Activism

Democrats: Don't Blame Party Woes on 'Identity Politics'

You can't negotiate with the demons of racism, sexism, and xenophobia, or we all lose.

Photo Credit: Diego G Diaz / Shutterstock

Black women activists and leaders met with DNC Chair Tom Perez last week, and it was easy to think of them like the heroines in a horror movie who find solutions to the threat of the day as bystanders wring their hands and wail. These women cut through the Democratic soul-searching after a series of electoral losses with a clear-cut message, stated in an open letter that secured the meeting: Include us, the party’s most loyal constituency and voting bloc. We know how to slay the demons.

It was part of a larger series of discussions and reflections post the 2016 presidential election, which for many Americans, the ones who gave Hillary Clinton a popular-vote win, was like a horror movie franchise—“Halloween” or this year’s “Alien: Covenant.” In this case, the demons are racism, sexism, and xenophobia. They reared their ugly heads like the awful, spindly creature that emerged from an unsuspecting human’s body in the original 1979 “Alien.” We set out to defeat them, except in 2016, the scary demons emerged from America’s history to win. They had never been truly vanquished.

Instead of learning how to fight smarter—like Sigourney Weaver’s character Ripley eventually did in that classic—many in the progressive movement are looking to accommodate them in a bid to win elections. As we watch Trump continue to attack female journalists with gender-specific insults, roll back healthcare and criminal justice reform advances and destroy every small positive step toward and inclusive society, the concern of many, especially many black women and communities of color, is that once again, we’ll be the first and most quickly forgotten policy victims of the Trump administration.

Haven’t accommodating Democrats learned anything? Don’t they realize that those who step over friends and allies in a bid to make nice with the demon still lose in the end?

Since the Democrats lost the 2016 election, there have been countless op-eds, TV panels, radio conversations as to what went wrong. But one narrative became clearer than any other. The Democratic Party had failed to appeal to the heartland, primarily, white working class voters who had turned out in large numbers for Donald Trump.

One problem with the theory is that Donald Trump ran a Presidential campaign blatantly infused with racism, sexism, and xenophobia and other white nationalist themes that alienated many voters who vote for Democrats.

Trump’s foray into politics from wealthy real estate developer and reality show success was built on the “birtherism” lie that dogged President Obama in the early years of his Presidency. By questioning the citizenship of our nation’s first African American president, Trump legitimized racism.

We now know Trump was only getting started. When he kicked off his 2016 campaign, he called Mexicans “drug dealers” and “rapists” and proposed the idea of a wall built between Mexico and the U.S. to stave the illegal immigration that brought these drug dealers and rapists. Trump even questioned the fairness of a respected judge’s ruling because he was Mexican-American. 

Over the course of his campaign, Trump mocked the physical motions of a reporter with a disability, and called for a ban of Muslims entering the U.S. Angry with then Fox News host Megyn Kelly for her questioning, he later complained: “You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever.” He called his female opponent for President, Hillary Clinton, a “nasty woman” on the debate stage, who among other critics called him out on having called women “slobs” and “pigs” in his past and infamously saying on tape how he could “grab women by the pussy.”

At Trump’s rallies, clashes between supporters and protestors, particularly protestors of color, were made worse when the candidate egged on the violence. A film using footage from the Civil Rights Movement with Trump’s voice pointed out the parallels between then and now.

The reel served as a reminder that we’ve seen this movie before. Today it’s just another sequel, an illustration of what happens when rot is left to fester. It was no surprise when Trump was endorsed by the official Ku Klux Klan newspaper, and received support from Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke who said on his radio show that voting for anyone besides Trump “is really treason to your heritage”. Breitbart writers were supportive, a blog website, once referred to by its former editor Steve Bannon (now a Trump White House adviser) as the platform for the alt-right.

Was it any surprise that Donald Trump received less support from black and Hispanic voters than any elected president in at least 40 years, and the lowest support from Asian Americans since this community had been formally tracked as a voting demographic in 1992?

In contrast, Trump received large margins of white voters in every demographic; perhaps they don’t realize (or care) that the monster is only interested in his own survival—a healthcare bill Trump himself called “mean” is just one example. 

Democratic leaders, elected officials and pundits—primarily white—looked at these results, watched this election and clearly bought conservative talking points that “Identity Politics” (code for focusing on issues concerning women, LGBT people of color, immigrants, and religious minorities, not focusing white straight cisgender people) is the culprit, and if we just focused on economics, all would be fine.

The complaints ranged from an article in the Harvard Business Review discussing the wounded masculinity of white middle class men and the white rural areas to the ever present “Bernie Sanders would have won” because it’s the economy in Washington Monthly to a blistering op-ed in Huff Post saying Democratic Party deserved to die because white working America was facing an “economic apocalypse” and we “complained about their white privilege.” 

There are some problems with this logic in 2017.

First, since when is standing up for the rights of historically and often currently marginalized groups a bad thing? When a white Democrat blames “identity politics” for Party woes, that’s exactly what many in activists in communities of color think. It’s not like most of these battles being fought in courtrooms or in state legislatures or Congress across the country were started by liberals.

Stonewalling immigrants finding a pathway to citizenship? Conservatives. Blocking efforts for gays getting married? Conservatives. Fighting progress in civil rights for African Americans? That’s what initially turned white Southerners away from the Democratic Party starting with the 1965 Voting Rights Act. As a result, the Democratic Party built a platform, with an assist from activists, defending the rights of these Americans whose rights have been under siege. 

