When Abraham Lincoln was running for reelection in 1864, a typical Democratic Party newspaper warned that should Lincoln earn a second term in office, his administration would bring about the “blending of the white and the black”—an epidemic of black men and “snow-white bosomed” women falling into sexual liaisons—a profusion of “squint-eyed yellow babies” born to “every Abolition woman … quickened by the pure blood of the majestic African.” It was a common refrain that ugly election season, in which Democrats cast the coming election as a battle for the sanctity of the white race, a struggle with a clearly identifiable villain: “Abraham Africanus the First,” rumored to be “of negro blood … brutal in all his habits. … He is obscene. … He is an animal … Filthy black nigger, greasy, sweaty, and disgusting, now jostle white people and even ladies everywhere, at the President’s levees.”
Identity politics—the practice of appealing to voters’ tribal instincts at the expense of weaving a more all-embracing agenda—is not a new phenomenon. In fact, it’s as American as apple pie. More to the point, throughout our history, identity politics has almost always meant white identity politics—a style of persuasion rooted in appeals to white resentment and privilege. It was the Democratic Party’s key strategy in 1864; it’s what animated the insurgent campaigns of Strom Thurmond and George Wallace; and it was the Republican Party’s major play in 2016, when its standard bearer, Donald Trump—the country’s leading birther and a stalwart nativist of the crudest variety—incited angry white voters against the specter of their multicultural present and future.
It’s ironic, then, that today’s critics of identity politics focus not on the GOP, which has progressively degenerated into a revanchist white pride party, but on Democrats who, according to Columbia University’s Mark Lilla, espoused a politics of inclusive liberalism “from the New Deal up until 1980,” but then pivoted toward an “ideology … that fetishizes our individual and group attachments” at the expense of “a universal democratic ‘we.’”
The problem with this analysis is not simply that it sidesteps white identity politics, past and present. It also gets the history of modern liberalism wrong. The architects of the New Deal coalition were not, as Lilla suggests, silent on the matter of race or ethnicity. Indeed, they understood that the Democratic Party’s electoral majority was shaky because it relied on a collection of otherwise discordant voting blocs. And the candidates who managed to hold it together did so by embracing identity politics.
In other words, identity politics didn’t make the Democrats lose; it was the only way to win.
Few people in 1948 expected that President Harry Truman would win a full term in office. After 12 years of Democratic governance, the country was ready for change, and Truman—a plain-spoken Midwesterner lacking the flair or popular appeal of his predecessor, Franklin D. Roosevelt—was unpopular even among his party’s base. “We wish Mr. Dewey well without too much enthusiasm,” a prominent liberal said of the president’s GOP rival, “and look to Mr. Truman’s defeat without too much regret.
Public polls had Truman down consistently in a four-way field. Immediately after Labor Day, the Elmo Roper poll found him trailing Dewey by a whopping 13 points.
Of course, Truman didn’t lose, and it wasn’t just the conservative Chicago Tribune that woke up after Election Day with egg on its face. Upon his return to the capital, Truman was greeted by a giant sign, commissioned by the Washington Post, that read: “MR. PRESIDENT, WE ARE READY TO EAT CROW WHENEVER YOU WANT TO SERVE IT.”
Truman owed his victory in part to James Rowe and Clark Clifford.
Rowe was a former clerk to Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., who later cycled between high-level posts at a number of New Deal agencies before joining the White House staff as Franklin Roosevelt’s chief administrative assistant. He later went on to serve in a top post at the Justice Department before entering into the private practice of law. Clifford was a young attorney and Navy reservist who secured an appointment as a military aide to Truman. Tall, wavy-haired and endowed with strong, chiseled features, he looked the part. Despite his political inexperience, by 1946 he earned appointment as special counsel to the president, a senior role recently occupied by Roosevelt’s indispensable legislative draftsman and political adviser, Sam Rosenman.
In November 1947, Clifford and Rowe presented Truman with a 47-page memorandum that laid out the elaborate strategy behind his improbable victory the following year, a coup for which they remained famous almost two decades later.
The “basic premise” of their strategy was that “the Democratic Party [was] an unhappy alliance of Southern conservatives, Western progressives and Big City labor” and “that the success or failure of the Democratic leadership can be precisely measured by its ability to lead enough members of these three misfit groups to the polls on the first Tuesday after the first Monday of November, 1948.”
Further breaking down these interest groups, the authors suggested specific policy appeals to key racial, ethnic and economic groups.
