Wayne O'Leary

The Triumph of Identity Politics

In the wake of the six Northeastern primaries of April 19 and 26, it appears the Democrats have made their presidential choice; now, they’ll have to live with it. Bernie Sanders can win some remaining contests, push his agenda, annoy Hillary Clinton and her partisans, and pile up delegates for the convention platform fights to come. But he can’t win the presidency barring major unforeseen circumstances.

Some Democrats see the presumptive selection as having little bearing on the issues. Yet this nomination has been about far more than personalities; it’s really been a struggle for the soul of the Democratic party, a struggle over how the respective candidates view the country and how they see the role of their party. Fundamentally, we’ve been witnessing a contest between identity politics and economic populism, and in this cycle, identity politics, in the form of the Clinton campaign, has won.

The upshot is that, for the near future at least, the politics of identity will be the raison d’être of the Democratic party. Economic populism, as delineated by the Sanders campaign, is really about material inequality — about who gets what and why, and about one’s relative standing in society. It encourages voters to think in class terms and to challenge the dominance of America’s native oligarchy. Identity politics, conversely, motivates voters to think in social terms, in terms of what group they belong to, not what class. It was symbolized, perhaps, by Secretary Clinton’s recent pronouncement that economic inequality was only one of many forms of inequality and a relatively minor one at that; racial and sexual inequalities were, she implied, of equal or greater importance.

Stripped to its essentials, identity politics prompts constituents to make group demands on their political leaders, not to insist they think in terms of what’s best for the polity as a whole. It fosters a narrowing of perspective, a suggestion that the whole is merely the sum of its parts, so that demands become interest-group demands — calls to do something for selected racial, ethnic, and gender interests, rather than focusing on what we, the 99%, can do together for all of us. It produces, in turn, things like Hillary Clinton’s campaign vision (presented at a Philadelphia town hall event in late April) of a quota system for her administration, with 50% of cabinet positions reserved for women.

Never populists, the Clintons decided long ago that the way to get to run the country was to make peace with those who own the country. They’ve never taken on America’s powers that be, preferring to cultivate and emulate them. This has paid off handsomely and not just in making them personally rich. Reporting by Emma Roller, formerly of the National Journal, indicates those in the financial sector who work on Wall Street like Hillary Clinton and despise Bernie Sanders. They’ve put their money where their mouths are; securities and investment employees have contributed $21 million to the Hillary campaign so far, double their donations to any other candidate in either party.

More startling, but unsurprising if you think about it, is the recent revelation that right-wing industrialist Charles Koch, one of the infamous “billionaire Koch brothers,” has softened his attitude toward the Clintons, speaking favorably of Bill Clinton’s deregulatory and tightfisted administration, and admitting he could support Hillary over a Republican rival. Say what you will about the Kochs, they didn’t get to be billionaires by disregarding their vested interests.

So how did the Democrats, the proclaimed “party of the people,” arrive at this pass? It bespeaks a corruption at the party’s core. My latest experience with this petty corruption took place last summer, early in the primary season, when an invitation arrived from my state Democratic headquarters to contribute to the Hillary Victory Committee, a scam perpetrated by the Democratic National Committee (DNC), which was one-sidedly pushing the Clinton candidacy. If I donated to the committee (essentially a Clinton fundraising conduit), I was assured, not only would Hillary benefit, but the needy state party would share in the funds. As of March 31, contributions collected by 32 participating state parties totaled $61 million, virtually all of it funneled directly to Clinton and the DNC.

This type of shady behavior is one reason political independents have been turned off by the old-politics Clinton campaign and have gravitated to Bernie Sanders, who has garnered most of their votes in open primaries where they can participate. Over the past 25 years, independents have steadily increased their numbers at the expense of the two major parties, viewing the parties increasingly (and with good reason) as hopelessly compromised. Unaffiliated voters now comprise 42% of the electorate, their highest share ever, while Democrats and Republicans languish at under 30% each. Independent support of Sanders, viewed as honest and trustworthy, lends credence to his claim to be the most electable Democrat.

The DNC’s biased machinations are a major reason why Democrats are apparently saddled with an unpopular nominee, one whose public unfavorability rating hovers around 55%, historically among the highest ever for someone embarking on a general-election campaign. In 1988, DNC politicos approved Super Tuesday, whose several Deep South presidential primaries were coordinated by Southern Democrats to ensure the party’s most conservative candidates a leg up for nomination. Barack Obama, the marginally more liberal choice in 2008, spoiled things by complicating racial voting patterns, but the process worked to perfection for the South and the DNC in 2016, as it did from 1992 to 2004.

But the DNC’s pet creation has to be the selection of “superdelegates,” a totally indefensible and undemocratic scheme developed in 1982 to allow Democratic officeholders to operate as old-time party bosses. Frank Hague, Tom Pendergast, and Dick Daley would be proud. This year, unelected superdelegates will make up 15% of total convention delegates (and 30% of those needed for nomination), and they are overwhelmingly pledged to Clinton. Their appointed task is to act as a DNC fail-safe system intended to short-circuit any nonestablishment insurgency.

In the short run, it’s worked. Forget single-payer or Glass-Steagall or breaking up the big banks. Major political and economic reform awaits a time when the Democratic party becomes genuinely democratic. For now, the $350,000 a couple fundraiser remains the donkey’s signature statement.

Wayne O’Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine, specializing in political economy. He holds a doctorate in American history and is the author of two prizewinning books.

From The Progressive Populist, June 15, 2016


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