Are we supposed to turn a blind eye or minimize America living up to its creed of equality and justice for all because it made the white voters who voted for Trump annoyed? These legislative and policy fights over civil rights unfortunately aren’t going to dissipate.

Under Trump, they have and will get worse. And politically speaking, communities of color have in large numbers rewarded the Democratic Party repeatedly with their vote, enough to carry the Democratic Party over the finish line in key Presidential elections – Obama terms one and two as a recent example.

Second, focusing on economic justice will not in and of itself win elections for Democrats. The “rising tides lift all boats” theory has its failings. Will a paid leave, a living wage, more jobs, affordable higher education, and healthcare benefit many more in the American economy? Absolutely. However, the economic boom doesn’t always trickle down in full to people of color. For all the extolling of how bad it is for white working voters in Middle America, things are and have continued to be infinitely worse for communities of color, especially black people.

The unemployment rate has been double the national average for African Americans, at all education levels. The poverty rate has always been higher, dipping slightly during Obama’s presidency. When advocacy organizations discuss closing the wage gap for women, the 78 cents for every dollar is often cited but that only addresses white women’s earnings compared to white men. The wage gap is even wider for women of color. For example, Latina women earn 55 cents for every dollar white men earned and African American women earn 60 cents to the dollar. When we discuss ensuring quality affordable healthcare, it’s often communities of color who are left behind in cost, access, and quality of care. This is saying nothing of the disparities in K-12 public education and the criminal justice system that have compounded matters for communities of color.

In the last decade, as younger generations have grown up in an increasingly diverse America—Generation X and Millennials—many of them have attempted to address these disparities through Black Lives Matter, LGBT and women’s rights and other various movements.

Many activists would have been happy to have the Republican Party take part in a dialogue. After all, why should desiring not to get shot at the drop of hat by the police or being able to use the bathroom of the gender with which you identify exclusively be liberal issues, when they are civil rights and liberty issues? 

However, that ship sailed long ago when Nixon became President. His campaign’s “Southern Strategy,” which shored up support among the grandparents and parents of the white working class voters of today by appeals to racial resentment and white solidarity, was the chosen way to win. 

We’ve seen its various iterations since then, changing in appearance just as the “Alien” changed form while retaining its evil core. Reagan married the Southern Strategy to the white evangelical movement that carried him to two terms. His successor George H.W. Bush, rode to victory aided by the infamous Willie Horton ad. His son, George W. Bush, a decade later won with the assist of Karl Rove, who utilized the fear of gays getting married to increase voter turnout. Donald J. Trump took the Southern Strategy to the next level, openly fusing white nationalist sentiment into his campaign, a tactic that worked with many white voters seething about a culturally changing America that produced America’s first black President. 

Economic anxiety for some white voters turned into an age-old exploited lie that those blacks and their affirmative action is why you didn’t get that promotion; those immigrating Latinos were the cause of your job loss. The Muslims were the reason that you were feeling unsafe and if you vote for a guy like Trump, the old America you remember—that never was—will come back again. 

Because the Democratic Party has been the Party that has generally defended the rights of the people many of these folks blame for their woes, these white working class voters aren’t coming back in large droves to the Democratic Party. They have not been there for a while. Some might, but it can’t be accomplished yet again on the back of the most devoted constituencies that have kept the Democratic Party alive. And remember, the substantial black and brown working class were not fooled at all.

Moderating on cultural issues will in turn drive away the Democrats’ solid base of support. Frustration with the Democratic Party for policy and political reasons is already showing. Recent polling shows 63% of African Americans feel taken for granted by the Democratic Party. And it’s starting to play out in the elections we’ve had thus far. The Democratic Party can no longer depend on African American voters to turn out in high amounts since President Obama left office, and traditional mobilization methods are no longer cutting it. Lower African American turnout was on display recently in the 2017 special elections in the GA-6, which showcased lower turnout in the June runoff.

What does this mean for Democrats and even leaders of the progressive movement as they forge a path forward? Yes, continue to focus on bread and butter economic issues, but these economic policies must take into account not only white citizens but the economic disparities that affect citizens of color. And yes, the Democratic Party should continue to openly stand up for the rights of those whose rights are being assaulted because of their gender, race, and sexual orientation or identity.

The Democratic Party’s leaders should also commit to bringing more citizens from the base into political and policy leadership. Party leaders need to play an active part in not only grooming future elected officials of color, especially for non-majority minority districts, but also recruiting more people of color into the Party leadership staff and campaigns. 

The country is rapidly changing, according to the Census in 2016; babies of color now outnumber non-Hispanic white babies being born. Failing to appreciate and invest in policy solutions and substantive political engagement in communities of color is a recipe for continued losses.

Communities of color understand, as the unsuspecting victims in horror movies never do, that the demon never really dies. It is hiding in the dark, being kept alive for the next movie in the series.

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Atima Omara is a political strategist, award-winning leader, and advocate. She is a Democratic National Committee member, and DNC Transition Advisory Committee member. Atima is also Immediate Past President of the Young Democrats of America, the nation’s largest partisan youth organization. She is a Ford Foundation Public Voices Fellow of The OpEd Project.