The Squabble Over Identity Politics

Or, Why We’re Doomed, Part the Infinity …

A few days ago, this happened:

In Boston on Sunday night, former Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders asked Democrats to pay close attention to the lessons of the election, arguing that the party needs to have a reckoning about why it lost.

“The working class of this country is being decimated — that’s why Donald Trump won,” Sanders said. “And what we need now are candidates who stand with those working people, who understand that real median family income has gone down.”

The Vermont senator spoke to a sold-out crowd of more than 1,000 mostly young people at the Berklee Performance Center, promoting his book, “Our Revolution: A Future to Believe In.”

Asked by a questioner how she could become the second Latina senator in U.S. history, Sanders said a candidate’s gender or race isn’t enough.

“I have to know whether that Latina is going to stand up with the working class of this country and is going to take on big money interests,” Sanders said.

He added:

[H]ere is my point — and this is where there is going to be a division within the Democratic Party. It is not good enough for somebody to say, ‘I’m a woman, vote for me.’ No, that’s not good enough. 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 industry.

In other words, one of the struggles that you’re going to be seeing in the Democratic Party is whether we go beyond identity politics. I think it’s a step forward in America if you have an African-American CEO of some major corporation. But you know what, if that guy is going to be shipping jobs out of this country, and exploiting his workers, it doesn’t mean a whole hell of a lot whether he’s black or white or Latino.

Here are his extended remarks, in full:

Let me respond to the question in a way that you may not be happy with. It goes without saying that as we fight to end all forms of discrimination, as we fight to bring more and more women into the political process, Latinos, African Americans, Native Americans — all of that is enormously important, and count me in as somebody who wants to see that happen.

But it’s not good enough to say, “Hey, I’m a Latina, vote for me.” That is not good enough. I have to know whether that Latina is going to stand up with the working class of this country, and is going to take on big money interests.

One of the struggles that we’re going to have right now, we lay on the table of the Democratic Party, is it’s not good enough to me to say, “Okay, well we’ve got X number of African Americans over here, we’ve got Y number of Latinos, we have Z number of women. We are a diverse party, a diverse nation.” Not good enough. We need that diversity, that goes without saying. That is accepted. Right now, we’ve made some progress in getting women into politics — I think we got 20 women in the Senate now. We need 50 women in the Senate. We need more African Americans.

But, but, here is my point, and 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!” No, that’s not good enough. 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 industry. In other words, one of the struggles that you’re going to be seeing in the Democratic Party is whether we go beyond identity politics. I think it’s a step forward in America if you have an African-American head or CEO of some major corporation.

But you know what? If that guy is going to be shipping jobs out of this country and exploiting his workers, it doesn’t mean a whole hell of a lot if he’s black or white or Latino. And some people may not agree with me, but that is the fight we’re going to have right now in the Democratic Party. The working class of this country is being decimated. That’s why Donald Trump won. …

We need candidates — black and white and Latino and gay and male — we need all of that. But we need all of those candidates and public officials to have the guts to stand up to the oligarchy. That is the fight of today.

Now, that seems to me to be clear and sensible. However …

Talking Points Memo — and I usually respect Talking Points Memo — published an article about this talk under the headline “Sanders Urges Supporters: Ditch Identity Politics and Embrace the Working Class.” The article began:

In a speech Sunday, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) urged attendees to move away from “identity politics” and towards policies aimed at helping the working class.

And the shitfest was on.

If you’ve already read what Sanders said, you will know that TPM got it wrong. But the damage was done. Those predisposed by the headline to be angry seized on these remarks to claim Sanders is a racist who wants to favor the needs of white blue-collar workers over the cause of racial and gender justice. And, of course, that is plainly not what he said, but people in the grip of Righteous Outrage can’t read. Even when you patiently point out to them what he actually said, they still see racism.

Plus, a number of people took the quote “It is not good enough for somebody to say, ‘I’m a woman, vote for me.’ No, that’s not good enough” to be a dig at Hillary Clinton, which set up another shitstorm from Hillary supporters who still blame Sanders for her loss. (As this guy forcefully mansplains to a group of mostly women arguing in favor of Sanders’s position.)

See also: This, this, and this.

This is why we can’t have nice things. I’m sure part of the problem is that it can’t be easy for people of color to consider having to make common cause with working-class whites. But as this election ought to have shown us, if that common cause doesn’t happen, eventually the Democrats won’t be able to win elections outside of San Francisco and Brooklyn.

