A fitting saying about academic politics is that the fights are so bitter because the stakes are so low. I don't think that applies exactly in the argument among lefties about identify politics--because the potential stakes are whether or not the party succeeds in ousting a group who, besides its authoritarian and white nationalist tendencies, is intent on undoing not only the small advances of the Obama administration, but the entire New Deal. But I do think the difference between the two sides is really quite small. And the argument itself gets at a more fundamental problem with the Democratic party, and American politics in general.
The jumping-off point for this debate, at least in the several essays I've read, is Mark Lilla's op-ed in the NY Times, "The End of Identity Liberalism". I have read and re-read Lilla's essay, and fail to find in it even one specific recommendation for how the policy positions of the Democratic party should change. Instead, his focus is on the rhetoric of various political figures emphasized either what united us (Bill Clinton and Reagan) or what made each group special (Hilary Clinton). Most of the essay is not even about politics, in the sense of parties, policies, and elections, but instead focuses on how teachers and administrators in elementary schools, high schools, and colleges encourage students to "focus on themselves" and celebrate the differences among them and their diverse group of classmates.
This proposal, then, has nothing really to do with what should be the meat of politics. Instead it is, as Echidne of the Snakes calls it, merely a "rebranding" of the Democratic party. In other words, a tinkering with stump speeches, not really a new direction in policy.
On the other hand, Echidne of the Snakes and other critics of Lilla's essay seem to believe that giving up the rhetorical strategies of identity politics would be potentially disastrous for the Democratic party. Hilary Clinton won significantly more votes than Trump did, and the urban and multicultural base of the party could well be less motivated to vote, or vote Dem, if the party did not continue to speak to the issues most important to them.
But much of what is being argued about here--and much of what the right likes to make fun of in stories about those crazy liberals on elite college campuses--has very little to do with the Democratic party. The party is conflated with a hazy notion of ultra-sensitive lefty social customs and administrative policies of schools and colleges.
What first attracted me to the Democratic party, and what attracts me to it still, is that it was trying to help most those who needed the most. It was standing up for the rights of the most vulnerable--whether they were vulnerable because they were poor, or because they were persecuted by the majority because of their gender, religion, sexuality, or what-have-you. What was most important was not who they were, but that they needed help to live their lives with the dignity, opportunities, and respect that is due to anyone, regardless of how they were differentiated, or differentiated themselves, from the rest of society.
Keeping this in mind as the core of the identity of the Democratic party, I think it is easy to see that it can encompass both support for minority rights and broad-based economic policies. There is no necessary choice between identity politics and class. What we're sticking up for is not one or the other; we are sticking up for the underdog everywhere, regardless of why they are disadvantaged.
There are two larger problems that I think the existence of this argument helps highlight. First is that the Democratic party may have let rhetorical support for identity groups swamp its more fundamental message of helping those who need help because it was consciously neglecting policies that undercut the power of corporations and the well-off. While advocating policies that disproportionally benefited those who had the most, the party may have emphasized the rhetoric of identity to keep its base loyal. I don't know enough about the history of Democratic politics to say for sure that this happened, but it does kind of make sense. A renewed Democratic party does not need to abandon identity politics, but it does need to reclaim its soul as the defender those most in need.
Second, a still larger problem that this argument reflects is the incredibly diffuse nature of "politics" in American life. We're constantly asked to demonstrate our politics in our language, what we buy, what we post to Facebook or Tweet. We've begun to imbue our political position on the red-blue spectrum with a sense of identity--a language, a lifestyle, a tribe. This is, I think, corrosive to our politics in two ways: It encourages an us-versus-them attitude toward our political opponents that is corrosive to progressive ideals, and especially so in a country already dominated by only two political parties; It also substitutes authentic political participation--voting and winning elections--for a multitude of faux political stands and arguments that really have little to do with actual governmental policies politicians might enact.
We need to get back to a very basic Democratic politics, centered on helping the downtrodden through governmental action. To achieve our goals, we don't need to rely on some Rube Goldberg process of cultural change or demographic shifts. We need to get our supporters to the poles and win some damn elections!
This doesn't mean that schools and colleges--or even Democratic candidates--can't continue, if they so choose, to celebrate our differences and use the rhetoric of identity politics. But it does mean that we can't view that as exhausting our political duties. We need to focus our efforts not on rhetoric, but on actual laws and policies that we want to see enacted, and actually getting the votes to put them in place.