At the same moment neo-Nazis with torches were marching on Charlottesville earlier this month, some of the most prominent activists and organizers in the progressive movement were gathered in Atlanta at the Netroots Nation conference to strategize about how Democrats should define themselves and win elections again after their devastating 2016 defeat.
On Saturday, shocked Netroots attendees heard the news that a white supremacist had killed a woman, acting out a dark but common right-wing fantasy of mowing down protesters with a car. That evening, hundreds of activists – some who had been die-hard supporters of Hillary Clinton during the 2016 primary and others who had lined up behind Bernie Sanders – marched in the Atlanta streets against white supremacy.
It’s not hard, or at least it shouldn’t be, to get people who don’t agree on everything to unite against literal Nazis. But to progressives, Charlottesville was also a sobering reminder of just how important it is to win back political power in order to fight for justice. Right-wing radicalism holds more political and social power in America than it has for decades. The left has to unite against that threat, and stop squabbling internally about whose issues should take priority.
But that doesn’t mean the left needs to pivot to the center or compromise its values. It just needs to fight for those values in a smarter, more inclusive way.
“In the wake of the last election, I’ve heard people say we need to decide whether we’re the party of the white working class or the party of Black Lives Matter,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren in a rousing Netroots speech. “I say we can care about a dad who’s worried that his kid will have to move away from their factory town to find good work, and we can care about a mom who’s worried that her kid will get shot during a traffic stop. The way I see it, those two parents have something deep down in common: The system is rigged against both of them, and against their kids.”
During the 2016 election cycle, and for decades before it, the American left has fought bitterly over what’s been labeled as a divide between identity politics and economic populism, with one group focusing on issues like racial and gender justice, and the other trying to unite all working people under the banner of “the 99 percent.” Neither camp trusts the other not to sell out – by supporting a candidate who is pro-choice but opposes Wall Street reforms, for instance, or one who supports both single-payer health care and mass deportations. They debate questions like: Does focusing on diversity in leadership mean risking compromise on policy? Will too much talk about police violence turn off white working-class voters? Will black and Latino working-class voters – who are so often left out of discussions about the working class – tune out if all anybody talks about is Wall Street and Citizens United?
Now, however, many progressive leaders and advocates are calling all of this a false choice. Pitting “social” and “economic” justice against each other isn’t just needlessly divisive, they say – it also makes no sense if you want to fully understand the problems facing America and build support for a party or candidate.
“The idea that economic populism and social inclusion are at odds is wrong-headed and ridiculous,” Joe Dinkin, a spokesperson for the Working Families Party, tells Rolling Stone. “You are meaningfully improving people’s lives when you’re raising the minimum wage, and you’re also meaningfully improving people’s lives when you’re shifting resources from prisons into schools.”
Dinkin argues that winning elections is about finding candidates who can speak clearly and authentically about improving people’s lives on multiple fronts. And it means taking a stand on two of the most basic, long-running questions in American politics: “One is, should wealth and economic power be concentrated among the few, or spread broadly among ‘We the People’? And the second is, who actually counts as ‘We the People’? They are not the same thing, but they are deeply linked.”
Warren is the kind of fiery economic populist many Sanders-style progressives would have supported in a heartbeat if she’d run against Clinton in the primaries. But “the system is rigged” is a surprisingly tidy narrative arc that could fit almost any issue progressives care about. The system is rigged against working people who want a fair shot at success as America’s productivity gains go to the super-rich. The system is rigged against women as bosses still don’t pay or promote them as much or as often as men, and people still blame and disbelieve women who are sexually assaulted or raped. The system is rigged against black Americans as America continues to grapple with the wreckage of slavery, Jim Crow laws and redlining, and as both implicit and explicit racial bias persist. The system is also rigged against white rural Trump voters whose neighbors are dying of opiate overdoses and suicide, and whose communities are crumbling because nobody sees any profit to investing in them.
The system is rigged against everyone who isn’t a wealthy white male elite, and it has been for a long time.
This kind of inclusive, interconnected view of politics is also known as intersectionality, an academic term that has been rampantly maligned and misunderstood since going mainstream. Critics throw around terms like intersectionality and identity politics whenever they want to accuse liberals of divisively obsessing over how oppressed they are compared to everybody else, or of promoting diversity in a shallow way that puts tokenism over principle.
But properly understood and practiced, intersectionality could actually hold the key to uniting Democrats, winning elections and fighting oppressive forces like right-wing extremism.
Kimberlé Crenshaw, the law professor and civil rights advocate who first coined the term in 1989, tells Rolling Stone that intersectionality isn’t about dividing people. Rather, it’s about making sure everybody is included in the first place.
“The challenge is not accepting the contemporary terms of the debate – that there’s ‘class politics’ over here, with white working-class people being really angry, and ‘identity politics’ over here, which is a distortion and a distraction from the real issue,” she says.
Crenshaw often explains intersectionality with the story of Emma DeGraffenreid, who sued an auto manufacturing plant in St. Louis for race and gender discrimination because it refused to hire her and other African-American women. But because the plant had hired both black men and white women before, a judge dismissed her claim – because, the judge reasoned, the company didn’t discriminate “based on race” or “based on gender.” The discrimination against DeGraffenreid happened at the intersection of those two identities, but the courts weren’t able to see it.
Racial discrimination is an economic issue because it affects who can get which jobs. Gender is an economic issue because the working world wasn’t built to accommodate mothers. You can’t separate identity from economics, Crenshaw argues – you can only choose whether to “talk about economic populism without an intersectional lens, or with an intersectional lens.” And if you want to see what identity politics without an intersectional lens looks like, she says, just look at the white identity politics on display in Charlottesville that ignores historical context and reality.
Identity politics, Crenshaw explains, isn’t about who you are inside, but about how the rest of the world treats you based on parts of your identity, like gender or disability. And intersectionality explains how more than one part of your identity can get tangled up with more than one oppressive force – like a person standing in the middle of an intersection, where the oncoming traffic of policies and practices can hit them differently depending on where they’re standing.
There’s no hierarchy here, no silos, no “oppression Olympics.” Intersectionality means seeing how different social problems are connected, and where the solutions might be incomplete. That’s why, on a panel with Crenshaw at Netroots, Democratic National Committee Deputy Chair Keith Ellison insisted that everyone in the audience has a responsibility to defend the idea of intersectionality against those who would smear and distort it. “That applause ain’t quite loud enough!” he said after many in the audience cheered.
While Warren’s speech didn’t mention intersectionality explicitly, she did a good job of illustrating the idea. She asked the audience to clap when they heard the issue that first got them passionate about activism: economic justice, reproductive rights, clean air and water, immigration, civil and human rights, anti-war, campaign finance reform, net neutrality, bankruptcy. Each issue got a pretty healthy round of applause, often from the same people.
“We all came to this fight from different experiences,” Warren said. “We all get fired up about different issues. But if we’re going to be the people who lead the Democratic Party back from the wilderness and lead our country out of this dark time, then we can’t waste energy arguing about whose issue matters most, or who in our alliance should be voted off the island.
“We need to see each other’s fights as our own,” she said. “And I believe we can.”