How the two parties approached their respective presidential election cycle losses in this decade is revealing. While the GOP conducted its 2012 “autopsy” in the open and as a result of internal and external pressures, the Democratic Party is conducting a postmortem out of the spotlight. A weekend retreat for Democratic House members and a Monday Priorities USA gathering of progressive groups suggest the party is aware it needs to adapt. Yet even the notion that the party which won the popular vote needs to reform meets with incredulity and bitter resistance from the grassroots faithful. Surely, the admonitions of a Trump-era Democrat like Jim Webb, who on Sunday chided his lifelong party for pushing all its chips in on identity politics, will be similarly discarded by the liberal activist class. Webb’s detractors would have a point. Democrats did not lose in 2016 because they embraced identity politics; they lost because they embraced the wrong sort of identity politics.
In a Sunday interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” former Virginia Senator Webb scolded his party for adopting a message that has been “shaped toward identity politics,” thus alienating a core and classic Democratic constituency. “The people who believe that, regardless of any of these identity segments, you need to have a voice in quarters of power for those that have no voice,” Webb added. “And we’ve lost that for the Democratic Party.”
“When you’ve lost white working people, you’ve lost flyover land,” the senator continued. Unquestionably, the Democratic Party and the liberal activists who provide it with animating energy at the grassroots level have embraced an exclusionary and contradictory sort of identity politics. For the most part, the nation’s majority demographic has come out on the losing end.
The Democratic Party’s is a kind of identity politics that views transgendered bathroom access as a civil rights imperative but sees infringements on the Religious Freedom and Restoration Act in service to ObamaCare’s birth control mandate as a necessary element of a critical public health initiative. It’s a kind of identity politics that scoffs at those who offer prayers for the victims of violence, and which rewards those who insist that “Blue Lives Matter isn’t a thing.” It is a kind of identity politics that, when a special needs man is abducted and tortured for being white in the Trump era or a self-described practitioner of Islam perform an act of mass violence in his or her faith’s name, refuses to make note of these realities for fear of handing out coveted victimhood status to the undeserving. Yet it is also an identity politics that extrapolates from almost every incident of violence committed by a male of majority extraction that America is in the midst of an epidemic of racially-tinged violence.
Some of this is real and tangible, and some of it can be dismissed as a problem of perception. All of this is divisive, poisonous, and dangerous. Republicans under Trump didn’t abandon this brand of exclusionary identity politics; they embraced them.
The rise of white identity politics didn’t occur in a vacuum. It was a reaction to the sense of alienation and isolation. This sense was a direct result of the perception among white voters that they were disliked and that their interests were threatened by opinion makers on the coasts.
As Jonah Goldberg observed prior to the election, it is not only insulting but insular in the extreme to suggest to the figures profiled in J. D. Vance’s memoir Hillbilly Elegy—impoverished and marginalized white residents of what is now grimly dubbed the Rust Belt—that they are the beneficiaries of “white privilege.” Trump was among the few to assert in no uncertain terms that this disfavored demographic had been dealt a raw hand and they were owed more.
Perhaps earlier than anyone else in the sphere of conservative political commentary, The Federalist’s Ben Domenech classified Trump’s brand of antagonism toward Republicans and harsh rhetoric on all things foreign—from legal and illegal immigrants to free trade regimes—represented a form of identity politics that was almost antithetical to Burkean conservatism. Stemming in part from an accurate perception that Christianity at home and abroad faced an existential crisis, America’s evangelical population was moved to support a candidate for the presidency currently on his third wife who routinely bragged about his penchant for infidelity.
In the end, Trump’s bet was the right one. Eight in ten self-described evangelicals voted for Trump. One of the nation’s largest, often under-mobilized voting blocs—white without a college degree—voted for Trump by the largest margin since 1980. Just 28 percent of these voters backed Hillary Clinton, according to exit polling. Even among the youngest voters, Clinton underperformed Barack Obama. Why? Whites age 18 to 29—a full 12 percent of the electorate—voted for Trump. The Rust Belt went for the GOP for the first time in a generation.
If Donald Trump appealed specifically to the anxieties of whites, he did so with spectacular success. And success begets imitators. Jim Webb’s concerns about the toxic effect of identity politics, how it divides not only the country but coalitions and saps its embittered practitioners of agency, are valid. But, whether you are a Democrat or a Republican, it works. For that reason alone, identity politics isn’t going anywhere.
Noah Rothman is the Assistant Online Editor of Commentary Magazine