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Fetishizing "Identity Politics" Could Cost 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 — what policies candidates actually support and how they frame them — rather than forcing pre-existing ideological commitments onto ill-fitting facts.

(Photo Illustration: The Intercept; AP)

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, The 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.

Read the full article, with possible updates, at The Intercept.

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Briahna Gray

Briahna Gray

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, including NPR, TYT, and The Real News.

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