Only When It Suits Them

Centrist Democrats embraced identity politics in the 2016 election. Surprise, surprise — they’re now working to keep diverse candidates out who threaten their power.

Hillary Clinton speaking at an event in Des Moines, Iowa on January 24, 2016. Gage Skidmore / Wikimedia

Since at least the 2016 election, centrist Democrats have had a ready tool to fend off left-wing challenges.

Make an honest criticism of Hillary Clinton’s record — whether on war, criminal justice reform, trade agreements, or campaign finance — and they’d decry it as sexist or conflate it with online misogyny. Express distrust in Clinton, and they’d chalk it up to latent sexism — even if the critics were avowed feminists.

During the primaries, Gloria Steinem and Madeleine Albright appeared to admonish young women for favoring Bernie Sanders over Clinton. Numerous liberal feminist writers insisted on the importance of getting Clinton into the White House, regardless of how centrist she may be. “Not electing a woman, again,” warned Rebecca Traister, would be “much more than symbolic.” In a now-deleted post on David Brock’s Blue Nation Review, Clinton loyalist Peter Daou explained that, “[Sanders’] views notwithstanding,” he was “a white male who has been in Congress for over a quarter century,” making him the “definition of establishment,” while Clinton, solely by being “a woman attempting to break the ultimate gender barrier” was “the definition of anti-establishment.”

This line of attack continued into 2017, when similar claims were used to deflect substantive criticisms of potential presidential candidates. Skeptics of Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, and Deval Patrick — three establishment Democrats floated as 2020 contenders who also happen to be black — were told they were simply motivated by bigotry, to the point where some critics were blithely misidentified as white men. In the words of Briahna Joy Gray, liberal discourse became “a world in which personal identity [is] shorthand for ‘progress’ … and ‘white man’ [is] an epithet.”

So what, then, to make of the less-than-enthusiastic reaction in establishment circles to a number of recent diverse, progressive challengers to establishment Democratic picks?

Perhaps no case is quite as illustrative as whistle-blower Chelsea Manning’s announcement that she’s challenging Maryland Democrat Ben Cardin for the Senate. Were Manning to oust Cardin, a seventy-four-year-old cisgender white man, she would not only improve the representation of women in Congress (as well as that of non-millionaires and Americans under thirty-five), but make history as its first-ever openly transgender member.

Judging by their past statements, one might think this would be met with, if not full-throated endorsement, then at least celebration and words of support from centrists and powerful liberals. It’s true that Manning has recently stirred up controversy by seemingly cozying up to members of the alt-right, something Manning claims was part of an effort to infiltrate the movement. But even before that, her announcement received a barrage of attacks.

As Glenn Greenwald wrote earlier this month, Neera Tanden — close Clinton ally, head of a powerful liberal think tank, and someone who last year implied that Kamala Harris’ left-wing critics were racists — reacted to the news by spreading a fact-free accusation that Manning’s candidacy had been engineered by Vladimir Putin. Zac Petkanas, the former director of rapid response for Clinton’s campaign, declared that Manning didn’t “belong in the Senate” because she was an “unapologetic Russian asset.” Other Clinton-supporting liberals also determined that Manning’s act of whistle-blowing invalidated her desire to hold higher office.

Here’s the thing: Russia conspiracies aside, it’s perfectly fair for liberals and centrists to oppose Manning. When they went after the nascent candidate, they weren’t motivated by transphobia or misogyny, but by a deeply misguided impulse to defend the national security state and a desire to see Ben Cardin, who shares more of their political values, retain his seat.

Yet at the same time, it’s a wholesale reversal from the rhetoric many of these figures have been employing up until now.

Manning’s case is far from the only one. Take Nebraska’s second district. Kara Eastman, a forty-five-year-old woman, is running on a platform calling for a higher minimum wage, Medicare for All, increased taxes on the rich, and a halt to the Keystone XL pipeline. Her Democratic primary opponent is Brad Ashford, a sixty-eight-year old white, male, former Republican who supported the TPP, wants to cut taxes and regulations, and, unlike Eastman, supports some abortion restrictions. Ashford has not only received the vocal backing of one Michigan congresswoman, he’s already receiving institutional support from the Democratic Party.

Or look at Paula Swearengin, a forty-three-year-old female environmental activist running for Senate in West Virginia who supports Medicare for All, free college, criminal justice reform, and a total ban on private campaign donations. She’s running to unseat Joe Manchin, who is not only a seventy-year-old white man, but, more pertinently, Donald Trump’s “liaison with the Democrats” — a man who votes with the president 58 percent of the time and describes himself as “pro-life.” Democrats aren’t exactly tripping over themselves to endorse Swearengin, while liberal groups are hesitant to back her. This includes Democracy for America, which says she hasn’t raised “the kinds of resources it would take to win.”

Such episodes should put to rest any question about whether the weaponization of this narrow version of “identity politics” against the Left is a principled crusade, or just a tactic cynically wielded to fend off policy-based criticism. But in truth, we’ve known the answer for awhile.

Just recall Keith Ellison, the black, Muslim Sanders ally smeared and needlessly blocked from a Democratic leadership position by a man who once urged the Clinton campaign to advance the spurious narrative that “Bernie does well only among young white liberals.” Or Elizabeth Warren, who was passed over by the supposedly woke, intersectional Clinton campaign for VP because her broad form of progressivism was considered too far left, in favor of an old, white man with a poor record and position on abortion rights. Or Lucy Flores, a young, pro-choice, Latina, and Sanders-endorsed congressional candidate in Nevada whose victorious male primary opponent received the endorsement of prominent party figures (and has now been accused of sexual harassment). Flores couldn’t even secure the backing of pro-choice group EMILY’s List, who went with a white, philanthropist millionaire just days after launching an initiative devoted to getting more Latinas elected.

The simple fact is that over the last two years, establishment Democrats have used representational critiques to bludgeon political enemies, then actively worked to sideline diverse candidates that threaten their power. They’re well aware that there are numerous rational reasons to support or oppose a given politician that have nothing do with bigotry. But of course, their attacks never had anything to do with principle.