Why Identity Trumps Class for Many at the Democratic Convention

Sketches of voters whose life experiences caused them to see the election through the lenses of gender and race.

Hillary Clinton supporter Felicia Davis poses at the DNC in Philadelphia. (Conor Friedersdorf / The Atlantic)

PHILADELPHIA––On Wednesday, I sought out people at the Democratic National Convention who would illustrate the part of the Democratic coalition whose experiences make it natural for them to alight on race and gender as a primary lens through which they look at this year’s election.

Earlier this week, I observed that the Democratic Party’s approach to race and gender benefits their coalition, insofar as it unifies people upset by Donald Trump’s attacks on women and racial and ethnic minority groups; and harms it, insofar as the framework of “white-male privilege” alienates a subset of white men without college degrees who are relatively underprivileged and Bernie Sanders supporters who see injustice through an economic lens.

If you’ve read my sketches of white “Bernie or Bust” protesters—the retail-store manager who emancipated herself at age 16 due to heroin addicted parents, the 61-year-old accountant with 10 kids, most of whom couldn’t afford a trip to protest at a political convention because they’re barely scraping by at low-wage jobs, the recent college graduate from an upper-middle-class family whose eyes have only recently been opened to the misbehavior of multinational corporations—it’s easy to understand why a focus on identity fails to resonate even with some Democrats, who regard other aspects of this election as more foundational or important.

But others find it compelling. These people are quite diverse among themselves. Here I’ll sketch just two of them. One felt that Hillary Clinton offers an important step forward. The other felt Donald Trump represents a disheartening step backward.

* * *

Felicia Davis grew up in New Jersey. In 1974, she began her college education at Howard University. These days she lives near Atlanta, Georgia, where she works in the power industry, helping historically black colleges to use energy more efficiently.

She used to consider herself “a progressive Republican,” disapproved of Bill Clinton during his presidency, and long enjoyed The Apprentice and its host, Donald Trump. But she started boycotting him when he was still a reality TV star because of his decision to publicly question if Barack Obama was born in the United States.

“This is a Birther we’re talking about,” she said, and for that reason, she hasn’t been surprised by his subsequent attacks on Muslims, Hispanics, and prominent women.

As a black woman, she feels that sexism and racism are both negative factors in her life. And she strives to deal with prejudice in a manner that is both clear-eyed and forgiving. For example, she traveled to Philadelphia for an event called “Celebrating the Black Vote,” and arranged to have her makeup done prior to the big night. “I went online and hired someone who happened to be a white female—when I told her the name of the event she said, ‘Oh, but I’m white,’ and I said, ‘That’s no problem!’” she recounted. “Then she called back again and said, ‘My husband thinks it could be a bad neighborhood.’ I said, ‘No, it's fine.’ She called back again. ‘Are you guys protesting?’ Through the calls, I came to understand, you're afraid, you're genuinely afraid. Now, I could have resented that. But I embraced her. I said, ‘Listen, I want to go and take a picture of me and my Camry hybrid. I want to give you the tag number. I'm going to show you the house outside and inside so you know.’ Then when she came it was wonderful. She did the pampering. And I paid her extra. I wanted her to know, ‘I see you as a sister no matter what.’”

In her view, Barack Obama’s election broke barriers and gave young, black people an expanded notion of their potential. And Hillary Clinton would, she thinks, do the same thing for young women. “If somebody is a former First Lady, a former senator, a former secretary of state, if she can't be president, then women would have a much longer way to go,” she said. “I'm not for aristocracy. Awhile back I was kind of anybody but Clinton, because it would be Bush, Clinton, Bush, Clinton. But I came around. This woman is eminently qualified.” She regards her private email server as a mistake—one she does not forgive—but adds that no one believes a full accounting of Donald Trump’s emails would paint him in a better light, because he’s “a vile idiot” who not even principled Republicans can support in good faith.

To Bernie Sanders supporters who don’t think there is any meaningful difference between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, she says, “I don’t accept that argument, they are not the same, but if you really think that, only one will make history, so if you believe that women should have a chance ever, vote for making history and changing the game.” A step toward equality of opportunity for women won’t just be good for women, she added, but for everyone. “I'm an earthling,” she said. “We're on the planet earth. We want all of the earthlings to thrive and do well.”

* * *

Victory Bell was born to sharecroppers in 1934. At the age of 8, his parents, tired of toiling for a white plantation owner with no opportunity to better their lot, decided to move north, to Rockford, Illinois, an industrial community 90 miles west of Chicago. He attended public schools there, got married after high school, and started a family. His earliest participation in the civic process came in the public schools, as he tried to ensure that his kids would get the best education possible.

