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OpinionColumnistsCathy Young

Identity politics could trip up Democrats

The party risks letting bickering over labels and oppression overshadow big priorities.

With House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Ilhan Omar, second

With House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Ilhan Omar, second from right, takes her oath Thursday as a representative from Minnesota. Photo Credit: AFP / Getty Images / Saul Loeb

As we enter a new year with new political challenges, one of the big questions is whether the identity-focused progressivism increasingly dominant in the Democratic Party is helping Democrats by mobilizing new activists and voters, or hurting them by alienating millions of Americans.

The new progressive faith was summed up by a much-discussed tweet sent out in December by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.). She wrote that “our future is . . . female intersectional.” Intersectional theory, which has migrated from left-wing academic circles into the mainstream, considers the ways in which different identities — gender, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability, religion, class, etc. — interact and affect social disadvantage. While such analysis can contribute valuable insights, “intersectionality” can also easily turn into what critics call “oppression Olympics”: never-ending bickering over identities, labels and whose oppression counts the most. It also is linked to politically correct sensitivity about language and expression.

In various polls, majorities of Americans — anywhere from 52 to 80 percent, depending on how the question is asked — say they are fed up with political correctness. There is a common view, backed by some studies, that this sentiment is at least partly responsible for Donald Trump’s presence in the White House. But the evidence is mixed. In a Twitter thread in the waning days of last year, Canadian political scientist Jeffrey Sachs argued that progressives in the United States are winning — as measured by increased support in the polls for immigration, same-sex marriage and action to remedy racial inequality — and that fears of an “anti-PC” backlash are greatly overstated.

Democrats’ gains in last year’s congressional election — and their control of the House on Thursday — also are cited as evidence that identity politics work. New trends include the rise of a generation of female and minority politicians who make their gender, race or religion a part of their message — from New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to Minnesota’s Ilhan Omar, the first Somali-American and one of the first two Muslim women elected to Congress.

But there is trouble in intersectional paradise. Jewish leaders, traditionally a strong part of the Democratic coalition, have expressed alarm over Omar’s misleading statements that obfuscate her support for the boycott, divestment, and sanctions campaign targeting Israel — and over a 2012 tweet in which she accused Israel of having “hypnotized the world.”

These concerns come amid a rift in the Women’s March, a major progressive force, over the question of anti-Semitism. Some of the group’s leading activists have ties to Nation of Islam founder Louis Farrakhan. Some critics believe that the real problem lies in intersectional ideology, which tends to ignore and downplay the issue of anti-Semitism because Jews are seen as privileged members of white America.

There are other issues as well. While many politics-watchers believe that former Vice President Joe Biden is the Democrats’ best shot to win the White House in 2020, much of the party’s progressive bloc opposes having a white male at the top of the ticket. The white male problem is also causing renewed intraparty conflict over Sen. Bernie Sanders, the 2016 presidential contender. Even white women who represent a more traditional Democratic mold such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) face opposition as not intersectional enough: Pelosi agreed to limit her term to four years to secure support.

Activism that focuses on the disadvantages of specific groups clearly has its place. But larger national politics should be rooted first and foremost in American identity.

Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.

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