Must Democrats Really Choose: Diversity Or White Working Class?

A union member listens to Sanders in August 2015 with a crowd of 500 in Burlington

There is one dominant issue emerging as Democrats sift through the recent election losses and search for answers: the developing debate over the role that “Identity Politics” played in the losses. Identity Politics refers to the way Democrats have divided themselves into their various constituent interest groups. In recent years Democrats have gradually divided into a long list of individual factions, i.e., Women, African-American, Hispanic, College, LGBTQ, Disability and more.

The Iowa Democratic Party added five new constituency caucuses this year at their 2016 Convention. They are Progressives, Women, Rural, Senior/retiree and Labor. With these additions, the Iowa Democrats have now divided themselves into 13 separate factions. The motivation for establishing individual caucuses for each group is to recognize and promote their specific needs, interests and issues. The danger is that the party becomes more fragmented and each caucus becomes a separate silo disconnected from the party as a whole. The message becomes a chaotic cacophony of voices competing for attention rather than one or two easily understood messages appealing to everyone.

Currently, there is a sizable block of criticism developing within the party that Democrats spend too much time focusing on the issues of ethnicity, gender and sexuality (Identity Politics) while ignoring the larger message. Rather than developing a unified message that binds all these competing groups together, the Democratic message is perceived as ignoring the broader issues important to all Americans. The critics are suggesting Democrats must reject Identity Politics in order to appeal not only to white working-class America, but to all Americans.

Bernie Sanders attacked Identity Politics last week saying we need to appeal to more than just our diversity. “It’s not good enough for someone to say, ‘I’m a woman! Vote for me,” said Sanders. The New York Times offered an opposing view that Democrats can’t reject or alienate their most loyal constituencies in order to satisfy white working-class voters. They argue Trump won by successfully employing Identity Politics to champion his groups on the right, i.e., Evangelicals, working class voters, anti-immigrant and nationalist forces.

Clearly, Democrats failed to reach the white working-class voters that were most concerned about their future. Democrats talked about requiring schools to open bathrooms to transsexual students. Democrats talked about bringing in more immigrants, including Syrians. Here in Iowa, Democrats added legalizing all drugs to their state platform. Many Democrats cringed when progressives insisted on putting the legalization of all drugs in their platform. This handed Republicans a powerful negative ad that would be used against Democrats. Democrats were careless and arrogant in not recognizing these were frightening concepts to many working class and evangelical Americans. Many of these folks are low information voters and each of these issues are very complex. These issues require considerable explanation in order to gain acceptance and Democrats failed to provide a credible defense. If you can’t or won’t defend a proposal maybe it’s not worthy of support?

Are the critics right that Democrats must moderate in order to reach the voter that was sold on Trump? Must Democrats throw Women, Latinos and African American caucuses under the bus to appease white-male America? Must Democrats deny their LGBTQ brothers and sisters equality of rights in order to satisfy the Evangelical right? Must Democrats allow immigrant families to be ripped apart to get the white nationalist vote? Must Democrats sacrifice our environment because the regulations are a little inconvenient to business interests? Must Democrats reject science in order to get the vote of the climate denier?

Hopefully, you answered no to all these! Aren’t Democrats capable of chewing gum and walking simultaneously? Yes, and we can protect each and every one of our constituencies while still offering white working-class voters as well as all Americans hope for a better economic future. It’s a false choice to force Democrats to choose one over the other.

However, we can’t do it by lying to people as Trump did. Trump can’t bring back all the lost manufacturing jobs and we can’t claim we can either. But we can offer practical alternatives to employ people and raise incomes. Maybe we need a white working-class caucus that we elevate to the same level as our other groups. The fact that Democrats lost one of their most loyal bases of support, union households, should shock us into change. We failed miserably in providing them with a credible solution to their economic anxiety. Democrats took the working-class voter for granted. We learned a powerful and painful lesson that we must never forget.

We should have remembered this from the 1992 Clinton campaign. Bill Clinton defeated President H.W. Bush by making the economy issue number one. Bill Clinton’s campaign strategist James Carville’s slogan that year was, “It’s the economy, stupid!”

