In both political parties, a lot of white people — and white males in particular — are beefing with identity politics.
America’s newest class of victims — i.e., white men — is on the warpath again. They complain that they can’t get into college because of affirmative action, can’t get a job because of diversity hiring, and can’t keep a job because of factories closing due to unfair trade deals.
Now we can add to the “whine list” the fact that many white men feel they can no longer get ahead or get an advantage because of identity politics.
Stacey Abrams is pushing back with straight talk and common sense. And, as an African-American woman, the Democratic nominee in Georgia’s 2018 hotly contested gubernatorial election has an advantage in the debate over identity politics — the experience of being a member of two groups whose identities were, shall we say, not always celebrated in this country.
In a recent essay for the magazine Foreign Affairs, Abrams acknowledges that her campaign “intentionally and vigorously highlighted communities of color and other marginalized groups, not to the exclusion of others but as a recognition of their specific policy needs.”
Her campaign also built, she says, “an unprecedented coalition of people of color, rural whites, suburban dwellers, and young people in the Deep South by articulating an understanding of each group’s unique concerns instead of trying to create a false image of universality.” For this, Abrams makes no apologies. “The marginalized did not create identity politics,” she writes. “Their identities have been forced on them by dominant groups, and politics is the most effective method of revolt.”
Many white people have a more hostile take on identity politics. They don’t like it. Yet not many of them seem to be able to define what the concept actually means let alone pinpoint exactly what it is they don’t like about it.
In August 2017, syndicated radio host Rush Limbaugh — who has railed against the concept many times over the years — posted: “I abhor identity politics because it separates us. There’s no unity. There’s no togetherness. It’s hopeless, in fact, with identity politics. It’s literally hopeless, which I think illustrates the total fraud that is the left-wing agenda, as they state it.”
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Last November, while an internal battle raged among Democrats in Congress about whether to re-elect Nancy Pelosi as House speaker, Fox News host Tucker Carlson said Democrats had “reached the identity politics cul-de-sac.” Carlson said many on the left must think: “It’s racist to keep Nancy Pelosi because she doesn’t look like the emerging Democratic Party. But, it’s sexist to kick her out because she’s the highest-ranking Democrat woman.”
The war on identity politics is rooted in paranoia that women and people of color might have an upper hand in getting into college, getting a job, or even getting elected president. And it is not limited to Republicans.
Even Democrats (all white men) have waged war
In November 2016, after Donald Trump was elected president, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont — who lost the Democratic nomination to Hillary Clinton — predicted that Democrats were headed for some soul-searching. “One of the struggles that you’re going to be seeing in the Democratic Party is whether we go beyond identity politics,” Sanders said. “It is not good enough for someone to say, ‘I’m a woman! Vote for me!’ No, that’s not good enough.”
A few months later, in February 2017, former Democratic Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia, who also lost the nomination to Clinton, blasted his party for moving “very far to the left” and surrendering to “identity politics.”
Now, in the 2020 presidential race, some folks are bothered by the idea that Latinos — who make up more than 20 percent of the Democratic electorate in states like Arizona, California and Texas — would vote for Julian Castro “just because” the former U.S. secretary of Housing and Urban Development is Latino.
First, I’ve known Castro for 15 years and written more than 10,000 words about him. Trust me, the 44-year-old brings a lot more to his presidential bid than his ethnic background.
Second, as a Latino — and a Mexican-American like Castro — I will admit that I know some Latinos who vote the color line. Most of them are from the baby boom generation, and they remember well how many doors were shut in their faces because of their skin color. But this isn’t about payback. Latino baby boomers spent their entire lives searching for their place in a country that they love but which didn’t always love them back. Many of them tell me that they would dearly love to see a Latino president — or vice president — before they die.
Third, pick up a history book. Identity politics is as old as America itself. It was there in the early 1900s when John F. Fitzgerald served as mayor of Boston, and in 1946 when “Honey Fitz” helped his grandson, John F. Kennedy, get elected to Congress — with the help of Irish-American voters. It was there in the 1930s when Fiorello H. La Guardia reigned as mayor of New York City with support from Italian-Americans.
Picked-on minorities get angry, then active
Notice a trend? Both the Irish and the Italians knew what it was like to be scapegoated and picked on? They got angry, then they got active. It’s the American way.
Well, guess which ethnic group is the piñata of the Trump era. Would it give you a hint if I played mariachi music? That’s right. Latinos, especially Mexicans and Mexican-Americans.
Now that we have that all sorted out, I have a question to add to the mix: Is it still identity politics when white people do it?
For instance, Martin O’Malley, the former Maryland governor and yet another white male who lost the nomination to Clinton, has already made his choice for 2020: former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-Texas, whose major political accomplishment to date is losing a U.S. Senate race despite raising about $80 million.
One small detail: O’Rourke hasn’t even entered the race. Although he is scheduled to be interviewed by Oprah Winfrey in Times Square on Tuesday as part of her live event, “Oprah’s SuperSoul Conversations.”
O’Malley is backing O’Rourke? Oh really! On the right, Limbaugh and Carlson didn’t complain about it. On the left, Webb and Sanders were also silent. That’s weird. I wonder why.
Say, given the Irish-American vibe, maybe O’Rourke should skip the Oprah interview and instead sit down with Bill O’Reilly.
Ruben Navarrette Jr., a member of the USA TODAY Board of Contributors, is a syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group and host of the daily podcast “Navarrette Nation.” Follow him on Twitter: @RubenNavarrette