The reason why identity politics are getting chucked around like a bad penny right now is because it won’t go quietly back into its coin purse. Politicians want to acquire minority voting blocs without actually working on the specific concerns of the social blocs behind the votes, vying for a generally representative, trickle-down reality. Some degree of that is acceptable and tradition, even part of the job description. That said, it’s a process that slow-drips people out of engaging the political process.
Minorities understand that identity politics is a political pawn, one of many. In chess, if you get a pawn across the board, it gets promoted. At that point it can be played as a rook, knight or bishop, but is most frequently promoted to queen…a copy of the most powerful piece in the game. That’s a fair analogy for the basis of the strategic struggle liberals are experiencing right now. Identity politics are being touted as having the same political value as other, more traditional markers like jobs and healthcare. Many liberals are at least tacitly okay with that, but many Americans – at least half of the voting part of America, and obviously many more – are not. Ergo, President Trump.
It should go without saying that no one actually likes having their reality treated like a pawn in a power game, theoretically or otherwise. When you suggest that identity politics is something that should be set aside so that political gains can be made, you’re basically asking me to set aside my existence to advance an agenda…an agenda that history has shown is okay with setting aside my people’s issues and realities even after we’ve agreed to do our part. I am left with the cold comfort of merely not having actively contributed to my destruction.
What’s interesting about the promotion of identity politics is how it happened, or rather, how it didn’t. Identity politics is one of the few major political agendas to have come out of the cultural sea change of public values from the bottom-up. People fought and marched and elaborated intellectually on behalf of minority agendas and eventually convinced enough of America to change the way it perceived and politically engaged minorities. No small feat (and by the way, you’re welcome for not looking like a human rights nightmare anymore, America).
You know what else used to be under the umbrella of identity politics? The Civil Rights movement. Stonewall. Slavery. Superpredators. Willie Horton. All of these were at one point political footballs, and all were identity based. Mind you, not all of them entered the political arena courtesy of the people associated with the politic. Black people didn’t introduce Willie Horton or superpredators into the national conversation, let alone formulate policies and pick leaders based on them. Despite these burnt hot potatoes, our vote persisted. We showed up, even when these bolos came swinging from our party of choice.
Minorities suffer from the same political disenfranchisement as working class white voters in many respects. Not for the same reasons, of course, but the effect is the same: our issues and existence are othered in conversations at the core of American politics. We are equally used as scapegoats when elections go wrong, depending on who won. Our issues are perpetual and seemingly beneath the knell of real power. The candidate that ever figures those similarities out will win in a landslide. In the meantime, minorities are now being asked to shut up so Democrats can go chase disenfranchised white voters who might come their way if they don’t think the Democratic Party is going to keep bringing up minority concerns for the next four years, if ever.
Minorities fall almost exclusively into Democratic lanes, though the party should be astounded that we show up at all considering, first, how little America has accomplished in regards to our safety, education, health, and advancement; and second, how little the Democratic Party has accomplished on those same fronts. We hear soundbite generalizations when we are addressed at all, which is usually just enough to assure us we’re at the right rally. Black voters show up out of a sense of survival. We know from experience how low America can go. And yet, pointing out how that relationship could be better – must get better – is now being seen as politically inconvenient, as in-fighting, as divisive. This is all garbage.
From a purely pragmatic and liberal perspective, if the black vote were in danger of going somewhere, I could see why this might be a cause of distress. As it stands, there is nothing on or off the radar to suggest this is even a possibility. Democrats are largely stuck with black people. The leadership of the party knows that. Black people know that. The people who don’t know that would appear to be white rank and file liberals who see criticism of their party at a time of great vulnerability as dangerous. I agree: it is a dangerous time for their party. At the same time, whatever criticism they’re receiving right now is hardly new or a sea change coming from minorities. The voice of critical identity politics isn’t the Democratic Party’s problem. It’s a symptom of the Democratic Party’s larger problems not only as an election machine, but as a governing body.
