Progressives, Identity Politics, and Chickenshit
The pivot is underway. It’s almost a foregone conclusion in well-studied political circles that Hillary Clinton’s defeat in this year’s presidential election marks a resounding defeat of liberal "identity politics." Some pundits have gone so far as to say so explicitly, but even when it goes unsaid the conventional wisdom is rank with the implication. Analysts who discuss the possibly unprecedented gap between the electoral college and popular vote are always certain to point out that it was working-class white voters that rejected Clinton’s cosmopolitan, multicultural liberalism and nudged Trump over the top.
Hillary Clinton championed the same progressive policies that won Barack Obama two runaway victories, but lost by midnight on her own election night. Something is not right. The obvious counterargument is that Hillary Clinton lacked a populist credibility that Barack Obama had in spades, but this is a an argument with a short memory. Barack Obama of Indonesia, Hawaii, and Kenya with his bitterness, guns and bibles, left-wing terrorists, and “god damn America” had a great deal of trouble shedding his leftist radical cosmopolitan elitism (and probably never successfully did).
In a lot of ways, however, the paradox of Barack Obama’s campaign was that, as the first black major party candidate, he was only able to address race when it was unavoidable. Clinton, on the other hand, was running against a candidate who made his campaign one of foul misogyny and rambling against Mexican rapists, Muslim terrorists, and “urban” voter fraud. Her coalition believed in the inverse of that candidate’s identity politics so she embraced the fight but lost decisively. That loss came at the sharp side of massive margins in the white rural districts of Appalachian and upper midwestern swing states. And so began the calls to shift to a colorblind populism that could appeal once more to the miners of Scranton and the farmers of Wisconsin.
These calls ignore an obvious and uncomfortable truth. The colorblind populism of past progressives was never truly colorblind. Woodrow Wilson was an avowed racist, trade unions had poor track records with minority labor, the New Deal won the support of the southern Democrats by blocking minorities from its programs, and civil rights earned liberals twenty-four years of nearly uninterrupted presidential paralysis at the barrel end of the “Southern Strategy.”
The call to a colorblind populism forgets that minority voters have believed in such ideas for a century even when electoral strategies favored voters in less-populous, less-diverse, largely southern or midwestern states. It forgets that marginalized voters have maintained faith in those progressive ideals even when much of the real world progress has left them excluded, often by design. It forgets that, when a candidate appealed to those voters of color, LGBTQ, and young female voters more explicitly than any in the past, she was handed an historic electoral defeat in spite of her clear popular victory. It forgets that, the instant a candidate came along who appealed to their interests explicitly and at the expense of their counterparts of color, white working class voters left in droves.
Liberals and progressives will undoubtedly feel (and are likely feeling already) the pull toward a populism that appeals more directly to the white working class. They should resist. Not because the white working class is without its struggles, but because the benefits of wage reforms and manufacturing protections automatically skew toward workers who aren’t weighed down by hiring discrimination. Fair housing laws automatically skew toward tenants who aren’t burdened by discriminatory leasing and lending practices. For a progressive populism to be truly colorblind it must first deal directly with a systematic racism and sexism that has kept large portions of the population from reaping its benefits in the past. Progressives must grapple with the revelation that those same working class white voters at whom they aim their reforms not only voted for what they saw as the populist on the ballot, but explicitly against the rights and freedoms of the women and racial, ethnic, and religious minorities who make up the core of their constituency.
The short-term lesson this election taught us was that the white-working class was ignored and should be brought back into the fold; everyone else will follow. I want an economy that works for everyone regardless of color, but I also want to learn the right lessons from this election and that is not one of them. I want to learn that, even with demographics shifting, it will take better communication and organization to overcome a constitutional electoral disadvantage. To learn that advancing economic populism needs to be more explicit but does not require abandoning a similarly explicit insistence on full inclusion. That it requires rectifying institutional inequalities that find their root not just in class but in color, country of origin, orientation, and gender.
More than fifty years ago, James Baldwin railed against “the chickenshit goodwill of American liberals.” He knew that goodwill merely bought complacency and he had no interest in a social welfare that came in place of equality. He wanted his country to grapple with its history of bigotry and everything else was at best window dressing, and at worst a distraction.
It might ring hollow coming from a coastal, big city elitist like myself, but it's important to remember that class is not the only determining factor of a person’s disadvantage even if acknowledging that repels white, rural swing voters. Though my voter registration says otherwise and the political fit is comfortable, I have rarely thought of myself as a formal member of the Democratic Party. In spite of my resistance to the label, I voted gladly for the party that in eight years nominated both a woman and a black man to to be its candidates for president. This particular party might not be there quite yet but it's moving. It may not be there yet but a party that elevates people of diverse backgrounds, colors, and orientations and that fights unapologetically to meet the needs of all those who are marginalized, regardless of the roots of their disadvantage, is a party I could learn to be a part of. The Democratic Party needs to make changes, but it’s “identity politics” should stay.