It’s still the economy in 2016 and Democrats failed to mention it.


by Rick Smith
Posted 11/30/16

11 Comments on "Must Democrats Really Choose: Diversity Or White Working Class?"

  • I agree to most of what you said but we are denying ourselves if we fail to see that we have divided ourselves into to many factions. I think many Democrats just don’t want to admit or accept it. Democrats need to stremeline so they can appeal to everyone. In our trying to appeal to everyone by establishing so man factions that we have killed ourselves and our message. We have to to come to grips with this fact and quite denying ourselves or our losses will get worse and our party will be meaningless and people will suffer.

  • Yes the Democratic party has to appeal toe Euro-Caucasian working class people but it should not try to go after the votes of Religious fascist Nativists and xenophobes however Democrats must stop supporting the idea that Homosexuality is normal a sickness but not a sin instead of pushing for laws that ban all people from owning certain types of guns or limiting magazine capacity support laws that keep guns away only from criminals and the mentally disturbed not law abiding people

    • Maybe Michael Democrats should stop calling people names and recognize they are Americans with special interest. Everyone loses when you play zero sum games.

  • Here is what we miss when we do identity politics: the bigger picture of class. There are the poor (a growing group), the middle class (a shrinking group) and the rich (a tiny group). I am personally tired of Democrats failing to address the class discrepancies which are exacerbated by Republican policies. Let’s grow a spine and address them. Most Democrats are in the first two groups. Two groups are a lot easier to navigate than 14!

  • Diversity is the strong suite of the Democrat party. The coalition of Afro-Americans, Hispanics, women, LGBTs, etc. have given the party a permanent majority of the American electorate. The Republican’s focus on dis-enfranchised white males is a non-starter. White males are a minority, having fewer numbers than even white women. The Democrat party has shown such courage in nominating minorities to public and party offices: The first Black President, the first woman nominee for President, the first Muslim chair of a major American political party. Why would Democrats give that up? Isn’t fundamental change the party’s ultimate goal?

    • Trump gained ground over Romney with African-Americans, Hispanics and working class Americans. Advancing identify for the sake of identity and dividing people against each other is self defeating, it rubs everyone the wrong way. Trump’s policies are going to push this issue even harder in the next two elections and win if Democrats don’t figure it out.

  • I think that we have to remember that in the end, the Democrats nominated a flawed candidate that had way too much baggage, and didn’t represent the change that people wanted. People knew that the system wasn’t working, but Democrats didn’t drive home the message of why. And the economic message was lost in the Trump Twitter game and the strategy of winning on the Trump incompetency argument, which could be undone by one week of reading a teleprompter. I think that the keys here are to talk about fundamental fairness, and make sure that it’s grounded in an understanding of not only what is ethical as we understand it, but also what the Constitution permits. (i.e. the difference between having certain beliefs and the ability of government to force change either way)

  • Here is the problem with progressives and liberals, you look down your noses at average Americans.

    “Many of these folks are low information voters and each of these issues are very complex.”

    Frankly the left coast and right coast elitists are not smarter than the rest of America. The current economy sucks, the world is in terrorist shambles and the Democrats are talking about whether of not knuckle draggers realize Democrats are protecting criminals in sanctuary cities. The Mayor of Chicago really stepped in it when he told illegals, “You are safe her.” Might the African-American community ask how about me, with 4,000 shootings and 700 murders in Chicago just in 2016???

    • No, but people who bother to get educated and pay attention and use critical reasoning are smarter than those who don’t. If “the rest of America” insists on believing real world problems can be solved in 140 characters, if they can’t tell fake news from real, if they believe Trump has a magic wand to undo technological displacement of jobs, if they refuse to believe scientific fact, or prefer prejudices against gays and POC over the fact that we are (to borrow a phrase) Stronger Together, or who believe Trump was somehow better for workers than Clinton (how are those initial cabinet picks looking?) well, yeah I’m going to look down my nose at that. The party would make a horrible mistake to dumb down policies and positions to pander to the willfully (and too often proudly) ignorant. Education was the single most accurate predictor of how a county voted this year: we are the reality based, evidence based, thoughtful, deliberative party. If the other side wants to be the party of lies, nonsense, and sloganeering, they can have it. Do we need to figure out how to better communicate? Sure. Should we give up the intellectual, rational high ground? Never. Reagan Democrats, now Trump Democrats, have shown they get fickle in the presence of someone whose machismo they want to attach their masculinity to. That is a sorry basis to choose a candidate, and we will never be able to count on voters who do that anyway. We need to find a coalition with winning numbers without them.

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