Column: An Election Almost Entirely About Identity Politics

  • Parade participants march down Market Street carrying the rainbow flag during the annual Gay Pride parade in San Francisco, Calif. on Sunday, June 30, 2013. (Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times/TNS) Wally Skalij

For the Valley News
Published: 10/20/2018 10:30:04 PM
Modified: 10/20/2018 10:30:06 PM

As the midterm election rapidly approaches, Democrats face a problem of heroically ironic dimensions. The “other side” (I can’t in good conscience call them the GOP, as they bear little resemblance to the once reputable Republican Party) has succeeded in labeling Democrats as the party of “identity politics.”

Many, if not most, Democratic candidates and liberal pundits have run away from identity politics with tails between their legs. The strategic debate is between those who think “anti-Trump” is the best campaign strategy and those who think Democrats should stick to the issues that affect ordinary folks: issues like health care, protecting Social Security and Medicare, or repealing the tax cut for billionaires.

Anything but those dreaded, politically correct, identity politics.

And therein is the ironic dilemma. The election is almost entirely about identity politics, and Democrats are either afraid to say it or they have their heads in the sand.

I wrote extensively about this during the 2016 campaign. I believed then, and I’m sure now, that the Trump phenomenon represents simmering resentment over civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, feminism and programs like affirmative action. Beginning in the ’60s and boiling through the decades, this resentment was relatively muted until Trump made it possible — fashionable — to express this resentment at the ballot box and on the soapbox.

Consider other issues: Trump supporters don’t generally like the tax “reform” bill and it most assuredly doesn’t benefit them. Trump supporters don’t want cuts to Social Security or Medicare. Trump supporters don’t particularly care about public education or school privatization. Trump supporters don’t want the decimation of their health care. Reproductive choice is supported by 65-70 percent of Americans, suggesting that it is not a driving issue behind Trump.

The primary issue animating the current conservative movement is identity politics with its many tentacles. It’s why immigration works for Trump. Immigration is code for identity politics.

Facts don’t matter. Immigration is good for the economy. Immigrants are historically the least likely to commit crimes. Immigration is the foundation of America. But the immigrants being torn from their children or demonized in campaign ads are brown-skinned. That’s why the issue resonates with Trump Republicans.

In response to a lengthy comment I wrote on The New York Times website, a reader wrote, “Identity politics has nothing to do with recognizing the rights of individuals. It is the enemy of that liberal principle.” This is the nonstop rejoinder to affirmative action or other programs seeking to ameliorate the persistent effects of racism or other forms of marginalization. Conservatives love to flip the moral argument on its head and accuse progressives of discriminating by violating the precious human rights of individual white folks. “Discrimination is discrimination!” they shout.

Another reader was unintentionally transparent in his strenuous insistence that Republicans will prevail: “... they (Democrats) exist in a closed loop talking to one another about issues of interest mainly to them: minority rights, women’s rights ...”

Yes, of interest mainly to us. And that is the problem.

The incessant conservative critique of identity politics claims that people are now acting like members of “tribes” and leaning on group identity as a primary lens through which to view issues and experiences. They complain about tribes of color, transgender tribes, gay tribes, and #MeToo tribes. They accuse the tribes of subsuming all their individual members under tribal dogma.

But never mentioned is the white tribe. The big one. The one that tried to exterminate the other tribes. The one that preserves its unexamined privilege. The one that controls most wealth and power in America.

How do people of color, gay people, transgender people or other minority citizens divorce their life experiences from their group identity?

The killings of Tamir Rice, Philando Castile, Michael Brown, Eric Garner and other black men and boys can’t be sterilized by ignoring the color of their skin.

Matthew Shepard wasn’t beaten, tortured and murdered without regard to his sexual identity.

Transgender boys, girls, women and men aren’t humiliated and beaten, forced to use inappropriate bathrooms and denied protection under the law just for the hell of it.

Women are not just randomly denied promotions, paid less, assaulted more and denied equal access to power.

Their experiences cannot be viewed in any way other than as members of a disadvantaged or despised group.

By contrast, it takes remarkable blindness for anyone to legitimately claim, “This injustice happened to me because I’m white.”

The politics of this era are all about identity. Many Americans are afraid of the inevitable demographic shift to a minority-majority country. Many Americans are convinced that it’s a zero-sum game and that someone else’s gain is their loss. And many Americans are just old-fashioned racists, homophobes and misogynists who can deny their own bigotry by whining about identity politics.

This is the truth, yet any candidate who speaks it will lose. That is the progressive dilemma.

Steve Nelson lives in Boulder, Colo., and Sharon. He can be reached at

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