By Zipporah Osei, political columnist
The election of Barack Obama in 2008 saw a change in focus for the Democratic Party. After having record numbers of black and Latinx voters come out to the polls to elect the nation’s first black president, the party decided to start speaking directly to this growing demographic in its voting base. This technique of reaching out to people of color as a key Democratic voting block has expanded to include many social groups based on gender, religion and sexual orientation. Many of people in these groups had already voted Democratic, but it seemed as though the Democratic Party was finally starting to acknowledge them for doing so.
The term “identity politics” has existed since the civil rights movement. In the past eight years, however, it has become what many Democrats consider their winning strategy. By targeting groups that felt underrepresented, they were able to paint themselves as the socially conscious alternative to a Republican Party that seemed to care less about people and more about economic interests. It made sense numerically, too: With the changing voter demographics in this country, minority groups would make up the majority of the electorate by 2030.
The Democrats could position themselves to be the party of those groups. What they failed to realize was that they couldn’t win an election in 2016 based on demographics that wouldn’t exist for another 14 years.
In the wake of Hillary Clinton’s loss in the presidential race, many political commentators were quick to blame the party’s identity politics. Political scientist Mark Lilla spoke about the failures of identity politics in a New York Times op-ed called “The End of Identity Liberalism” shortly after election night.
“[Identity liberalism] is a splendid principle of moral pedagogy—but disastrous as a foundation for democratic politics in our ideological age,” Lilla wrote. “One of the many lessons of the recent presidential election campaign and its repugnant outcome is that the age of identity liberalism must be brought to an end.”
The answer provided by many pundits and commentators is that the Democrats must create a strong economic message to replace their identity politics in order to regain white, working-class voters in their voting base. This solution solves one problem and creates another. The issue is not that white, working-class voters don’t want Democrats talking about the issues of minority groups in this country, but that they would like to hear their concerns talked about, too.
Donald Trump didn’t win the white, working-class vote because he laid out a concrete plan to get their jobs back, but because he expressed a concern for them that their own party hadn’t shown them since the years of Bill Clinton. The Democrats said that politics should be about people, then forgot about the people who felt they were suffering the most. Trump was able to masterfully exploit that.
The Democrats made a misstep ignoring the working-class whites, but they would be making a bigger mistake to close themselves off to people of color, Muslims and the LGBTQA+ community. Identity politics should be opened to include all groups. Despite the rhetoric used in the past year, various groups share the same concerns. Inner city communities are bleeding economically the same way rural white communities are. Welfare programs like food stamps, Section 8 and Women, Infants and Children help more poor whites than poor blacks. Access to affordable health care is necessary no matter how a person identifies.
It would be a mistake to pretend that every American has a shared experience, because the struggles of one community are not always reflected in another. But we cannot pretend as though struggle does not exist for the vast majority of Americans, no matter their color or creed. I would hope that in the elections to come, the Democrats refine their message to speak to every American, not just those who are convenient.
Photo courtesy Antonio Bonnano, Creative Commons