Two weeks after the 2016 election, Bernie Sanders was in Boston promoting his revolution (and the book that he’d named after it), when a young woman asked him a softball question: “I want to be the second Latina senator in U.S. history — any tips?”
Sanders’s response would end up defining the terms of intra-left debate for weeks (if not months, if not years) to come. After stipulating that it was “enormously important” to bring more women and nonwhite people into the political process, the Vermont senator implored his audience to “go beyond identity politics.”
“It is not good enough for somebody to say, ‘Hey, I’m a Latina, vote for me,’ that is not good enough,” Sanders argued. “This is where there is going to be division within the Democratic Party. It is not good enough for someone to say, ‘I’m a woman! Vote for me!’ No, that’s not good enough. What we need is a woman who has the guts to stand up to Wall Street, to the insurance companies, to the drug companies, to the fossil fuel industry.”
Last night, a woman with such guts gave “Berniecrats” their biggest — and most improbable — victory of the 2018 campaign. But Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez did not take down Joe Crowley by forswearing “identity politics,” so much as expertly practicing — and elevating — such politics.
Of course, there was a lot more to the 28-year-old socialist’s message than just, “I’m a Latina, vote for me.” But that was certainly part of it — as well it should have been. The Democratic base has never been more eager to elect women than it is now, and New York’s 14th House District has never been less white. Joe Crowley might have been seen as the Speaker of tomorrow on Capitol Hill, but in his district, he’s a relic of the past. Few voters in Crowley’s corner of New York City — an area that’s half Hispanic, and 70 percent nonwhite — could see themselves in an Irish-American machine politician. Democratic socialists gave those voters the opportunity to elect someone whose ethnic and cultural identity more closely resembled their own; voters returned the favor by giving socialists a voice in the next Congress.
Bernie Sanders’s critique of “identity politics” was far from unfounded. It is immensely difficult to get the American political system to put the material interests of ordinary people above those of the economic elite. Doing so requires overwhelming the latter’s financial advantage with the former’s numerical one. And the easiest way to accomplish that is to polarize the electorate along class lines. When social and cultural identities become more salient in our politics, achieving such polarization becomes more difficult.
Plutocrats have long understood this. It isn’t hard to see how the Republican Party deploys “white identity politics” to obfuscate the disparate class interests of the Koch brothers and coalminers. In a less overt — and far less malevolent way — the Democratic Establishment used left-wing identity politics in 2016 to obscure class tensions within its own tent. To counter Sanders’s social democratic message — without simply appealing to the electoral pragmatism of a more moderate, progressive agenda — Clinton’s campaign (and its allies) framed her rival’s emphasis on the necessity of redistributing economic power as an affront to the causes of racial, gender, and LGBT justice.
This was a savvy political gambit. Sanders’s dearth of experience in courting nonwhite voters — and lack of fluency in the language of the social justice left — made him vulnerable to such a charge. But it also helped popularize a form of class-blind identity politics that, in its crudest iteration, suggests that African-Americans have little to gain from universal health care — or radical reforms to the financial system — because “Sandra Bland had a job” and “Goldman Sachs didn’t shoot Michael Brown.” (It is difficult to understand why the activists who promoted this critique did not see universal health care as a racial justice issue — the victims of America’s broken health-care system, just like those of its broken police departments, are disproportionately black. And while police reform is vitally necessary, far more African-Americans die each year for want of health insurance than from police shootings. By contrast, it is easy to see why fiscally conservative Democratic donors might wish to channel the base’s appetite for social justice toward reforms that do not require drastic tax increases.)
But if left-wing identity politics can be used to thwart progressive economic change, it can also be used to advance it. In an ideal world, progressives would be able to assemble a broad, cross-racial, working-class coalition by simply appealing to the rational, material interests of ordinary Americans. But we don’t live in an ideal world. We live in Donald Trump’s America — a nation where organized labor and class consciousness are in bad decline, and conflicts over race, gender, and representation are at the center of politics, whether Democratic Socialists like it, or not.
This presents significant near-term obstacles to Bernie Sanders’s social democratic project. But as Ocasio-Cortez’s victory demonstrates, it also offers real opportunities.
The Democratic Party’s incumbent officeholders are much more white and male than its voters. And the party’s most ideologically moderate incumbents tend to be whiter and more male than its progressive ones. In this context, the fact that Democratic primary voters are eager to elect more women and people of color is an asset to an insurgent left-wing movement, not a liability.
This year’s primary season has produced only limited evidence that the Democratic base would like it’s representatives to be more left-wing – but overwhelming evidence that it would like them to be more female. Rather than lamenting this fact, democratic socialists should capitalize on it.
The typical Democratic voter views politics less through the lens of ideology, than through that of social identity (often, racial or gender identity). But how such voters choose to define their identity-group’s policy goals is highly malleable; as is the degree to which their social identities are inflected by class consciousness. If Berniecrats can put forward strong, nonwhite, and/or female candidates who define racial and gender justice in economic terms, they can use the Democratic base’s desire to change their elected leadership’s demographic composition as a tool for transforming its ideological bent.
And this is precisely what Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez did. In her justly celebrated campaign ad, the former Bernie Sanders organizer does not mention a single policy until a minute and forty seconds in. Instead, she devotes the bulk of her message to establishing an identity-based connection with her constituents — one defined in both ethnic and class terms. She introduces voters to her mother from Puerto Rico and her father from the South Bronx. She laments the fact that in today’s New York, “every day, it gets harder for working families like mine to get by.” She goes on to assail her opponent for taking corporate money, but makes that stock charge more visceral, by painting Crowley as a representative of the other New York — the one that benefits from gentrification and profits off foreclosure.
Only after executing her argument for the relevance of identity to effective representation does Ocasio-Cortez explain to voters what effectively representing their interests means in policy terms: A Democrat who “doesn’t live here, doesn’t send his kids to our schools, doesn’t breathe our air cannot possibly represent us. What the Bronx and Queens needs is Medicare for all, tuition-free college, a federal jobs guarantee, and criminal-justice reform.”
Next year, the Bronx and Queens will get such representation. And there’s every reason to think that Sanders’s “political revolution” can gain further strongholds — if Democratic Socialists continue to serve the Democratic electorate’s desire for a more diverse political class, instead of dismissing it.