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Actually, the Democrats Don’t Care About Identity

The Democrats like to trumpet their commitment to group representation and multicultural sensitivity. But they’re happy to throw those principles overboard if it will help them attack the Left.

Ilhan Omar speaking at a Democratic campaign rally at the University Minnesota, October 2016. Lorie Shaull / Wikimedia Commons.

There’s a simple narrative out there about the current political battle lines. On one side there’s a Left that thinks class and economics are the only things that matter, and that diversity and issues around race, gender, and the like are completely unimportant. On the other, establishment liberals and the Democratic Party believe that representation, social justice, and, for lack of a better term, issues of identity should take primacy.

Except none of this is true.

Leave aside the mischaracterization of the Left’s position. Is it really the case that Democrats and prominent liberals care most about identity and representation?

They certainly talk a good game. These intertwined groups spent the 2016 election saying things like breaking up big banks wouldn’t end racism and sexism, and arguing that Hillary Clinton’s gender was enough reason to vote for her. They’ve been up in arms about Bernie Sanders’ comments that voters should look beyond just race, gender and “identity politics” (an inexact term that no two people seem to mean the same thing by), and to back candidates who also have progressive politics, something one writer recently described as “telling everyone who is not a straight, white, cisgender male that we shouldn’t care about seeing ourselves represented in our government.”

While condemning the supposedly endemic bigotry and misogyny of what some commentators took to calling “the alt-Left,” these quarters have been rightly alarmed by an emboldened white supremacist movement, a president they routinely compare to Hitler, and horrific antisemitic hate crimes. True to their commitment to representation, they have slammed Sanders for supposedly being backed by a unique army of lily white, male leftists, attacked him for supposedly silencing the first black woman to give a state of the union response, and criticized him for paying insufficient attention to diversity.

But how do their actions measure up? Let’s look at a few recent episodes.

The controversies around Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar are instructive. As numerous writers, a number of them themselves Jewish, have explained at length, there was nothing antisemitic or even particularly controversial about what Omar has said about the pro-Israel lobby in DC, which, contrary to what some pundits might tell you, is not synonymous with the Jewish community. Nonetheless, she received a torrent of attacks, much of it from the pro-Israel Right, casting her comments as antisemitic.

Given the prevailing rhetoric over the last few years, one would have expected the Democratic party and its boosters to close ranks around Omar. After all, they’ve spent the Trump administration celebrating women’s defiant voices in politics, urging others to listen and believe women, and making the defense of immigrants a key plank of the party, while valorizing black women and their pivotal electoral role. And here they were faced with a barrage of dishonest attacks on not just an outspoken woman, but an outspoken black, Muslim, refugee woman, whose voice her political opponents were trying to silence at the same time as they lobbed racist attacks at her and she faced death threats.

Instead of adhering to their self-declared principles, the party and its prominent loyalists instead quickly joined the right-wing pile-on against Omar, to the point of putting offensive, racist words in her mouth that she never actually said. In some cases, the same people who jumped to criticize her and silence her voice had previously expressed platitudes about women and girls persevering against adversity, and black women being the party’s backbone.

Democrats would likely argue that they had to take such harsh action because of their concern over the feelings of an offended Jewish community. Yet how consistently is this concern really applied? We might look to the treatment of Bernie Sanders by Democrats and those that support them.

Unless you count Howard Schultz’s ransom demand as a serious campaign, Sanders is currently the only Jewish candidate running for president, just as he was in 2016. If he won, he would be only the second Jewish candidate in US history to be major party candidate for president, if you count Barry Goldwater, a convert to Episcopalianism (Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate similarly loathed by Democrats, is also Jewish). It was a big deal when Joe Lieberman became Al Gore’s running mate in 2000; Sanders would far eclipse that milestone if he went on to become the Democratic nominee, let alone the first Jewish president. It would be a significant landmark for a group that only makes up around 2.2 percent of the US adult population, and one that not only faced significant bigotry when Sanders was growing up, but obviously continues to be a target of hatred today.

One would think that a party and political culture that prizes representation, symbolic milestones, and the voices of traditionally marginalized communities would treat this issue with considerable gravity. Instead, Sanders becoming the first-ever Jewish candidate to win a state presidential primary in 2016 barely made a blip. The historic potential of Sanders’ candidacy was almost entirely ignored that year, as it continues to be, even as news outlets rarely let a story go by without noting the same potential for Clinton. Media commentators regularly erased Sanders’ Jewish identity, something they continue to do, sometimes derisively referring to him as a “white man,” often with “old” thrown in.