African Americans held the “balance of power in … closely contested electoral states such as New York, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan,” so Rowe and Clifford suggested that the administration throw its support behind anti-poll tax and equal employment measures. Jews were important “only in New York,” but since “no candidate since 1876 has lost New York and won the Presidency, and its 47 votes are naturally the first prize in any election,” they were to be courted. The president could “lunch with Albert Einstein” to court that bloc. (In 1948 he did one better when he recognized the new state of Israel.)
“The Catholic vote,” they continued, “is traditionally Democratic. The controlling element in this group today from a political standpoint is the distrust and fear of Communism.” So, the president should run hard as a Cold War liberal. Within that group, Italians were “notoriously volatile, swinging easily from party to party,” and required a special appeal. So did farmers and, especially, organized labor. “President Truman and the Democratic Party cannot win without the active support of organized labor. It is dangerous to assume that labor now has nowhere else to go in 1948. Labor can stay home.”
By tailoring a legislative and political agenda that appealed to each interest group, Clifford and Rowe assembled a working majority that carried Truman to victory in November. Ironically, their one miscalculation was the assumption that the Solid South would never break with the Democratic Party, despite the president’s overtures to African Americans, Jews and liberal unions. In fact, Strom Thurmond’s “Dixiecrat” party carried four Southern states, presaging a gradual, 50-year shift in regional politics that gained speed in the wake of Lyndon Johnson’s civil rights push some two decades later.
The Rowe-Clifford memorandum is rightly considered one of the most important political strategy frameworks in American electoral politics. It was also a prime example of identity politics as a driving force behind mid-century liberalism. By appealing narrowly to the parochial interests of key ethnic, racial and ideological groups, Truman’s team built a large, if fragile, governing coalition.
Eight years later, with his eye on the vice presidency in 1956, freshman Senator John F. Kennedy assigned his Senate staffer, Ted Sorensen, to formulate an intellectual response to the widely held assumption that a Catholic would invariably drag down the national ticket. Such had been prevailing wisdom since 1928, when New York Governor Al Smith—the first Catholic nominee of a major party—went down in resounding defeat, in no small part due to pervasive bigotry on the part of many white Protestant voters.
Sorensen dove into the task, immersing himself in the work of such prominent pollsters and political scientists as George Gallup, Louis Bean, Samuel Lubell and Angus Campbell. Synthesizing their survey work, he found—or at least argued—that Catholic voting strength had reached its “peak” point, as the children and grandchildren of Irish, Italian and Eastern European immigrants—all of them natural-bor citizens—achieved voting age.
Though many white Protestants voiced “concern” about placing a Catholic in the White House, most were concentrated in the South—and, like Clifford and Rowe before him, Sorensen assumed that Democrats could lose as much as one-third of Southern white voters without losing the region’s bloc of electoral votes. Catholics, on the other hand, showed signs of drift in 1952 and 1954, when many of them broke for Dwight Eisenhower and congressional and statewide Republican candidates. In this sense, a Catholic candidate wasn’t a drag; he was a necessity in vote-rich Northeastern and Midwestern states.
The Bailey memorandum—so called, as the Kennedy camp assigned credit to John Bailey, the Democratic party chieftain in Connecticut (“I got the credit but Sorensen did the work,” he later admitted)—was of course a self-serving document. But it deeply impressed many party leaders who accepted its central premise and began to take seriously the threat of mass Catholic defections, particularly in 14 states where Catholics comprised anywhere between 20 percent (Ohio) and 60 percent (Rhode Island) of the vote. Much like Rowe and Clifford’s memo to Truman, Sorensen’s document served both as a strategy framework and a reminder that the glue holding together the Democratic party was identity politics.
If Lilla is off track in his assumptions about the New Deal coalition, he also glosses over the central role that white identity politics has played in the resurgence of American conservatism. When the Wall Street Journal editorial board criticized Richard Nixon in 1968 for deploying “harsh and strident efforts to capitalize on deep-seated discontent and frustration”—for telling “a whistle-stop rally in Deshler, Ohio that in the 45 minutes since his train left Lima, one murder, two rapes and 45 major crimes of violence had occurred in this country”—it understood that lurking not far behind the former vice president’s rhetoric were appeals to white backlash. Nixon, the paper complained, was peddling a brand of “extremism [that] seems not only unnecessary but self-defeating.”
Nixon’s approach had a name: the Southern Strategy. Kevin Phillips, a young Republican operative who popularized the term, accurately predicted a growing alliance between working-class voters who harbored deep resentments of racial and cultural liberalism, and upwardly mobile suburbanites who resented paying high taxes to support the New Deal and Great Society welfare state. Phillips believed that this powerful alliance of white voters would punish the Democratic party for its “ambitious social programming, and inability to handle the urban and Negro revolutions.”