(Right now a lot of people are clinging to Clinton’s growing popular vote victory to assure themselves that the people really love her, and if it weren’t for Comey and a few other things she would have squeaked out an Electoral College victory, too. But I’m sure it’s also true that if the Republicans had nominated a less odious candidate than Donald Trump, the GOP would have won in a landslide. The real message of this election isn’t that racists elected Donald Trump but that way too many people didn’t vote at all. You could argue that both candidates lost the popular vote.

A few weeks ago Thomas B. Edsall wrote in the New York Times that the Democrats are no longer a “class-based coalition” with an economic agenda, but a loose coalition of “upscale well-educated whites” mostly cut off from the rest of America plus African-American and Latino voters in big cities. Clinton’s lopsided victories in urban liberal coastal states show us he was pretty much right.)

Sanders attempted to clarify his position in this article:

The Democratic Party is the party of diversity. We have proudly led the fight against racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, and for the rights of immigrants. Especially under a Trump administration, we are not turning back. We are going forward. There can be no compromise on bigotry.

Our job is to expand diversity. We want more women, more African-Americans, more Latinos, and individuals of all ages, colors and creed to be involved in the political process. But to think of diversity purely in racial and gender terms is not sufficient.

Yes, we need more candidates of diversity, but we also need candidates?—?no matter what race or gender?—?to be fighters for the working class and stand up to the corporate powers who have so much power over our economic lives. We need all of our candidates to have the courage to stand up to the Koch Brothers, Wall Street, drug companies, insurance companies, oil companies, and fight for working families?—?not just the top one percent.

(Note that Talking Points Memo linked to this article under the headline “Sanders Doubles Down.” Arghhh!)

Sanders concludes:

Our rights and economic lives are intertwined. Now, more than ever, we need a Democratic Party that is committed to fulfilling, not eviscerating, Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream of racial, social, and economic justice for all.

Clearly, he’s not saying that racial/gender issues must take a back seat to class issues; he’s saying that racial/gender and class issues are linked, and both must be addressed. Neither should be shoved aside in favor of the other.

Clio Chang at New Republic:

Post-election, there have been attempts to divide the left between those who support identity politics and those who support class politics. But the two are often inextricable, given the large percentage of minorities in the working class. In his speech last night, Sanders made an argument for both kinds of politics.

This is the shitstorm that’s been eating up social media this week.

The New York Times got into it, too, with a “Room for Debate” page asking the question “Is Criticism of Identity Politics Racist or Long Overdue?” One individual argued for the priority of identity by assuming that class/economic issues would necessarily drive out identity issues.

We have a long history in this country of responding to the suffering of “working class whites” not by leveling the playing field for everyone, but by maintaining their status above people of color and immigrants. The labor movement, the New Deal, the G.I Bill, are just three examples.

And of course those examples are valid, but they are also from several decades ago. Most people alive today weren’t yet born when those things happened. Our culture really has shifted quite a bit since then, race-wise.

And I don’t see anybody on the independent progressive Left or from within the Democratic Party arguing for compromising on racial and gender equality to advance economic equality. The argument is that we have to do both, or we’ll never accomplish either one.

Some of the other commenters in this New York Times section make the argument that increasing economic inequality combined with the Democrats’ consuming focus on identity politics is increasing racial resentment. It’s making racism worse, in other words. There may be some truth in that. Conversely, IMO, rallying working people of all races around a common cause might actually alleviate some of the racism. We really are all in this together.

Finally, journalist Michelle García wrote,

The attack on political correctness fits within the brand of identity politics Donald Trump exploited during his campaign. Mr. Trump’s victory relied on fusing a culture of racism and sexism with economic anxieties and the backlash against neoliberalism. Economic challenges are real, demographic changes are real. Mr. Trump seized them to peddle well-worn cultural myths of a nation under siege by the Mexican menace, “bad hombres,” Muslims and other cultural “outsiders.”

Victimhood was contained in the message that America was once great, but no longer. His message imbues victims with unquestioned virtue and obliterates the needs, indeed the humanity, of everyone else.

