Pete Buttigieg gambles with criticism of identity politics

Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegKavanaugh impeachment push hits Capitol buzz saw 2020 candidates keep fitness on track while on the trail Mark Mellman: The most important moment in history? MORE has drawn the 2020 presidential field into a fraught debate over race, warning Democrats that identity politics is a dead end as the party seeks to win back the white working-class voters that broke for President TrumpDonald John TrumpJimmy Carter: 'I hope there's an age limit' on presidency White House fires DHS general counsel: report Trump to cap California trip with visit to the border MORE in the past election.

Speaking at an LGBT gala over the weekend in Las Vegas, Buttigieg, who is gay and has spoken openly about his own struggles with identity, warned that “so-called identity politics” has contributed to a “crisis of belonging” in the country that has “divided and carved up” people of different backgrounds.

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The remarks are a gamble for Buttigieg, a white man with a Harvard pedigree, who has struggled to attract the support he’ll need from people of color, even as his presidential campaign has caught fire among white Democrats. 

A Post and Courier survey of South Carolina Democrats released over the weekend found Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., at 18 percent support among white voters and zero percent among black voters.

But Buttigieg’s speech has also cracked open a complex debate on the left as Democrats field their most diverse group of presidential candidates ever.

Democrats are hoping to reach some of those who voted for Trump in 2016, particularly in Midwest and Rust Belt states, even as they cast the administration as racist and accuse the president of promoting policies that are harmful to minorities.

Democrats interviewed by The Hill said it will be a tough line for Buttigieg to toe.

“His speech was nuanced, and he should get credit for that,” Cornell William Brooks, the former president of the NAACP, told The Hill.

“He pointedly called out the identity politics of white supremacy as practiced by the president. He recognized historical wrongs, historical exclusions and the need to hold the center. The question is, why is he elevating identity politics as the moral emergency, as if that’s the threat, rather than the hate we’re seeing percolate on the other side?”

Speaking on Saturday night to the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBT activist group, Buttigieg warned Democrats that shutting out insight from those who are seen as coming from a position of privilege “doesn’t get us very far.”

He said that “divisive lines of thinking” have permeated the Democratic Party, leaving some feeling as if they need to “choose between supporting an auto worker and supporting a trans woman of color, without stopping to think about the fact that sometimes the auto worker is a trans woman of color.”

Buttigieg said he is not drawing “equivalencies between the different patterns of exclusion in this country,” an acknowledgment that members of some minority groups will face obstacles that straight white people will never have to overcome.

But he argued that an obsessive focus on identity would create walls between communities that would ultimately leave the nation “divided and carved up.”

“The more you know about exclusion, the more you think about belonging,” Buttigieg said. “And we have a crisis of belonging in this country.”

The remarks rubbed some the wrong way, including MSNBC host and civil rights leader Al Sharpton.

Buttigieg met with Sharpton last month in Harlem as part of an effort to make inroads into African American communities. Sharpton left that meeting impressed, but he seemed irked by Buttigieg’s remarks on identity.

“Blacks are still doubly unemployed [compared to whites],” Sharpton said on MSNBC. “So yes, we all need to come together and the only way you can come together is … recognizing that I have to come from a further back distance that I didn’t cause … I’m still economically unequal and to tell me to forget about that is insulting.”

Buttigieg’s allies pointed out that he’s not suggesting that the unique obstacles minority groups face should be ignored, but rather that it becomes more difficult for people of different backgrounds to come together when they’re segmented into hierarchies of victimhood and told they have no shared experiences worth exploring.

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The South Bend mayor has focused heavily on minority outreach in recent weeks, holding meetings with black leaders and activists across South Carolina, a critical early voting state with a large percentage of black Democrats.

But Buttigieg’s sharp upward trajectory in the polls appears to have stalled out at the moment, raising questions about whether he can attract support from the minority communities that will be critical in determining the outcome of the Democratic primary.

Buttigieg’s remarks struck a nerve on the left, leaving Democrats wrestling with the need to correct social injustices and discrimination faced by blacks and Latinos while not alienating white people in the Heartland who are experiencing economic uncertainty.

“Pitting groups against each other is both bad policy and bad politics,” said Adam Hodge, a Democratic strategist. “The winning candidate will be able to pull together a large coalition, and that’s going to mean offering solutions that account for the systemic barriers some of these marginalized groups have faced. We need to be very clear about that reality, while also not avoiding the tough conversations about how the right solutions might be different for different groups across the country.”

Opposition to identity politics had been a hallmark of conservatism until Trump came into office.

The president has frustrated many Republicans by embracing identity politics and powering his campaign with grievances against minority groups, such as Hispanics.

Buttigieg slammed Trump on Saturday night for embracing “peak white identity politics.”

“Many of the objections [to identity politics] come from the right, which is ironic at this time because the current administration has mastered the practice of the most divisive form of such politics — peak white identity politics, designed to drive apart people with common interests,” he said.

And Buttigieg is not alone on the left in criticizing identity politics. Some Democrats, including former President Obama, have begun to warn that liberals have gone too far on that front.

In a speech last year, Obama said Democrats would never win the war of ideas “if you just out of hand disregard what your opponent has to say from the start.”

“You can’t [win a debate] if you insist that those who aren’t like you — because they are white or they are male — that somehow there’s no way they can understand what I’m feeling, that somehow they lack standing to speak on certain matters,” Obama said.

Democrats interviewed by The Hill largely agreed with Obama but said Buttigieg faces a high-wire act in making the same point.

“Pete is going to have to go the extra mile to show that he gets it,” said one Democratic strategist.