BROOKS: Identity politics are here to stay

Using identity politics has long been a strategy for both major parties

Donald Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton may be the single most disruptive event in U.S. politics for decades to come. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the current state of the Democratic Party. As the nation comes to terms with the implications of a Trump presidency, the left is undergoing an existential crisis — perhaps comparable to that of the GOP following their loss in 2008 — and a general understanding that the party must make drastic changes to its platform or risk collapse has arisen.

Foremost among these alarmists is Columbia University’s Mark Lilla, who alleges the Democrats’ emphasis on identity politics has led to the party’s demise. According to Lilla, Clinton’s decision to directly appeal to black, LGBT and women voters alienated individuals outside of these groups and ensured they voted for Trump come November. The Republican’s victory merely confirms the death of identity liberalism and the need for the left to rectify its message.

Although I disagree with Lilla on several points, for the sake of brevity I will only address two in this article. First, Lilla portrays identity politics as an exclusively liberal phenomenon, a claim that initially seems rather baffling. The Republican Party’s commitment to preserving their support among white evangelical Christians — best exemplified in former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee proclaiming the U.S. is “moving rapidly toward the criminalization of Christianity” is a clear example of identity politics’ nonpartisan appeal. Surely, an informative discussion of identity politics would mention Evangelical Christians and white working-class voters in addition to African-Americans, Latinos and other minority communities that are often associated with the term. However, Lilla alleges identity politics largely dismisses the first two aforementioned groups.

This leads to my second point. Lilla perceives identity politics as a recent occurrence. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. Throughout the 20th century, politicians on both sides of the aisle consistently used identity politics to mobilize specific voter blocs, and their decision to do so has often been rewarded politically. Lyndon Johnson’s embrace of the Civil Rights Movement contributed to African Americans abandoning the Republican Party, while Richard Nixon subsequently exploited this decision to court southern white voters and end the Democrats’ traditional hold of the South. Even Ronald Reagan, who Lilla praises for eschewing identity politics in favor of embracing commonality, can be seen as seeking to directly appeal to white northern voters when his campaign dismissed school busing as a failed social experiment using children as “guinea pigs.”

Surely, there is nothing wrong with embracing a sense of commonality, especially at a time in which partisanship and political animosity are at record highs. However, there are ample reasons to question the practicality of dismissing identity politics altogether. In the past few years discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation has been legally condoned and racial tensions in Ferguson and Baltimore erupted into riots reminiscent of the 1960s. It is not surprising that individuals affected by these developments would expect their elected officials to explicitly acknowledge them. Failing to do so merely compounds existing feelings of resentment and social exclusion in historically marginalized communities.

Last November’s loss certainly warrants a thorough reassessment of the Democratic Party’s strategy. Over the years, the party has failed to consider the interests of coal miners, factory workers and other working class voters who have struggled to compete in an increasingly globalized economy. This failure has directly contributed to Donald Trump’s appeal in the traditionally blue states of the Midwest, despite the possibility that his policies may worsen the economic hardships facing these very communities. Moving forward, the next Democratic National Committee chairman must prioritize efforts to reach out to this voter base and expand the party’s appeal beyond its existing urban strongholds.

However, the party must avoid succumbing to the emotionally charged panic that often accompanies a loss in a general election. Identity liberalism is not dead, nor is there any reason to suspect it will wane within the near future. It is also worth noting that the party so often credited for eschewing identity politics has effectively confined itself to a small voter base that makes up a dwindling proportion of the overall electorate. It is doubtful such a strategy will remain viable in the long run.

Brandon Brooks is an Opinion columnist for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at b.brooks@cavalierdaily.com

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