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Fetishizing “Identity Politics” Could Cost the Democrats in 2020

It’s inevitable that every election between now and 2020 will be read like tea leaves, full of potential insights into how to unseat Trump. But that analysis must be rooted in evidence. Success in 2020 may depend on getting this analysis right.

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Stacey Abrams of Georgia, the first black female major party gubernatorial nominee in US history.
Stacey Abrams’s historic victory in Georgia’s gubernatorial primary; was it really all about “identity politics?”, Jessica McGowan, Getty Images

THE 2016 BERNIE Sanders campaign terraformed the landscape of political possibility: “Socialist” is no longer a slur, “Medicare for All” is a litmus test for 2020 hopefuls, and Americans are no longer so inured to the influence of money in politics. To millions on the left, the then-relatively unknown Vermont senator’s unexpected surge in the 2016 Democratic primary (and consistently strong approval ratings) demonstrate that electoral victory in 2020 requires adopting much of his platform and approach to politics. This means, among other things, making economic inequality central to any prospective presidential agenda. 

Yet the very concept of “economic anxiety” has become a punchline at best, and a third rail at worst, among a loud swath of the Democratic coalition. Because economic concerns have, at times, been used as a pretext to avoid recognizing the role racism and xenophobia played in Donald Trump’s popularity, many Democrats now bristle at the notion that the Democratic Party should reach out to working-class whites at all. Understandably fearful that “wooing” white voters might require an appeal to bigotry, it’s now commonly argued that the Democratic Party should concentrate its efforts on nonvoters of color instead. 

The divide between “team economic justice” and “team demographic destiny” now informs how different factions of the left, broadly defined, decipher the results of Democratic primaries and special election battles. And unfortunately, this has led to dangerously inaccurate and biased prescriptions for 2020.  

Nonwhite and/or female candidates are praised for advancing “identity politics” if they win — regardless of how they campaigned. And efforts to include white voters in one’s coalition are blamed for faltering campaigns — regardless of a candidate’s more substantive failures. If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. And with a belief that demographics hold the key to unlocking a Democratic victory, Democrats stand poised to ignore the most important lesson of 2016: People turn out for material change. 

Last month, Nation columnist Steve Phillips argued that Stacey Abrams’s Georgia gubernatorial primary win over Stacey Evans “provided empirical evidence about how to win in a highly polarized, racially charged political environment.” His takeaway? A winning strategy is a “campaign rooted in the country’s demographic revolution.”  

According to Phillips, Abrams’s victory can be attributed to demographic changes in the state, which once held “too few progressive whites,” and “too few people of color” (people of color are, apparently, presumptively progressive) to carry statewide elections. He balks at “conventional wisdom” that advocates “empathy for the anxiety of moderate white voters while decreasing the volume at which they champion racial justice.” Now that people of color are 47 percent of the state population and 40 percent of all eligible Georgia voters, Phillips argues, Democrats should be able to win using the “proven success of the Obama model.” 

In Phillips’s telling, the way forward is an “explicitly progressive coalition of people of color and progressive whites.” Tacitly excluding moderate whites, who make up the bulk of America’s voting population, Phillips argues that, “[i]n the wake of the 2016 election … many Democrats have lost their nerve, and in too many cases, lost their minds, allocating millions of dollars to the fool’s errand of securing support from the very voters who hated our first black president and everything he represented.” 

Phillips is not alone in his diagnosis. Brittany Packnett, writing for The Cut, claimed that “Evans focused on the conventional strategy of the Democratic Party: winning back rural white voters who were once party loyalists,” —“the Hillbilly Elegy set” — while Abrams “bucked the party’s big bet, and stitched together a multiracial coalition of voters and placed her bet on their turnout.” Her evidence seems limited to the observation that “Abrams is black” and “Evans is white.”  

Similarly, the title of a piece by Vanessa Williams in the Washington Post announces that “Abrams’s Supporters Aren’t Afraid of Identity Politics,” locating Abrams’s victory in that claim. But although Williams makes a number of insightful observations about how Abrams’s identity and personal presentation resonate with black female voters, she fails to make the case for how Abrams’s messaging reflected an embrace of “identity” as an electoral strategy. 

IT’S NECESSARY, HERE, to define “identity politics,” since a failure to do so is at the root of most of the controversy around the subject. Critics on the right generally define identity politics as any reference to racial, sexual, or gender identities, whether as calls to solidarity or a recognition of the particular harms those groups face because of their identities. This is wrong. But critics from the left don’t generally question the political or cultural relevance of identities, or the extent to which they serve as important axes for political mobilization.

