One of the election’s more salutary outcomes is that Democrats are finally questioning 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 thought they could ride the “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, but because it’s not working.
Democrats read the 2008 and 2012 elections as a harbinger. Then came 2016. They now realize their constituencies’ huge turnout was attributable to Barack Obama, a uniquely gifted campaigner whose aura is not transferable.
Why assume identity politics creates permanent allegiances? Mitt Romney and Donald Trump won less than 30 percent of the Hispanic vote, but in 2004 George W. Bush won 44 percent. As these groups evolve socioeconomically, why assume the GOP cannot be competitive again?
Moreover, Democrats’ legitimization of identity politics finally came back to bite them. Trump read and mobilized the white working class, and gave it political self-consciousness. He voiced their unspoken complaint of decades: Why not us? Other groups get benefits, special attention and cultural approbation, yet we are neglected and condescended to as our social status and economic conditions decline.
Despite his embrace of identity politics at home, abroad Obama preached the opposite. He told a black audience in September he would “consider it a personal insult, an insult to my legacy” if they didn’t vote for Hillary Clinton. Yet on his tour abroad nine weeks later, he lectures anyone who will listen on the sins of parochialism and tribalism.
This doctrine of global consciousness found its photographic expression two weeks ago. John Kerry visited the Antarctic to make a point about global warming. Three days later, Vladimir Putin, thinking tribally, renewed the savage bombing of Aleppo and moved nuclear-capable missiles into Kaliningrad to remind Europeans of the perils of defying him.
Putin will leave the Antarctic ice sheets to Kerry while he takes on Eastern Europe and the Levant. Our allies remain amazed Obama still believes what he said in his first U.N. address about the obsolescence of power politics and national domination – and acted 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 stay in Europe. Now he returns to urge them to resist the siren song of “a crude sort of nationalism, or ethnic identity, or tribalism.”
This is ironic, given that the swipe at European and Trumpian ethno-nationalism is a fairly good description of the Democratic Party’s domestic identity politics strategy.
Ethnic appeal has been part of American politics forever. But Hillary Clinton’s campaign was its reductio ad absurdum: all segmented group appeal, no message. Even Bernie Sanders is urging “we go beyond identity politics” if Democrats want to appeal again to the working class.
In foreign policy, there has always been and always should be an element of transcendent mission to American 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.