At this website we’ve railed time and again against what we see as the shallow game of identity politics. It’s a game that allows those advocating it to avoid meaningful discussion of issues related to policy and governance. It’s a game that pits race against race, ethnicity against ethnicity and religion against religion. However, it is a game that has won, overtaking politics not only in the United States, but globally. So now it must be stated, we are in an era of identity politics, and will the Democrats win it?
Last week’s European Parliamentary elections reinforced the current trend toward identity and ideological polarization. The collapse of establishment, big-tent parties particularly in the United Kingdom was stunning. While Labour, currently led by a socialist with sympathy for the Soviet Union in Jeremy Corbyn and the Conservatives represent two different ideals, they are parties that are defined by ideology, not identity. Just two years ago the two major UK parties accounted for 82.2% of the popular vote in the 2017 General Election- last week that dropped to just 22.4% in the European parliamentary election. That’s a remarkable number to absorb over just 24 months even if European elections have been traditionally used to cast protest votes.
Labour lost lots of voters on the left for having an ambiguous, classically moderate position on Brexit and the European Union in general. Corbyn is no moderate but is also a politician desperate to be Prime Minister thus engaged in ambiguity on the key issue of the day.
Among left-wing voters who are millennials in England’s big cities, European identity, rather than being English defines their politics. While in alignment with Labour on issues of social justice, wages and climate change, these voters fled to the traditionally centre-left Liberal Democrats (a sort of neoliberal party) en masse because the LibDems have promised to fight Brexit and have called for a second referendum.
For these voters the LibDem record of fiscal austerity during its years in coalition government with the Conservatives (2010-15) matters less than identity. After all for these folks, being “European” denotes a certain degree of sophistication and tolerance that being “British”does not. (As an aside it should be noted some more ideological pro-European Labour voters defected from Labour to the Green Party instead of backing the traditionally centre-left LibDems – for those voters general ideology still matters.)
On the other side of the divide, the rural and small town voters who have historically voted Conservative value their English or British identity. Brexit is about their nationalist identification and those voters fled en masse to Nigel Farage’s newly formed Brexit Party. While the Brexit Party unlike UKIP seems to have drawn some votes from minority groups in UK (small numbers Indians and Afro-Caribbeans-it’s highly unlikely anyone who is say Polish or Romanian backed the party of LEAVE) it’s appeal is based on white identity and also among those minorities looking to be accepted or seen as mainstream Brits.
It should be noted however, Farage has always made outreach to coloured Britons even in small doses part of his anti-EU efforts – however he’s never really engaged Eastern Europeans who are more the target of his ire than coloured Brits. This having been said the passage of Brexit led to an increase in racial tension and lack of comfort for many in the coloured community in the United Kingdom.
Recent elections in Australia and India also indicated identity was a key component in the wins for right-wing parties. In India, the neo-fascist BJP won an overwhelming victory combining Hindu chauvinism & racism with government-oriented economic programs. As one publication described it, Narendra Modi the Indian Prime Minister has managed to combined Donald Trump and Nicholas Maduro’s ideologies into one dangerous populist movement.
White identity politics is nothing new. The Democratic Party in the United States created white identity politics in post-Civil War, Reconstruction era using violence and groups like the Ku Klux Klan to drive Republicans, with their northern and African-American officials from the south. In time the Democrats opposition to anything related to Civil Rights and willingness to empower corrupt big city machines made it once again a competitive party nationally. Franklin Roosevelt fundamentally shifted the party toward liberalism and a big tent, but prior to that the Democratic Party was an entity whose existence was dependent on racial identity.
Today, despite the best efforts of establishment Republicans and other wise women and men in that party, the GOP has taken on the mantle of the Democrats of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s – pushing white identity. The Republicans of the postbellum era always stressed American nationalism and that as well as fundamentalist religion (the abolitionists were after all religious zealots in many ways) seem to be the two consistent threads in the history of the GOP.
On the other side of the current partisan divide, the influx of immigrants since the 1960’s with brown or black skin (this includes my parents) have fundamentally changed the makeup of the United States demographically. The Democratic Party realizing they have a disparate coalition of non-white groups, people from all sorts of backgrounds consciously has deemphasized ideology and promoted identity as a unifying principle. The Democrats today are making little effort to create an actual ideology on the left – while we have lamented this, it’s also become obvious it is electoral politics today. Ideology doesn’t drive voters except in small doses – identity and emotion do.
The vast majority of people vote based on emotion and fear, not practical policy issues.
Electoral politics is now about race and identity whether we like it or not. I learned that hard way when my critiques of Andrew Gillum’s ethics last year had me on these pages attacked as a racist in regular reader comments and on social media as a Russian-bot or a Trump-plant in the Democratic Party. As a progressive, I have long believed ethics in government (much like the bipartisan progressive movement of the early 1900’s) was a key component of our ideology.
Gillum’s questionable decisions and ethics were again in the news this past week as his campaign (this has nothing to do with Hamilton tickets) are now under federal investigation. What I learned is attacking an African-American officeholder using the same standard we’d apply to a white officeholder is seen as racist by a large number of Democrats- I have been told by multiple prominent Democrats my views are racist because someone like Gillum raised up from poverty has greater demands to make a living than some rich suburban white officeholders who come from money.
Additionally, one Democratic operative told me the need of African-American officials to be accepted by a white power establishment sometimes requires befriending questionable people and making decisions that are meant to “go along to get along.” I must respect that point of view even if I find it somewhat myopic. Identity and double-standards are here to stay and we must respect it or simply disengage politically.
In retrospect was it was my fault, that I did not fully absorb that holding an African-American rock star politician to the same standard I hold white elected officials would be viewed as racist by many Democrats. I’ve lived in denial about identity politics and its impact, but had I not been in this self-induced trance I would have understood better why my fellow travelers on the left saw it as racist (A critique I am not saying I agree with but one I am not stating I understand).
White identity politics has been around forever, even if not so nakedly obvious as played by the postbellum Bourbon Democrats, who even made attempted to make the party in this state legally a whites-only club which would force African-Americans to register as Republicans (though that was eventually struck down by the courts).
For years the Democrats have accused the GOP of being unavowed racists without any real substance to the charge. No doubt the race card was played every now and again in subtle ways by the GOP, knowing they needed to motivate a base of white voters, but never was it as naked as it has become in the last four years.
The GOP rhetoric now echoes FOX News‘s talking points, a network that has pushed racial buttons not so subtly for over twenty years. In the past the Republicans would let FOX News and publications The National Review, Human Events and TownHall.com speak for themselves while trying to take the high road. That’s no longer the case.
Similarly, the mainstream media, which many on the right accuse of being in the Democrats pocket is more dominated by people of color than anytime before. This by the way is the same trend in the United Kingdom, something that might in fact have proven as motivation for some Brexiter voters. To the white identity crowd, this makes the media more leftist and “anti-American,” fueling further racial resentment.
The Democrats are well-positioned with demographic changes nationally to become a majority party again. However, an emphasis on identity means there will always be large swaths of America where the party will simply not be competitive. Political operatives seem willing to accept this, and in reality they may have little choice. The identity train has not only left the station but its rapidly approaching its destination- where racial, ethnic and religious identity as well nationalist feelings define who people vote for in democracies across the world.
We’ve tried to take what we felt was an enlightened high road here railing against identity politics. We were defeated. The battle was long ago lost, some of us, myself included were just too stubborn to notice.