Perhaps it is just not uttered because it is so obvious, or perhaps not, but Democrats have an identity politics problem. It partly explains why every non-female candidate in the Presidential field (short of Sanders) has struggled. It also explains why the party is so annoyed at their preferred choices being challenged in Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Florida.
No better example of the Democrat addiction to identity politics stands out than the Nevada Senate seat being vacated by Harry Reid. Democrats did everything in their power to recruit former Attorney General Catherine Masto into the race. Reid and the Democratic elite basically pushed everybody else out of the contest.
But this is only the most recent example. Since 2008 and Barack Obama’s election, Democrats have pushed candidates that appeal to their voting bloc and potentially others. In 2010 the party did not struggle with the issue. Due to their victories in 2006 and 2008 Democrats were defending numerous incumbents. They also had a sizable Congressional conservative contingent hailing from the South.
Yet the party pursued identity politics through its agenda. Obamacare, sold as a benefit to the middle class by bringing down costs, was a massive wealth transfer from the middle class to lower income individuals. Dodd-Frank handed out billions to the big banks and destroyed numerous smaller banks in the process. The stimulus bill and Cash for Clunkers handed out power and money to Democratic constituencies (unions, Planned Parenthood, etc) while leaving the American public further in debt.
The result was 2010. Conservative Democrats, forced to pick between their values and party loyalty, were wiped out. The result was a newly configured Democratic Party more in line with identity politics than ever. And since that time Democrats have embraced it.
President Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign was all about identity. The platform he offered and the promises he made were specific to different constituencies in a way Bill Clinton never attempted. Consider that virtually every decision made by the administration was based on how it would play with different constituencies. The perfect example of this was gay marriage. Reticent to embrace the issue in 2012, the President wholeheartedly supported it in 2012 because it would win him the LBGT and youth vote.
Democrats also ran several notable candidates that cycle including Tammy Baldwin, a gay Wisconsin Congresswoman, Shelley Berkley in Nevada, and Martin Heinrich in New Mexico. All three candidates played on key Democratic constituencies (women, minorities, LBGT community).
Just like 2008 benefited Democrats, so did 2012. Identity politics worked well. But it also had its downsides last year (just like 2010). Democrats, lacking strong identity-based candidates, were destroyed in 2014. Turnout dropped by significant margins in Hispanic-heavy states like Nevada, allowing a weakened GOP to sweep the ticket.
The 2016 election is not looking any kinder to the party. The GOP is defending numerous vulnerable Senate seats and demographics and turnout favor Democrats, but the party’s emphasis on identity-based politics and issues means they are stuck with a flawed Clinton as their Presidential nominee. Despite the former First Lady’s email scandal, lackadaisical campaign, and horrid attempts to appear genuine on the stump, the party faithful still overwhelmingly back her candidacy.
As one would expect from a party based on identity politics, her support comes solidly from women, minorities, and the young. Men, particularly college-educated white men, have thrown in their lot with Bernie Sanders as have the party’s urban base. But Sander’s candidacy is more like Trump’s, based on a movement’s beliefs and values and less on what the candidate represents.
It’s clear what Clinton represents. The empowerment of feminism, the wish list of goodies minorities crave like immigration reform, and yet another proponent of redistributing wealth. It’s little wonder why the other three white, heterosexual males in the race (Jim Webb, Lincoln Chaffee, and Martin O’Malley) cannot gain traction in the race. Their brand of politics and issues do not appeal to particular groups and unlike Sanders they have not been able to campaign on an issue that captivates a political movement’s attention.
Republicans are not immune to this trend, as Trump shows. The party has increasingly dominated statewide and down-ballot races in midterms because of the power of white, middle class men and non-college educated whites. These voters have their own brand of identity politics. Unlike other contingents of the GOP (fiscal conservatives, libertarians) who are true to the cause of limited government, these voters don’t mind a larger state as long as that state redistributes wealth to their benefit. Trump has tapped into these voters’ resentments against the establishment and media in a way few candidates have since Ross Perot in 1992.
Looking forward, identity politics is likely to be the flavor of the day in America. Democrats have invested too much in it to let it fail. Republicans, willingly or not, have allowed the party to be filled with identity politic supporting whites. Assuming it benefits them of course.