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How Democrats Can Bridge Identity Politics and Economic Populism

Some on the left are touting "the Bobby Kennedy coalition" as a model of multicultural working class politics.

Library of Congress

Ever since Donald Trump rode a wave of white working class support to defeat Hillary Clinton in last month’s election, a pernicious debate has emerged among progressives over whether the Democratic Party should continue to prioritize “identity politics” or instead reorient its message around economic populism.

Mark Lilla, a Columbia University professor and prominent advocate of the latter approach, argued in a post-election New York Times essay that liberals’ focus on identity has made them “narcissistically unaware of conditions outside their self-defined groups, and indifferent to the task of reaching out to Americans in every walk of life.” He called for a “post-identity liberalism” to “concentrate on widening its base by appealing to Americans as Americans and emphasizing the issues that affect a vast majority of them.”

Lilla isn’t a major player in the Democratic Party, but versions of his argument have been embraced by Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and Ohio Representative Tim Ryan, who ran unsuccessfully against Nancy Pelosi for House minority leader last month. Meanwhile, some critics say that a politics that fails to acknowledge unique intersectional identities can’t address the distinct challenges the come with them; that politics shouldn’t be colorblind, but color conscious. Others insist it’s impossible to separate identity issues from economic ones.

These are the tetchy waters into which Neera Tanden, the president of the Center for American Progress, waded on Monday—despite calling it “a little bit of an unhealthy debate.”

“The Democratic Party cannot turn its back on some of these core values,” Tanden said during a Q&A at her think tank with Washington Post blogger Greg Sargent. “I mean, this is a party that has represented the struggle for civil rights for 50 years, and to turn its back on those fights as we see particular groups under attack—whether it’s Muslims or undocumented immigrants or an effort to disenfranchise minority voters or people of color—would be a travesty.”

On the other hand, the close confidante of Clinton said she and her CAP colleagues believe Democrats must change their messaging for the Trump era.

“Our view is that we do need to claim the mantle of reform—reforming our economics, reforming out politics,” Tanden said. “I do think we have to focus on how to improve people’s daily lives with harder, clearer arguments. ... I think one of the things Donald Trump showed us in this election is a very clear message of ‘I’m going to improve your life, I’m going to get a job for you’ versus a more complicated answer about wages and costs is a challenge.”

But Tanden is confident progressives can update their economic message while continuing to advance civil rights, making the “identity politics” debate a false choice. To that end, she offered a specific model for the future, drawn from success in the past.

Truthfully, we’ve called that kind of work in the past, where you knit together a civil rights strategy with an economic justice strategy, the Bobby Kennedy coalition,” Tanden said. She didn’t respond to The New Republic’s request for further comment, but we can assume she was referencing Kennedy’s storybook presidential campaign of 1968, which ended when he was assassinated in California after winning the state’s primary.

Kennedy is having a moment in the wake of last month’s Democratic debacle. Biographer Larry Tye, author of this year’s Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon, made an extended case in The Philadelphia Inquirer earlier this month that “Democrats need a new RFK.”

“I think Bobby Kennedy would have had a much stronger appeal to the Trump kind of voter than even Barack Obama did,” Tye told The New Republic.

He recalled that in the 1968 Democratic primary Kennedy won with conservative whites in Indiana and Nebraska, carrying county after county where George Wallace had prevailed four years earlier. At the same time, Kennedy cleaned up in the black districts of these states and won heavily in Washington, D.C.

“At a time of huge racial strife in America, he went into black communities and white ones and said precisely the same tough message—our streets have to be safe, and the only way to get safe streets is to have racial justice,” Tye said. “That was a message that, one could say, managed to offend white and black audiences equally.”

And yet, that offensiveness—or, more precisely, Kennedy’s willingness to tell the same hard truths to every audience—was key to his appeal. Democrats of all stripes rallied to his brand of liberalism because it was bold and risky, and thus seemingly authentic.

“He was against the war before it was safe for a politician to be against the war,” Tye said of the Vietnam war, which Kennedy had initially supported. “He was for fighting poverty at a moment when people realized, like they do today, that you’re not going to win many voters by fighting poverty.”

“It was so counterintuitive for a politician to be doing that,” Tye added, describing how Kennedy would get angry” with voters “when they’d talk about selfish things.”

“He went in and told white, racist union leaders, ‘You’ve got to open up your unions to blacks, and you’ve got to be part of solving poverty in America.’ ... But he also went in and told blacks no on riots. He went in and told the Black Panthers and Black Muslims.”

Kennedy was willing to adopt ideas from across the political spectrum, like tax breaks for businesses investing in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant. He also made the case that white working class Americans shared struggles with poor inner-city blacks, and he delivered the same message to crowds of all colors. On some level, this is the kind of “Americans as Americans” appeal Lilla advocates, but Tye stressed that Kennedy was a principled progressive, not at all a third-way centrist like Bill Clinton.

“Bobby Kennedy was some combination of Niccolò Machiavelli and Che Guevara. It wasn’t a question of moving to the right,” Tye said. “It was question of being open-minded. He was incredibly radical on some things. ... When you listen to his speeches, he out-liberaled Barack Obama. What he did that Barack Obama couldn’t do was get it done. He knew how to make things happen. There’s nothing he hated more than an impractical liberal—a liberal who just had good ideas about wonderful, ethical things to do but had no idea how to do it.”

That’s why, he said, Kennedy wouldn’t have been on board with Sanders’s vision for the Democratic Party.

Bobby Kennedy made Bernie Sanders look like a moderate. He was to the left of Bernie Sanders in lots of ways,” Tye said. Yet Sanders “was, in many ways, precisely the kind of liberal that Bobby Kennedy didn’t have a whole lot of use for. He would have looked at Bernie Sanders’s record in the Senate and said, ‘You’re running for president? A guy who’s never passed a bill? A guy who’s a comfortable socialist and spouts wonderful rhetoric?’ Bernie Sanders to him would have looked like an Adlai Stevenson.”

But Kennedy would have appreciated Sanders’s conviction. Unlike most politicians of his day, the senator concluded there could be no middle group standing up to bigotry in the form of segregation.

“Kennedy finally understood that the only way to take on arch segregationists was to take them on directly, because you’re not going to compromise with them,” Tye said.

It’s a useful lesson in our own racially riven era, as progressives search for a new healer. The divides are, in some senses, greater than half a century ago; the nation is more politically polarized. But now is the moment to dust off a great progressive playbook that, owing to tragedy, never got tested in full.

“Nobody is the perfect model,” he said, “and a lot of circumstances have changed, but I think more is the same than has changed in the past 50 years, and Bobby still resonates, in a way, more than ever.”