Since Donald Trump managed to secure an Electoral College victory despite getting a couple million fewer votes than Hillary Clinton, Democrats have heard one piece of advice from all sides: Enough with the identity politics!
Liberals like Bernie Sanders have said it. Conservatives have crowed it. In The New York Times, scholar Mark Lilla writes that "One of the many lessons of the recent presidential election campaign and its repugnant outcome is that the age of identity liberalism must be brought to an end." If Democrats are going to appeal to those lionized white working-class voters, they'll have to stop focusing on the identity politics involved in defending the rights and enhancing the opportunities of African-Americans, Latinos, women, gay people, and all the other groups that make up the Democratic coalition.
All this advice is based on the mistaken belief that "identity politics" only happens when there are minorities involved. But the truth is that all politics is identity politics. And right now, nobody's playing it with more fervor than Republicans.
How exactly do you think Donald Trump got elected? Was it his well-considered and detailed health care plan? His deep understanding of the macroeconomic levers available to government policymakers? His nuanced foreign policy ideas? Of course not. Trump made an appeal to white identity, one that placed itself in opposition to Latino immigrants, to Muslims, to anyone who doesn't look white. It's not exactly an accident that white supremacists across the country are celebrating his victory.
That isn't to say that Trump made no policy promises, because he did. His signature promise of building a wall on the southern border is a policy idea — but it's one laden with an appeal to identity. And that was what so many of his practical ideas had in common: They promised a return to an earlier time, when the dominance of white men was absolute.
To his voters he said that in Trump's America the immigrants would be gone, the Muslims would be shut out, women would know their place, and you as a white person, particularly a white man, would stop feeling like you had to treat those you consider your lessers with respect. Your cultural primacy would be restored, and you'd no longer feel marginalized or left behind.
This promise was so powerful that it managed to overcome all of Trump's gaffes, all his lies, and his manifest lack of preparation for the job. And it managed to turn out many white voters, particularly in the industrial Midwest, who hadn't voted in years.
There's a lot of argument going on about just how much Democrats need to reach out to those white voters, and what's the best way to do it. What we should no longer argue about is that those voters were intensely motivated by their identity, in a backlash to the growing diversity of American society, their feeling that they're being left behind by social change, and the presidency of Barack Obama. When NRA chief Wayne LaPierre says, as he did last year in arguing against Hillary Clinton, "I have to tell you eight years of one demographically-symbolic president is enough," is he coming out against identity politics, or playing his own version? The answer is obvious: He was arguing that it was long past time to restore the presidency to what it ought to be, the province of white men and white men alone. Lots of people agreed.
That's a message that conservative media have been sending relentlessly for years, added in with some Christian identity politics (as in the "War on Christmas"). That doesn't mean that identity politics can't be rational, however. It can be just one more heuristic, an information shortcut that allows voters to make rational decisions with little information. If you're African-American, deciding your vote on the Republican Party's antipathy toward people like you is perfectly reasonable. Because if a Republican is elected, he'll probably try to make it harder for you to vote, be less inclined to combat racial discrimination, support police practices that could get you harassed or even killed, and generally advocate a wide range of policies that might do you harm. That doesn't mean that if a Democrat is elected she'll make your world a paradise, but the odds of positive outcomes may be more in your favor with a Democrat.
And if you extend it out past your own interests to thinking about how your vote will help create the kind of country you'd like to see for everyone, identity can be a direct cue. Our identities are connected to our values, which are in turn embodied in the policies government makes. So yes, Democrats are a demographically diverse party that advocates inclusive, pluralistic policies on things like immigration, civil rights, and workplace rules. That's who they are.
They also happen to support many policies that are directly geared toward working-class people, including increasing the minimum wage, providing paid family leave, strengthening unions, and maintaining an adequate safety net (and yes, Hillary Clinton vocally advocated all that and more). Republicans oppose all those things, which is why their version of identity politics is so tightly focused on race, where they can encourage resentment and fear while not discussing too much of their actual economic agenda.
It does make one wonder what all those enthusiastic white working-class voters will think when they find out that the top priorities for Trump and the Republicans are cutting taxes for the wealthy and reducing regulations on Wall Street. Maybe they'll feel betrayed when they realize that Trump isn't going to reopen the coal mines, the steel mills, and the factories, with their labor-intensive (and labor union-represented) work that employed so many and which started leaving decades ago. Or maybe they'll decide that he's still their guy even when he fails. Which is what would make sense, if it's all about identity.