The DNC’s Insistence on Putting Identity-Based Issues Second Has Long Been a Problem
Last week, it was reported that Joe Biden’s campaign had invited former Ohio Gov. John Kasich to speak on Biden’s behalf at the upcoming Democratic National Convention, in a bizarre and frankly needless pitch to that fabled bloc of swayable Republican voters. In light of this news, many advocates have pointed out Kasich’s long history of stances and policies that are deeply harmful to the marginalized communities that Democratic leadership claims to support.
Kasich’s record, and Biden and possibly the DNC’s embrace of it, are a stark reminder that all too often, identity-based social justice issues are treated as secondary by Democratic Party leadership, in an attempt to posture as more “serious” and “unifying.” Look no further than party leadership’s decisive embrace of a man who has been accused of sexual misconduct and even rape as its nominee, all while steamrolling and discrediting survivors, for another example of this.
Yet, the party relies increasingly heavily on voters of color, and especially women of color, to win elections—after all, the majority of white men and a plurality of white women voters have consistently voted Republican. From a purely strategic perspective, the party should be doing everything it can to ensure enthusiasm and turnout from diverse, reliably liberal and progressive voting blocs. There’s little reason to believe this will be achieved by welcoming yet another white man with policy stances that dehumanize and disenfranchise people of color—and especially women of color—and queer and trans folks.
Specific to Kasich, the former governor and frequent Trump critic is responsible for signing several key abortion bans and restrictions that have contributed to more than half of the state’s clinics closing under his watch. While, at the end of 2016, he vetoed a so-called “fetal heartbeat” abortion ban that would ban abortion before most people know they’re pregnant, shortly after, he signed a bill into law banning abortion after 20 weeks of gestation, which punishes those who are denied abortion care earlier in pregnancy by cost and geographic barriers, or face deeply personal medical circumstances that necessitate later abortion care.
Despite attempts to come off as moderate on LGBTQ rights issues, Kasich has a long and consistent record of denouncing the LGBTQ “lifestyle” and opposing marriage equality and benefits for LGBTQ partners, additional protections against anti-LGBTQ discrimination, and funding and support for LGBTQ couples trying to adopt. As governor, Kasich also signed a bill banning local minimum wage increases, and while posturing as a supporter of Medicaid, actually supported Republican efforts to gradually phase out Medicaid expansion. As a result of systemic racism and rampant inequities in the health system and labor force, Kasich’s stances and actions on health care access and fair wages are especially harmful to the most marginalized communities, including people and women of color, and queer and trans folks.
The fact that Kasich is recognized as the standard-bearer for “moderates” and “reasonable Republicans” at all reflects how abortion and other gender and racial justice issues are treated as separate from and tangential to more “serious,” overtly economic issues. Someone who contributes to the decimation of abortion clinics—which has proven to increase maternal and infant mortality rates, and disproportionately force women of color to carry unwanted pregnancies or go broke seeking care—by definition, cannot be politically “moderate.”
Since 2016, many Democratic leaders from Nancy Pelosi to Bernie Sanders have denounced what’s often called “identity politics” in some way, in response, in most cases, to the debate around inclusion of anti-abortion Democrats. DNC Chairman Tom Perez and Pelosi have both vocally supported a “big-tent” party that includes “pro-life” Democrats, Sanders has previously endorsed an anti-abortion candidate in Nebraska while citing the importance of transcending “identity politics,” and Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar proudly embraced anti-abortion Democrats as part of her failed presidential campaign.
Yet, reproductive rights are arguably the most salient example of how “identity politics” is often synonymous with human rights, none of which can be compromised on, and all of which are deeply tied to economic justice, gender justice, and racial justice. Contrary to Kasich’s cringe-inducing insistence in 2017 that we all simply “agree to disagree” and take a “chill pill” on abortion, since he and his pro-choice wife are accepting of each other’s different views, it is literally impossible to compromise on whether the state should have the power to force people to be pregnant and give birth against their will. Conflicting stances on basic human rights will never just be opinions and are often deeply divided by power dynamics—a lawmaker who disagrees with their constituents on reproductive health care can legislate away their human rights, while their constituents who disagree with them are forced to live with this.
Reproductive rights are an especially salient matter of “identity politics,” as they’re deeply tied to racial justice because of who is more likely to seek abortion care and face greater economic barriers and inequities in the health system. Women of color, and especially Black women, face the highest maternal death rates, and are most severely impacted by barriers to reproductive health care. Acknowledging the power of identity in how policies affect different people isn’t the problem; erasing those differences and being critical of outreach and policymaking that center the marginalized, rather than privileged white people, is.
For example, Democratic and progressive candidates who are women or people of color, and unapologetically invoke lived experiences, are criticized for relying on divisive “identity politics.” But Donald Trump, who ran on white identity politics and racist dog whistles, isn’t accused of this.
This double standard speaks volumes about who is regarded as the default demographic in this country, much like frequent, bipartisan invocations of the purity of America’s snow-white, Midwestern “heartland” and critiques of people of color in coastal parts of the country as out-of-touch with “real America.” All of this reveals how people in positions of power across political parties signal whose perspective and experiences are the priority, and conversely, whose aren’t.
The bottom line is that Democratic leadership can’t treat the human rights of women and pregnant people, queer and trans folks, and all people who experience identity-based marginalization as bargaining chips to win over some imagined sliver of “decent Republicans.” The party needs women, people of color, LGBTQ folks, and an increasingly diverse electorate for its survival.
It’s past time for leadership to recognize that abortion rights and reproductive justice—as well as LGBTQ rights, racial justice, survivor justice, and more—are not just optional add-ons. They’re indispensable human rights, and in their own ways, inseparable from “serious” economic justice issues. That means no one who uses their power to enact harm on marginalized communities—least of all a governor who shut down half his state’s reproductive health clinics—should be embraced by any party that claims to be progressive.
(image: OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images)
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