“At the end of the day, he is still an old white man,” one Democratic operative and Clinton campaign alum told the New York Times. “So there are lots of other things that he wants to talk about besides those parts of his identity.” This was on the eve of a campaign address in which Sanders reminded listeners that his family had been killed in the Holocaust.

Perhaps this is partly because, until his staff recently pushed him, Sanders has refused to make himself and his background part of his campaigns or politics. But neither Sanders’ Jewishness nor his family history was a hidden secret, either then or now. Ignoring it, particularly for those who otherwise insist identity should be at the forefront of political discourse, was and still is a conscious choice.

Worse, in 2016, the party schemed behind the scenes with the Clinton campaign to stop Sanders from winning the primary. One DNC staffer suggested they use Sanders’ religious beliefs to turn Christian voters against him. Last year, Democratic operatives and congresspeople secretly met to plot out a way to stop him from winning a historic victory in 2020. Various quarters loyal to the Democratic establishment regularly insinuate he’s racist, particularly on Twitter, despite his history of civil rights activism and racial solidarity. They’ve repeatedly suggested both he and Jill Stein are in Putin’s pocket, calling to mind old antisemitic fears that cast Jews as alien threats carrying with them strange, foreign ideologies.

To be clear, Democrats and establishment liberals don’t oppose Sanders because of racial animus, nor are they intentionally peddling antisemitic talking points; they simply don’t like his ideology and are using anything they can to attack him.

But ask yourself: If left-wing groups and commentators were caught doing this to a Jewish candidate — specifically, a Jewish candidate with an ideology in line with that of the modern Democratic Party leadership and who didn’t antagonize the party’s donors — would they really be met with the same curious silence from a party that is now apparently deathly concerned with offensive “tropes” around antisemitism? In one recent piece, Sanders was compared to Jesus, holding a cult of “hardcore supporters” in his thrall. Back in 2015, NPR falsely claimed that he had dual citizenship with Israel.

It seems clear that these were innocent mistakes, using phrasing that only an ungenerous reading could construe as offensive. But it’s fair to ask, if it were left-wing commentators and outlets that said this about an establishment-friendly Jewish candidate, would it be passed over and forgotten, or would it be widely picked apart as “problematic,” endlessly relitigated, and pointed to as an example of latent bigotry within the Left — as is now happening to Omar? It wasn’t long ago, after all, that Democrats suggested that merely critiquing the records of centrist African-American presidential candidates was a racist act.

The truth is, as has been documented at length, Democrats and the liberal establishment that supports them don’t really care about representation or issues related to identity, unless they can be used as a cudgel against those whom they politically disagree with, or can win them votes. After an entire year of claiming these matters were central to Democratic politics, the party went about making sure that diverse, progressive candidates were kept out of power in favor of less diverse, centrist, and often wealthy individuals, from needlessly killing Keith Ellison’s bid for DNC chair to passing over Elizabeth Warren as Hillary Clinton’s running mate in favor of a white man who was bad on abortion rights. Just like much of the Left, the Democrats believe someone’s identity is less important than the politics they espouse; it just so happens the politics they favor are ones with worse outcomes for marginalized communities.

That’s the other thing: the Democrats’ centrist and supposedly “social justice”-focused wing isn’t even good on those issues. Hillary Clinton, 2016’s supposedly woke, intersectional candidate, advocated sending fleeing children back to the countries they were escaping from (something she still appears to believe in), once employed what were effectively slaves, and as commentators have pointed out, never centered race in her 2016 campaign. Her husband is an accused rapist whose alleged crimes her supporters ignored or even explicitly played down, and that’s without getting to his appalling presidential record.

Joe Biden was one of the chief architects of policies that decimated African American communities and undermined abortion rights. Kamala Harris refused to let transgender prisoners get reassignment surgery, defended and enforced policies most detrimental to racial minorities, and tried to keep prisoners in jail as a source of cheap labour. Let’s not even get into the fact that, when a non-white, non-male candidate decides to run for office, it’s never the Left that handwrings about their “electability,” partly because the Left understands actual material interests are more important to people than vague appeals to their personal characteristics.

Questions of race, gender, religion, and sexual orientation, how they relate to class, the importance of representation — these are complicated issues that don’t always have straightforward answers. But the Democratic Party and the media/consultant complex built around it are plainly not interested in having an honest discussion about these things. They have an inconsistent, one might say, selective, commitment to representation and identity, which they will appeal to all the more intensely as this election heats up. Don’t forget they’ve spent a lifetime making clear what they really care about.