The battle for the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee was far from the most consequential decision that party leaders were facing. But it offered an instructive lesson over how identity politics—putting one’s skin color or gender over political views and the quality of one’s résumé—has become the defining principle for today’s Democratic Party activists. With a progressive grassroots obsessed with checking privilege, it’s difficult for even the most appealing white male candidate to overcome this political handicap with the base.
Former Labor Secretary Thomas Perez’s narrow win over Bernie Sanders-backed Rep. Keith Ellison was a victory for establishment forces within the party. But the bigger, less-appreciated story was the implosion of 35-year-old South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, considered a rising star in the party and a serious contender for the chairmanship. With support from well-placed party leaders (like former DNC chair Howard Dean, former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, David Axelrod, and Obama communications director Jen Psaki), Buttigieg looked like a plausible compromise candidate who could unite the party’s progressive and pragmatic factions. Instead, he dropped out of the race before the first round of balloting, recognizing his low vote total would be an embarrassment.
On paper, Buttigieg offered everything the party needed for a public face—a young, charismatic small-town mayor from the Midwest who is outspokenly liberal and openly gay. But being a white guy in today’s Democratic Party has become a glaring political vulnerability.
Republicans have well-publicized difficulties with identity politics. They fare poorly with African-Americans and Latinos, and need to make inroads with these groups if they’re going to be viable as the country becomes more diverse.
But Buttigieg’s underwhelming performance is part of a pattern in which Democratic leaders face their own challenge—how to excite Obama’s coalition of millennials and nonwhite voters without playing identity politics. Democratic operatives are now throwing Clinton running mate Tim Kaine under the bus, lamenting that he didn’t energize the party’s all-too-complacent base in last year’s election. On college campuses across the country, left-wing students are agitating to excise the names of white male historical figures from campus buildings.
There are exceptions to the dynamic. Bernie Sanders was able to excite white millennials in the primary campaign, but he didn’t generate much enthusiasm among African-American Democrats. Sen. Al Franken’s celebrity could put him in a unique position, if he chose to run for president. But these outliers prove the point.
Kaine is a textbook example of an accomplished liberal swing-state senator whose pragmatism and decency utterly failed to excite core Democratic voters in last year’s presidential election. Even with an impressive civil-rights record and fluency in Spanish, he didn’t help Clinton attract the party’s base of young, nonwhite voters to the polls. One top Clinton adviser, who requested anonymity to candidly assess the election, told National Journal that picking Kaine as her running mate was a major blunder because he didn’t offer anything to a restive base.
Obama’s Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland, a respected pragmatic jurist, also failed to hit the sweet spot with the Democratic base. Obama hoped that Republican obstruction of his nomination would hand Democrats a tailor-made issue for the presidential election. Instead, the opposite happened. The liberal base hardly cared about the fate of a boring white guy, even though the stakes were so high. Democrats stopped using Garland as a campaign issue after realizing his nomination wasn’t resonating with their voters. Republicans, by contrast, were so energized by the prospect of saving a conservative judicial majority that many held their nose and voted for Donald Trump despite their misgivings.
This might be a trivial issue if it wasn’t so consequential for the Democratic Party’s future. Just as Republicans badly need diversity in the upper ranks of their party to broaden their appeal, Democrats must improve on their appeal with white men. Only 22 percent of white men view the Democratic party favorably, according to a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, with a whopping 57 percent viewing it unfavorably. Not coincidentally, just 22 percent of Hillary Clinton’s voters in 2016 were white men, according to analysis from my Cook Political Report colleague David Wasserman.
One of the most alarming trends in politics is the rise of racial polarization. Under Trump, Republicans are now just as eager to mobilize white men as a core constituency to counter the Democrats’ increased reliance on minorities.
But each party must promote candidates from outside its base to break the stranglehold of identity politics. Republicans badly need women of color in high office to appeal to a diversifying America. But Democrats also could use a few good white men to prove that their brand of liberalism holds an appeal beyond the hardened left-wing activists.