Identity Politics has formed the basis of the American political system since the 1990’s. It is enshrined in both parties’ political narratives, and it has become a major animating factor and GOTV (Get Out The Vote) force in both parties’ bases. Below, for example, is one graphic example of how Identity Politics is used to define the two parties around the issue of abortion:
Getting the Democrats to abandon Identity Politics will be very difficult because it will mean a total restructuring of the Party and — most importantly — Identity Politics will need to be replaced with something else in order to attract voters.
This “something else” is what progressives like Bernie Sanders and Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez are trying to develop. The “something else” is, in this case, running campaigns that are issues-based rather than identity-based.
Democrats have been widely criticized for not developing issues-based campaigns, and indeed the DCCC (Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee) and the cadre of Democratic campaign consultants have been caught actually telling candidates NOT to stake out firm positions on issues, to avoid listing specific policy positions on their web sites, and even to avoid specific issues and policy discussions when speaking in public.
The latest example of this is the issue of healthcare. Many people, such as Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez, are now speaking about single-payer healthcare and even calling for a “Medicare for All” program that will guarantee healthcare to every American. However, the DCCC is telling candidates NOT to talk about healthcare if possible and under no conditions to ever talk about Medicare For All. A leaked DCCC memo outlines the approved talking points on healthcare, which essentially are just talking about the horrible Republican plans for healthcare without offering any specific alternatives other than support for the current system of the ACA (ObamaCare).
In another example, the DCCC told its candidates to “limit the number of Black Lives Matter activists at public events and promise no support for ‘concrete policy positions’” regarding the #BLM priorities.
Indeed, this has been the standard Democratic playbook for decades. While the GOP has outlined specific goals and fixed policy proposals (such as the 1994 “Contract with America”), the Democrats have simply talked about how bad the GOP plans are, and the Democrats’ own policy “goals”, such as they are, are to simply oppose the Republicans. They promise to “defend”, to “fight”, and to “protect” various existing programs, but they never really propose anything bold and new, and they never dare to say they want to expand those programs that are under threat by the GOP.
The Democrats consistently and deliberately avoid talking about issues and specific policies, opting instead to use Identity Politics to try to get voters to choose their candidates based on who they are rather than what they stand for.
As Thomas Frank has brilliantly described in his seminal book, Listen, Liberal!, Democrats now run on their resume rather than their platform.
Perhaps the most blatant example of the Democrats’ reliance on Identity Politics was Hillary Clinton’s 2016 Presidential campaign. Although Hillary was by all accounts a policy wonk, she did not run on specific policy proposals. Rather, her campaign urged us to vote for her because of three main reasons:
- Hillary was “the most qualified person ever to run for President” — this was a constant refrain voiced by Hillary surrogates such as Barack Obama
- Hillary was a woman — and it was important to vote for the first female President. This point was famously voiced by Madeleine Albright, who said at a Clinton campaign rally, “there is a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other.”
- Hillary was NOT Trump — this was the main theme that Clinton voiced over and over in the closing months of the campaign, leading to her “basket of deplorables” remark as well as other unfortunate utterances.
The result was a campaign based entirely on Identity Politics, and as a study concluded, her TV ads were actually unprecedented in their almost complete lack of policy:
CHANGING THE DEMOCRATIC PARTY
In order for the Democrats to abandon their fixation on Identity Politics, the entire party will need to be, as Bernie Sanders has said, “transformed.” This means primarily changing the way in which the Democrats raise money.
Since the takeover of the Democratic Party by Bill Clinton and his pro-corporate DLC (Democratic Leadership Council), the Democrats have abandoned their traditional power base of Labor Unions in order to compete directly with Republicans for the lavish campaign cash offered by Corporate America and especially Wall Street. These Clintonite “Third Way” Liberals dropped the party’s New Deal obsession with the proletariat and instead sought to woo the wealthy.
As Thomas Frank also explained in Listen, Liberal!, the Democrats stopped being the party of the blue collar working class and started representing the interests and priorities of the white collar managerial and professional class. Ronald Reagan was now the “transformative” leader who was invoked and praised by every prominent Democrat from Clinton to Obama. FDR was regarded as a relic, and the New Deal was something that Bill Clinton and Barack Obama did their best to roll back and eradicate in every way.
The DLC/New Democrat movement was thought to be a very clever strategy at the time, however no one seemed to care about what this “transformation” really meant: by representing Management and the owners/shareholders, the Democrats could not also simultaneously advocate and fight for the workers.
For the Democrats to abandon Identity Politics, they would need to run on issues and policies that would be popular with the greatest number of voters. This means siding once again with working people, whose economic interests would be diametrically opposed in many cases to the interests of the Democratic Donors.
This is the greatest challenge facing the Democrats — to change their funding mechanisms away from the wealthy corporations, banks, and individuals who currently make up their Donor base.
TODAY’S DEMOCRATIC PARTY IS JUST A MONEY-MAKING ORGANIZATION
The current Democratic Party is nothing but a mafia-like money machine, in which candidates are treated like Soprano foot-soldiers: they need to collect money from their donors and “kick it up” to the Party bosses. DCCC-backed candidates must promise to raise a certain amount of money from a certain (limited) amount of big value donors, and they must promise to spend 75% of their campaign expenditures on “approved” Media companies. It is a racket, and the only people who benefit are the consultants, media buyers, lobbyists, and other parasitical “professionals” feeding at the Donor trough. This has to stop.
Stopping means getting PEOPLE engaged; it means depending on small donations; it means utilizing volunteers and concentrating on GOTV efforts such as canvassing, rallies, conferences, and other events. It means getting off the addictive gravy train of corporate cash and it means stopping the vicious cycle of fundraising and spending on lobbyists, consultants, and mass media.
Once they have decided to take that step, however, the political process of regaining control of the government is very easy. All the Democrats need to do is return to their roots and return to the populist politics of FDR, Truman, JFK, and LBJ.
In other words, they need to return to the political formula that kept FDR in the White House for four terms and gave the Democrats almost unbroken control of Congress for 60 years.
The principles and policies that Democrats need to promote already exist. Long before the Republicans came up with their “Contract with America,” President Roosevelt set out what he called a Second Bill of Rights, also called the Economic Bill of Rights.
This bill of rights included, as FDR wrote:
- The right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the Nation;
- The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation;
- The right of every farmer to raise and sell his products at a return which will give him and his family a decent living;
- The right of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad;
- The right of every family to a decent home;
- The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health;
- The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment;
- The right to a good education.
All Democrats have to do is return to this FDR Bill of Rights, convert these principles into modern language and actual legislative proposals, and they will be able to once again dominate American politics for generations to come. The reliance on Identity Politics will, at last, be regarded as an anomaly, a blip, a time when the Democrats had lost their way.
And I am not the only one calling for this. The great John Nichols at The Nation has also called for reviving the FDR legacy:
Parts of this article first appeared in an answer on Quora.
This article was originally published on Medium.