By Linda Burnham –
Politics is a blood sport, and today we are witness to three simultaneous crises: a crisis of the working class, which is fractured by race, region, citizenship status and, increasingly, religious belief, and which lacks political cohesion or organizational representation; a crisis of the ruling class, which was bullied and backed into a corner by a megalomaniacal kleptocrat who has no respect for the core institutions of class rule or the prevailing world order; and a crisis of the state, in which far-right ideologues, autocrats and theocrats, having captured the governing apparatus, are rapidly concentrating power in the executive while bureaucrats scramble toward either dissent and defiance or appeasement and accommodation.
Historians, economists, and political scientists will delve deep to examine the currents that brought us to this crisis. Strategists of every political and ideological stripe are under intense pressure to map a way forward. These notes, focused on what might appear to be a side issue, perhaps could be subtitled, “Not the Way Forward.”
For months now liberals have been ruminating on the role of “identity politics” in November’s defeat of Hillary Clinton. Essentially the debate turns on whether the Democratic Party and Clinton, in their embrace of racial, religious and sexual minorities, forsook working class whites, who in turn responded to their abandonment by casting their votes for Trump. According to this point of view, the journey back from the devastation of 2016 requires that the party take an indefinite break from identity politics to concentrate on winning back economically squeezed white workers. Only this adjustment will create the conditions for Democrats to make gains in congressional and statewide races and retake the White House in 2020.
Where the Democratic Party lands on this issue matters enormously. The degree of traction this post-election analysis gains will impact the attention and resources of the party, liberal think tanks and philanthropy, as well as the focus of progressive organizations. It will likely determine how the Democratic Party positions itself relative to 2018 and 2020, and whether that positioning can create a sufficiently broad electoral coalition to roll back Trumpism. It is worth taking a moment to examine what might be problematic about analyses that place 2016’s rout at the feet of “identity politics.”
It’s never a good idea to enter willingly into a frame your opponent has constructed to entrap you. “Identity politics” is the terminology of the right, deployed to disparage and dismiss social justice movements that seek to expand the democratic rights of marginalized and excluded groups. Implicit in the term is the notion of placing the concerns of the part over the common good—of selfishly advancing narrow, particularistic agendas rather than the broader national interest.
Advocates and organizers for racial justice or equal rights for immigrants, women, or the LGBTQ community, don’t think of themselves as purveyors of “identity politics.” But they know from experience that purportedly universalistic solutions often work to make already embedded inequalities even more rigid. In fighting for the expansion of democracy for particular groups they rev the motor for the renewal and expansion of democracy for the whole.
But there is, in fact, an expression of identity politics central to the evolution of our nation and critical to how we understand the current juncture: White identity and nation-building have been bound together since before the founding fathers and the drafting of our framing documents. The shaping of white identity, premised on exclusion, is a central thread in the national narrative, bound up with capitalist development in general and manifested, in one way or another, to one degree or another, in every political, social, and cultural institution.
This fusion of white identity and American identity, the bedrock of white nationalism, has such a long history that it has been internalized and naturalized. Only since the Civil Rights movement has it begun to be somewhat disrupted. Until we collectively “get” this, some will continue to deny or be confused by the white rights subtext of “Make America Great Again,” and surprised at how powerfully it resonated.
Which brings us to an essential difference between white identity and the identities of groups forged in the experience of exclusion and subjugation. There is a reason that “Black Power!” and “Brown Power!” reverberate on completely different frequencies than “White Power!” And that “White Lives Matter,” or “Blue Lives Matter,” or even “All Lives Matter” are misguided rejoinders to “Black Lives Matter.” An assertion of existential urgency by the marginalized and scorned cannot simply be inverted without carrying the connotation of both a rebuke to demands for justice and inclusion, and a reassertion of the primacy of white lives.
Obama’s presidency was bracketed by two especially noxious racist tropes: the “birther” lies that first surfaced during the 2007-08 campaign and the vile “ape in heels” slur cast at the first lady in the waning days of Obama’s second term. Trump’s birther charge is a reinforcement of white identity by way of asserting that the black president is not and never will be a “real American.” The “ape in heels” insult is, obviously, a resurrection of the never-far-from-the-surface characterization of blacks as sub-human, primitive, uncivilized.
These may seem like extremes of a coarse, atavistic racism—far from current concerns about implicit bias and micro-aggressions. And no morally grounded person with an interest in reinforcing our sense of shared humanity wants to spend much time contemplating such racist poison. But the extremes of anti-black racism still find a hearing among a substantial segment of white Americans, and a master at reinforcing the exclusivity of the claim of whites to the national identity now prowls the Oval Office—knowing that his child, the son of a Slovenian, will never be subject to challenges as to his national identity in the way the son of a Kenyan was.
This take on white identity is deliberately broad: It doesn’t take into account class, gender, regional variation or the infinite expressions of identity at the level of the individual. Nevertheless, Trump’s victory is virtually incomprehensible without a reading on the dynamics of white identity and national formation. The liberal inquiry into the role of “identity politics” in Clinton’s loss is pointed in a diametrically direction opposite.
