© 2024 Kansas City Public Radio
NPR in Kansas City
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

In Defense Of 'Identity Politics'


Ever since Donald Trump won the election, people on both sides are trying to explain what went so badly wrong for Democrats in 2016. One critique of Hillary Clinton is that identity politics played too large a role in her campaign, that she would often address specific groups of people in her speeches, whether they be African-Americans, Muslims or LGBT voters, instead of appealing to all voters. We're joined now by Christine Emba. She's an editor of the blog "In Theory" at The Washington Post. She wrote a piece in defense of identity politics, and she joins us now in our studios. Thank you so much for coming in.

CHRISTINE EMBA: Thank you for having me.

CHANG: So yeah, we hear this phrase identity politics a lot from analysts and academics. And the phrase is used in such a way as if everybody assumes we're all in agreement about what it means. What does identity politics mean to you?

EMBA: It's the idea that, you know, we are all intrinsically part of some identity, whether we're female, whether we're African-American, LGBT, of a certain religion. And the criticism here, as you said, is that Hillary and the Democratic Party - liberals more broadly - were seen as targeting their message a little too narrowly, only speaking to these specific groups, whether it's making appeals to women, promising things to black people, putting the concerns of LGBT Americans ahead somehow of the concerns of Americans as a larger group.

CHANG: But do you think Democrats did do something in their messaging that implied the anxieties of white voters were not front and center among Democratic party priorities?

EMBA: I think one of the questions that you have to ask is should the priorities of white American voters be front and center in our electoral politics right now? In fact, not everyone in America is white or male. And I think that it's worthwhile to address the concerns of all Americans, not just those that have historically been in the majority. That said, I think we've heard a lot of discussion of, you know, the white-lash or backlash against Hillary's campaign. And there are some things that she perhaps could have done better.

CHANG: Like what?

EMBA: So one of the things that was so shocking about her loss was that she ended up losing this blue wall, these sort of Great Lakes states - Michigan, Wisconsin. And one of the things that was really shocking to think about in her campaign is that she never visited Wisconsin, for instance, at all during the general election. And of course, many of the voters there we would imagine as being kind of working-class, middle-class white Americans. Would it have been as troubling, perhaps, if Hillary Clinton had spent time, yes, talking about African-Americans, LGBT voters, et cetera while also remembering to visit these other people? That might have helped.

CHANG: I mean, but one big question out of all of this is how do you include everyone and do so in a way that doesn't alienate white voters?

EMBA: Right. I think what the Democratic Party is going to have to do is focus on some of the larger issues that all Americans can agree upon. We still need to have a conversation about the economy, about things like war, about class, about, you know, the larger values that all Americans share. But it's also worth saying that those questions are still shot through with questions about identity, how they're experienced by different groups.

CHANG: Do Democrats have to be consciously more unifying during a campaign season in order to win an election even if the goal is to help certain groups of voters in certain kinds of ways? Do they have to be self-consciously unifying during a campaign season for messaging purposes and for the purpose of winning?

EMBA: Yeah, I think that's another question that we're going to see more and more of as we go forward in campaigns like this and as America becomes more diverse. It's kind of a seesaw between idealism and practicality. Yes, we want to win. And maybe that does mean that we spend more time talking about the concerns of one group over the concerns of another. At the same time, though, it really does seem like a shame to ask groups to wait their turn.

CHANG: Christine Emba is an editor at The Washington Post. Thank you.

EMBA: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

KCUR serves the Kansas City region with breaking news and award-winning podcasts.
Your donation helps keep nonprofit journalism free and available for everyone.