If liberals don’t embrace identity politics, they will lose

Ignore the naysayers. Economic equality and identity are inseparable.

If liberals don’t embrace identity politics, they will lose

Ignore the naysayers. Economic equality and identity are inseparable.

Welcome to TAKE DOWN, a column in which Sean McElwee holds pundits accountable for their hot garbage takes (and isn't afraid to be held accountable for his).


It has become fashionable for centrist pundits to argue that Democrats should abandon “identity politics,” a concept that they say distracts from shared values. Many pundits have said that identity politics, defined as politics that center the identities of marginalized groups to advocate for social change, create divisions within the Democratic coalition. In his post-election critique of identity politics in The New York Times, the political theorist Mark Lilla wrote, “Identity politics… is largely expressive, not persuasive,” and that instead progressives should “emphasize issues that affect a vast majority” of voters. He warned that “identity politics exhausts political discourse” leaving “shockingly little to say about class, war, the economy and the common good.” New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait, an unfailing anti-identity politics warrior, worried last year that the post-Trump resistance erred by having a “women's march” because it excluded men. Most recently, David Brooks lamented in the Times a “retreat to tribalism,” writing that, “Once you’ve identified your herd’s oppressor — the neoliberal order, the media elite, white males, whatever — your goodness is secure.”

In some circles on the left, identity politics is often viewed with skepticism, as something that can distract from working-class consciousness. Sen. Bernie Sanders evoked this sentiment during a 2016 talk in Vermont. “One of the struggles that you’re going to be seeing in the Democratic Party is whether we go beyond identity politics. I think it’s a step forward in America if you have an African-American CEO of some major corporation,” he said. “But you know what, if that guy is going to be shipping jobs out of this country, and exploiting his workers, it doesn’t mean a whole hell of a lot whether he’s black or white or Latino.” Critics such as Lilla and Chait argue that class is an identity shared by all people who do not own capital, and can therefore be a powerful wedge issue. They note that in many cases, bringing diversity to oppressive institutions has not succeeded in reducing their oppressiveness.


Historically, identity politics movements have done much to achieve lasting, substantive gains, and these gains have frequently included attendant economic advantages. From the Civil Rights movement to gender equality to gay rights, the idea that civil-rights struggles distract or diminish the fights for economic justice is often overstated.

Racial liberalism and economic liberalism are increasingly intertwined in our country’s political context. In his 2016 book Racial Realignment, the political scientist Eric Schickler argues for a “long realignment,” the theory that progressive activists in unions and the Democratic party broadly began tie together racial justice and economic equality as early as the 1930s. A key force behind this effort was the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), a collection of unions, that pioneered the strategy of party alliances by operating the first political action committee in the country in 1944 election. Because CIO was made up of industrial unions, it understood the need of cross-racial working class solidarity; union paraphenalia during this period frequently made appeals for a multi-racial, working-class coalition. CIO was one of the few unions to vigorously fight for anti-lynching legislation, with lead organizer John Brophy declaring that “behind every lynching is the figure of the labor exploiter, the man or corporation who would deny labor its fundamental rights.” Summarizing the period, Schickler writes that both black voters and the CIO “sought progress on a whole range of economic and social issues that they believed were connected with each other.”

There were opposite forces occurring on the right. In 1951, South Dakota Sen. Karl Mundt, a fervent believer in state’s rights, was named vice chair of the Senate Republican Campaign Committee and tasked with creating a “long-range program to build up Republican strength in the south.” This push was not without critics. New Jersey Rep. Clifford Case argued that Republicans should stand with “progressive forces in Southern labor, industry and not with the Dixiecrats.” He warned that a Dixiecrat merger (“Dixiecrat” was a term used to denote the difference between segregationist Democrats and northern liberal Democrats) would cost Republicans eastern states such as New York and New Jersey that Republicans won in 1948. The debate ended when President Dwight D. Eisenhower, set the stage for the Southern Strategy — which used racist appeals to win over white Southern voters — with “Operation Dixie,” a project to build up the GOP in the South by investing in organizational capacity. Despite Eisenhower’s proclaimed desire to win over racial moderates in the growing white Southern middle class, those doing the work on the ground frequently sided with segregationists.

