Tim Ryan, former challenger to Nancy Pelosi’s House leadership, was on Politico’s “Off Message” podcast, doing the same post-mortem of Election 2016 we’ve all been doing. The lens was, as usual, what the Democrats did wrong and how that diagnosis informs what to do next. And, at the risk of alienating quite a few people, I’m going to put my feminist hat on and hash out some thoughts of my own. This is a conversation I’ve been having in my head for some time, so I accept that the only person part of it is me and I likely have a lot of blind spots I haven’t considered yet. For the time being, however, I want to toss my own food for thought out here.
I’m going to be using Ryan’s language here because it mirrors so much of what I’ve heard on other podcasts and in print media as well. For example, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel was part of a recent Brookings Institute discussion, and his thesis was roughly the same: too much focus on identity politics and not enough focus on policy — specifically, economics.
The general line of thought here is as follows: economics affects everybody. Identity sections people off and, at best, makes it hard to appeal to the electorate in broad strokes. At worst, it alienates people who are not actively being courted. An example of this would be the white working class who, for the most part, are not actively hostile towards minorities, but nonetheless feel like voting for Trump forced the political class to acknowledge their pains explicitly as a white working class. The rationale as a voter was to effectively shout “HEY OVER HERE” in whatever way possible, which is why it’s frequently so hard to understand why people who don’t think Trump is suited for office nonetheless voted for him. Whatever his faults, he was a catalyst to this conversation.
I want to push back on two parts here:
The first part is that when we talk about economics, we’re talking about everybody. At first blush, I agree. The economy is people; it’s just a conglomerate of economic acts individuals take (i.e,. buying things, selling good and services, etc. etc.)
When we focus on economics in the context of this post-mortem, we are not talking about “just” economics. We are talking about a manufacturing sector. In Tim Ryan’s interview, he refers to “these guys” in Youngstown and other manufacturing towns hit hard by the transition from manufacturing economy to a service/information economy. He laments that there is a swath of people who want to continue making things with their hands and experience anxiety about not being able to provide for their families.
Men are disproportionately represented in manufacturing. (PDF) And, if I were betting real money, I would bet that people who miss making things with their hands are likewise men. Similarly, while all people experience anxiety as non-contributors, men in particular are hit hard by this stressor. Right or wrong, accurate or inaccurate, people do not exist in a vacuum. We are all impacted to some extent by socialization and men who have been working in manufacturing a long time and no longer have that opportunity are probably those who grew up with an understanding that they supposed to be breadwinners to their families. This doesn’t mean they’re neanderthals who resent working women, but it does mean they put a premium on gainful employment that is probably above average. This is an anxiety that has actually been cited in more than a few studies on the opioid epidemic, but I digress. I just mean to say that I’m not pulling this wholly out of my rear.
When Bernie Sanders, Tim Ryan, and the pundit class begin talking about needing to focus on economics rather than identity politics, this is at odds with each other. Economics, here, really means the concerns of the working class not benefiting from a globalized economy: manufacturing workers. Implicit in this class of people is a primarily (though not exclusively) male identity.
If we were really talking about just economics, we would be saying How can we get these people into the service sector? There are jobs in the service sector. There will be jobs in the service sector. We would be saying How can we effectively transition this manufacturing class to a service or information class?
But we’re not really talking about just economics. This is identity politics by proxy. In fact, I think most politics is effectively identity politics even if we’ve only just put a name on it, but I’ll get to that in a moment. Implicit in this focus-on-economics argument is an appeal to a predominantly male group, appealing to their identity as breadwinners and people who build things. This isn’t an indictment on that identity, and I agree with Ryan that it’s important that people work in fields that make them happy and ambitious because it makes them more ambitious and likely to take reasonable risks. This makes the economic pie grow.
What I won’t agree with is the characterization of this as identity-neutral. It’s not. It operates on the same principle as men are people, women are women (or any other historically marginalized group.) If it’s something that reaches out to our typical conception of a voter – a middle-aged man (probably white) – then it can be “just” economics or “just” healthcare or “just” whatever. So embedded in allegedly indiscriminate public policy issues is race and gender that we don’t need to specify it, and are forced to bucketize all the other groups of people only recently vying for space in the conversation in order to lay claim to that space. The result is an inappropriate framing of default white/male issues as issues of everybody.
Yes, there are people in an awkward logistical position, namely those who are nearing retirement and really do not have the meaningful option to simply train for new jobs. There are a lot of reasons for this: it takes time to train and receive new education (if necessary); when they enter the field, they’re competing with a younger group of people who present a better long-term investment, and; as people who probably have families, had a lifestyle tethered to a particular income, and are eyeballing retirement, they have stronger demands on a possible employer than a younger counterpart who can be more flexible on all of these fronts. Ultimately, however, we’re talking about systemic hurdles, and we don’t make rules for institutions based on exceptions; we make them based on rules. This is a problem to be dealt with but it’s not the governing factor.
The second topic I’d like to focus on is the notion of identity politics being a new phenomenon or that it is responsible for further divisiveness. This should be short, and might be more rant than exploration.
The simple fact is that, since this country’s inception, and really since time immemorial, we’ve siloed people off into labels. Part of this is practical. Public policy can’t scale if we work on an individualized basis, particularly not as we move higher up the government chain.
But the reasons for bucketizing people are different. Historically, black people were not siloed off in any benevolent way. Women were not either. These were used to exclude whole demographics. Likewise for the gay community, and now the trans community, and probably other communities as society progresses. To use a personal example, I’m really not sure how I can convey the need for women’s healthcare coverage when it’s in a normal state of reacting to assorted government parties treating healthcare for women as fundamentally unique and peculiar.
Yet, somehow, talking about this a women’s issue is marginalizing when I do it. It allegedly exacerbates a divide between men and women, plays on a gender card, and normalizes the conversation about women’s healthcare as it is. Fair play, maybe, to that last point, but in prioritizing my battles, I’d rather get the best policy outcome first, and then get the nomenclature right second.
When people show up laying claim to a space under the umbrella previously delineated by other people in society, they are not “Making the conversation about X.” The conversation had already been informed that way by institutions, be it government, churches, businesses and so on. It really should not be galling to us that, for example, laws that target Group A galvanizes people under Group A to use the same language when wanting to address their public policy concerns.
It’s impossible to solve a problem without diagnosing its roots first. Perhaps one day we’ll have a post-racial, post-gender, post-whatever society. For the time being, in order to address assorted social ills, it’s necessary to acknowledge the disproportionate impact siloing has had on affected groups, and consider that those people probably also have a disproportionate interest in their resolution even if they ultimately affect society as a whole in some form or another.