Whether Trump voters should be tagged as racist remains a frustrating question. Allegedly, some voters claim that they chose Trump despite his racism and misogyny, not because of it, and we may never be able to divine the prejudices and rationalizations that lie deep in the hearts of voters. But a majority of white voters cast their ballots for a man who is furiously and floridly racist, and they are apparently thrilled that he won. Black Americans are here today due to the vigilance of forebears who were keenly attuned to the lethal consequences of white fury. And while there’s room for debate about the language of “privilege,” it does seem a signal marker of white privilege to doubt or minimize the racial animosity of Trump’s base.
In the current debate about “identity politics,” black politics, feminist politics, LGBTQ politics, etc., are maligned as fragmentary and divisive while, a politics built on the economic woes of white workers would be unitary and representative of national interests.
Apart from soaring campaign rhetoric and outright propaganda, there is no idealized national interest. Every expression of U.S. national interest is actually the expression of the more or less stable, more or less contradictory, more or less politically coherent interests of different classes, economic sectors, geographies, demographic groups, etc., as projected onto domestic and international politics.
The two political parties do their best to contain and manage these divergent interests and to present each of their versions of the “national interest” so as to keep their electoral coalitions aligned. There is no reason to countenance the view that any one of the constituent elements is more representative of a unitary national interest than any other. That is to be fought out in the arena of politics, and is determined by demographic weight and the capacity to craft a vision and political agenda capable of unifying and stabilizing a coalition sufficiently powerful to project its worldview and political priorities as the “national interest.”
The right’s belated focus on the abandoned white worker posits a white guy in a hard hat on a construction site or a factory floor, while declining to recognize that black, Latino, Asian, female and LGBTQ workers have been battered by the same economic and social trends. Further, white male workers started at a higher baseline, and there’s a racial and gender differential in the forms of and responses to the economic assault and battery. (Unfortunately, the long history of actively segregationist all-male unions is reflected in the building trades unions’ recent warm embrace of Trump.)
Lately alarm bells have been rung about rampant opioid abuse, rising suicide rates, and detachment from the labor market in white working-class communities. Both parties’ political responses to these crises have been inadequate, verging on criminally negligent; these failingcommunities deserve compassion, social and medical services, and jobs programs. And yet when the same phenomena—lack of jobs and resulting drug use and despair—tore through poor urban communities and families the 1980s, the cruel terminology—“crack babies” and “crack whores”—was blamed on the “culture of poverty” and failure of character. Meaning poor black people were simply inclined to do dope and too lazy to work. Clearly and undeniably, empathy and understanding for stricken communities—inner city v. white working class—is deeply racialized.
These notes should not be read as an argument against addressing the concerns and economic anxieties of white workers. Rather, it is an argument for:
- addressing those concerns as part of a larger story about the declining fortunes of the class as a whole;
- refusing to make concessions to racism, xenophobia, Christian supremacy, misogyny, or heterosexism while addressing those concerns;
- being clear that the displacement of white economic anxiety onto black people and immigrants is neither warranted nor wise;
- being clear that the post-war deal of expanding economic fortunes for white workers is off the table, to be replaced by multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-gendered worker organizing that applies itself to the riddle of how to effectively extract significant concessions from 21st-century capital;
- understanding that addressing the concerns of white workers, and winning them away from thoroughly reactionary politics, is not principally an issue of crafting the best communications strategies for the next election cycle, but a long-term, no-short-cuts proposition to which a battalion of people and organizations will need to devote their lives.
Fortunately there are organizations doing the hard, granular, on-the-ground work in counties and states that are overwhelmingly white and/or red. They know the importance of place and how history and culture shape their neighbors’ thinking. They know how many conversations it takes to get a first-time or infrequent voter to the polls. They know that race and gender bigotry, while tough to eradicate, are far from immutable. They have mastered the art of building complex coalitions in which no constituency feels abandoned and all can move forward together to win progressive policies.
We all need to learn from these organizations and make sure their lessons are widely shared, their efforts resourced and replicated, rather than throwing buckets of money to Democratic Party consultants and operatives whose transactional, short-term, short-sighted approach to polling and messaging has much to do with the crisis we’re in today.
The liberal imagination has become fixated on the alleged excesses of “identity politics,” forgetting that social movements of the marginalized are the spark and spur of democracy. The abolitionist movement and the Civil Rights Movement extended democratic rights to the formerly enslaved and perpetually reviled, removing a deep moral stain from the nation. The women’s movement unleashed the potential and talent of half the country’s population. While the small-minded argue about bathrooms and pronouns, transgender activists—at great risk to themselves—have gifted us with a far more capacious understanding of the evolving spectrum of gender identity and expression.
None of these movements is “done.” Each has advanced not just the interests of a singular identity group, but also the ambit of freedom for all. Most assuredly, the generation that stepped forward in the wake of Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown will not stand down just because some liberals are having a panic attack.
We are all navigating treacherous terrain, seeking a way forward. At least some of us know that not a single development over the past period indicates that the way forward requires that we abandon our freedom dreams. To the contrary.
Linda Burnham is an activist and writer whose work focuses on women’s rights, racial justice and national politics.