Many political scientists and other experts contend that reliable demographic information regarding the 2016 election does not yet exist. The scarcity of definitive data, however, has not deterred commentators from delivering election post-mortems.
Although various strands of analysis have emerged to explain the election result, a troubling account of Hillary Clinton’s loss has gained traction. According to this narrative, Clinton lost because she did not promote an economic agenda to attract working-class voters. Instead, identity politics occupied center stage in her campaign.
The lesson from Clinton’s loss is clear to the post-identity commentators. Identity politics cannot win elections; therefore, Democrats must discard this message and emphasize economic and other concerns. This argument, however, grossly distorts the content of Clinton’s campaign message and the substance of identity politics.
Clinton touted her economic agenda on many occasions. Her numerous economic proposals include increasing the minimum wage, infrastructure investment, tuition-free college for 85% of US households, paid family medical leave, permitting states to pursue a public option under the Affordable Care Act, pay equity for women, increasing funding for Head Start and early preschool, and expanding the Earned-Income Tax Credit. Also, while Clinton extensively detailed her proposals, Donald Trump provided little information about his economic program—which undermines arguments that working-class voters flocked to him due to economic anxiety.
Whites overwhelmingly voted for Trump, and no Democratic presidential candidate has won a majority of white voters since 1964. On the other hand, vast majorities of blacks and Latinos—two of the poorest populations in the US—cast votes for Hillary Clinton. When critics observe that Clinton failed to attract working-class voters, they actually mean whites. Failure to interrogate the differing responses of working-class whites and persons of color to Clinton and Trump obfuscates the relevance and ubiquity of racialized voting in the US.
Columbia University Professor Mark Lilla has published one of the harshest assessments of Clinton’s campaign and identity politics. Lilla accuses Democrats of embracing “identity liberalism”—or a “rhetoric of diversity” that encourages people to “celebrate” their “differences.” Lilla argues that diversity politics fragments society, detracts from more important issues—like economics and war—and has caused poor rural whites to view themselves as a disparaged minority group. Lilla suggests that modern diversity movements are analogous to the Ku Klux Klan, which he describes as “the first identity movement in American politics.”
Like Lilla, other post-identity critics describe identity politics as an empty aspiration for diversity. Bernie Sanders, for example, offers the following flawed analysis:
“It is not good enough for somebody to say, ‘Hey, I’m a Latina, vote for me,’ That is not good enough. I have to know whether that Latina is going to stand up with the working class of this country, and is going to take on big money interests,” he said. “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.”
If Sanders’ reasoning accurately described progressive identity politics, the Congressional Black Caucus would have endorsed Ben Carson rather than Clinton. Identity politics actually refers to liberation movements that seek to eradicate systemic inequalities caused by historical and contemporary discrimination against blacks, LGBT individuals, women, and other disparaged groups. Sanders’ statements evince a disturbing ignorance regarding the complexity of identity politics.
Clinton’s identity politics emphasized diversity, inclusion, antidiscrimination and economic uplift. Clinton promised to combat women’s pay inequity, racism in the criminal justice system, mistreatment of Muslims and other religious minorities, and to strengthen federal funding of education for persons with disabilities. These issues are very compelling for a nation in which racism, sexism, ableism, heterosexism, and transphobia continue to impose economic hardship upon substantial portions of the population. These concerns are not the empty diversity that Sanders and other post-identity critics describe.
The post-identity critics fail to appreciate the complexity of Clinton’s deployment of identity politics because they do not comprehend the interrelatedness of identity and class concerns. Numerous studies demonstrate the negative economic impact of discrimination upon people of color, women, persons with disabilities, and LGBT individuals. The post-identity critics, however, depict identity politics as an elitist obsession with irrelevant socially constructed traits. These constructs, however, have material consequences. Dissecting identity and economics, a common theme among many progressive economic thinkers, obscures the concrete harms of discrimination and inherited inequality.
Critics, such as Lilla, also contend that diversity is fragmenting and thus harmful to democracy. According to some academic research, multiculturalism erodes social capital and causes individuals to go inward and disconnect from other individuals or out-groups. The weight of academic literature, however, qualifies or rebuts these findings.
Many social scientists have found that racial and class inequality, rather than multiculturalism and diversity, reduces political and civic engagement. Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam, whose pioneering research is widely cited for the proposition that multiculturalism erodes social capital, concludes that the societal benefits of diversity—which include creativity and economic growth—outweigh the possible harms from cultural fragmentation. Social psychology research also finds that diversity and equality lead to innovation and robustness within institutions and societies.
Academic research, however, lends credibility to one of claims made by recent critics of identity politics: whites often believe multiculturalism excludes them. Clinton’s campaign theme, however, was “Stronger Together,” and she included whites under her large umbrella (notably, she and her running-mate are both white).
Studies also show that antiracism and feminism, not simply racial and gender diversity, threaten whites and men, who think of antidiscrimination as a zero-sum game. Clinton did not cause this irrational thinking. On the contrary, group panic in response to a perceived loss of societal privilege has fueled organized backlash to freedom movements throughout US history. Southern whites believed that emancipation of slaves and Reconstruction oppressed them, so they used the law and extralegal violence to maintain white supremacy. White southerners engaged in similar tactics in response to efforts to dismantle Jim Crow. They also complained that the Civil Rights Movement oppressed whites. Today, policies designed to ameliorate racial and sexual inequality, such as affirmative action, voting rights, and social welfare measures, receive similar criticism.
Eventually, political scientists will conduct empirical research and make more informed conclusions regarding the factors that led to Trump’s victory. These factors might include third-party candidates siphoning support from Clinton, James Comey’s shocking late-October letter, Trump’s open appeal to white nationalism, or Clinton’s condemnation of bigotry. The researchers’ ultimate findings certainly will not validate simplistic portrayals of identity politics as external to class concerns or the position that antidiscrimination discourse harms society. An abundance of research already refutes these contentions.
The Democratic Party has made antidiscrimination a central theme in its platform, along with economic betterment of subordinate classes. By contrast, the Republican Party has become a party largely of white voters because it opposes the themes of inclusion, antidiscrimination, and economic justice championed by Democrats. During the campaign, Clinton argued that the election would test the nation’s true commitment to the values it claims to cherish. If Clinton was correct, the US has failed, once again, to live up to its most exalted values. If the Democratic Party discards strong support for antidiscrimination, tolerance, and inclusion in order to appease white voters, it too will fail.
Darren Lenard Hutchinson
Professor of Law and Stephen C. O'Connell Chair
University of Florida Levin College of Law
The views expressed in this essay are my own, and they do not represent the position of the University of Florida or the State of Florida.