Amid the recent buzz about a possible presidential quest by Pete Buttigieg — the 37-year-old Democratic Mayor of South Bend, Indiana, who is smart, charismatic and gay — the left-wing online magazine Slate ran an article suggesting that Buttigieg simply wasn’t “marginalized” enough to satisfy progressive demands.
“Buttigieg isn’t just gay — he’s also white, male, upper-class, Midwestern, married, Ivy League-educated, and a man of faith,” wrote author Christina Cauterucci, who also suggested that “Mayor Pete” didn’t have a very gay image and didn’t seem to embrace gayness as a “formative identity.”
The article provoked such anger from gay readers who felt that it downplayed the hurdles they still face that Cauterucci subsequently apologized. But for many people, the controversy over Buttigieg’s sexuality and identity has become a symbol of the Democratic Party’s identity-politics problem — especially since the mayor also has been attacked for his statement in 2015 that “all lives matter,” a phrase seen as disparaging the Black Lives Matter movement.
Among the more established Democratic contenders, there’s plenty of drama on the identity front. The two front-runners, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) and former Vice President Joe Biden, are both older white men, which for many activists is a strike against them. Sanders also faces accusations of insensitivity to issues of race and gender, while Biden is accused both of pandering to racism (his past as a moderate Democrat with tough stances on crime and illegal immigration) and of sexism (his history of invading women’s personal spaces). The tough-on-crime problem is shared by Sen. Kamala Harris of California, who is of Jamaican-Indian origin and is a former prosecutor, and by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York.
No wonder former President Barack Obama, in a town hall organized by the Obama Foundation in Berlin last week, warned Democrats about the pursuit of ideological “purity” that would turn them into a “circular firing squad.”
For progressive activists and commentators, criticism of identity politics is a coded way to tell racial, ethnic and religious minorities, women, gays and other people who are not white males to stop demanding equal treatment. They argue that the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, the gay rights movement and other forms of activism that have made America a fairer and better country were focused on identity. And there’s a long history of other, more traditional identity-based alliances: Jewish Americans and Italian-Americans and other groups in this country have organized to combat prejudice against them.
But, as progressive journalist Jesse Singal argued recently, identity-focused politics can come in very different forms. He proposes a distinction between identity politics — advocacy for groups that suffer prejudice or discrimination, or have practical collective interests — and “identitarianism,” which sees all human interaction solely through the lens of demographic identity and promotes identity-based polarization.
Left-wing identitarianism is particularly troubling in the age of revived identitarianism on the right. Of course, white identity politics in America is not simply, as some conservatives claim, a backlash against race- and gender-based “oppression Olympics”; an emphasis on whiteness was the cornerstone of historical racist policies. Today, Donald Trump’s Republican Party has become a haven for a mentality that sees white Americans as an aggrieved group and promises to champion their interests.
America’s traditional civil rights movements were about recognizing the inequities faced by particular groups, but also about transcending divisions and embracing a common humanity. Today, rediscovering that spirit is our only hope.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.