The State of Identity Politics in 2018

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After nearly 90 minutes of sedated-sounding nationalistic dog-whistles from President Trump, the Democrats responded to Tuesday night's State of the Union with a speech from Massachusetts congressman Joe Kennedy III.

"This administration isn’t just targeting the laws that protect us, they are targeting the very idea that we are all worthy of protection," Kennedy said, speaking from a podium at a Bay State technical school. "For them, dignity isn’t something you are born with, but something you measure by your net worth, your celebrity, your headlines, your crowd size. Not to mention, the gender of your spouse, the country of your birth, the color of your skin, the God of your prayers."   

Many of those opposed to Trump were reassured by Kennedy's inclusive message, which countered the president's coded threats of expanding religious liberty at the expense of LGBT rights. But some griped at the counterprogramming, including Log Cabin Republicans president Gregory T. Angelo.

 

As we barrel toward another election — November's midterm election, which will decide control of Congress —  that phrase is becoming more ubiquitous. The issue of "identity politics" flared up in the weeks following Donald Trump's shocking Electoral College victory in 2016. Straight, white, cisgender men like Saturday Night Live's Colin Jost and Columbia professor Mark Lilla blamed Hillary Clinton's loss on her embrace of identity politics, a.k.a. explicit overtures to minority groups, like people of color, the disabled, Muslims, and LGBT people.

Clinton frequently promised she would advance the rights of those groups, which some believe cost her in predominantly white working-class states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. 

"Hillary Clinton was at her best and most uplifting when she spoke about American interests in world affairs and how they relate to our understanding of democracy," Lilla wrote in an infamous November 2016 New York Times column. "But when it came to life at home, she tended on the campaign trail to lose that large vision and slip into the rhetoric of diversity, calling out explicitly to African-American, Latino, L.G.B.T. and women voters at every stop. This was a strategic mistake. If you are going to mention groups in American, you had better mention all of them. If you don't, those left out will notice and feel excluded."

LGBT activist and California State Assembly candidate Ashlee Marie Preston bristles at arguments like Lilla's. Preston, who's never shied away from discussing her trans identity or past homelessness, sees the burying of identity politics as a surrender to prejudice.

"It's deeply problematic to argue that placing value on the experience of marginalized people is a devaluation of white rural Americans," she says. "There's an adage often used among activists: 'When you're accustomed to privilege, equality may feel like oppression.'"

Preston is not afraid of highlighting the needs of minority groups. "Ask Obama about it," she says.

Preston stands by Clinton's embrace of the disenfranchised but recognizes how her opponent used it against her. "Trump strategically tapped into the ultimate human fear, which is that we will never have enough or be enough. ... He blamed progressive politics for the struggles rural voters faced and promised to give back what 'equality' stole from them."

In his Tuesday night response, Kennedy seemed to directly challenge the idea that advancing aid and opportunities for some meant denying the same to others: "As if the parent who lies awake terrified that their transgender son or daughter will be beaten and bullied at school is any more or less legitimate than a parent whose heart is shattered by a daughter in the grips of an opioid addiction. So here is an answer that Democrats offer tonight. We choose both."

The difficult truth is that it doesn't matter to some that the richest nation in the world has the resources to help all kinds of people —  like finding work for an underemployed West Virginia coal miner and ensuring paid leave for a single lesbian mom in San Francisco. Some voters believe that the single lesbian mom — or the trans high school student or the undocumented Latino immigrant — shouldn't receive any governmental assistance, and Democrats are struggling to work around that belief system.

Red state Democrats like Texas's Beto O'Rourke and Arizona's Kyrsten Sinema are hoping centrist routes lead them to U.S. Senate victories in the fall. On his website, O'Rourke shares his support for LGBT rights within a list of issues that require readers to click (it's under the last tab, titled "Equality"). Sinema, openly bisexual, sticks to an economic message in her Senate campaign video, avoiding social issues all together.

Many, including Lilla, believe trans Democrat Danica Roem handled the identity politics high-wire act deftly during her successful 2017 campaign for a seat in Virginia's House of Delegates.

"She’s proudly and openly trans, but her campaign was not about being trans," Lilla told The Guardian in December. "She talked about the issues that affect most people and would not be baited by her opponent into making [her gender identity] the issue."

Comparing Roem and those seeking positions in the White House or Senate is somewhat unfair. When it comes to Clinton, one would be hard-pressed to claim her campaign was about trans rights or even LGB rights. While Clinton spoke of continuing the advances made by many groups during the Obama era, her mentions of trans rights seemed a direct response to dozens of GOP-introduced "bathroom bills." Clinton's defense of trans people seems prescient now — since assuming the presidency, Donald Trump has made them public enemy number 1, trying to kick them out of the military and deny them discrimination protections and even health care.

Scapegoating people is a well-worn Republican tactic; they did it successfully with gays in 2004 and tried it again just this month during the government shutdown. Trump himself claimed Democrats were burdening the entire nation over their demands to protect the Dreamers — undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children — from deportation. When the outnumbered Democrats agreed to temporary protection for Dreamers, the media narrative was that Republicans once again won the messaging war. And the message was the GOP's own version of identity politics: You're suffering because of this inconsequential, unworthy group. To put it another way, Republicans effectively weaponized the needs of minorities.

"Certain candidates emphasize identity politics in a negative way when the reality is that identity politics really is talking about issues that matter to real people and real marginalized communities," says Elliot Imse, the director of communications for the LGBTQ Victory Fund, which works to elect out politicians to office. "The backlash [against identity politics] is not completely fair, but sometimes the opponents of candidates of color and LGBT candidates try to use their identities against them."

Imse also gives credit to Roem for her election, describing her as adept at knowing her audience. Speaking about her trans identity to immigrants and communities of color demonstrates a shared knowledge of hardship, while expressing a comfort with her gender identity broadcasts an authenticity to voters hungering for "real candidates." 

Still, Imse's 2018 candidates aren't necessarily discussing a national LGBT nondiscrimination bill or the need to ban "conversion therapy" in all 50 states. 

"When they knock on doors they likely know the issues that are most important to those people and they always emphasize them," Imse says. "Sometimes it is equality issues; sometimes it's things that are more local, like fixing roads and education."

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