The Democrats and the Seesaw of Identity Politics

“Wintergreen for President! Wintergreen for President! He’s the man the people choose / loves the Irish and the Jews!” So Ira Gershwin wrote in the opening lyric of “Of Thee I Sing,” the satiric Gershwin–George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind show from 1931 which, the following year, became the first musical to win a Pulitzer Prize. At the time, the lyric, now quaint, seemed quite bold and audacious—to speak so directly about what we would now call identity politics was brazen. Yet the lyric and the quaintness—who now tailors a platform specifically to the Irish?—come to mind instantly in terms of the loud and ongoing arguments about the role, right or wrong, of identity politics in “progressive” thought. Should the left—or liberals, not at all the same thing—pursue identity politics or put them aside for common measures, and did a pursuit of identity politics help lead to the results of November 8th?

That liberals, or leftists, are arguing about such tactical niceties at a moment like this may in itself seem absurd—as if, with the Visigoths sacking Rome, the remaining Romans were debating whether, when the city was somehow retaken, the new Emperor should wear purple or yellow socks. It would be good to first retake Rome. But, presumably, in order to retake Rome you have to make a sock plan, and so the argument—made by, among others, Mark Lilla in the Times—runs that there was a time when Democratic politics appealed to a common interest or common cause, finding unexpected shared desires among disparate groups and uniting them around shared patriotic, or perhaps merely self-interested, ideas. Now we have succumbed to a micropolitics, where the demands of  groups are insistently for their own separateness and autonomy, with each group being dutifully placated in turn. This, the argument goes, only gave license to a particularly large identity group—white people—to start making demands for a little placation themselves. And so working-class white people began voting as a bloc, producing Donald Trump. This kind of identity politics, presumably indicated by semantic squabbles over whether asserting that “black lives matter” means that other lives do so less, or by the proliferation of ever smaller groups with identity demands, such as transgender people wanting bathroom access, is seen as the poison of progressive politics.

If by identity politics we mean the idea that politicians should consider—“cater to” is the usual phrase—identifiable (or self-identified) groups, well, it is hard to identify a time when that hasn’t happened. Wintergreen had to love the Irish and the Jews (and presumably the Italians, too, had they fit into the scansion) because they were among the identifiable, and frequently warring, identity groups of the thirties. Each had its own demands, and was known for them.

It might be helpful in this pursuit to look at an actual political document of the supposed Golden Age, a once legendary letter in Democratic history: a 1947 memo from Clark Clifford to Harry Truman which lay out the strategy that produced Truman’s upset victory the next year. Clifford’s memo is a brutal political how-to sheet, and in it there is scarcely a moment spent appealing to a mélange of “common,” much less patriotic, interests. It’s a recipe book for how to get enough identity groups—Clifford calls them “pressure groups”—gathered together into one winning hand without having to discard others, just as one would in a game of gin rummy, a period favorite.

Startlingly, to those who still imagined that the party bosses ruled, Clifford explains that the role of the political machines had already receded—perhaps making the point because Truman, himself the product of a big-city machine, in Kansas City, might not have sufficiently appreciated it—and that each group must now be addressed individually. “The Farmer,” “The Liberals,” “The Negro,” “The Jew,” “The Catholic”—Clifford runs through them all, bluntly, with each pressure group presumed to have its own demands. Ideological blocs get their grease, too: Western progressives, Northern liberals, all these groups have to be addressed specifically, not only in terms of their economic interests but also of their specific identities. The Jew counts only in New York, but New York is big and Jews, Clifford notes, care about what was still called Palestine.

If this is not identity politics, it is hard to say what it is. There are general anxieties that are assumed to unite these groups, for example fears about housing and high prices and Communism. But the general thrust, again, is how to get all the pressure groups into your hand without forcing another one out. In particular, Clifford lays out the steps to the dance the Democratic Party was able to keep up until 1964, providing enough symbolic identity gestures to black voters to keep them in the alliance without threatening white Southerners. (Once Democrats went all in for civil rights, in 1964, the white South was gone.) There are no concerns expressed about the gay community or Latinos, simply because they didn’t yet have sufficient influence.

What distinguishes “identity” politics from these classic pressure or interest-group politics? Identity politics seem simply to be interest-group politics pursued by groups with whom you happen not to identify. Gay and transgender people are now emancipated to bring their interests to bear, and they do, as the Irish and the Jews did before them.

The deeper objection, on inspection, seems to be that there’s an assumed hierarchy of interest groups that acts as a negative political force. The concerns of, say, African-Americans or gays, historically more persecuted, are thought to be most important to the Democrats to placate, while the concerns of the “white” majority are thought less so. This is not entirely new; back in the day when the New York Post was a liberal paper (really!), the joke was that its ideal headline was “City Flooded: Jews, Negroes Suffer Most.” The real hypocrisy here is that those making this accusation themselves assert a hierarchy of groups when they invoke the white working class, who become invariably an object of extended pathos, complete with set cultural clichés in which honest beer is swilled in honest bars as the less honest soar from coast to coast overhead, swilling chardonnay.

Of course, if you expect the pressure groups on our side of the fence to act as a unit on their perceived interests, then you can’t expect another self-identified group not to act as a unit on its perceived interests. In this case, the actors are the suddenly consolidated working-class white people, the Irish and the Jews and a lot of Italians and plenty of Middle Europeans, Poles and Czechs, all those others who once had to be addressed separately but now, in the face of a growing minority-majority nation, cling together in one gang.

Identity politics, really, seem the same as interest-group (or “special-interest”) politics, and interest politics are democratic politics. The trick is to corral as many of these interest groups under the same tent as possible, and make it more than the other guy. It was the belief that one interest/identity group—those white-working-class guys—wasn’t necessary to win elections that seems to have been the fatal flaw of the Clinton campaign; they were right in the sense that it wasn’t necessary to win the popular vote, which they did. But it was necessary to win decisive counties in purple states. Why the voters they didn’t get were no longer gettable is a good question, but the answer can’t be that liberals were paying too much attention to the voters they could. (The single greatest difference in America from the time of the Clifford memo is the role of unions; Clifford assumes they’re powerful in a way they no longer are.)

A truth is to be found here: if all you do is push down on a seesaw, the other end goes up. If all you do is assert the importance of your side’s pressure groups, other pressure groups will feel threatened and act out. To pretend this won’t happen is to suspend human history. But gathering distinct “identity” groups together, whatever you call them—getting a lot of people on the seesaw, in some kind of balance—is still the way to win elections.

Unless, that is, you have found a magic formula of instant common assent. Wintergreen solved the problem by running on a simple platform designed to bring together all the identity, interest, and pressure groups of his time. It had a simple slogan: “Love.” (Which then, you may recall, swept the country.) Maybe it’s worth a try.

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