Ms. García is criticizing right-wing demagoguery and reminding us that the Right has its own version of “identity politics.” But it struck me that some on the Left and/or in the Democratic Party are in danger of falling down the same rabbit hole. Some have taken on the righteous mantle of unquestioned virtue that obliterates any perspective but their own. They trash the rest of us as racist, sexist troglodytes interested only in enhancing the status of white guys.

They aren’t listening, in other words. The lessons of his election are not being learned, I fear.

20 thoughts on “The Squabble Over Identity Politics

  1. The objective of both parties is a bait & switch. If your voters are conditioned to identity politics, you can promise to each group what they want to hear. Sometimes you can deliver sometimes you fail, but you manipulate each group separately. And you can serve with near impunity your real constituency, the corporate class.

    When the majority of voters ignores identity policy and unites against that real constituency, the corporate class, you as the party apparatchik are fu$%ed. The bait and switch won’t work – a majority of voters will take down the party empire. The game for the democratic party not to 2020 isn’t to win the WH – it’s a race to survive as a force which can use its power to serve the corporate state.

    Bernie is speaking the truth – will people listen?

  2. What Marshall, Krugman et al. seem to ignore is that there is no small number of bigots who vote Democratic in spite of and in opposition to their bigotry. A few more voters like those (either switching or showing up to vote), and Clinton wins.

    The other thing is that giving up on rural areas entirely is really stupid–and national parties should be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. We need to form coalitions (as you note).

  3. Here’s the first thing we liberals/progressives need to do – yes, it’s not in accord with building a coalition of all people – we need to ignore the white uber-“Christians” in Heartland ‘Murka. They are in a closed loop. Here’s an article that explains why:

    Unless – or until – change comes from within those “Christian” Heartland ‘Murkin’s, we stand NO chance of getting their vote.
    We, who support minority rights, are, and will be looked upon, as people who are tearing at THEIR fabric of society.

    The war today – as it has been since people left caves and went to farm the land – is a class war (and it may date back to the actual cave-dwelling days).
    But those in power, obfuscate and distract with all sorts of “divide and conquer” issues.

    I won’t go on and on about this, because I’m tired.
    I had a day with my family yesterday where I muzzled myselt.
    Yeah, there were no fights or arguments with my t-RUMP adoring relatives, but I couldn’t sleep last night because I’d bottled up all of what I wanted/needed to say – sans curse-words and jingoistic rhetoric.
    My aunt and uncle were ready. willing, and waiting to belittle me, but my sister held firm to her “NO POLITICS” rule.

    I’m going to go now and see if I can catch some sleep now.

    Btw – ALL politics is/are “identity politics.”
    Before, we picked a side based on our true nature.
    My aunt and uncle who love t-RUMP now, would never have considered voting for him until they moved to a condo complex in NJ, near NYC, that had a lot of older, wealthier residents.
    Also, after years of not having cable tv – which is why my cousin is fairly normal – when they moved into the condo complex they moved into about 10+ years ago, they got FOX ‘news.”
    And since then, I barly recognize the kind and decent fairly liberal folks that they once were.

    FOX, Rush, Sean, Ann, etc., have done more to damage the fabric of this country, than any “Fifith Columnist’s” the conservatives once feared, could ever have even have dreamed of.

    See ya, whenever…

  4. What Doug and Bill said.

    Also, I hope you don’t mind that I am linking to this post in my comments in other places. It is the best I have read regarding the election and lessons to be learned.

  5. Gulag – the propagandists (left & right) are trapped by their own narrative. This is why the Tea Party is a threat to the GOP. They are an ‘identity group’ who identifies with values of a representative government which represents people – rather than the corporate state. This is why democrats (party management) are attacking Bernie.

    Bernie offered to work with Trump whenever Trump really wants to go against the establishment, and if Trump wants to live up to the campaign rhetoric.

    As I see the dynamic in the short term – both parties are under serious credible attacks from voters who are off the leash on both sides. If voters figure out how to coordinate their efforts, the United States of Corporatism could fundamentally change.

  6. Truth vs Truthiness. Does a power player actually stand with the workers, or do they just lie about it to get more power? Most aren’t born skeptics, but I’d like to think that even tribalists have their limits and will come to see truth.

    In the past trying to explain sociopathy to the inexperienced often resulted in being labeled a kook. This could change with such a clear and public example as the Donald. The ‘before and after’ (snake oil campaigner vs corporate enabler) photos and videos could be dramatic.

