrase is used to divide, and it is used to distract. Its purpose is to minimize and marginalize issues that impact all of us. It is used to try and shut us up.” Harris’s attempt to stigmatize attacks on the liberal conception of “identity politics” as a “pejorative” is a savvy preemptive effort to neutralize what may be the left’s biggest weakness: its commitment to racial and demographic hierarchies.

The liberal conundrum was perhaps best illustrated by a collection of protesters who later stormed the Netroots Nation stage. According to the Advocate’s Alex Westwood, the demonstrators attacked the conference for hosting panels dedicated to combating the “white savior” phenomenon. Such panels were considered problematic because they amounted to a demand that minorities volunteer their time to teach white people how to do that which minorities were already doing. Worse, those demands were made “from a position of white comfort.”

Netroots watchers, such as Westwood, would be quick to note that a collection of malcontents disrupts proceedings every year, but it’s of note that this collection is almost always doggedly focused on issues related to race. In 2015, Black Lives Matter activists targeted the self-described democratic socialist Bernie Sanders for being insufficiently committed to racial justice. Last year, demonstrators shouted down U.S. House Rep. Stacey Evans, a former chair of the state’s Democratic House Caucus, for challenging Stacey Abrams in the gubernatorial primary because she was the first black woman to lead her party in the state’s legislature. “Trust black women,” they shouted.

This contingent may lack raw numerical strength, but it enjoys outsize influence over the political discourse and, thus, the Democratic Party. What’s more, the intra-party dispute threatens to expose deeper fissures within the Democrats’ ascendant progressive wing. “It is not good enough for somebody to say, ‘Hey, I’m a Latina, vote for me,’” Sanders argued in 2016. “This is where there is going to be division within the Democratic Party. It is not good enough for someone to say, ‘I’m a woman! Vote for me!’” This line was opportunistically savaged for being insufficiently “woke” by Hillary Clinton’s communications team, but self-identified democratic socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez appears to have internalized Sanders’s admonition.

She leaned into her identity as a Latina woman from the Bronx while savaging those who rely on their accidents of birth to prove progressive bona fides. Her message was lost on Democracy for America spokesman Neil Sroka, who is campaigning on behalf of a progressive Muslim candidate for governor of Michigan recently endorsed by Ocasio-Cortez. “Other than Cynthia Nixon in New York, they are also overwhelmingly young and people of color,” Sroka said of 2018’s class of progressive insurgents, “which also speaks to a rising belief that we need to have leaders of the party who reflect the party, which means more young people, women, and people of color in positions of power.” Nixon, the only exception to the rule Sroka was trying to illustrate, was heralded as the first potential governor of New York who is also openly gay.

Liberals in good standing have warned of the dangers that Democrats face if they dedicate themselves to the kind of divisive identity politics that “breeds its equal and opposite reaction” in the form of a collective racial consciousness among white Americans. Indeed, it will be too tempting for Republicans to avoid following in Donald Trump’s lead and exacerbating racial tensions within the Democratic coalition to siphon off the votes of alienated whites. “We need a post-identity liberalism, and it should draw from the past successes of pre-identity liberalism,” wrote Columbia University professor Mark Lilla. His recommendation came not just from a place of concern for national comity, but with the best interests of the electoral strength of the Democratic Party in mind.

The progressive left is having none of this. “Apologizing for ‘identity politics’ precipitates an electoral death spiral,” wrote Center for American Progress Senior Fellow Steve Philips, “because it doesn’t work to woo Trump voters, who will always opt for the real racist, and it also depresses the enthusiasm of the very voters we need to win.”

Identity, not economics, is where the fault lines lie within the Democratic coalition. Traditional liberals, even progressives, are not convinced that appeals to racial and demographic solidarity will win back Democratic majorities. The identitarian left is convinced that making overtures toward Donald Trump’s white working-class voters represents a compromise with the unenlightened and racially suspect. And that is where the fight will be; not over Medicare-for-all but over social and racial justice.

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