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