If by identity politics we mean the idea that politicians should consider identifiable groups—well, it is hard to identify a time when that hasn’t happened.
If by identity politics we mean the idea that politicians should consider identifiable groups—well, it is hard to identify a time when that hasn’t happened.

“Wintergreen for President! Wintergreen for President! He’s the man the people choose / loves the Irish and the Jews!” So Ira Gershwin wrote in the opening lyric of “Of Thee I Sing,” the satiric Gershwin–George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind show from 1931 which, the following year, became the first musical to win a Pulitzer Prize. At the time, the lyric, now quaint, seemed quite bold and audacious—to speak so directly about what we would now call identity politics was brazen. Yet the lyric and the quaintness—who now tailors a platform specifically to the Irish?—come to mind instantly in terms of the loud and ongoing arguments about the role, right or wrong, of identity politics in “progressive” thought. Should the left—or liberals, not at all the same thing—pursue identity politics or put them aside for common measures, and did a pursuit of identity politics help lead to the results of November 8th?

That liberals, or leftists, are arguing about such tactical niceties at a moment like this may in itself seem absurd—as if, with the Visigoths sacking Rome, the remaining Romans were debating whether, when the city was somehow retaken, the new Emperor should wear purple or yellow socks. It would be good to first retake Rome. But, presumably, in order to retake Rome you have to make a sock plan, and so the argument—made by, among others, Mark Lilla in the Times—runs that there was a time when Democratic politics appealed to a common interest or common cause, finding unexpected shared desires among disparate groups and uniting them around shared patriotic, or perhaps merely self-interested, ideas. Now we have succumbed to a micropolitics, where the demands of groups are insistently for their own separateness and autonomy, with each group being dutifully placated in turn. This, the argument goes, only gave license to a particularly large identity group—white people—to start making demands for a little placation themselves. And so working-class white people began voting as a bloc, producing Donald Trump. This kind of identity politics, presumably indicated by semantic squabbles over whether asserting that “black lives matter” means that other lives do so less, or by the proliferation of ever smaller groups with identity demands, such as transgender people wanting bathroom access, is seen as the poison of progressive politics.

If by identity politics we mean the idea that politicians should consider—“cater to” is the usual phrase—identifiable (or self-identified) groups, well, it is hard to identify a time when that hasn’t happened. Wintergreen had to love the Irish and the Jews (and presumably the Italians, too, had they fit into the scansion) because they were among the identifiable, and frequently warring, identity groups of the thirties. Each had its own demands, and was known for them.

It might be helpful in this pursuit to look at an actual political document of the supposed Golden Age, a once legendary letter in Democratic history: a 1947 memo from Clark Clifford to Harry Truman which lay out the strategy that produced Truman’s upset victory the next year. Clifford’s memo is a brutal political how-to sheet, and in it there is scarcely a moment spent appealing to a mélange of “common,” much less patriotic, interests. It’s a recipe…