Identity politics are a double-edged sword
The recent primaries, particularly on the Democratic side, have unleashed a pack of first-ism cliches. If elected in November, Andrew Gillum would become “Florida’s first black governor” (CNN). Stacey Abrams in Georgia could be “America’s first black female governor” (Time).
Jared Polis, the Democratic nominee in Colorado, could become “America’s first openly gay elected governor” (Vox). In Michigan, Rashida Tlaib could be “the first Muslim woman elected to Congress” (Fox News). And Jahana Hayes would be Connecticut’s “first black Democrat to serve in Congress” (The New York Times).
We cannot deny that voters bearing similar racial, gender or sexual attributes can help put certain candidates over the top. That’s electoral politics. Trump world, meanwhile, belts out blatant appeals to white identity.
But Democrats must be especially careful here. When white nationalists voice anti-immigrant views, the wise response is that America is a nation of ideas, not skin color. It’s thus inconsistent to then argue that certain groups are “underrepresented” in elective office. We ideally choose candidates who represent our interests and values, not our ethnicity, gender or sexual leanings.
Some “firsts” are indeed significant. Given America’s traumatic racial history, it was a big deal when Barack Obama became the first African-American president. But how glass-breaking would be Gillum’s election as Florida’s first African-American governor? True, Florida is a Southern state, as is Georgia, where Abrams is tied in the polls. Let us remember, however, that Virginia had an African-American governor, Douglas Wilder, way back in 1990.
As for sexual orientation, most residents of purple or blue America of 2018 probably regard electing a non-hetero candidate as a point of interest rather than an exciting breakthrough. Note that Polis’ run for the governorship of Colorado comes more than three decades after Massachusetts congressman Barney Frank declared he was gay.
Frank originally represented mainly the liberal suburbs of Boston. When his district was changed to center on the socially conservative blue-collar cities of New Bedford and Fall River, he still won. Wisconsin, meanwhile, sends Tammy Baldwin, a lesbian, to the U.S. Senate, and Houston had a lesbian mayor.
The racially charged nature of Trump-era politics does create tricky terrain for candidates like Gillum. The dust had barely settled on the Florida primaries when his Republican opponent, Ron DeSantis, leaped off the starting block with a racial slur.
By brushing it off, Gillum smartly left the appalling remark hanging around DeSantis’ neck. Asked whether DeSantis should apologize to him, Gillum suggested he apologize to the people of Florida instead.
Gillum’s tweets move the conversation to issues. He says such encouraging things as, “I believe in science.” Now, that should not be a remarkable statement, but when multiple Florida politicians are casting doubt on the accepted science behind climate change, it is. Florida is dealing with two environmental crises linked to global warming — disastrous flooding along the coasts and two catastrophic algae attacks.
DeSantis says he can’t state with certainty that human activity has contributed to the warming. The earth scientists who know about these things say it has, and with certainty. Not believing that humans have anything to do with warming is a great excuse for not doing anything to curb it.
Some Democrats argue that appeals to identity can bring out immigrants and members of minorities who generally vote Democratic but often don’t vote. But that can turn against them, as candidate Donald Trump showed.
It’s hard to believe that the white working-class voters who supported Obama in 2012 and then Trump in 2016 turned racist in the four intervening years. Obama was really good at talking to everyone. Successful Democrats of whatever color, religion or sexual bent will follow his playbook. They should identify with interests rather than genetics.
* Froma Harrop is a syndicated columnist. She can be reached at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @FromaHarrop.