One of the more salutary outcomes of the recent election is that Democrats are finally beginning to question the wisdom of basing their fortunes on identity politics. Having counted on the allegiance of African Americans, Hispanics, gays, unmarried women and the young — and winning the popular vote all but once since 1992 — they were seduced into believing that they could ride this “coalition of the ascendant” into permanent command of the presidency.
They’re reconsidering now not because identity politics balkanizes society, creates state-chosen favored groups and fosters communal strife. They’re reconsidering because it’s not working.
Democrats read the 2008 and 2012 election results as a harbinger of the future. Then came 2016. They now realize that the huge turnout of their constituencies was attributable to Barack Obama, a uniquely gifted campaigner whose aura is not transferable.
And why assume that identity politics creates permanent allegiances? Take the Hispanic vote. Both Mitt Romney and Donald Trump won less than 30 percent, but in 2004 George W. Bush won 44 percent. Why assume that the GOP cannot be competitive again?
As these groups evolve socioeconomically, their political allegiances can easily change. This is particularly true for the phenomenally successful Asian American community. There is no reason the more entrepreneurial party, the GOP, should continue to lose this vote by more than 2 to 1.
Moreover, the legitimation of identity politics by the Democrats has finally come back to bite them. Trump managed to read, then mobilize, the white working class and to endow it with political self-consciousness. What he voiced on their behalf was the unspoken complaint of decades: Why not us? All these other groups, up to and including the relatively tiny population of transgender people, receive benefits, special attention and cultural approbation, yet we are left out in the cold, neglected and condescended to as both our social status and economic conditions decline.
For all the embrace of identity politics at home, abroad Obama has preached the opposite. Here is a man telling a black audience in September that he would “consider it a personal insult, an insult to my legacy” if they don’t turn out for the Democratic candidate in November. Yet on his valedictory tour abroad just nine weeks later, he lectures anyone who will listen on the sins of parochialism. His urgent message for the nations of the world, including his own, is to eschew “tribalism” in the name of a common universalism.
This doctrine of global consciousness found its photographic expression just two weeks ago. There was parka-bundled John Kerry on a visit to the Antarctic, to which he had dropped in to make a point about global warming. Three days later, Vladimir Putin, thinking tribally, renewed the savage bombing of Aleppo and then moved nuclear-capable missiles into Kaliningrad to remind Europeans of the perils of defying the regional strongman.
Putin is quite prepared to leave the Antarctic ice sheets to Kerry while he sets his sights on Eastern Europe and the Levant. Our allies, meanwhile, remain amazed that Obama still believes the kinds of things he said in his maiden U.N. address about the obsolescence of power politics and national domination — and acts accordingly as if his brave new world of shared universal values had already arrived.
Seven months ago, Obama went to Britain to urge them — with characteristic unsuccess — to remain in Europe. Now he returns to Europe to urge everyone to resist the siren song of “a crude sort of nationalism, or ethnic identity, or tribalism.”
This is rather ironic, given that what was meant as a swipe at both European and Trumpian ethno-nationalism is a fairly good description of the Democratic Party’s domestic strategy of identity politics.
To be sure, ethnic appeal has been part of American politics forever. But the Hillary Clinton campaign was its reductio ad absurdum : all segmented group appeal, no message. Even Bernie Sanders is urging that “we go beyond identity politics” if Democrats are ever to appeal again to the working class.
As for foreign policy, there has always been and always should be an element of transcendent mission to U.S. actions. But its reductio ad absurdum was the Obama doctrine of self-sacrificial subordination of U.S. interests to universal values. That doctrine is finished. The results, from Ukraine to Aleppo to the South China Sea, are simply too stark.
For the Democrats, the road back — from tribalism at home and universalism abroad — beckons.