The End of White Politics

How to Heal Our Liberal Divide


By Zerlina Maxwell

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An MSNBC political analyst and former Hillary Clinton staffer examines the past and present problems of the Left—and makes a compelling case for how to take back our government and secure a better future for America.

In the entire history of the United States of America, we've never elected a woman as our president. And we've only had one president who was not a white man.

After working on two presidential campaigns (for Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton), MSNBC political analyst and SiriusXM host Zerlina Maxwell gained first-hand knowledge of everything liberals have been doing right over the past few elections-and everything they are still doing wrong. Ultimately, these errors worked in President Donald Trump's favor in 2016; he effectively ran a campaign on white identity politics, successfully tapping into white male angst and resistance. In 2020, after the Democratic Party's most historically diverse pool of presidential candidates finally dwindled down to Joe Biden, once again an older white man, Maxwell has posed the ultimate question: what now, liberals?

Fueled by Maxwell's trademark wit and candor, The End of White Politics dismantles the past and present problems of the Left, challenging everyone from scrappy, young "Bernie Bros" to seasoned power players in the "Billionaire Boys' Club." No topic is taboo; whether tackling the white privilege that enabled Mayor Pete Buttigieg's presidential run, the controversial #HashtagActivism of the Millennial generation, the massive individual donations that sway politicians toward maintaining the status quo of income inequality, or the lingering racism that debilitated some Democratic presidential contenders and cut their promising campaigns short, Maxwell pulls no punches in her fierce critique. However, underlying all of these individual issues, Maxwell argues that it's the "liberal-minded" party's struggle to engage women and communities of color-and its preoccupation with catering to the white, male working class—that threatens to be its most lethal shortfall.

The times—and the demographics—are changing, and in order for progressive politics to prevail, we must acknowledge our shortcomings, take ownership of our flaws, and do everything in our power to level the playing field for all Americans. The End of White Politics shows exactly how and why progressives can lean into identity politics, empowering marginalized groups, and uniting under a common vision that will benefit us all.

***TIME, 100 Must-Read Books of 2020!***

"Witty and piercing."



Demonized Politics


I UNDERSTAND THE FRUSTRATION. In America, we participate in a political system that seems to benefit only those at the top and those who have always been at the top: white males of privilege. But we voters of color have frustrations of our own.

The party and the people in power have left us behind and forgotten about our most critical, pressing needs. The disconnect is clear when people of color try to pivot the political conversation away from a solitary focus on what white men want toward opening it up to what we all need. It’s long past time for women and people of color to step out of the shadows of being an afterthought.

After Hillary’s loss in 2016, there was a lot of criticism of identity politics because she amplified the historic nature of her glass-ceiling-shattering candidacy, basing it on being the first woman to ever win a major party’s nomination for president. There were even some in our own party who criticized this messaging and criticized the entire idea of identity politics as a whole.

“It’s not good enough for someone to say, ‘I’m a woman! Vote for me!’” said Bernie Sanders. “No, that’s not good enough. What we need is a woman who has the guts to stand up to Wall Street, to the insurance companies, to the drug companies, to the fossil fuel industry.”

It’s not only Bernie who has attacked candidates for highlighting their differences from the typical white male political option, as if the very prominence of this fact is a problem.

If it didn’t matter that a candidate was a woman, then we probably would’ve had a woman president a long time ago. We live in a world where being a woman does put you at a disadvantage from seeking positions of leadership and authority, and it’s the obligation of today’s politicians seeking power in 2020 and beyond to speak to that inequity as opposed to sweeping it away as if representation is a frivolous concern. Women need representation in politics because their perspective is much needed in American government. Every study shows that women are more likely to compromise when in office, and in doing so they are able to get more accomplished. We’ve come a long way from a country run by white male landowners, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at the United States Senate. Currently, there are 26 women in the United States Senate out of 100 Senate seats: 17 Democratic senators and 9 Republican senators.

Currently, women are a majority of the US population. But their numbers in politics don’t reflect that power in numbers. The Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan think tank based in Washington, DC, predicts that we are going to see a generational shift in our politics and that white people are projected to be a minority of voters by 2045. With demographics trending away from whiteness, the smart strategy as a party would be to prepare for the constituencies who will decide elections and shape the future. And those constituencies aren’t white. America’s coming demographic shifts put us on a collision course with an America that’s long gone. I’m calling out African Americans, Latinx, and the LGBTQ+ communities. Identity-based politics—embracing identities other than those that are white, male, and heteronormative and running political campaigns based on the needs and experiences of those identities—are the future.

The term identity politics gets a bad rap from all sides, but it is absolutely the path to triumph for the Democratic Party. It requires an understanding of the intersectionality of all of our identities and how this intersectionality impacts our lives both individually and collectively. It was particularly trashed during and immediately after the 2016 presidential election. Senator Bernie Sanders made his disdain for identity politics known after the 2016 election, and he was part of a course of mainstream voices who insisted that Trump’s win was the result of “economic anxiety” for the majority white voters who supported his election. Sanders has always railed against powerful monied interests and Wall Street but has only recently started to speak more to systemic inequality and racism. His dismissal of the importance of representation or why women want a woman president seems like an aspiration that is lost on the Vermont senator. When you’ve always been represented, as white men have, it isn’t a top priority to ensure that others are represented too.

Fukuyama is cited by critics of identity politics who have said it’s the catalyst for the social divisions we’re currently experiencing in this country. The focus on lived experiences, Fukuyama says, “create[s] obstacles to empathy and communication.” My view is exactly the opposite. I believe that people’s lived experiences inform better policy making, and ultimately that is what we are doing here. Politics is about the people, and in order to take care of the American people, it is helpful to understand their needs, wants, and fears. Diverse representation means that those who are representing the rest of us in the government understand the communities they come from and aren’t on a privileged perch looking down, defaulting to the perspective of white America.

The media defaults to the white America framing too—from print media to click bait headlines and right-wing TV. That’s why they largely accepted this shared explanation about the ills of identity politics as a reason for Trump’s existence in the White House. Most Americans swallowed this and moved on. But we shouldn’t move on.

Merriam-Webster’s defines identity politics as “politics in which groups of people having a particular racial, religious, ethnic, social, or cultural identity tend to promote their own specific interests or concerns without regard to the interests or concerns of any larger political group.”

In response to Fukuyama, 2018 Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams wrote in Foreign Affairs magazine that the marginalized did not create identity politics. Instead, she explained that what Fukuyama saw as a “fracturing” is in reality “the result of marginalized groups finally overcoming centuries long efforts to erase them from the American political activism that will strengthen democratic rule not threaten it.” What those who criticize identity politics misunderstand is that it is simply a description of politics that will now actually consider the concerns of diverse communities and promote their rise to the ranks of political leadership and power. Women and people of color cannot ignore their identity because it’s not as simple as changing your outfit. You can’t just take off your cultural identity or gender like a pair of pants. We can’t simply choose to opt out of identity politics. I can’t separate myself from my identity, and why would I? Our identities are part of who we are, and they impact how public policy improves or harms our daily lives. Our identities are part of who we are, and intersectionality matters. Intersectionality is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage.”

It’s the misunderstanding of what identity politics means that leads critics like Fukuyama to attack it as something distinctly different from the politics we’ve been playing since the dawn of American history. We’ve always been doing identity politics in America; it’s just that up to this point in time, white has been the only identity that has mattered. We’ve defaulted to white as if that identity is neutral, as if it doesn’t coincide with unearned benefits and a long history of divisiveness, trauma, and violence, as if white supremacy doesn’t still exist in America. But identity politics isn’t something that people of color can choose to opt out of.

It’s helpful to understand this on a personal level. I am treated differently in a wide spectrum of situations because I am a black woman. Stereotypes about how black women are angry and hostile follow me everywhere I go, whether warranted or not, whether I personally display those personality traits or not, and whether those personality traits are justifiable or not. Black women and white women do not have the same lived experiences. When I walk into a job interview, every single stereotype about the people who share my race and gender walks into the room with me. Unfortunately, for people of color living in a culture where whiteness is considered better and more desired, we are at an automatic disadvantage in many circumstances, even if we are interacting with “good” people who “don’t intend” to display bias. Implicit bias is something everyone has because we all grew up in the same culture. Our identity is not always something we can choose, and yet as a result, we don’t get to choose whether we are treated better or worse for it either.

Identity politics is not something that marginalized communities can ignore; it must be at the center of their politics. They cannot ignore their own oppression in order to make it more comfortable for white Americans to engage. To gain equality, they must take on the structures that discriminate against them. To have it any other way would be to ignore the American experience we live.

One of the most important things we have to remember about identity politics is that it essentially creates a broader spectrum of politics, a framework that establishes new parameters for the people whose issues we consider and the person who is elected to represent those interests. Equal pay is an issue that illustrates this point. The often-cited statistic is that women make only 77 cents for every dollar a white man makes. But that’s the statistic for white women. Black women actually make only 64 cents on the dollar, and Latinas make only 54 cents. That disparity illustrates how race and gender can affect economic status, and thus, policy solutions must take that into consideration. No policy to solve equal pay can truly be effective unless every aspect of people’s lived experiences is taken into consideration, and those differ depending on what color skin we were born with. I wish this wasn’t the case, but it is, and we have to deal with it. What most detractors to identity politics fail to realize is that in 2016, Donald Trump ran on identity politics too—white identity politics. If not explicitly, he certainly ran on prioritizing the interests of white Americans over everyone else.

“Trump went against the traditional Republican platform by promising to expand government, to protect Social Security, to protect Medicare and basically to provide government benefits that white people wanted.… Trump’s appeal is about whites wanting to feel like they’re getting some share of government benefits and support. This is of course wrong: White Americans receive a disproportionate share of resources whether that’s from the government or just the overall economic, social and political resources in the United States,” Duke University professor Ashley Jardina explained in an interview with Salon magazine. Jardina defines “white identity politics” as “the group of voters who feel attachment to their whiteness as a thread of solidarity and belonging.… They feel like their way of life is being threatened and they feel like their political power and status are waning,” meaning that their white identity politics are directly tied to the white resistance. So, how is Trump’s appeal to white America through white identity politics different from the intersectionality-driven identity politics that this new wave of Democrats has run on and been criticized for?

What we have to understand and not ignore is that when Trump blames Mexicans for the ills of modern society, what he’s really saying is that America is at risk because it’s less white than it was in the past. When Trump says that we need to ban all Muslims from crossing the borders of the United States until we can “figure out what the hell is going on,” he’s implying that their presence here makes America less great. And by less great, he means less white. When Trump says let’s “make America great again,” he really means he wants to “make America white again”—a country where white reigns supreme in culture and in politics. Don’t be mistaken: this is his identity-based political platform.

The real idea of identity politics is just saying that there is more than one experience to consider as we set out to solve America’s most pervasive problems. It’s the work of progressives to think well beyond America’s “default” identity.

Yet, Democrats are more concerned about getting back voters they “lost” to Trump, which they assume are all white and all working class, at the expense of the present and future base. If Trump was able to turn those voters out with racist appeals and bullying bluster, on what planet is there a unifying message for both them and black people? Democrats don’t seem to understand that the coming demographic shift will have an even greater impact on our future, even though they’re the party better positioned to benefit from it. I want Democrats to let this fact sink all the way in: you don’t need a majority of white men to vote for Democrats to win. White voters—particularly working-class white male voters—have become a collective obsession of the Democratic establishment since the 2016 defeat, yet the outsized focus on white voters does not correlate with their importance to electoral success, especially in the future where everything is shifting and voter turnout numbers are trending upward.

Here’s a fun fact: Democrats haven’t won a majority of the white vote since 1964. Republicans, and some establishment Democrats, still stuck in the past—often obsessive over a mythical swing voter who is probably white and who lives in the suburbs—misunderstand the electorate. They miscalculate the inevitable shift in power to marginalized communities who harness the power of their votes. So many of us misunderstand our history and our past, and these Republicans and establishment Democrats who haven’t assimilated modern realities benefit from our lack of understanding of our racial and political history.

Until 1964, the Democratic Party was right alongside Republicans in denying rights to black people. African Americans didn’t win full voting rights until the Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965 was passed. The VRA, coupled with the Civil Rights Act a year earlier, created an exodus of southern-based Democrats who switched parties. That civil rights switch marked a period in American history where all of our politics realigned, creating the political parties as we know them today. At the time, even White House adviser Bill Moyers acknowledged, “I think we just delivered the South to the Republican Party for a long time to come.”

Republican politicians have been playing to this white anxiety for decades, even before Trump. Richard Nixon employed what is known as the southern strategy to coalesce white voters against black civil rights, using dog whistles like “states’ rights,” which often was a code for allowing states to continue racist policies that discriminated against black Americans, particularly in the South. It’s not a shock that we are in a current moment where the president is talking about an invasion of brown immigrants, exploiting America’s racial divisions because Republicans of previous eras did the same thing, just not as explicitly. They disguise their protection of America’s racial purity in words that sound reasonable, like “border security” or “protecting the homeland.” Republicans began speaking to a growing sense of white resentment without being overtly racist. What’s clear is that this backlash was the result of anxiety over the growing rights and political power black Americans gained during the civil rights era. By the time Jimmy Carter came along to win without a majority of white voters in 1980, followed by Bill Clinton (1992 and 1996) and Barack Obama (2008 and 2012), much of this political realignment of post–civil rights had been solidified. Both Clinton and Obama won two terms without a majority of white voters. The civil rights era was all about the status quo being ripped apart and the fallout from those progressive actions, resulting in an expansion of rights beyond only white people. A true reconciling of America’s history and how it shapes our politics today is essential in building the movement that will do the most good in the long term.

The white supremacist underpinnings of our society that resonate and impact us today go beyond party lines. Although the identity or makeup of the parties’ membership has definitely flipped, partisanship doesn’t really begin to explain how the white supremacist structure improperly influences members of both parties to stand still and do nothing other than maintain a status quo that keeps them in office. And the demographics are continuing to shift in real time right under our feet, making it more and more likely that any success must be built on an identity-based formula rather than outdated traditions of the past.

America has had moments of progress that have rocked the very foundation of the white supremacist mind-set that’s often prevalent in our country. Yet, it’s important to remember that this progress often comes with backlash as well, such as we saw during the 2016 presidential election. The backlash, now often called “whitelash” by political pundits, to the first black president, Barack Obama, fueled the election of Donald J. Trump as president. Whitelash is the breakdown of white identity politics; it was the result of an increased racial solidarity among white people with the shared perception that they were losing something—status, rights, and privileges—they had traditionally enjoyed. Trump, then, in many ways is uniquely American. Trump isn’t the backlash; he is the response to the backlash. And in some ways, he’s the manifestation of America’s white supremacist soul, the dark underbelly that slaughtered Native Americans, kidnapped and enslaved Africans, and caged Latinx asylum seekers after separating parents from children. But joining our intersecting interests can combat this far easier than trying to go it alone, and the younger generations of Democrats are now embracing this fact, even though the establishment Dems aren’t.

Fun fact number two: This wasn’t the first time America snapped backward politically after making historic gains in the form of diverse representation. The highest number of black officials in history actually happened during the period from 1863 to 1877, the era known as Reconstruction. But with that progress came a white backlash, just as we’ve seen in this post-Obama era, and after Reconstruction ended, that period of racial and political progression was followed by decades of lynching and Jim Crow laws.

The political self-determination of black people in America seemed to be a bridge too far. Even today, the threat of another backlash is ever looming in the minds of establishment and moderate Democrats. Going forward, Democrats should not be afraid of this backlash from the faction of America still in favor of white supremacy, and they shouldn’t fear identity politics just because conservative thinkers like George Will or even Fukuyama say it’s the reason we have a President Trump. That’s ignoring the historical record and the reality. We’ve been playing white identity politics since the beginning, but this old way of doing things has left so many people and their concerns out of the conversation for too long.

How can black people be involved in politics if their representatives are not going to talk about police violence or the outright discrimination that keeps them from moving up the socioeconomic ladder? How can more LGBTQ+ people engage in politics without talking about the fact that they could be fired from their jobs or assaulted in the streets just because they aren’t heterosexual? How can women engage in politics without talking about reproductive rights, disproportionate pay rates, workplace sexual harassment, and childcare struggles, especially if we are women who aren’t white? It’s the reason that childcare is not at the center of every single election at every single level. It’s the reason that health care that men need is included in most plans but that birth control and procedures for reproductive rights were only recently added after a long legislative fight in Congress during the passage of Obamacare.

Republicans have touted identity politics as evidence that Democrats are out of touch with “real Americans,” but that’s not true. It’s not a coincidence that the people who dismiss identity politics as a damaging framework for analysis happen to be beneficiaries of the status quo (read: heterosexual white men). So, let’s think about identity politics this way: it’s the framework that allows everyone to participate in a functioning democracy on a level playing field. We need to nominate candidates who have internalized the message that people of color will determine election outcomes and should be invested in immediately and that once we do we shouldn’t look back as a party.

The fact that Republicans get this is giving them a head start. They aren’t implementing laws that suppress the votes of communities of color for no reason. They are implementing voter ID laws that make it harder to vote because white voters are going to be a minority of voters. They are suppressing the votes of voters who are less likely to vote for Republicans, now or in the future, because they know that, in general, when voting turnout is high, Democrats win. They don’t gerrymander districts for the hell of it. Gerrymandering and voter suppression don’t cause our divisions; they are the result of them. Republicans know demographic shifts are against them, and while demographics aren’t destiny, they definitely give the Democratic Party a built-in advantage.

We need an all-inclusive identity politics because the old system isn’t going to be sustainable with our new emerging majority. Knowing where the population is headed in twenty-five years’ time, Democrats should build a movement around the majority of citizens fighting for equality for everyone. Both statistically and morally speaking, this movement is the right choice for advancing our country’s politics and framework of laws into the future. We must create a more expansive vision for our politics that goes well beyond the limited agenda we’ve seen in the past.

The conventional wisdom is that identity politics puts too much of a focus on race, gender, and other labels. People may think that identity politics is just black people voting for black people because of their skin color or a woman supporting a woman candidate because of her gender. That’s not the only reason, but it is one reason: equitable representation does matter. To build the future, progressives should coalesce around different identities and see where opportunities exist to use that to inform our policy making and platform. It’s all about creating a movement that acknowledges the need for specific policy goals while moving everything toward a more equitable future. The days of having only old white men represent a diverse population that includes mostly women is soon to be a relic of the past, and let’s face it, the progressive movement is already a coalition of intersecting interests. The nationwide emotional responses to the 2020 Democratic primary after the exit of the last woman, Senator Elizabeth Warren, demonstrated a yearning for representative leadership, a yearning to push us forward into this new reality.

Some white people may feel threatened by this argument, though, and I see the hesitation of the white Democratic establishment to fully embrace this new strategy of centering identity-based politics in everything that we do. The bus tour that DNC chairman Tom Perez and Senator Bernie Sanders took after the 2016 election is a great example of this lingering hesitation and reluctance to move forward. On this tour, they went to white working-class areas in the Midwest to try to win back those Joe Lunchbucket voters, a huge misfire that shouldn’t be duplicated because, while every candidate has to communicate a message to every voter, there are some voters who are never coming back into the Democratic fold post Donald Trump. It’s the decision of the traditionally white and male establishment leaders to invest in white voters versus the Democratic voters of the future, which they shy away from, so they can pretend we still live in the status quo. We don’t live there anymore, and we shouldn’t be afraid of the future. If our movement is built on a weak foundation, we won’t be able to survive into the future as a winning coalition.



  • ***TIME, "100 MUST READ BOOKS OF 2020" and "Best New Books of July"***

    *The Root, "100 most influential African Americans of 2020" (Zerlina Maxwell)*

    *EBONY, "Black Books List"*
    *O MAGAZINE, "Best Books of August 2020"*
    *Ms. Magazine, "Best of the Rest 2020" and "July 2020 Reads for the Rest of Us"*
    *Fortune, "7 New Books to Read in July"*
    *Project Censored, "Summer Reading List (2020)"*
    *LibroFM, "Hot New Releases"*

    *Rewire News Group, "10 Last-Minute Holiday Gifts​"*

    *Glamour UK, Five brilliant political books by Black women*

    *Womanly Live, 10 powerful books written by Black women*
  • "Witty and piercing."—TIME
  • “Along with bringing #BlackGirlMagic to our screens on Peacock TV, Zerlina Maxwell breaks down everything wrong with our current political system and how to center true equity as progressives navigate the political landscape.”—EBONY
  • "With a style that is as infectious as it is cogent and accessible, the author outlines and defends her recommendations and strategies so thoroughly that the only possible dissent is a willful disregard for the future of not just the Democratic Party, but the future of all but the most privileged Americans."—Kirkus, Starred Review
  • "Maxwell has produced a worthwhile blueprint for a party that seems to have lost its way."—Booklist
  • "[This] book aims to confront the inherent whiteness at the heart of America's politics on both sides of the aisle... [it is] so current and immediate and gripping that reading it feels like someone let Maxwell peek at summer 2020's headlines before she sat down to write it."—Glamour
  • "[This book shows exactly how] uniting under a common vision... will benefit us all."—New Books Network
  • "As an analysis of the current state of America's political system, The End of White Politics - How to Heal Our Liberal Divide is an important book that reads like the future, like an awakening, like common sense. Written with passion and commitment, Zerlina Maxwell presents her argument persuasively and unapologetically, and with enough anecdotes to lift it above the political thesis."—Manhattan Book Review
  • "In her classic truth-telling, no-holds-barred style, Zerlina flips the 'identity politics' debate on its head, laying out why Democrats should reject the notion that it's a politics of social division, and instead embrace it as a bridge to social cohesion and inclusion. The book underscores a powerful truth: centering the voices and experiences of those too long marginalized in our politics--including women of color and particularly black women--will not only strengthen our democracy, it will win elections."—Maya L. Harris, civil rights advocate, former seniorpolicy advisor to Hillary Clinton, and author of Women of Color: A GrowingForce in the American Electorate
  • “... An imperative read for our times. Arguing we need to lean into identity politics, Maxwell explains what we need to do—now—to move the Democratic party, and the nation, forward. “
     —Ms. Magazine
  • “A clear-eyed critique of the racism and sexism corroding American politics.”—The Atlantic

On Sale
Jul 6, 2021
Page Count
224 pages
Legacy Lit

Zerlina Maxwell

About the Author

Zerlina Maxwell is an MSNBC political analyst, commentator, speaker, and writer. She is also the Senior Director of Progressive Programming for SiriusXM and the cohost of the award-winning radio show, Signal Boost.

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