Pete Buttigieg Dings Democrats for “So-Called Identity Politics”

Edward Kimmel / Flickr Pete Buttigieg...
Edward Kimmel / Flickr

NBC News is reporting that Democratic presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg issued a sharp criticism of the Democratic Party for playing “identity politics” and “pitting one group’s grievances against another”.

In a risky speech to the Human Rights Campaign, a major LGBT rights group, Buttigieg warned of a “crisis of belonging in this country,” arguing it was exacerbated by “so-called identity politics” that emphasize how one person hasn’t walked in another’s shoes — “something that is true, but it doesn’t get us very far.”

The speech seems to be in response to a drumbeat of commentary and criticism that questions whether Buttigieg, as a white male Ivy leaguer, reflects the diversity championed by the Democratic Party. This despite the fact that, as an out and proud gay man, Buttigieg is hardly a traditional representative of white male Patriarchy.

NBC compares the speech to Bill Clinton’s notorious “Sistah Souljah moment” from his first Presidential campaign.

Buttigieg offered the most pointed critique of his own party so far in the campaign, in a moment that had echoes of Bill Clinton’s “Sistah Souljah” moment in 1992 when he distanced himself from a black political activist who had made controversial comments about race.

This comparison is more than a little questionable. Clinton compared hip-hop artist Sistah Souljah to Klansman David Duke for inflammatory remarks she had ostensibly made. A comparison that itself was pretty inflamatory. Buttigieg’s comments, while provocative, come nowhere near being as offensive as equating any African American to a Kluxer/neo-Nazi.

Buttigieg’s criticism seems to owe more to the concept of Intersectionality than to glib false equivalences.

“When an auto worker, 12 years into their career, is no longer sure how to provide for their family, they’re not part of the country we think of ourselves as all living in together. That’s why we can’t seem to get on the same page,” Buttigieg said.

Such “divisive lines of thinking” have entered Democrats’ mindset, Buttigieg said, adding: “Like when we’re told we have to choose between supporting an auto worker and a trans woman of color, without stopping to think about the fact that sometimes the auto worker is a trans woman of color, and she definitely needs all the security she can get.”

Emphasis added.

Whatever one may think of what Buttigieg has to say, he has, I think, put his finger on a central contradiction/paradox at the heart of what is described as Identity Politics. That being, no one is really reducible to a single fixed, socially constructed, identity. People, as a practical reality, embody multiple, overlapping social identities.

In fact, the attempt to reduce individuals to mere representatives of a particular socially constructed identity is intrinsic to all systems of social oppression. People of Color are defined as nothing more than representatives of a subjugated “race”. Women as nothing more than childbearing care givers. LGBT folk as nothing more than exemplars of sexual “deviance”.

The New York Times noted Buttigieg’s speech as well.

“The wall I worry about most isn’t the president’s fantasy wall on the Mexican border that will never get built anyway,” he said, jabbing at President Trump, who has been lobbing insults at Mr. Buttigieg all week. “What I worry about are the very real walls being put up between us as we get divided and carved up.”

The role and character of Identity Politics in 2020 is a topic that is likely to only become more pronounced as the Primary season gets underway. As a presidential candidate, Pete Buttigieg has opened the door for that discussion/debate as a campaign issue.

Whether that door will lead to a constructive dialogue or a destructive conflagration remains to be seen.

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