When Abraham Lincoln was running for reelection in 1864, a typical Democratic Party newspaper warned that should Lincoln earn a second term in office, his administration would bring about the “blending of the white and the black”—an epidemic of black men and “snow-white bosomed” women falling into sexual liaisons—a profusion of “squint-eyed yellow babies” born to “every Abolition woman … quickened by the pure blood of the majestic African.” It was a common refrain that ugly election season, in which Democrats cast the coming election as a battle for the sanctity of the white race, a struggle with a clearly identifiable villain: “Abraham Africanus the First,” rumored to be “of negro blood … brutal in all his habits. … He is obscene. … He is an animal … Filthy black nigger, greasy, sweaty, and disgusting, now jostle white people and even ladies everywhere, at the President’s levees.”
Identity politics—the practice of appealing to voters’ tribal instincts at the expense of weaving a more all-embracing agenda—is not a new phenomenon. In fact, it’s as American as apple pie. More to the point, throughout our history, identity politics has almost always meant white identity politics—a style of persuasion rooted in appeals to white resentment and privilege. It was the Democratic Party’s key strategy in 1864; it’s what animated the insurgent campaigns of Strom Thurmond and George Wallace; and it was the Republican Party’s major play in 2016, when its standard bearer, Donald Trump—the country’s leading birther and a stalwart nativist of the crudest variety—incited angry white voters against the specter of their multicultural present and future.
It’s ironic, then, that today’s critics of identity politics focus not on the GOP, which has progressively degenerated into a revanchist white pride party, but on Democrats who, according to Columbia University’s Mark Lilla, espoused a politics of inclusive liberalism “from the New Deal up until 1980,” but then pivoted toward an “ideology … that fetishizes our individual and group attachments” at the expense of “a universal democratic ‘we.’”
The problem with this analysis is not simply that it sidesteps white identity politics, past and present. It also gets the history of modern liberalism wrong. The architects of the New Deal coalition were not, as Lilla suggests, silent on the matter of race or ethnicity. Indeed, they understood that the Democratic Party’s electoral majoritywas shaky because it relied on a collection of otherwise discordant voting blocs. And the candidates who managed to hold it together did so by embracing identity politics.
In other words, identity politics didn’t make the Democrats lose; it was the only way to win. ...