New Study: You Don’t Have to Choose Between ‘Populism’ and ‘Identity’

Since the 2016 election, there’s been a sprawling debate within the left over whether Democrats should abandon “identity politics” and focus instead on a forward-leaning message centered on economic populism. (Social identity is a central influence on everyone’s political choices, so when we talk about “identity politics” in this context, we really mean identity politics that don’t appeal to straight white people.) The idea is that focusing on issues of ethnicity, immigration status, gender, and sexual orientation risk alienating more of the non-college-educated whites who have moved toward the Republican Party since Obama’s election. There’s also a significant body of data suggesting that racial animus is a key driver of white conservatives’ opposition to redistributive policies and a robust safety net. Implicit in the argument is that people of color and the LGBTQ community would continue to support Democrats if they spent less time focusing on the unique concerns of those groups, both because progressive economic policies should appeal to their interests, in most cases, and because the GOP continues to signal that its “tent” isn’t big enough to welcome them.

But new data suggest that the entire debate poses a false choice, at least as it applies to racial-justice issues. Preliminary findings from Anat Shenker-Osorio (author of Don’t Buy It: The Trouble with Talking Nonsense about the Economy), Ian Haney López (author of Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class), and researchers at the progressive think tank Demos show that a unified message that acknowledges both racial and economic disparities wins over white voters more effectively than an economic message alone. Just as significantly, the researchers found that while race-neutral economic arguments won’t cause voters of color to embrace the GOP, they do make them less enthusiastic about participating in elections. They say that more research on this is coming down the pike.

– The Nation

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