Opinion

For Democrats, Identity Politics Trumps Economic Populism

REUTERS/Jim Young

Scott Greer Contributor

One bizarre Twitter fight is exposing the intense divide within the Democratic Party right now.

The sectarian fighting between Bernie Sanders fanatics and Hillary Clinton advocates came to a head last week when Sanders supporter and progressive blogger Matt Bruenig lashed out at prominent Clinton backers on Twitter.

The first target was The Nation writer Joan Walsh, who had penned an oh-so thoughtful article on how white Bernie fans must accept the will of Hillary’s minority voters. Walsh argues Sanders’ supporters are suffused with white male entitlement in their bid to crown their second-place candidate the party’s nominee.

Upon tweeting out her article, Walsh was greeted with derision from Bruenig. (Note: Bruenig’s Twitter account has since gone off-line.)

Words were exchanged between the two lefty writers afterwards, which brought in Center for American Progress President Neera Tanden, a prominent Clinton backer. Words were exchanged between the two liberals over welfare reform, geriatrics lecturing young people, and other hot topics before Bruenig labelled Tanden, “Scumbag Neera.”

That was a bridge too far, apparently, and Bruenig was soon out of a blogging job at the lefty think tank Demos. The appearance of a young Bernie supporter losing his job over a Twitter argument with a powerful Clinton ally caused a major controversy on the Left and became the topic for many takes at liberal publications.

The best analysis of the Twitter brawl comes from Vox’s Matt Yglesias. Yglesias sees the rather minor episode as a representative battle in the Democratic primary. Old powers against young bloggers, anger over Clinton-era policies, an establishment that seems to be trying to cut out any critics of the likely nominee — all play a part in the Bruenig saga. But what’s probably the most important part that the Vox editor alludes to is the handling of race.

Tanden is an Indian-American, which makes her a “person of color” in contemporary leftist discourse. Bruenig is a white male. The impetus for the argument started over an article by Walsh, a white woman, calling out “Bernie Bros” for their white male entitlement in feeling their votes were more important than that of Hillary’s minority supporters.

Yglesias mentions in his article Bruenig had other claims of “harassing” people of color on Twitter. Those claims come from full-blown social justice warriors who think socialists are raving white supremacists, but the accusations are taken seriously nonetheless. According to the Vox writer, the apparent pattern of harassing could be why the Tanden episode was the last straw for his Demos blogging days.

Identity politics doesn’t just influence how Democrats campaign; it determines status on the Left.

The fact that a powerful, well-connected head of a major think tank can play the helpless victim against a blogger just because she’s a “woman of color” indicates what kind of priorities animate the modern-day Left. It’s no longer about class warfare. It’s much more centered on identity.

Throughout the Democratic primary, Clinton has built her campaign strategy on this line of thinking, and she and her surrogates have utilized it frequently against Sanders. Why does Bernie have a problem with Hillary’s tough stances on guns? Because he’s a sexist who can’t handle loud women! Why do internet Bernie Bros disagree with Hillary’s female pundit fans? Because they’re misogynist pigs! Why won’t the Bernie movement give up and back the likely nominee already? They can’t stand minority voters checking their white male privilege! (RELATED: Hillary’s Quest To Make Everyone Think Bernie Promotes Sexism)

It’s pretty absurd, but it’s become the norm for this primary. The most telling moment in the Democratic primary came when Clinton asked, “If we broke up the big banks tomorrow … would that end racism? Would that end sexism?” at a February rally.

Her crowd enthusiastically shouted back: “No!” So much for economic populism trumping identity politics.

A few political observers have speculated that Bernie may represent the future of the Democratic Party due to his marked appeal to young people. But as seen by the increasing dominance of appeals to race, gender and sexual orientation on the Left these days, it doesn’t seem like the guy who seems more focused on giving the bankers’ money to the “people” has the correct message for this moment.

Clinton seems to be doing fine by deflecting her coziness with Wall Street in her exhortation that coming down hard on the banks won’t end racism and sexism — the more important problems to your average liberal.

While Hillary has seamlessly adapted to the new Democratic style in acknowledging her white privilege and vowing to destroy “systemic racism,” Bernie has struggled in this regard. He’s spoken about those topics — as he’s expected to in the new Democratic primary — but they’ve always come off as afterthoughts to his primarily economic, identity-free message. Black and Hispanic voters have turned a cold shoulder to his message, and with Democrats banking heavily on changing demographics for future electoral success, it’s unclear how a “future Sanders” will win over these groups.

Especially when those democratic socialists can be shut up by their minority party rivals just because they’re white.

The Bruenig affair reveals a lot of things. The liberal consensus on Bill Clinton’s appeal to the center with welfare reform is that it was a major mistake, for one. Another is that Bernie fans and Hillary fans aren’t about to play nice anytime soon. But the most important takeaway is the role race and other identities shape discourse in the Democratic Party.

And it’s not a good sign for the future of Berniementum.

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