When two members of “The Squad” — a group of four progressive first-term congresswomen of color — endorsed Bernie Sanders for president, many American liberals reacted like Jane Eisner, director of academic affairs at Columbia Journalism School: How could you pick a white guy?
“I find it fascinating that women of color overlook female and minority candidates to endorse a white guy. Is identity politics over? Is ideology more important than race and gender? Genuinely curious,” Eisner said in a now-deleted tweet.
From a personal and ideological standpoint, the endorsements are hardly a surprise. Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-New York, and Ilhan Omar, D-Minnesota, both support Sanders’ socialist populism, and AOC (as the New York congresswoman is known) credits Sanders with helping launch her political career. “Some folks try to make these decisions by making political calculations and looking at political strategy,” she told CBS News. “I think it’s just the most authentic decision to let people know how I feel.”
But for some on the American left, identity politics is viewed as the highest priority.
The Washington Post story’s headline about the endorsements reflected surprise, echoing Eisner’s sentiment: “How Bernie Sanders scored a coup and won the backing of Ocasio-Cortez and Omar.” Later in the story, there’s this line: “The emergence of (Elizabeth) Warren as a liberal alternative to Sanders who has been outperforming him in the polls and would make history as the first female president created uncertainty about what Ocasio-Cortez would do.”
“Democrats can’t avoid identity politics in 2020,” writes Asma Khalid for NPR.
For the Guardian, Nesrine Malik writes, “To beat Trump in 2020, Democrats need to get down and dirty: The president has made identity politics part of his vision — progressives must fight back on those same terms.”
FiveThirtyEight, a politics and poll analysis website, ran a story titled, “Why identity politics could be good politics for Democrats in 2020.”
But support for “identity over ideology” isn’t universal. Some progressives took to Twitter to chastise Eisner for trying to pigeonhole three progressive women of color into only voting for people who look like them.
“It may shock you, Jane, and I hope you’re sitting down, but women of color are capable of considering more than identity, shared or not, when they make decisions about, well, anything,” tweeted Roxane Gay, a liberal feminist writer.
Lee Fang, an investigative reporter for The Intercept, pointed out that Eisner’s assumption is in itself racist.
“Crude identity politics will only start to decline once people who consider themselves good liberals realize that making broad assumptions about how people should behave based on race is a form of bigotry,” he tweeted.
And Mark Lilla, a professor of humanities at Columbia, argues there’s a politically pragmatic reason for progressives to reject identity politics: It cost Hillary Clinton the White House in 2016.
“She tended on the campaign trail to … 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,” Lilla wrote in an op-ed. “If you are going to mention groups in America, you had better mention all of them. If you don’t, those left out will notice and feel excluded. Which, as the data show, was exactly what happened with the white working class and those with strong religious convictions. Fully two-thirds of white voters without college degrees voted for Donald Trump, as did over 80 percent of white evangelicals.”
According to poll exit data from 2016 and polling in 2019, Sanders is the favorite among people of color under the age of 30, which suggests young Americans of color are more interested in his ideology — democratic socialism — than his gender or the color of his skin.
“The fixation on diversity in our schools and in the press has produced a generation of liberals and progressives narcissistically unaware of conditions outside their self-defined groups, and indifferent to the task of reaching out to Americans in every walk of life,” Lilla said.
One 2020 candidate who agrees is Andrew Yang.
“I understand the impulse, but identity politics are a great way to lose elections,” he said. “We need to bring people together.”