Josh Barro image via twitter

Oh, White Men With Your Never-ending Need to Dictate the Democratic Platform

Another day, another media pundit telling us to stop talking about "identity politics" if Democrats want to win. But they’re wrong.
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Another day, another white man urging Democrats to re-make the party in his image. It would be amusing, given that this demographic does not represent the base, if it weren’t so utterly tired and cliché.

On Monday, Business Insider’s Josh Barro urged liberals to tone down their moral prescriptiveness, an issue he described as the “hamburger problem.” In his view, Democrats espouse popular public policy ideas, but are just “annoying” in their cultural attitudes, leaving people who might vote with them feeling too judged to join them at the ballot box.

Set aside the fact that Barro himself has literally tweeted multiple times about hamburger choices (thou doth project too much), and let’s talk about what this is really about: privileged people not wanting to think too critically about how privileged they might be. Barro laments on behalf of folks who just want to enjoy Redskins games and gender-reveal parties without having to reflect upon how their decisions might negatively impact others. He thinks guilt is sometimes useful, but that liberals have gone overboard with it, saying: “Following all the rules has become exhausting.” Certainly no one’s stopping them from living their lives the way they see fit, but if those who balk at the challenging of ever-changing societal norms are thus compelled to vote Republican, then maybe they could never really be relied upon in the first place. And in that case, I say to hell with them.

Unfortunately, too many think pieces and sound bites give credence to this line of thinking because, yes, you guessed it: Publications and politics tend to elevate elite white male voices. In the New York Times, Mark Lilla asserted that “the age of identity liberalism must be brought to an end.” Eight months later in the same outlet, Mark Penn and Andrew Stein called for Democrats to return to the center, claiming that “identity politics are creating a new social divide.” Even Bernie Sanders pointed to “politically correct rhetoric” as a reason why Trump won the election. In these men’s minds, the most significant barrier to future Democratic victories is marginalized groups refusing to back down from their full-throated demands for equal consideration.

Perhaps most frustrating about this constantly recycled narrative around “identity politics” sinking the electoral chances of those on the left is that it is contradicted by data. The blatant bigotry that Trump voters rubber-stamped is often excused as “economic anxiety,” but exit polls showed that Hillary Clinton won both the under-$30,000 and $30,000 to $49,999 brackets. And for all the talk of Trump’s “populist” appeal, it was Clinton’s economic message that voters preferred in nearly every swing state (yes, including the decisive Rust Belt) and across the country. Moreover, as The Atlantic reported, members of the white working class “who said their finances are only in fair or poor shape were nearly twice as likely to support Clinton compared to those who feel more economically secure.”

Indeed, political scientists Brian Schaffner, Matthew MacWilliams, and Tatishe Nteta found that racism and sexism predicted support for Trump much more than economic dissatisfaction. As writers for The Nation put it in their own analysis, “The change in probability of a Trump vote for a white person with the highest to the lowest levels of racial animus is similar to changing their party identification from Republican to Democratic.” In other words, Trump’s dog whistles (which, let’s be real, were really more like wolf howls) had a significant impact on voters’ decisions, something that Barro also acknowledges, but feels should not be used to make white people feel bad. This does not make much practical sense to me: Why should Democrats shy away from calling this out if Trumpers prefer a bigoted message regardless? As Jezebel’s Kara Brown noted, “Racism and bigotry are not the result of unfriendliness nor will they be undone by the opposite.”

Furthermore, I don’t see what liberals have to gain from a posture of self-loathing. If Republicans have no shame, then Democrats have too much of it. As I wrote in January, “When progressives coopt right-wing talking points about how Democrats are ‘latte-sipping’ ‘smug elites,’ who ‘live in bubbles,’ they’re doing Republicans’ rhetorical dirty work for them.” Capitulating to false characterizations set forth by the enemy is a trap if I’ve ever seen one. Democrats should be proud that they represent a multicultural coalition, and they should fight tooth and nail to defend these values, even when (nay, especially when) a 3 million vote advantage results in an Electoral College loss. Watering down that message to appease those who feel threatened by it is a surefire way to drive away our core supporters (never let it be forgotten that 94 percent of Black women backed Clinton).


So, that Barro describes the crossroads that Democrats find themselves in as a “hamburger problem” is apt. Because in the Trump era, it feels like the party’s base is always on the menu.

 
Sarah Lerner is a freelance writer and social media strategist based in Los Angeles. Lerner also co-hosts the political/feminist podcast "Hellbent," which records twice weekly on Mondays and Thursdays. In her free time, she likes to watch basically anything on Bravo (Andy Cohen can take all her money). You can find her rage-y rants @sarahlerner on Twitter and her slightly more coherent musings on Medium.
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