Fast forward to today. Most people who hold liberal views on issues of race also hold liberal views on the economy, and people who are anti-immigrant or anti-black are conservative on economic issues. Though disgraced Trump adviser Steve Bannon has claimed he can forge a coalition based on economic populism and anti-immigrant sentiment — a strategy that has been successful in Hungary and Poland — he has not been successful in doing so.

Identity Politics and Class Politics Are Inseparable

Could Democrats win over racially conservative whites with economic populism? It’s unlikely, because people who oppose racial justice also tend to oppose liberal economic policies. To test this, I created scales of economic and racial liberalism, using two questions that have been on the American National Election Studies surveys since 1972. One question asks respondents to place themselves on a one-to-seven point scale on government aid to black Americans, the other on a one-to-seven scale on guaranteeing jobs and income for all Americans. In 1972, only 54 percent of white Americans who took the racially liberal position (supporting aid to black Americans) also took the economically liberal position (guaranteeing jobs and income). By 2016, 74 percent did. And in 1972, 77 percent of individuals who took the racially conservative position were economic economic conservatives. In 2016, 86 percent were.

This is the natural logic of ideological sorting, and a lesson that Republicans have learned well. The problem is that abandoning “identity politics” fails because the Democratic party needs to maintain coalitions that include the LGBTQ rights movement, reproductive justice activists, DREAMers, Black Lives Matter. Most Democratic voters have come to have solidarity with these groups. Accord to Pew data from last year, 80 percent of Democrats have favorable attitudes towards Black Lives Matter.

Identity Politics Strengthens the left

Far from deterring individuals from economic liberalism, identity politics is associated with more support for progressive economic policy. To show this, I used American National Election Studies data from 2016 to create a ten-question index of economic issues, including support for regulation of banks, a millionaire's tax, a scale of support for guaranteed jobs, and other progressive economic proposals. I then ran a regression analysis to see if support these policies among women was associated with views on whether it was to elect women to higher office, a measure of what might be called “identity politics.” I found that support for identity politics was strongly associated support for economically liberal policies, even controlling for race, college, ideology, age, family income and partisanship. I performed the same analysis among Latinx voters (using a question that asked how important it was to election Latinx to office), and found a similar result.

Even when I examine only individuals who identify as Democrats, these results hold up. For example, according to American National Election Studies data, 92 percent of Democratic women who believe it is “extremely” or “very” important to elect more women to office support a higher minimum wage. However, among Democratic women who think electing women to office is “moderately,” “a little,” or “not at all important,” a far fewer 73 percent support a higher minimum wage. So we can conclude that women who support identity politics (more women in office) are also more likely to support the economic liberation of working class women through a higher minimum wage.

Identity politics should be seen as a core part of the struggle for class equality. Individuals who believe in identity politics support economic progressivism. As I noted in a past column, candidates like Gina Ortiz Jones, a lesbian Filipina running for the 23rd Congressional district in Texas, and Dan Canon, a civil rights lawyer running for Indiana’s 9th district, belie the idea that identity politics comes at the expense of economic justice.

On other side of the caucus, centrist Democrats tend to be intersectionality lousy. Anti-abortion Democrats like Illinois Rep. Dan Lipinski, Texas Rep. Henry Cuellar, and Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson are centrist deficit hawks who support cuts to government spending and frequently vote with Trump. It would behoove them to accept that there is little to be gained from trying to treat gender, race, and economic justice as in conflict. There is simply no electoral benefit to be gained from abandoning identity politics because voters are increasingly sorted in such a way that those who support economically progressive policies are also supportive of racial justice and gender equity. Rather, the path forward will require an understanding of how deeply liberation from patriarchy, white supremacy, and capitalism are intertwined.

Sean McElwee is a writer and researcher in New York City.