  7. The real failure is one of imagination of Democrat leaders. While comforting themselves with Obama as president thay failed to notice the continuing erosion of the party brand as a whole. Statehouse after statehouse. Historic congressional majority to historic congressional minority in a few years. Endless excuse-making – GOP obstruction, voter supression, biased media, blue dog senators, the budget deficit. Sure those are all real factors but that does not excuse inaction or complacency.

    Yet, after 8 years of Obama we still have the hedge fund loophole, no card check, SS retirement age of 67, wars in Lybia and Syria, wall street banks are bigger than ever and a democratic party completly unable to affect policy at any level. But hey if they just fund raise, recruit more former republicans to run with a bunch of content-free generic political ads things are sure to turn around. Just ask Ezra Klein.

  8. The rather obvious clue which so many people apparently missed was Sanders’ list of adversaries in the struggle: “Koch Brothers, Wall Street, drug companies, insurance companies, oil companies.”

    I know nothing about Koch Industries, but most of the other corporate masters on his list are generally gay-friendly and have big human resource diversity programs. They are not bastions of racist homophobia. But they are very much wedded to their own privilege and power. I would be surprised if Koch did not have similar “enlightened” policies but I am prepared to stand corrected if there is evidence to the contrary.

    Insert snarky Sherlock Holmes joke here.

  9. Yeah, Swami, Fidel just joined Franco in, “Press 1 for Satan. If you’re calling the BIG GUY, please hold for God – this will take a while…”

  10. I appreciate what Sanders is saying, but I think it’s just T. Frank fodder for progressives. A ton of guys I know don’t read blogs and have Rush on everyday at work. Everything they know comes through that filter. Had Sanders won the nomination, I continue to think he would have gotten destroyed in the general by that same filter. Plus, we’ve seen this before, after getting blown out in several presidential elections in the 80s, and the solution was what everyone around here hates–DLC nominee Bill Clinton.

    I also think that if plans for gutting Medicare come to fruition, our fortunes may change rather quickly. And now young people have learned the lesson that young progressives seemingly have to learn every decade or so, there is a difference between parties and candidates.

  11. OT – Elton John emphatically decided not to perform at the Trump inauguration. Too bad. I would have loved to hear the appropriate lyrics:

    “It’s sad.
    So sad.
    It’s a sad, sad situation.
    And it’s getting more and more absurd.”

  12. The disaffected blue collar workers are disaffected to the point of being comatose. They are expecting good union jobs with benefits from Trump so they voted for the party that vows to make “right to work ” the law of the land and to make the prevailing wage go away. Once that happens the jobs that do come back will be minimum wage or part time jobs. The unions that have helped make such a difference in the lives of so many will die along with the pension plans that will finally crash in the next collapse (brought to us by the Republicans as always). Once they do away with Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid the basketfull of gullibles will be left with nothing.
    Can’t wait to see the scooters charged up and the tri-corner hats again.

  13. I live in the heart of “Democrats for Trump” territory. But nobody wants to hear about what I’ve seen & heard either.
    Not to mention that what Mike the Mad said is something I know all about, but nobody wants to hear that stuff either.
    * Cover your ears and shout! Shut the voices of reason out! *

  14. That the obvious solution as put forth by Sanders is being pushed back on by democrats is the tell. As Doug, Ed and others said…dems always knew the Hillary putsch was about putting forward a candidate who would serve the corporate masters first and foremost. “Incremental change” was the strategy approach. Identity was the fail safe switch once in power. Its truly disgusting that this once famed “party of the people” have sold out like this.

    But while this election served to expose that, the battle will be to win the hearts and minds of the party soldiers still in the away of Clintonism. Interesting that the Clintons, other than reach out to blame the usual identify bugaboos — race, idiocracy, GOP dirty tricks, etc — have not participated, at least not publicly, in sussing out the mechanics of why they lost. Their one foot in the corporate camp has served them and their DNC/DLC friends well, and contrary to those who say “new blood” has not been brought up, it has. Its just been new Clintonite blood, and their thinking is just as stale and deluded.

    Sanders disrupted all that beautifully, effectively. We still see the same scheming not so subtle attempts to undermine him and cast him as “crazy.” Like him or not, any honest person would have to admit that he was right about his view of the electorate and approach to speak to it.

