Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s presidential rollout has been upended by questions about why she called herself Native American decades ago. The governor and attorney general of Virginia are under fire for darkening their faces in a racist cultural appropriation that has rocked the state and placed their careers in limbo.
The past week has seen a combustible collision of politics focused on racial and ethnic identity, highlighting how much the national discourse is being fragmented not only by partisan loyalties, but also by factors innately personal.
As both the Warren and Virginia cases show, Democrats are engaged in a vigorous debate over how to talk about identity politics at a time when the country’s growing diversity is scrambling the electoral map, and as a diverse field is gathering to run for president.
President Trump engaged in his own brand of identity politics before his White House tenure, tapping into white grievance and exploiting racial tensions as a political weapon against nonwhites.
While Republicans believe Democrats are going too far in their embrace of identity politics, many in the Democratic Party take pride in the fact that the current field of nearly a dozen presidential candidates includes only one heterosexual white male.
And amid the tumult resulting from the two distinct but simultaneous controversies, some see a hard-earned benefit: a more frank discussion of the nation’s past.
“Clearly the conventional wisdom in the Democratic Party is shifting — and I would say finally shifting,” said Steve Phillips, author of the book “Brown is the New White” and a supporter of Sen. Cory Booker’s presidential campaign. “What this past week is starting to show is that we are approaching an almost MeToo-like level of reckoning about racism.”
The Democratic presidential campaign has been marked by an overt embrace of racial differences. Sen. Kamala D. Harris (Calif.) announced her campaign on Martin Luther King Day, and Booker (N.J.) announced his on the first day of Black History Month.
Most of the energy in the party right now is in the newfound activism that opposes Trump’s angry rhetoric about minorities, and believes the antidote to him is to reflect the diversity of the country.
“It’s important that we don’t ignore the power of identity, because it is very powerful, especially for women, especially for the rage of women right now,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) said in an interview with the Intercept.
She cited her own election, which included her primary upset of Rep. Joseph Crowley, a veteran legislator who is white, as demonstrating the importance of using identity as the political framework of a campaign.
“It was when I really leaned in on this broader message and crafted a progressive message that was rooted in my life story that we were able to really capture a much wider electorate, even though my progressive message was still the same,” she said.
Stacey Abrams, the Democrat chosen by party leaders to deliver the response to Trump’s State of the Union address — becoming the symbol of the party at a key moment — merged two of the most politically potent identities. An African-American woman who narrowly lost her campaign for governor of Georgia last year, she used the speech to showcase a multicultural display of Americans behind her, and argued forcefully against Trump’s policies. She represented newly energized parts of the party that seek to reckon with historical racism, sexism and xenophobia by bringing it to the center of the political debate.
“We fought Jim Crow with the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, yet we continue to confront racism from our past and in our present — which is why we must hold everyone from the highest offices to our own families accountable for racist words and deeds — and call racism what it is: Wrong,” Abrams said during her address, later insisting that Trump must respect “the extraordinary diversity that defines America.”
Abrams wrote in a recent Foreign Affairs magazine article that she “intentionally and vigorously” used her campaign to highlight the policy needs of nonwhite communities.
“The marginalized did not create identity politics,” she wrote. “Their identities have been forced on them by dominant groups, and politics is the most effective method of revolt.”
She argued that the increasing diversification of the United States should be further embraced, with legislation and polices that reflect the changes.
The piece triggered a vigorous rebuke from Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who suggested that her target was white Americans.
“Unity is definitely not what Stacey Abrams is interested in — just the opposite,” Carlson said on his show Wednesday. “What she’s selling is bitter division.”
He argued that she and other Democrats are attempting to unite by “inventing a common enemy that everyone can oppose.”
“They think they can win the next election by telling Americans they must hate their neighbors for the color of their skin,” he said. “No election is worth the hatred and the division of identity politics, not if you plan to live here anyway.”
Trump’s identity politics have included launching his campaign by calling Mexicans “rapists” and “murderers,” impugning an Indiana-born judge because of his Mexican heritage, maligning the Pakistan-born parents of a slain U.S. Army captain and later legitimizing neo-Nazis who marched in Charlottesville.
The nation’s first nonwhite president, Barack Obama generally tread carefully on issues of race. His political rise nationally began with a 2004 convention speech in which he declared, “There’s not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America.”
But even his views have shifted, at least in emphasis.
“When I hear people say they don’t like identity politics — I think it’s important to remember that identity politics doesn’t just apply when it’s black people or gay people or women,” Obama said in November at Rice University. “The folks who really originated identity politics were the folks who said, you know, three-fifths clause and all that stuff. That was identity politics … Jim Crow was identity politics, that’s where it started. Part of what’s happened is when people feel their status is being jostled and threatened, they react.”
The Democratic Party has also grown more diverse over the past two decades. Nearly 40 percent of Democratic voters in 2017 were nonwhite — up from 24 percent in 1997 — compared with 14 percent of Republican voters, according to the Pew Research Center.
Reflecting on some of the week’s events, Booker on Saturday urged broader understanding.
“I’ve had conversations with white friends of mine this week who just had the safety to come to me and ask me, ‘I don’t understand this blackface thing. Can you explain it to me,’” Booker said during an event in Iowa. “Put yourself in a white person’s position who might have questions.”
He recounted how in the “homophobic environment” of the 1980s a gay man “gave me a safe space … to ask stupid questions” in a way that helped shape his views.
“We gotta tell the truth, but we — all of us, black, white, gay, straight — we’ve got to start extending grace to each another so we can have honest conversations and leave room for growth,” he said.
Some Democrats worry about the recent focus. David Betras, the chairman of the Mahoning County Democratic Party, a working class area that includes Youngstown, Ohio, said he has grown increasingly frustrated by the emphasis his party places on cultural issues and questions of identity.
“We’re twisting ourselves into knots talking and over-talking about these issues. If you’re a working person — and it’s not just white men, I hear from all working people — we’re not talking to them,” he said. “In the meantime the president is talking about jobs, and bringing new jobs in. It’s [garbage] but that’s what people are hearing from him.”
“When people are thirsty and hungry, they’ll drink dirty water and eat bad food because it’s water and food,” he added. “They listen to him.”
Among the party’s presidential contestants, Warren has struggled most against identity politics, as she grapples with the continued fallout of her claims of Native American heritage.
“I’ve had a bad feeling about that whole thing since she did the genetic test,” said Iowa state Sen. Matt McCoy, speaking of DNA results Warren publicized last fall that showed a distant Native American relative. “And just the way that it’s death by a thousand cuts, the way it played out before the general (election) and the way it’s played out since then.”
When Warren called McCoy about a month ago, he said, he told her that the issue was “problematic.”
“She agreed and she said it became a bigger and bigger issue for her just because of the continuous haranguing by Trump calling her ‘Pocahontas’ and what she considered just an ongoing campaign of harassment toward her,” he said. “Her effort and her apology the other day was a way to try to close the door on this issue. I feel like that needs to happen if she’s going to have any success.”