Is a Focus on Identity the Way Forward for Democrats?

Contrary to conventional wisdom, darker skin complexion doesn't always mean bluer politics.

It wasn’t long ago that liberals made the case for identity politics as a reliable thrust for the pursuit of progressive politics, wielding its primary weapon the power of negative polarization as the spectre of a browning America looms large on a nation consumed by white resentmentexit polls of the last presidential elections aren’t definitive metrics by any means, but what they are showing is rather illustrative of the opposite. If the calculus of identity politics was to play out as was predicted, non-white voters would’ve been even more compelled to vote for Democrats against Republicans compared to the last time around, but as it turns out, Latinos and Black people have shown a measurable, if small swing to the other side–so what compelled them to ‘act against their own interest’ as some would posit?

The answer to that starts with an inherent weakness to identity politics that is rarely looked over, but it’s crucial to understanding why identitarian pandering didn’t quite pan out the way Democrats expected it to–minority groups aren’t monolithic, and presuming that their interests can be easily collapsed under a single throughline tends to not flatter. In mainstream political discourse, the choice is often presented as a false dichotomy–either vote for the person who’ll be a source of much misery, or opt for the man whose words profess something, but political career says otherwise. Having never made proper amends for his racially-troubled past, Joe Biden thought he was owed the favors of non-whites if only because he ran against their greatest nemesis–the weeks following Biden’s inauguration were an opportunity to assuage potential fears, but the results pale in comparison to what was promised.

More so revealing about the gross percentage shift of the non-white vote is the possible link it could have with the CARES act — enacted by then-President Donald Trump — which was if only for a limited time, America’s most-successful anti-poverty program to date. There was much fuss made about mishandled funds, but as relief found its way to the hands of the neediest, considerations about who ultimately signed the bill were secondary–sure racial adversity stings, but material deprivation was becoming of greater concern to many families, and this may have been their misguided way to express appreciation.

Troubling likewise has been the dismissal of the left’s organizing efforts, their success bedded on promises of further stimulus and a push for racial equity; something the campaign has yet to deliver on–given an opening, the conservative right-wing would waste no effort to win the vote of color back, especially if Democrats continue to play coy with what were crucial items to their electoral platform.

There’s also the unaddressed elephant in the room, which may well be the most consequential–that is the tone the media uses when talking about marginalized groups, often depicting them in the most helpless of lights. It doesn’t help that those who write and print these words are self-adorned the title of spokespeople to their concerns, which might make Trump’s endless tirades about a media disregarding the subjects of its inquiry all-the-more relatable–as uncouth with his words as he can be, Trump oozes an aura of honesty that rival politicians fail to mimic, and despite his downfall, a successor has only those openings to exploit in order to swing the odds back in the right-wing’s favor.

Behind all that is specific to the 2020 elections is the soft shell of a failing theory, one that presumed shared identitarian struggle would be powerful enough a motivator for all who are not straight, white and male to vote against Trump, or at least express great discontent at what he does while remaining electorally-voiceless. What we’re seeing however are the first cracks in that paradigm, and it calls to embrace something more primal and perhaps a bit more unifying than a politics whose constant deference to academia has oft-alienated the common man–it is as Bernie Sanders advocated for in his prior presidential runs, class politics.

What does it mean to exactly be bound by class, though? The answer is quite simple: It’s the notion that material conditions are a more helpful indicator of one’s interests out of a political system than their identity, the latter’s subversion proving not particularly tricky if given the right circumstances. To indulge the fallacy of identity politics by saying the road to salvation is one people of color walk the same is tantamount to embracing racist impulses of yesteryears, where white intelligentsia deems itself a chief epistemic authority on marginalized people’s needs, even as they show themselves much more nuanced and disparate. And now that the election proved itself far less fruitful to them than they had otherwise expected, they’ve shown little reticence to turn against the political establishment on a dime.

If America were to rid itself of the spectre of fascism once and for all, and lock in the demographics that it banks on to ensure that a progressive future may yet be on the horizon, it has to resort to a much less flimsy electoral binding agent than identity–liberal identity politics has had about twotries to go for the touchdown, and it bungled them both. “[Identity] has become so pervasive and so universally accepted in the liberal discourse that most commentators don’t even seem capable of putting their finger on it,” says Matt Bruenig, founder of the People’s Policy Project. “When [identity] generates abhorrent results, as it so often does, the liberal commentariat ends up grasping in the dark and then discussing a totally different topic that is, at best, downstream of [identity] or, at worst, totally orthogonal to it.”

Will liberalism know of a future where it doesn’t lay its entire existence on the approval of groups that never really signed up for the liberal project in the first place? It’s hard to tell. But one thing Biden’s timid victory is indicative of, is that the desire for something different never really waned–it was merely buried beneath the thick crust of political elite discourse, ready to burst open at any moment. It did so ferociously back in 2016, and there’s still absolutely the possibility of it recurring sometime in the near future.