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Democrats Must Beware The Slippery Slope of Identity Politics

Updated on July 22, 2015

Identity Politics May Play Well in the Short Run, but be Divisive in the Long Run


United We Stand...Divided We Fall

In American politics, the Republicans are often stereotyped as the political party of white males. Everyone else, the stereotype goes, leans Democratic. While the Republican party has recently spoken of trying to broaden its appeal to these groups, the situation remains pretty stable. A majority of white male voters will likely vote for the Republican presidential nominee next November, and a majority of all other groups of voters will cast ballots for the Democratic presidential nominee.

The big question, obviously, is which groups will have a higher percentage of voters turn out on election day. And, for the Republicans, how many white women will vote GOP instead of Democrat? If the GOP can net a sizable minority of white women voters, coupled with a sizable minority of Hispanic voters, they can cobble that together with a respectable majority of white male voters to win the necessary electoral votes. While we Americans like to think that we are one nation, firmly united, we are surprisingly tribal when it comes to national elections.

Between notorious voter apathy and gerrymandering, tribal politics can change election outcomes pretty quickly. A motivated minority group can, by achieving a high voter turnout, out-vote an apathetic majority. However, appealing to tribal politics is fraught with pitfalls. Worryingly, the Democratic presidential candidates may be risking general election viability by catering to special interests today.

Playing tribal politics may excite the base today, but be used by the opposing side as evidence of divisiveness tomorrow.

Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton is making news in regard to allegations that she is playing the "gender card" in seeking her party's nomination. Republican senator Mitch McConnell has accused the former Secretary of State of running on her gender, and thus blatantly seeking the female vote, instead of running on policy. In response, Clinton has asserted the importance of women's issues and gender equality, insisting that America gets ahead when women get ahead. So far, the tactic has played well...but the bold acceptance of playing the "gender card" may hurt Clinton if she is the eventual Democratic nominee.

Republicans will accuse Clinton of playing identity politics for gain and declare that she is more interested in netting votes than providing fair leadership for all Americans. Indeed, many male voters may question whether a President Clinton will champion policies that put male workers at a detriment when it comes to seeking employment or promotions, especially in the public sector. The notion that Hillary Clinton may try to push through new affirmative action policies for women will cause consternation among men, many of whom feel unfairly blamed for past gender oppression.

As a male public sector employee who is planning to vote Democratic next November, I must acknowledge that too much focus by Hillary Clinton on women's issues may make me reconsider my vote.

Bernie Sanders and Martin O'Malley, the other two well-known Democratic presidential candidates, have not embraced identity politics but had it thrust upon them. Both Sanders and O'Malley have been targeted by protesters for focusing too much on economic inequality and not enough on racial inequality. At the Netroots Nation convention in Phoenix, both Sanders and O'Malley were confronted by protesters chanting "Black Lives Matter" and insisting that the candidates confront the issue of alleged police brutality against blacks. When Sanders stuck to his economic reform guns and refused to change focus during his speech, and calmly reiterated his long-standing support for civil rights, he was mocked on Twitter with the hashtag #BernieSoBlack.

Since then, Sanders has focused more on racial justice issues in his social media posts and speeches.

I am a die-hard Bernie Sanders supporter, but I worry that his broadening of his campaign message will weaken its potency and also open him up to charges of divisiveness by Republicans. He will be accused of trying to curry favor with different groups of voters by focusing on their special interests and spending less time on his main goals of broad-based economic reform. The GOP machine will try to convince voters that Sanders is quick to stray from his central goals and quick to try and pacify special interests.

While I respect both Clinton and Sanders as exceptional leaders, and will cast my primary vote for Sanders regardless of the circumstances, I caution these two politicians to avoid focusing on identity politics. It may feel good in the short run, but will make them targets for Republicans in the long run. They should stick to their original messages of economic reform and avoid language that may alienate blocs of voters.


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