Democrats have to make an important decision now. They have to decide if they’re going to double down on what they’ve always done, this time shooting more broadly for the many white votes they didn’t score before (or lost since Obama) so they can keep playing power-chicken; or if they’re going to play more offense by revamping the way they do business and build a party that actually pays more than lip service to the needs of as many Americans as possible. The first option doesn’t require them to do anything structurally different except raise more money to install more of their kind wherever they can and shore up their defensive game while they find someone else to crown that will mollify enough white Americans at the polls in 4-8 years. This is the most likely scenario, and you can see this wound-licking defense playing out all over the field right now. The media is pressing them about where to go from here and the answers are largely “Stick with experience, homogenize the message, and raise more money.”
The second thing is much, much harder, and requires a bottom-up rebuild of the party. It is so much work that there is a temptation to forgo the work altogether and just build an actually viable third party that might get somewhere in 12-20 years. This is the “leopard can’t change its spots” track, and there’s a lot of evidence right now that suggests it can’t…like people getting mad at minorities for not rolling over and playing ball while they basically do the same things they’ve always done on their behalf.
It’s a critical time to be a liberal, but the time isn’t critical because you lost an election. The time is critical because losing an election to Donald Trump has made abundantly clear that the party isn’t working as a genuine tool of democracy that has any skin in the game when it comes to fixing the glaring problems of injustice minorities have been making clear are our new priorities. Police abuse and poor schools aren’t third tier stump positions anymore. I know that bringing them up in a way that subscribes to the identity politics agenda costs whichever politician does white votes (or activates votes against them), but that’s not black people’s problem. Our problem is making sure enough of us are alive to be able to vote in the first place. So yeah, you’re going to hear our mouths about the fact that your system and your party has yet to do anything substantial in this regard (and in certain moments has done the exact opposite).
I have seen the cries of people of various political stripes saying “When you call everything racist – when you take everything to 11 – you have no room to expand when things get worse.” I don’t disagree with that as a political strategy. I’m just not going to be your best advocate. I’m not a football or a hot potato, and I only subscribe to being a pawn vote because I’m currently otherwise outnumbered. I have an agenda, and it isn’t a self-dismissive track. I cannot choose to care about what you want me to care about above how I perceive the importance of my identity.
All of this suggests that “identity” is probably a bad word for our platform, historically speaking. There was nothing wrong with “civil rights” as a label for the justice-based agenda of disenfranchised minorities. A fight for the installation of civil rights is exactly what it was, and quite honestly, the only reason we don’t still use the title is because we tied the term so strongly to a couple of key goals – removing desegregation and voting rights – that when we achieved them, we stopped applying the standard to the resultant fallout struggles. Let’s be clear, our fights are the same. Variations on a theme abound, but the issues are the same at their core, and in many ways, so is the end result. We have better, more succinct terms for the conditions – urban schools, redlining, gentrification, Prison Industrial Complex – but they’re all extensions of basic civil rights problems.
There is a grossly racist impression that whatever problems blacks experienced post-civil rights is due to an inability to acclimate to freedom, that things were better for blacks when they had less to worry about, or knew their place, or could physically only do so much. The notion is ludicrous, of course, but it persists and has morphed as political tastes have evolved. From voter disenfranchisement to police abuse to poverty, Black people are still suffering from the same things for the same reasons as they ever did. Those conditions persist, not because we are politically unsavvy or uneducated or can’t handle our freedom cups; it’s because the checks and balances of white supremacy still exist in the political, cultural and technological structures of America. Finally being allowed to vote was a coup, but it was part of a coup of quantitative rights, not qualitative freedoms. A right is only as good as the freedom that allows it to be used.
Democrats have been getting our vote at a discount since day one, but now that their stock is dropping, we’re not supposed to point out that we’re kind of tired of being sold spoiled product? Make us feel like stakeholders instead of merchandise and we might – might – extend you that line of credit. Until then? You’re going to keep hearing about our troubling and burdensome identity politics. That’s what our votes cost. And you got to admit, you’ve been getting it pretty cheap so far.