Foreign Affairs online is hosting a forum, “E Pluribus Unum? The Fight Over Identity Politics” in the March/April issue featuring contributions by Stacey Y. Abrams; John Sides, Michael Tesler, and Lynn Vavreck; Jennifer A. Richeson; and Francis Fukuyama. In her essay, “Abrams takes the opportunity to explain how “Identity Politics Strengthens Democracy,” and shares her critique of Fukuyama’s insights on the topic from one of his articles from the September/October issue:
Fukuyama’s criticism relies on a number of misjudgments. First, Fukuyama complains that “again and again, groups have come to believe that their identities—whether national, religious, ethnic, sexual, gender, or otherwise—are not receiving adequate recognition.” In the United States, marginalized groups have indeed come to believe this—because it is true. Fukuyama also warns that Americans are fragmenting “into segments based on ever-narrower identities, threatening the possibility of deliberation and collective action by society as a whole.” But what Fukuyama laments as “fracturing” is in reality the result of marginalized groups finally overcoming centuries-long efforts to erase them from the American polity—activism that will strengthen democratic rule, not threaten it.
Fukuyama claims that the Democratic Party “has a major choice to make.” The party, he writes, can continue “doubling down on the mobilization of the identity groups that today supply its most fervent activists: African Americans, Hispanics, professional women, the LGBT community, and so on.” Or it can take Fukuyama’s preferred tack, focusing more on economic issues in an attempt to “win back some of the white working-class voters . . . who have defected to the Republican Party in recent elections.”
Fukuyama and other critics of identity politics contend that broad categories such as economic class contain multitudes and that all attention should focus on wide constructs rather than the substrates of inequality. But such arguments fail to acknowledge that some members of any particular economic class have advantages not enjoyed by others in their cohort. U.S. history abounds with examples of members of dominant groups abandoning class solidarity after concluding that opportunity is a zero-sum game. The oppressed have often aimed their impotent rage at those too low on the social scale to even attempt rebellion. This is particularly true in the catchall category known as “the working class.” Conflict between black and white laborers stretches back to the earliest eras in U.S. history, which witnessed tensions between African slaves and European indentured servants. Racism and sexism have long tarnished the heroic story of the U.S. labor movement—defects that contributed to the rise of a segregated middle class and to persistent pay disparities between men and women, disparities exacerbated by racial differences. Indeed, the American working class has consistently relied on people of color and women to push for improved status for workers but has been slow to include them in the movement’s victories.
The facile advice to focus solely on class ignores these complex links among American notions of race, gender, and economics. As Fukuyama himself notes, it has been difficult “to create broad coalitions to fight for redistribution,” since “members of the working class who also belong to higher-status identity groups (such as whites in the United States) tend to resist making common cause with those below them, and vice versa.” Fukuyama’s preferred strategy is also called into question by the success that the Democratic Party enjoyed in 2018 by engaging in what he derides as identity politics.
Abrams goes on to share her experience running for Governor of Georgia, and notes further that,
My campaign built an unprecedented coalition of people of color, rural whites, suburban dwellers, and young people in the Deep South by articulating an understanding of each group’s unique concerns instead of trying to create a false image of universality. As a result, in a midterm contest with a record-high turnout of nearly four million voters, I received more votes than any Democrat in Georgia’s history, falling a scant 54,000 votes shy of victory in a contest riddled with voting irregularities that benefited my opponent.
She concludes that rather than dodging identity politics, “Instead, Americans must thoughtfully pursue an expanded, identity-conscious politics. New, vibrant, noisy voices represent the strongest tool to manage the growing pains of multicultural coexistence. By embracing identity and its prickly, uncomfortable contours, Americans will become more likely to grow as one.”
Fukuyama responds to the three essays that critique his take on identity politics, and has this to say about Abrams’s contribution:
Stacey Abrams criticizes my desire to return to class as the defining target of progressive politics, since class and race overlap strongly in the United States. But it is absurd to see white Americans as a uniformly privileged category, as she seems to do. A significant part of the white working class has followed the black working class into underclass status. Communities facing deindustrialization and job loss have experienced increases in crime, family breakdown, and drug use; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has estimated that 72,000 Americans died in 2017 of drug overdoses related to the opioid epidemic. So although part of the populist vote both in the United States and in Europe is driven by racism and xenophobia, part of it is driven by legitimate complaints that elites—the mainstream political parties, the media, cultural institutions, and major corporations—have failed to recognize these voters’ plight and have stood by as this decline has occurred…In practical terms, overcoming polarization means devising a posture that will win back at least part of the white working-class vote that has shifted from the left to the right. Peeling away populist voters not driven by simple racism means taking seriously some of their concerns over cultural change and national identity. I agree that the burden is on Republican politicians to stop defending Trump, but they will do so only when they realize that their own voters are turning against him.
Fukuyama concludes by saying Trump practices “identity politics on steroids” and “unless the United States counters this trend domestically, it will continue to set a bad example for the rest of the world.” The other contributions to the forum are well worth reading, especially for Democrats seeking clarity on the benefits and pitfalls of ‘identity politics.’