Buttigieg: Let's face it, identity politics doesn't get us very far

An interesting mild departure from progressive orthodoxy, conveniently designed to blunt one of the core criticisms of his candidacy. Yes, he’s openly gay, but he’s also a middle-aged white guy with an exceedingly elite education. Go figure that a would-be nominee who’s worried about being ruled out by voters on grounds of race and gender thinks maybe we should all focus less on race and gender.

Although, really, he’s not encouraging people to focus less on race and gender. That would make this more of a true “Sistah Souljah moment,” as NBC is touting it. What Buttigieg wants to do is stretch the concept of “identity” so that race and gender no longer have as much potency as they do among the left. We can’t know what it’s like to walk in the shoes of a trans woman of color, he allows — but we also can’t know what it’s like to walk in the shoes of an auto worker who just got laid off and has a family to feed.

“When an auto worker, 12 years into their career, is no longer sure how to provide for their family, they’re not part of the country we think of ourselves as all living in together. That’s why we can’t seem to get on the same page,” Buttigieg said.

Such “divisive lines of thinking” have entered Democrats’ mindset, Buttigieg said, adding: “Like when we’re told we have to choose between supporting an auto worker and a trans woman of color, without stopping to think about the fact that sometimes the auto worker is a trans woman of color, and she definitely needs all the security she can get.”

At least in the room at the Human Rights Campaign gala, his remarks appeared well-received.

We need to tear down the silly Trumpian walls we’ve erected to divide us, he tells the crowd, presumably starting with the wall that makes white male Rhodes Scholars a nonstarter in Democratic primaries.

He’s not going to get anywhere with this among the woke brigades, who’ll remind him that inborn identities are different from trades, as in the auto worker example. He might have done better with them to frame his point in terms of “privilege”: The dispossessed working class of the deindustrialized midwest may be largely white but they know what hardship is, if not the same kinds of hardship as blacks, gays, etc. You can belong to a historically victimized group and still enjoy certain kinds of privilege thanks to your personal wealth that are unavailable to poorer whites. Essentially Buttigieg is trying to elevate class to a capital-I Identity too — something you wouldn’t think parts of the American left would need encouragement to do, but which some do need encouragement to do given how central inborn identity has become to the movement.

I don’t think he’s aiming this message at black voters, though. I think he’s aiming it at the extremely white Bernie brigades, who agree with him that class deserves a much higher priority in American politics generally and on the left especially. Watching this, I wondered what Sanders thought of it. He has a “white guy” problem in the primary too, and as an old-school lefty Bernie’s been invested in class consciousness for decades. Nothing would make him happier than for Democratic voters, especially the black Democrats who remain lukewarm about him, to dispense with identities as an organizing concept and to go all-in on class. Bernie wants to lead a working-class revolution; now here’s Buttigieg nudging identitarian lefties to give the working class at least as much attention and race, sex, and orientation get. I think Bernie would like his speech, unless it ends up with Mayor Pete poaching even more of his voters.

Whatever else you think of his five minutes on this subject here, “crisis of belonging” is a sharp phrase and an apt summary of identity mania in America 2019. Oh, by the way: In the South Carolina poll I blogged yesterday, Buttigieg took 18 percent of the white vote, good for second place — even above Bernie. Among blacks he was at zero.