The same white identity politics was still very much at play in August 1980, when Ronald Reagan, fresh off his victory at the Republican National Convention in Detroit, addressed a nearly all-white crowd, 10,000 strong, at the Neshoba County Fair in Philadelphia, Mississippi. “I believe in state’s rights,” he announced in his rich, baritone voice. “I believe in people doing as much as they can at the private level.” To thunderous applause, the presidential candidate pledged to “restore to states and local governments the power that properly belongs to them.” Reagan knew that his remarks would be warmly received in Philadelphia, a sleepy, backwater town of 5,500 residents. There, 16 years before Reagan’s visit, Cecil Price, the deputy county sheriff, had delivered three civil rights workers into the hands of a lynch mob. Schwerner and Goodman, both Jewish, and both from New York City, were each killed at point-blank range by a single bullet to the chest. Chaney was beaten, then shot in the head and chest. The execution party placed the bodies in the trunk of a nondescript sedan and buried them at a remote site where contractors were still in the process of erecting an earthen dam out of several tons of muddy, thick red clay. At least a dozen men, and probably twice that number, were directly involved in the execution. Many more knew about it.
When Reagan traveled to Philadelphia, of all places, to take a stand for “states’ rights” and “private” action, he knowingly poured gasoline over an open flame. Since the early post-war period, states rights had functioned as code for Jim Crow. (Thurmond’s Dixiecrats were formally called the States Rights Democratic Party.) His strategy was to reassemble the same Silent Majority coalition that elected Nixon in 1968. Reagan also assiduously courted white evangelical Christians, who were animated by a blend of opposition to abortion, pornography, gay rights and—notably—the Carter administration’s decision to strip the tax-exempt status of so-called “segregation academies”—private Christian schools that Southerners established in part to evade court-mandated busing and pupil placement schemes meant to enforce de-segregation. In Mississippi, the number of these institutions rose from 17 in 1964 to 155 by 1970—just as the federal government began using busing and threatened to cut the flow of federal school aid to non-compliant districts. Not only were the Christian academies tax-exempt entities; in some states, like Mississippi, white parents received subsidies from the state to help cover tuition and fees.
Reagan lent his voice to their cause and reaped considerable political benefits. That fall, Christians for Reagan—the political arm of the Christian Voice, a stridently homophobic Religious Right action group—poured millions of dollars into a hard-hitting advertising campaign that declared the former California governor the divine choice for president. “Do you believe America was destined for the avalanche of pornography, abortion, homosexuality, murder, rape and child abuse that has befallen us?” asked one circular. “Your destiny as a Christian and an American calls you to join with me in this great Crusade to Save America. Bring God Back to American leadership and elect Ronald Reagan President of the United States.” Ultimately, Reagan captured 67 percent of white evangelical votes in 1980, signaling a major electoral realignment and a new and powerful role for groups like the Moral Majority in the Republican party.
In modern times, liberals and conservatives have both relied on “interest group” politics to cobble together winning coalitions. Doing so often, though not invariably, requires that they jettison their prospects with other groups. It’s sometimes possible, as Rowe and Clifford demonstrated, to advance the agenda of key minority groups (e.g., African Americans and Jews) in swing states without losing a critical volume of majority support elsewhere (e.g., the South and Midwest). But some groups simply have mutually exclusive interests.
Today, Democrats simply cannot win evangelical voters for whom LGBT rights is an absolute deal-breaker. Of course, individuals bear multiple identities. It’s therefore incumbent upon liberals to try to convince such voters to privilege their identity as workers, environmentalists, teachers, parents, health care professionals or what have you, above their religious identity. In effect, history suggests that Democrats shouldn’t discard interest-group politics. They should get better at it.
And they should do so with steely-eyed recognition that one of the oldest and most powerful variations of interest group politics—white nationalism—is both resurgent and mainstream once again. White interest group politics is an even more formidable and toxic phenomenon when otherwise well-intentioned commentators work from the assumption that Trump’s GOP swept to power on a wave of economic discontent, not racial resentment, while Hillary Clinton’s Democrats went astray by privileging minority identity groups—African Americans, LGBT Americans, immigrants, environmentalists—over a shrinking a majority.
In the coming months and years, liberals bear a mandate to convince white voters of nearly every age and income demographic to reject what W.E.B. DuBois called the “wages of whiteness”—the material and psychological payoff they derive from being white.
Doing so won’t be easy. But identity is a fragmented idea. Who are these voters? And how can liberals convince them, one election at a time, to think of themselves as something other than white?