  15. Identity Politics is Public Therapy, and it’s a very expensive blunder. People often vote based on emotional reactions rather than logical analysis; flattery works, for a while. That’s precisely how Trump “won”: by stroking the collective ego of working-class whites who have been neglected (or worse, insulted) by the Democrats for too long.

    I first heard the phrase “politically incorrect” – in the early 1980’s, a decade before the Right latched onto it – from lesbian women (technically redundant but connotatively meaningful) who resented that the Left expected them to automatically vote Democratic because their gender-preference was accepted there. I suspect that African-Americans are sick of the same expectation – or more to the point, tired of being getting public “affirmations” without any real change.

    I agree completely with Bernie. But the Democratic Party has always been a coalition of separate groups, all fighting for a piece of Redistribution Pie. [White] Liberals imagine that the Party belongs to them, but that’s never really been true. (The best/worst example of this could be the very Faustian bargains that FDR had to make with Southern Democrats to get the New Deal passed.)

    I have fought against this in the Green Party, which has mimicked the Democratic Party’s Identity Politics strategy largely because most Greens are (pissed-off) ex-Democrats. The Green Party has a clearly stated set of Key Values which include Diversity. We should/would/could not compromise the basic legal issues involved: equal treatment under the law for all people, regardless of ethnic/gender/religious “identity”. That goal is necessary – but not sufficient.

    But there are aspects of “Identity” which cannot be legislated – most notably, Respect. Working class whites rightfully feel ignored by the Democratic Party; perversely, they got conned by Trumps flattery into… into… gah, I don’t know how to describe the mess we’re in/headed toward.


  16. The real failure is one of imagination of Democrat leaders.”

    It’s not so much a lack of imagination, but a question of choices. Thanks to obligations to their wealthy benefactors, establishment democrats made conscience choices that finally got them to this point.

    TPP is symptomatic of what the problem really is.

    Many say Obama is simply wrong because he somehow doesn’t understand the impact of TPP to working class folk. Obama understands full well what TPP will do to the working class in this country. And when he tries to sell it as a boon to the working class, he KNOWS that pitch is false. For all of his virtues, and the much good he’s done notwithstanding, Obama is a DNC establishment democrat. As such his first priority is to the 1% funders who lavish money on the party that keeps its leaders in place, regardless of how successful they are in moving any ideology, left, progressive or otherwise forward, other than that which allows that wealthy cohort to either keep more of what they have, or make more on the backs of others. Harsh, but true. TPP is the one parting shot for the owners. There really was no pushback on this argument from Trump.

    ACA is another example. Of the ACA Clintonites shush us with, “it was the best they could get!” But with dems in full control of congress at the time, the only thing stopping them was the pharma, health care and financial services industry that stood to lose or gain based on how the bill was put together. (Watch what the GOP does with full control) Hence, the closed door meeting. Interesting that with the ACA and TPP, both either had or have a “closed door” component to their processes of inception. That’s no accident either.

    It’s not so much a lack of imagination of the democrats, as it is simply their being hamstrung by their allegiances and obligations to wealth, which puts constraints on the party’s ability to effectively represent the working class. They have to play the same game as the GOP, which distracts its base with hate and fear, while dems distract theirs by conveying a false sense of superiority with feel good happy talk (hope and change!) and incrementalism designed to lull them to sleep and buy time until the next election. Obama’s popularity bought them time, and they thought Clinton, even as unpopular as she was, would somehow use star power to generate buzz and excitement, and let them continue putting their owners first, while stringing the base along. Which is why many were openly saying, regardless of anything, Hillary Clinton WILL BE the next President. Beholden to their owners, enthralled with their own BS, they simply were blinded to the mood of the electorate. Amazingly, they still are.

    This election, working class voters on the left and right simply got fed up. Trump won because Clinton simply couldn’t sell it as well as Trump could, firstly, and secondly, she had no answer to the corruption charge when her “establishment” credentials carried the baggage of speeches and other associations that belied what she claimed to be doing, e.g. “fighting for you.” She didn’t have much of a positive message to get out democratic voters because again, that message was constrained by whom she was beholden to.

    The things the democrats need to do to excite its best and get them to the polls, and reach out to the working class voters regardless of race, are hamstrung by their associations with wealth. As long as the priorities of the funder class are first, they’ll never be able to make the changes they need to make to win again.

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