In 1953, he got a job as a janitor at the local phone company.

The next couple years, he watched as white friends and acquaintances of his, people who graduated from his high school and started work at the same time, began to get promoted, while he was repeatedly passed over. Finally, he raised a complaint.

“I started to talk with the management about, something is wrong here,” he said. “Eventually, I did get promoted to supply clerk, where there was an opportunity to do all the ordering. I learned numbers. I learned how to deal with people on a conversation basis and moved up. I got into a nice job, then a training program with the telephone company. I was the first African American who was promoted into management.”

Meanwhile, he kept participating in politics at the local level. In 2009, when he stopped seeking reelection, he had served 38 years in an alderman, the last spent in one of the city’s most diverse districts. “I was not going to be put into a camp of representing just blacks or Hispanics,” he told a local newspaper upon his retirement. “I was going to represent the entire ward to the best of my ability. That would be inclusive of independent voters and Republican voters. It had nothing to do with their voting choices because that’s what I feel a taxpayer is entitled to.”

As we spoke, in the lobby of a hotel near downtown, a faction of Bernie Sanders supporters were nearby in a public square chanting “Bernie or Bust” and decrying allegedly corrupt forces in the Democratic Party that led to Hillary Clinton’s nomination.

For Bell, a decades-long member of the Democratic establishment—he has attended 11 conventions—the animosity and distrust were not mutual. “This convention is different because of the grassroots movement that a lot of Bernie supporters bring to the table,” he said. “A lot of young people have not been involved in the political process before, so there were more individuals who weren't just going to sit and listen to the status quo. They were interested in a revolution to get more people participating in the process. And I thought that was a positive thing.”

Of course, he hopes that they’ll come around to Hillary Clinton, for whom he was a delegate in 2008 as well. “I truly believe  that it would be a disaster for Trump to win,” he said. “I don't care how many people tell me he has a lot of business experience. He has not been a precinct administrator. He has not been a block captain. He has not been an alderman. He has not been a state representative. And that is a different world than the business world. It is about negotiation, collaboration, and compromise. So I don't see Trump as a compromiser. I see him as a dictator.”

What’s more, he sees naked appeals to bigotry in his campaign.

“He's promoting that, and that is so dangerous,” he said. “And the worst part is that some Americans are willing to accept all that just to get a Republican in office.” With that, he gave an expression that I can only describe as pained dismay.

I’ve previously written that there’s no reason to debate whether Donald Trump is engaged in “dog whistles” because his attacks on minority groups are so straightforward.

They’re just whistles.

“What shocks me,” Bell said, “is how many people support him anyway.”

He regards that support as evidence that minority groups cannot count on large swaths of white America to reject even a candidate who publicly stokes ethnic and racial anxieties, while seeming to court bigots as a welcome part of his electoral coalition. It’s a dismaying realization for the son of sharecroppers, born decades before the civil-rights movement, who witnessed so much progress, only to see the Republicans nominate a man in 2016 who is, for him, obviously a step backward.

* * *

A strength and a challenge for the Democratic Party is that its coalition encompasses, for example, both the African American son of sharecroppers and the white millennial who struggles with student loan debt and works in the service industry. Of course those groups have different perceptions of the most pressing problems in America and react differently to the notion that racial and ethnic identity are the most helpful lens for understanding American politics in 2016. Of course the life experiences of working class white men incline them differently too.

If George W. Bush or John McCain or Mitt Romney or Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz or Jeb Bush or Rand Paul were the Republican nominee, it is possible to imagine a GOP victory followed by a term in office that ended with minorities and women a bit more favorable to right-leaning candidates than they were before. And in their own ways, Felicia Davis and Victory Bell illustrate the truth that gender and race are far from the only factor at play even in the minds of voters for whom they mean a lot.

But Donald Trump would seem to guarantee defining clashes with women, Hispanics, Black Lives Matter protesters, and Muslim Americans that will poison the relationship between many in those groups and the Republican Party for years at minimum. I can imagine myself at the DNC a few decades hence, talking to women, African Americans, and Hispanics who look back on 2016 as the year that cemented them as lifelong Democrats who see politics through the lens of race or gender.

If Republicans win this year—if identity-politics averse white men without college diplomas see their demographic’s preference in this election prevail—the victory will be Pyrrhic. Talking to older black Democrats is an easy way to understand why.