The top Democratic candidates will soon take the stage at the next debate, and oh boy, are party leaders squirming. Up until late last week, when Andrew Yang made the cutoff by a hair, all six of those making their pitch were white—#debatesowhite, as the hashtag called it. Worse yet, half of those Caucasians are old enough to be carrying Medicare cards. As Frank Bruni wrote in last week’s Sunday column, “for a party that celebrates diversity, pitches itself to underdogs and prides itself on being future-minded and youth-oriented, that’s a freaky, baffling turn of events.”
Some blamed the freaky turn on billionaire money crowding out the merely rich little guys, while others pointed a finger at the DNC for a dysfunctional qualifying system and a primary calendar privileging Iowa and New Hampshire, both largely white states. Also popular is the theory of “electability”—if voters’ top priority is nominating someone who can beat Donald Trump, white old-timers seem like the safest bet. But the facts behind #debatesowhite suggest that, despite the best efforts of progressives and the party establishment to hype 2020 candidates in terms of their race, gender, and LGBTQ status, the Democratic rank-and-file have limited use for identity politics.
Remember that the Dems started the year with a historically diverse field: two blacks, an Asian, a Hispanic, and an out gay man. In the following months, a sizable cluster of women joined the fray. Finally, Americans would see a field that “looked like America.” Yet 12 months later, all the nonwhite candidates—except Yang, who has explicitly disavowed identity politics—are either going or gone. Even Kamala Harris, whose Jamaican father and Indian mother made her intersectionally intersectional—black, Asian, female, and immigrant to boot—will not be standing in front of a podium.
By the logic of identity politics, this shouldn’t have happened. Blacks make up 21 percent of the Democratic party. That should be enough, some might think, to guarantee substantial support for at least one of the black candidates, but it hasn’t worked that way. Joe Biden is the favorite among black Dems. In fact, they seem to love the Scranton-born grandfather; with 43 percent of black voters’ support, he registers 30 points higher than anyone else. The irony wasn’t lost on New York magazine’s lefty politics writer, Eric Levitz: “If Joe Biden retains his current standing, then the Democrats’ 2020 nominee will better reflect the preferences of black Democrats than those of white ones.”
True, the former vice president’s strength might well stem from his connection to Barack Obama. And there’s some evidence that African-Americans are more likely to come to the polls if there is a black candidate—at least if he or she is running as a Democrat. About a third of black Democrats say that they would be more enthusiastic if the nominee were also black. But color preference can easily take a back seat to actual policies, especially now, as the party veers left. Black voters are less likely to call themselves liberal than white voters, suggesting that they will be more moderate on many issues than the black media and advocates assigned to speak for them, as well as the party’s white elites.
Latino voters, making up 12 percent of the party, have proved even more indifferent than blacks to the rules of identity politics. Julián Castro, the only Latino in the race, was supposed to be their guy. But a recent Noticias Telemundo poll of Latino voters found him in fifth place, attracting a mere 2 percent of his presumed base. Nor were Hispanic voters particularly interested in other minority candidates; they’re also getting behind Biden (26 percent) and Bernie Sanders (18 percent). According to the New York Times, Sanders has collected more money from Latino voters than any other candidate in the Democratic field; he’s raised three times as much from the group as Barack Obama did in 2008.
Harris, who dropped out of the race due to lackluster fundraising and falling poll numbers, is the most striking example of the failure of identity politics to catch fire among the electorate. No one drank from the diversity well more deeply than Harris. The former San Francisco district attorney and now California senator launched her campaign at Frank Ogawa Plaza, named after an Oakland civil rights leader, on Martin Luther King Day, and the anniversary of the beginning of Shirley Chisholm’s presidential run in 1972. She called herself “a child of Oakland,” another signal to black voters that she was one of them, and turned the fact that she was bused as a child into a largely white school into a star turn in the first debate.
But in the end, her diverse identity and policy ideas appealed more to political and media elites than the Democratic hoi polloi. She attracted big name Hollywood supporters. The Washington Post Pundit Ranking gave Kamala Harris the best shot at defeating Trump five times in a row before realizing voters were just not that into her. “Even at her campaign’s peak, polls showed she held more support from white liberals than from black voters,” National Journal’s Josh Kraushaar noted.
And what about the much-hyped women’s vote? The Tao of identity politics teaches us that women should feel a sense of solidarity with their sisters, but that’s not the way they’ve been acting. Kirsten Gillibrand, the campaign season’s star avatar of women’s issues, was best known for her fight for paid leave and against sexual abuse in the military and on college campuses. Those efforts didn’t help her in a national campaign. Though almost 60 percent of self-identified Democrats are women, Gillibrand could never break 2 percent support, and she failed to meet the donor threshold for September’s debate. She ran as a “white woman of privilege,” telling voters, “I can talk to those white women in the suburbs and explain to them what white privilege actually is.” Evidently, women of color were unimpressed, while white ladies were not amused; her candidacy deflated like an old balloon.
Elizabeth Warren, the highest polling of the Democratic women still standing, is finding a bit more support from women than men—about 2.9 points more. Certainly Warren is saying all the right Democratic things about familiar issues, announcing ambitious plans to undercut restrictive abortion laws, narrow the pay gap for women of color, establish universal child care, and reduce maternal mortality.
This could bring more women on board the Warren train, but she shouldn’t count on it. There’s little evidence that women as a group gravitate toward female candidates, though they look like they will in hypothetical matchups. Women are likely to vote Democratic by a considerable margin, but that’s true no matter who the nominee. “What looks like women voting for women is usually just women voting for Democrats,” Kathleen Dolan, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee explained to Nate Silver’s 538 blog. The aspiring glass-ceiling breaker Hillary Clinton had a 12-point margin of victory among women, virtually identical to Barack Obama’s 13- and 11-point wins with female voters in his two presidential runs. Even women avowing a strong sense of shared gender identity were no more likely to come through for her.
And what about Andrew Yang, the candidate who, in a last-minute save, helped the Dems escape a dreaded optics of white supremacy at the Democratic debate? Ironically, the political establishment has been hellbent on ignoring Yang’s impressive candidacy even though he is nonwhite. MSNBC and CNN have “forgotten” to include the Taiwanese-American in graphics and polls on several occasions, even as he was polling better than other minority candidates who producers were able to remember. Other outlets got his name wrong, an error that would have given competitor networks chyron material for days if he were a black or Latino or female candidate. Does anyone doubt that Yang’s invisibility is because he is Asian, an uncomfortably ambiguous status within the metaphysics of identity politics? Because Asians, particularly the Taiwanese, have been immensely successful in America, they cloud any simple narrative of crushing white power and racism.
Finally, we come to Pete Buttigieg, the first openly gay person to make a serious showing in a presidential primary season. That has not been enough to protect him from attacks from progressive Democrats, some gay, who are ordinarily the most vociferous supporters of LGBT causes. Progressives have been enraged with the mayor of South Bend for his stint at McKinsey, the global consultancy firm. They have been equally incensed about a photo of Buttigieg raising money with members of the Salvation Army, in their view a homophobic organization. He has been canceled from some homosexual circles for not being “gay enough.” Nation contributor David Klion retweeted a thread accusing the mayor of showing off a “token black woman” at campaign events. “Mayor Pete is an exploitative twerp” is the sort of description popular in Twitter’s more progressive precincts.
It’s not the first time, and probably won’t be the last, that the Democratic political class has failed to heed the message that those who live by identity politics often die by identity politics.
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