One for All and All for One

It's time for Democrats to move away from identity politics

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Illustration by Oliver Munday and John Custer for TIME

The Democrats gather for their 2012 National Convention feeling pretty good about their prospects, both immediate and long term. Despite a lame economy and widespread public disappointment with his performance, President Obama seems to have a slight edge in his race against Mitt Romney. And if Obama beats Romney, the Republican Party will have a civil war. The Tea Party and extreme conservatives will argue that the party nominated a moderate yet again and lost, yet again. The result of that conflagration would probably be an extremely conservative nominee in 2016 who--in the prevailing Democratic fantasy--will be demolished by Hillary Clinton, whose time would finally have come. But even if Obama loses to Romney, Democrats feel their party will be effortlessly propelled by demographic winds to future victories in a country where nonwhites are gradually moving toward majority status. Wise Republicans like Jeb Bush also see this train leaving the station and argue that the Republicans must broaden their appeal.

As in politics, so in policy. The Democrats are, for once, at peace with themselves. The party's left would like to see more income redistribution at home and fewer drone strikes overseas, but they are a distinct minority. The President has staked out a strong, centrist national-security policy. He has also established himself as willing to compromise to get things done, especially when it comes to the looming fiscal crisis and the long-term deficit. "We're now the party of pragmatists, and the Republicans are the party of ideologues," a prominent Democrat told me. "That is a complete reversal of where we were after the 1960s." There is, in fact, a slightly smug lassitude affecting the Democrats, convinced as they are of their own rectitude and the extremist depredations of the GOP.

But let me afflict the comfortable. The Democrats have a serious problem. It is a problem that stems from the party's greatest strength: its long-term support for inclusion and equal rights for all, its support of racial integration and equal rights for women and homosexuals and its humane stand on immigration reform. Those heroic positions, which I celebrate, cost the Democrats more than a few elections in the past. And they caused an understandable, if misguided, overreaction within the party--a drift toward identity politics, toward special pleading. Inclusion became exclusive. The Democratic National Committee officially recognizes 14 caucuses or "communities," most having to do with race, gender, sexual orientation or ethnicity.

Many of these groups had a purpose in the beginning. African Americans had the ultimate historic complaint. The lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender caucus (LGBT, if you're scoring at home) worked effectively and won the Democrats' support for a full roster of human rights, including marriage. The women's caucus represented perhaps the most successful civil rights movement of our lifetime. Women are moving beyond equality now toward dominance as more of them graduate from college than men--and fewer of them drop out of high school--and take their places atop major companies, government agencies and, someday soon, the presidency.

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