The Clash Between Class and Identity Politics

It's the main ideological disparity between Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

The field for Democratic candidates looks noticeably different from what it was even a few months ago–Bernie Sanders came away victorious in the first three primaries and is currently in strong contention to win in South Carolina against Joe Biden. While the discussion of who’s going to nab the democratic ticket to take on Trump has been mostly relegated to Sanders, Biden and Pete Buttigieg, the media silence surrounding Elizabeth Warren’s campaign — which was once lauded by the pundit class as more thorough in its approach to policy proposals — has prompted some to speculate that it’s traditional sexism at play. Knowing the outcome of the 2016 elections, and Hillary Clinton’s triumph in terms of the popular vote, the verdict on that is complicated to say the least.

In the lead-up to the Iowa Caucus, much noise was made about an alleged interaction between Sanders and Warren, in which Sanders saw little path for a woman to win the presidency, citing the precedent set by Donald Trump of animating the Republican base by exploiting sexist attitudes within. Sanders categorically denied the accusations, but to entertain their veracity is interesting nonetheless. The fight Hillary Clinton led to win over voters in 2016 was identitarian in nature, and while it managed to motivate the base in democratic strongholds, it didn’t do much for key battleground states–addressing low turnout has been a priority of the Sanders campaign, and the ongoing bet is to see how far along can an economics-focused message take the Democratic party, when it is not ladened with an appeal to the candidate’s race, gender, sexuality, and/or religion.

Needless to say that a candidate’s own set of identities don’t innately possess any electoral value–you can still be a woman, and manage to run a government that undermines women’s status within society. The notion that Elizabeth Warren must have women’s best interest at heart because she herself is a woman is obscene–you can’t conceivably make that case when Nikki Haley is angling for a Republican run in the future, or when leaders like Margaret Thatcher, Theresa May, and Marine Le Pen prove that solidarity on the basis of identitarian struggle isn’t always reciprocated.

Much in fact has been said about Barack Obama’s reticence to embrace his blackness during his two terms in office–Biden becoming VP was a compromise struck in the hopes of taming the flames of white evangelical resentment. And even though Obama’s stay in the White House was heavily politicized by his adversaries, he refused to see partisan gridlock for what it truly is–proof that the American political system can’t function on the basis of cooperation, even when it is earnestly sought.

Ezra Klein, co-founder of Vox and author of the book “Why We’re Polarized”, dubs this ‘negative polarization’–in essence, what’s happening is that Republicans came to see anything Democrats are advocating for as an irreconcilable part of their platform. So when the left beat the drums of identity politics as loud as it could, the right plugged its ears and feigned ignorance. What Bernie Sanders has cunningly realized, is that if you imbue a platform of economic justice — one that is heavily informed by class struggle — with your campaign, and let issues of identity take a backseat, the GOP’s impulsive contrarianism will cease to be effective.

The case for an impoverished white suburbia has already been made–the massive slate of tax cuts passed in 2017 and the ongoing trade war with China have only been an economic bane to Trump’s very base of supporters, and it’s unlikely that even the most ardent of pro-business stances will carry their weight through when a strong welfare state is the superior alternative.

A lot gets muddled when the media is discussing whether the American people are ready for a more present government in their lives–so often, socialism’s unfavorability with the American electorate is floated as a reason not to nominate Sanders, and downstream of that, is the implication that they’re not yet ready to embrace a class-focused campaign. The counterpoint to that however, is that the American people find a whole host of socialist policies very popular–the ideology’s designation may carry a negative connotation, but its primary advocate is doing a pretty good job selling it to voters.

It’s important to note that the contention between identity and class is not new–Marxist theory generally favors the latter, while modern liberal politics have very much aligned themselves with the former. That the fissure exists, is in itself a sign that a debate is happening, and class seems to be winning so far–not just because Bernie Sanders is by all accountable measures the current frontrunner, but also because Donald Trump has alienated his base from ever feeling compelled to vote on the basis of foreign identitarian struggle. At best, a Warren nomination has very much the potential to repeat what happened in 2016–support largely congregated along the coasts, with little rattling of Republican support in the heartland.

With the DNC signaling open hostility towards Bernie Sanders if he runs short of delegates, Warren’s best course of action is to drop out, and admit that an identity-focused campaign was bound to fail today, just as it did yesterday. If the black vote wasn’t as enthusiastic about Cory Booker and Kamala Harris as the pundit class would’ve otherwise thought, it’s because identity has never been that strong a motivator for the electorate in the first place–Warren’s brand of identity politics is even more perilous considering she’s trailing the pack with little chance of future recovery.

One of the most revealing charts in modern American politics is the demographic breakdown of exit polls in 2016–white women did not meet the presence of a white woman in the race with enthusiasm. The retorque offered by mainstream feminists is that these women have rejected their claim to womanhood by voting against their own self-interest, but it’s backwards–the maintenance of a patriarchal and racist society is precisely in white women’s self-interest, and it isn’t until they’ve seen the boons of an equitable society, agnostic of whom it benefits, that they’ll ever come around to break that pattern. In the here and now, identity politics isn’t the answer–it’s the tumor in need of immediate removal.