Instead, the leftist critique condemns the “weaponization” of identity — the cynical emphasis on personal identity over political beliefs in order to advance candidates whose interests are inapposite to the needs of the groups they’re presumed to represent. See, for example, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders’s claim that Democrats who “support women’s empowerment” but critique Gina Haspel’s nomination for CIA director are “hypocrite[s].” Or the idea that Kamala Harris, a former prosecutor who once criminalized truancy and oversaw the country’s second largest non-federal prison population as the attorney general of California, is necessarily a good standard bearer for political justice reform. 

The effect of conflating these two very different critiques of “identity politics” has been that in order to discredit the leftist critique, which is associated with an enthusiasm for economic justice arguments, some commentators try to “prove” the value of identity politics by attributing electoral victories to the winning candidates’ embrace of “identity politics” — this without any evidence beyond the race, gender, or sexual identity of the candidate. At the same time, those who trade in “white identity politics” (e.g., identity politics emphasizing whiteness), are not identified as embracing identity politics. Ironically, the failures of those candidates are, at times, blamed on their choice to adopt a class-based economic justice approach — even when they haven’t done so. 

This is what happened in Georgia.

To prove that she embraced “identity politics,” Phillips argues that Abrams “publicly and repeatedly expressed solidarity with and welcomed support from LGBTQ groups, labor unions, pro-choice groups, and gun-control advocates.” He writes that by emphasizing identity and focusing on mobilizing voters of color who overwhelmingly vote for Democrats, red states like Georgia can go blue.

Phillips is right, of course, that it is essential for any 2020 Democratic hopeful to make confident and meaningful outreach to marginalized groups, labor, gun-control advocates, and others  — not just because it’s politically expedient, but because it’s the right thing to do. He’s also right to embrace the 50-state solution abandoned by the Democratic Party but embraced by Bernie Sanders — Southern states, and the low-income people who live there, are worth the electoral effort.

But Phillips’s analysis ignores several facts: First, both Abrams and Evans expressed solidarity with marginalized groups and had very similar policy platforms, making “expressed solidarity” a control, not a variable. Second, Abrams, not Evans, spoke more broadly to the bread-and-butter “material” concerns of the electorate, including emphasizing Medicaid expansion. And third, although neither candidate was especially focused on “identity,” Evans, not Abrams, is more accurately described as the “identity” candidate.

Phillips argues that Evans “based her candidacy on the belief that she could use the fact that she grew up in a trailer park to win more support from white, working-class voters than prior Democratic candidates could.” Doing so was a “fool’s errand,” he suggests, because Democrats are subject to a 23 percent “ceiling” of white support that even Barack Obama could not exceed. (An argument betrayed by the fact that every Georgia governor of the 20th century was a Democrat.)

Evans did frequently reference her childhood stint in a trailer park — a living situation shared by many black Americans, but which is coded strongly as “white” in the public sphere. But that type of signaling, unconnected from policies which might provide material support for working-class people, is merely identity politics. Referencing one’s own childhood poverty does not an “economic anxiety” narrative make.

As her cornerstone campaign issue, Evans chose to focus on Abrams’s role in defunding a generous Georgia scholarship program known as HOPE — particularly the fact that 97 percent of black students are now excluded from the scholarship program as a result of an Abrams-backed compromise. (Abrams claims that concessions were necessary to save the program from being eliminated altogether in the wake of Republican austerity measures.) Evans hammered Abrams on HOPE during primary debates and in campaign ads — consistently emphasizing the racial implications. In other words, identity. 

Evans even went so far as to set a campaign ad in a black gospel church, narrated by an organ rendition of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” often referred to as the black national anthem, instead of words. The ad went viral — not because it resonated with voters, but because it ended with a tactless image of Martin Luther King Jr.’s face fading into hers. Once again, Evans tried to leverage identity to her advantage — even if it was not her own.

The closing remarks from the second Democratic primary debate starkly illuminate which candidate, if any, was really about “identity.” Abrams began by stressing “proven leadership,” “experience and judgment,” and went on to explain how she could leverage those qualities to the benefit of Georgians. By contrast, Evans started her closing argument with what appeared to be a superficial dig at Abrams for growing up outside of Georgia, saying: “I’ve lived in Georgia my entire life.” The choice was revealing. While Abrams emphasized education and health care as examples of issues important to Georgians, Evans pivoted to her identity as a Georgian, resorting to the petty claim that amounted to saying Abrams, “doesn’t even go here.”

If one of these candidates made more of identity, it’s difficult to make the case for it being Abrams. 

As it turns out, Abrams herself attributes her win to grassroots organizing efforts — yes, drawing crucial support from nonvoters of color, but also going door to door in nearly every district in the state to connect with all Georgians. 

When Judy Woodruff of PBS NewsHour asked how Abrams planned to solicit nonvoters, Abrams didn’t pivot to identity-based issues. Instead, she called for education, jobs, and leaders committed to “making sure government works for everyone.” “At the center of that,” she said, “is a conversation about expanding Medicaid in Georgia.” If there’s any doubt about who “everyone” includes, she went on to explain: “I want every voter in the state of Georgia. I want every independent, thinking voter.”  

When Woodruff asked Abrams to respond to a New York Times article claiming Abrams had “signaled that she is unlikely to spend much time pleading with rural whites to come back to [the] Democratic Party,” Abrams objected: “That’s a mischaracterization of the state. Number one, in the rural communities in Georgia, it’s a very diverse community. A third of rural Georgia is African-American.” She went on to emphasize that rural or suburban, most Georgians share the same values. She made clear that she would not pander to certain negative conservative impulses like xenophobia, saying: “I’m not going to pretend to be a conservative to win.” But she didn’t frame that (laudable) choice as prohibitive of creating a broad, multiracial coalition. 

In a June interview with MSNBC host Joy-Ann Reid, Abrams further elaborated about her inclusive approach: “[W]hat we have the opportunity to do in this election is build a coalition of voters. People of color will be the center of that coalition because they are the majority of the Democratic Party, but this is a coalition that will invite everyone in.”  

In short, Abrams understands that a winning coalition can be inclusive of white voters without subordinating the interests of marginalized groups. It should “invite everyone in” rather than pre-emptively reject the participation of insufficiently “progressive” whites. 

If prospective 2020 candidates take a lesson from Abrams’s victory, let it be this approach. 

PHILLIPS HAD A different takeaway. Confusingly, he describes “progressive whites” tautologically as anyone who would vote for a Democratic candidate, while at the same time dismissing the role working-class white voters played in Obama’s electoral successes: Had one in four white working-class Obama voters not switched their allegiance to Trump or a third-party candidate, Trump likely would have lost the election.  (Notably, when Abrams uses the term “progressive whites,” she doesn’t use it to exclude a broader coalition, saying: “To win an election, you have to pull together a coalition of voters. And for me, that coalition is comprised of people of color, of progressive whites, and of anyone who’s disaffected and feels like they’re not getting the service they need from their government.”) 

Although Phillips praises the “Obama model,” he ignores that Obama’s approach was an inclusive one that promoted a populist, anti-establishment economic message. Recall Obama’s 2008 remarks to the AFL-CIO, during which he sounded an awful lot like a certain senator from Vermont: “For far too long, through both Democratic and Republican administrations, the system has been rigged against everyday Americans by the lobbyists that Wall Street uses to get its way.” 

Four years later, the 2012 presidential race was defined by the tension between the 1 percent, represented by Mitt Romney, infamous for characterizing 47 percent of Americans as “dependent” and “entitled” “victims who who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them,” and Obama, who came to symbolize the interests of the “99 percent” and the Occupy Wall Street movement — even if he inadequately represented its interests. Remember that Obama burst onto the political scene with a 2004 convention speech that emphasized racial identity (e.g., a father from Kenya and a mother from Kansas) while also highlighting a unifying national identity that rejected the notion of “red” and “blue” states. 

Nothing in Phillips’s assessment of the “Obama model” reflects this more complete understanding of how Obama actually won. Obama didn’t choose identity over economic justice. He emphasized both. And he won. Twice.

Lucky for Abrams, she seems to understand the real Obama model quite well. Perhaps because the challenging general election battle looms, Abrams is not so hubristic as to believe that she can afford to write off voters prematurely.  

As Phillips correctly observes, “[e]qually important as to which voters to target is the question of how to attract that support.” He simply draws the wrong conclusion from that insight.

A RECENT STUDY by the liberal think tank Demos proves that “how” to attract the support of swing voters contravenes the race-class dichotomy fetishized by the media. The authors tested what messages are best received by “persuadable” voters and found that, despite the popular belief that courting whites requires “throwing people of color under the bus,” swing voters are not put off by references to race or other “minority” issues. In fact, the study says, “it helps to evoke race when articulating an agenda to make life better for working people” (emphasis mine).

For example, the study explains that messaging which says we should “put the interests of working people first, whether white, Black, and brown … resonates more strongly with persuadables than simply articulating a positive agenda.” Alienating certain ideologically right-wing voters is actually considered an advantage, as it “better differentiates this positive agenda.”  

According to the study, it also helps to “call out” when race is being used as a method to divide and conquer the electorate, as Trump and the Republican Party (and some Democrats) have done for decades. For example, effective messaging would be to say: “It’s not just that politicians divide us based on what we look like, but that they do it to rewrite the rules to line their pockets. It’s not just that they generate fear based on race, but that they do it to benefit the wealthy few at our expense.”  

Unfortunately, instead of adopting this framing, Democrats too frequently essentialize racial divisions, insisting that Trump voters are a categorically distinct and unwooable quantity. “Persuadables” quickly become “deplorables” without consideration for the long-term electoral consequences. 

Even the term “working class” has become racialized and is now assumed to signal that the user of said term has a greater commitment to white interests than to those of people of color. This is because, for years, Republicans (and some Democratic centrists) made “working class” their dog whistle of choice. The unfortunate result has been that messaging directly to working-class voters, who desperately need political advocacy and who were formerly a crucial part of the Democratic coalition, has become stigmatized. (One must ask whose interests that serves.)

But the Demos study found that “Working People” is the message that resonates most strongly among both liberals and “persuadables,” because it provides a “foundation in a shared value,” like caring for families. Abrams seems to have picked this up intuitively, observing often, for instance, that “[e]very family wants to know that they have opportunities from cradle to career for their children.”

The study also suggested that naming a “villain that is a barrier toward our shared values, while evoking the villain’s divisive tactics” is an effective strategy — for example, pointing out that a “greedy few and the politicians they pay for divide us against each other based on what someone looks like, where they come from, or how much money they have.” Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whose grassroots campaign for the New York congressional seat held by incumbent Rep. Joseph Crowley, also incorporates these messaging tips naturally, saying in a recent interview with The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald: “For as long as the Democratic Party continues to work with special interests, lobbyist groups, and corporations to really perpetuate economic marginalization of Americans, as well as social and racial marginalization, then we’re not gonna get anywhere. … In order to get past [Trump] we have to return to working-class and social advocacy of everyday Americans.” (Incidentally, she has a better grasp of identity politics than any politician I can recall.)

And perhaps most importantly, the study recommends that Democrats “provide a positive aspirational call to action: We need to join together with people from all walks of life to fight for our future, just like we won better wages, safer workplaces, and civil rights in our past.” 

According to the Demos paper, “[t]hese messages are stronger than a more traditional ‘Colorblind Economic Populism’ message,” because they “tap into people’s desire to come together and work together,” and because they include a dimension “beyond inequality” that resonates more broadly than just among the committed left. As it turns out, neither “economic equality” nor “identity politics” are sufficient framing devices on their own. You need both.

These study results contrast starkly with recent headlines, which suggest that bigoted white voters (and centrists) are incompatible with democracy. Even while commentators like Phillips and Packnett recognize that successful candidates like Abrams and Obama “stitched together a multiracial coalition of voters,” they, along with certain liberal activists, seem to have embraced the conclusion that “white America believes in white supremacy more than they believe in democracy.” Their insistence that “courting whites” means abandoning everyone else is rooted in the fallacy that voters of color care exclusively about identity — even as studies show that the chief concerns of black voters, like all voters, are economic. Hopefully, research like the Demos study will help shift the conversation, so that Democrats begin to explore these other axes of coalition-building, rather than over-relying on demographic changes. 

It’s inevitable that every election between now and 2020 will be read like tea leaves, full of potential insights into how to unseat Trump. But that analysis must be rooted in evidence — what policies candidates actually support and how they frame them — rather than forcing pre-existing ideological commitments onto ill-fitting facts. Democratic success in 2020 may depend on getting this analysis right.

Underdiscussed in the analysis of the Georgia primary was the fact that Abrams simply presented as more organized, poised, polished, and experienced than Evans. Her historic victory was not a referendum on identity politics. It was a testament to the power of community engagement, grassroots organizing, preparedness, and personal charm. She was, in other words, a better candidate. None of that should be diminished by superficially categorizing Abrams as an “identity” candidate. She has much more to teach us than that.

[Briahna Gray is the Senior Politics Editor at The Intercept. She is also an opinion columnist with a focus on progressive political messaging, as well as issues relating to identity and culture. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, New York Magazine, Rolling Stone, Current Affairs, and The Week, among others. Her insights regarding the weaponization of identity in the contemporary political sphere can be found in the Fusion documentary “Trumpland: Kill All Normies,” as well as a variety of podcasts and online programs.]