Froma Harrop: Democrats need to drop identity politics
Bernie Sanders helped elect Donald Trump, and for that he will never be forgiven. But give this to Sanders: He’s totally right that Democrats must drop their obsession with identity politics if they want to regain power.
To concede that white working-class Americans have problems needing to be addressed does not preclude acknowledging the justified complaints of various minorities — ethnic, racial and gender-based. But this fixation on identity groups causes two kinds of harm.
One, it devalues candidates from these groups by turning their contests into referendums on their biology rather than intellect. The reportage following the recent wave of Democratic wins centered not on these candidates’ talents but on their identity — a transgender woman chosen for the Virginia Legislature, transgender people of color joining the Minneapolis City Council, a Sikh made mayor of Hoboken, New Jersey, and a lesbian becoming mayor of Seattle.
Does this demonstrate that ordinary voters are not so prejudiced as some claim? To some extent perhaps. More importantly, it suggests that the voters recognized the intelligence and leadership qualities of Danica Roem, Andrea Jenkins, Phillipe Cunningham, Ravinder Bhalla and Jenny Durkan.
This points to the second harm done by identity politics. They turn elections into moral judgments on voters and their attitudes toward certain groups. Why did many white workers who voted for Barack Obama in 2012 switch to Trump in 2016? Did they suddenly turn racist? I don’t think so.
After this year’s elections, Sen. Kamala Harris of California proclaimed that “Democrats won incredible victories by embracing our diversity and rejecting the politics of hate.” Bah.
Again, those triumphs reflected strong candidates and an electorate that in fact didn’t seem to place much importance on race, ethnicity, gender or sexual identity. Must we assume, meanwhile, that all who voted otherwise were consumed with hate? Come on. That’s emotional extortion, and it turns voters off.
I voted twice for Obama because he was the better candidate, never because he was African-American. And my support for Hillary Clinton had nothing to do with her being a woman. I actually resent calls to vote on the bases of race and gender. Black, Latino and gay friends feel likewise, seeing condescension in appeals to sympathy for what they have no control over instead of respect for what they do.
Democrats don’t have to go on about how much more sensitive they are to the dignity of various minorities. Right-wingers are doing the work for them with their creepy attacks on gays, immigrants, African-Americans, religions and so on.
But condemning identity politics threatens the livelihood and importance of their peddlers. And that’s why they buried Mark Lilla in crazed charges of racism over his book “The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics.”
A professor of humanities at Columbia University, Lilla sees the contemporary left’s identity-based politics as a “textbook example of how not to build solidarity.” It’s why Republicans control the White House, both houses of Congress, two-thirds of the state legislatures and two-thirds of governorships.
The New Yorker’s David Remnick asked Lilla whether in-your-face protests by antifa types and campus identity groups aren’t essential to confronting social injustice. Lilla sees the point Remnick’s making but comes back to the point he’s making: Without power, Democrats can’t do anything for the overlooked, the oppressed or anyone else.
Steve Bannon famously said, “If the left is focused on race and identity and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats.”
The man is appalling, but these words are on the mark. Sanders does Democrats a service by agreeing with them from the left. Identity politics are the road to political oblivion.
Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop.