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The Twitter Effect: Identity Politics Fails Again

Democratic presidential candidate former Housing Secretary Julian Castro speaks during a Democratic presidential primary debate hosted by CNN/New York Times at Otterbein University, Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2019, in Westerville, Ohio. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

The 2020 Democratic presidential primary was to be a new moment in American history: a field jam-packed with candidates representing the many oppressed minorities. There were multiple women, multiple black candidates, and an openly gay man. One candidate, Kamala Harris, won the “intersectional” lottery: a mixed-race woman, both black and Indian-American!

Yet, one after another, these candidates have faltered. Kirsten Gillibrand withdrew in August 2019. Harris dropped out in January. Julián Castro, former secretary of Housing and Urban Development under Barack Obama, pulled out on Thursday — two days into the 2020 calendar year. Cory Booker is struggling to gain traction.

Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg are doing well, but they did not base their campaigns on identity politics. In fact, Buttigieg has taken flack from some in the LGBT community for not championing his homosexuality strongly enough and for raising money for the Salvation Army! Andrew Yang, the lone Asian in the race, is often forgotten or perhaps even dismissed by other candidates as not diverse enough. His campaign is succeeding less because of his skin color and more because he offers interesting policy ideas. Trump supporters wear red MAGA hats; Yang supporters wear blue MATH hats.

Radical single-issue candidates have mostly faltered in the primary: Governors Jay Inslee (who?) and Steve Bullock ran on a climate change message and dropped out in August and December, respectively; the obnoxious impeachment candidate Eric Swalwell dropped out in July; and Beto — “hell yes, we’re going to take your AR-15s” — O’Rourke withdrew in November.

Most of these drop-outs tell a similar story — a story that emerges from Julian Castro’s concession video.

In the video announcing the end of his campaign, Castro drones on about how all the racial minorities in America are supposedly oppressed. He attacks Trump’s immigration policies (many of which were also Obama’s) and goes down the Black Lives Matter list of victims of supposedly racist police violence. He also chides the Democratic Party for having the first two primary contests in Iowa and New Hampshire, states with white majority populations. These talking points push the narrative that racial minorities are oppressed in America and that if a person belongs to multiple oppressed groups, he or she suffers compounded “intersectional” oppression.

This is the “intersectionality” identity politics narrative often championed by liberal academics and activists. These ideas hold powerful sway in the media, with The New York Times‘s “1619 Project” redefining America by claiming the U.S. was truly founded when the first slave came to America in 1619, as opposed to when the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776.

Kamala Harris, the queen of intersectionality, hailed the “1619 Project” as a “masterpiece.”

Most Americans could not care less, however. In most polls, Democrats say they want a candidate who can beat Donald Trump — and many consider the identity politics posturing of many 2020 hopefuls to be a useless distraction, if they even notice it at all.

Yet so many candidates decided to run because of their intersectional bona fides and they thought the best way to gain traction was to appeal to the far-left base represented by Twitter. Twitter, however, is an extremely unrepresentative sample of Americans. Most tweets come from the far left or the far right, and do not represent the primary voters in the Democratic or the Republican parties.

If the far-left Twitterati represented the Democratic donors and voters, Kamala Harris would likely raise far more money than any of her competitors and she would be cruising on to the nomination at this point. Castro would not be far behind her. Yet neither candidate prevailed in the final analysis — neither even made it to the Iowa caucuses.

As for Harris, she ran a bad campaign. She mismanaged her funds, her staff, and her message. Proclaiming herself a prosecutor who would prosecute Trump, she ran against her tough-on-crime record in California. She lied about smoking marijuana in order to pander on criminal justice reform. Even her breakout moment against Joe Biden centered on an unpopular issue: forced busing for racial integration. Besides all this, Harris promised to ride roughshod over the Constitution, and she had a record to back that up. Tulsi Gabbard merely cleaned up the mess Kamala had made of herself.

In the case of Julián Castro, the pertinent question is not why he failed but why he decided to run in the first place. Mayor of San Antonio from 2009 to 2014, he served as HUD secretary under Obama from 2014 to 2017. His decision to run, like that of Beto O’Rourke, seems largely predicated on the idea that someone like him could turn Texas blue — a Democratic pipe dream that failed with O’Rourke in 2018.

Castro’s race also seemed fundamental to both his decision to run and his campaign message, however. As his withdrawal video showed, Castro ran on identity politics — likely based on the misperception that the intersectionality politics of the Twitterverse would work well in the Democratic primary.

One moment in Castro’s campaign stands out as evidence of his focus on intersectionality and Twitter liberals. In the first Democratic debate in June, Castro infamously declared that “reproductive justice” means a “trans female” should be able to get an abortion. This comment showed the candidate’s desire to appeal to the radical transgender activists, but it also showed his lack of understanding of the issues. A “trans female” is really a male, so in order for him to get an abortion, he needs an artificial womb. Castro’s pandering fail helps illustrate his broader strategy — appeal to Twitter intersectionality.

Identity politics has worked in many Democratic primaries and in many general elections, but it is far from a winning strategy in 2020.

Many Democrats and commentators will mistakenly attribute Julián Castro’s failure to racism, the same way so many of them falsely blamed racism for Kamala Harris’ defeat. They will do this for the same reason Harris and Castro thought they were good candidates for 2020 in the first place: the Twitter effect.

Follow Tyler O’Neil, the author of this article, on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.