Democrats are debating whether it is proper to say “all lives matter” or “black lives matter,” and Hillary Clinton has now formally taken a side. After watching her rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination Martin O’Malley and Bernie Sanders get burned at the progressive Netroots convention over the weekend for mostly declining to use the “black lives matter” slogan, Clinton took to Facebook yesterday and posted:
Black lives matter. Everyone in this country should stand firmly behind that. We need to acknowledge some hard truths about race and justice in this country, and one of those hard truths is that racial inequality is not merely a symptom of economic inequality.
Last month, Clinton herself said “all lives matter” in a speech at a black church, arousing the ire of some progressives—though not enough to make her apologize for using the phrase, as O’Malley did after his roasting at Netroots. Clinton’s statement Tuesday indicates that she likely won’t make the mistake of saying “all lives matter” again, at least during primary season.
It might be tempting to dismiss Hillary’s triangulation on “black lives matter” as petty primary posturing with little political significance. In fact, it points to a very real division within the American left, with important implications for the future of the Democratic Party—namely, the division between economic populists who rally around the politics of class and social progressives who rally around the politics of identity.
Sanders, Hillary’s chief rival, is clearly a social liberal, but the unifying theme of his platform—which includes single payer healthcare, a Wall Street crackdown, and a 90 percent top tax rate—is economic populism. Clinton has attempted to adopt a left-wing populist tone during the primary campaign, but as a private jet-setting multimillionaire whose top donors are Wall Street banks, she cannot credibly position herself to Sanders’ left on class or economic issues. Her Facebook statement rebuking Sanders and O’Malley on race—along with other policy moves like her celebration of the Supreme Court’s same-sex marriage decision and her leftward pivot on immigration—can be seen as an effort to compensate for her populist deficiencies by emphasizing her identity politics bona fides.
Fortunately for Clinton, in America, the politics of identity have usually trumped the politics of class. Unlike many European countries, the United States has a legacy of mass immigration and racial slavery that brings issues of identity to the fore of our politics. In part because of how slavery and immigration drove identity politics, we have never experienced the same degree of class solidarity as European countries have—one of the reasons a real American socialism never really appeared. Left-wing economic populism had a good run during the New Deal era, but since the 1960s it has been cultural liberals, not economic progressives, at the vanguard of the intellectual left.
The Democrats’ days as the party of the working class are long gone. The party’s faithful is a coalition of non-white identity groups, along with young voters and upper class cultural liberals. Winning them over will require appeals to the politics of race, gender, and sexual orientation, not merely economic issues. Hillary Clinton recognizes the importance of social issues and identity politics for holding the party’s diverse constituency together; that’s why she emerged on top from the Netroots saga.