For some time now, people have been criticizing the Democratic Party for focussing on what is termed “identity politics”. The implication is that the party would have stood a much better chance of winning local and national elections if it did not.
However, when I look at how people making this argument seem to be defining “identity politics”, I am forced to conclude that the argument is over-simplistic and is rooted in a misuse of language.
The working definition of “identity politics” that people making the argument seem to be using is what they consider to be an unwise focus by the Democratic Party on disadvantaged groups such as gay, bisexual and trans-sexual people, minorities etc. They seem to think that trying to ensure that these groups are not disadvantaged is bad for the party because it avoids the party having to address issues affecting much larger numbers of people such as rural unemployed. They also think that the focus on (for example) gay rights pisses off religious people and makes them less likely to support the Democratic Party.
At least two of those arguments have some merit. Yes, the focus on disadvantaged minorities is going to mean nothing to economically disadvantaged folks in the Heartland. If you are struggling to make enough money to survive in a rural part of the USA, gay rights is this weird thing that has no meaning to you and that you are unlikely to give a rat’s ass about.
It is probably true that gay rights will piss off many Christians. However, as a person who believes that human rights are not negotiable and should not even be put to a vote, I do not care much whether ensuring that gay and trans-sexual people enjoy equal treatment under the law pisses off anybody or any group. They can be pissed off as much as they like, but I don’t care unless they try to organize to prevent equal rights from being granted. At that point I will be working to prevent them from succeeding, since they have no damn business doing that.
My view on this space is that there are two types of political and policy messaging that mainstream parties engage in:
1. Identity messaging
This speaks to the worldview and values that the parties embody
2. Policy messaging
This speaks to the detailed ways in which the parties try to govern
Identity messaging is an area that the Republican Party excels in, and where the Democratic Party is inconsistent, and mostly poor. If you want an example from the last election cycle, compare “Make America Great Again” to “I’m with Her”. One sounds uplifting and aspirational, the other sounds almost apologetic.
Policy messaging is where the Democratic Party is stronger. The Democratic Party is stuffed full of people who, in a sort of dismissive way, get called “policy wonks”.
Identity messaging is more important for major elections, since elections require parties to bring as many non-core supporters to the polls as possible. All of the evidence shows that people vote values, not policies most of the time – emotions are based on values, and people’s emotions are activated and engaged by values-based messaging.
When GOP partisans refer to “Real Americans”, that is identity-based messaging writ large. They are implying (because they are careful to not explicitly say it, then they don’t have to deny or explain it) that they represent a group of people who are the Real Americans, and other parties, by implication, must therefore be representing people who are not Real Americans. That is a form of messaging that, for me, fits the definition in the phrase “Identity Politics” far better than the messaging that the Democratic Party does. Ditto other variants like “true Conservative” and “Patriot”. This, by the way, is deeply divisive and exclusionary messaging. It is one of the main reasons why I want absolutely nothing to do with the GOP in its current form.
When the Democratic Party talks about passing legislation to ensure that gay and transgender people are not discriminated against, this is not primarily Identity Politics. It is policy messaging, but it flows from the idea that all people really should have equal rights, regardless of race, color, creed or sexual orientation. Is it “Identity Politics” like the use of the phrase “real Americans”? Only incidentally.
If the criticism of the Democratic Party is that it should be doing more to address marginalized and disadvantaged heartland voters, then that is a valid criticism. However, this is not a binary scenario. The Democratic Party can work to advance and protect civil rights in all parts of the country, and also fight for the interests of economically disadvantaged rural people. I would argue that it’s failure to do the latter allowed the GOP, using the Identity Politics and messaging approach, to convince many of those voters that GOP cares for them (the GOP doesn’t give a damn about them. Donald Trump may well want to help them, but no policy that reduces business profits is going to get past the GOP in the House and the Senate, so those people waiting for lots of jobs to appear in rural America are likely to be disappointed).
So, my conclusion on this use of “Identity Politics” as criticism of the Democratic Party is that it is a mis-use of language. If any political party is using Identity Politics, it is the Republican Party. Quite simply, they are better at it, and have been better for decades. This is the basis of George Lakoff’s perennial complaints about Democratic Party messaging.