Living and Dying by Identity Politics

Senator Elizabeth Warren (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)
Donald Trump’s taunts may turn out to be the least of Elizabeth Warren’s problems if her refusal to apologize for her false claims of native American heritage angers the Left.

Since the issue was first raised during her 2012 Senate election campaign, Senator Elizabeth Warren has acted as if questions about her past claims of Native American ancestry were simply racist. Her assumption was that the more President Donald Trump called her “Pocahontas,” the better it was for her, since his insults are a badge of honor on the left. But as she prepares for what looks like a run at the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, it turns out the man in the White House is not the only one who thinks there’s something fishy about Warren’s attempt to brush off criticism of her fibs.

The fact that Warren has been involving herself in Native American issues and spoke to the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) earlier this month is a tipoff that she is thinking about more than what will be a cakewalk to reelection in Massachusetts this fall. The Native American controversy is a potential liability, and not just because Republicans will never let her forget about it. In what is likely to be a brutally competitive 2020 Democratic race with a large field of candidates, for the first time, she can expect some fellow Democrats to chime in about her past claims.

That ought to provide plenty of motivation for Warren to dispose of the issue, by apologizing for what she can call a misunderstanding based on what turned out to be a family myth. Simply saying you’re sorry and leaving it at that goes a long way toward silencing critics in any crisis. But it appears that Warren isn’t choosing that path. Instead of putting the controversy to rest, Warren has chosen to embrace it.

If it was only Trump calling her “Fauxcahontas,” Warren would probably have let the issue rest and relied on the willingness of the media and other liberals to label the president and anyone else lobbing the epithet at her as racists. But once Warren heard The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah mock her false claims of Cherokee ancestry, she likely realized that Republicans weren’t the only ones ready to finally hold her accountable for her decades-long pose as a minority. A similarly critical piece about the issue by a Cherokee activist, published on the left-wing ThinkProgress website, also made it clear that the cover she’s received from fellow liberals on this point is vanishing. More important, she’ll likely be facing off against actual minority candidates, such as Kamala Harris and Cory Booker, in 2020, at which point the authenticity of her background will again become an issue.

Her solution was to give a series of interviews and speeches in which she admits that her past assertions cannot be backed up by the record, but continues to insist that she did no wrong, asserting that the notion of her Cherokee identity is a long-cherished part of her family lore that was handed down to her. When she told the Boston Globe, “I know who I am,” it came across as defiant.

The falseness of Warren’s claims about her heritage seems clear by now. Though Warren keeps saying that she was told her mother’s family was part Cherokee and Delaware, there is no proof that this is true. Both genealogists and historians have examined the birth, marriage, and death records of her family and found no trace of either tribe. The tribal rolls also show no one in her family as having been a registered Cherokee or Delaware. That’s a point on which Native American activists have been assertive with respect to other whites seeking to gain either a fake minority status or access to some of the privileges or income available to tribal members in an era when casinos have become a lifeline for their communities.

While Warren’s puzzling choice to try and have it both ways can be attributed to poor judgment, it also demonstrates the fatal appeal of identity politics on the left.

Faced with these inconvenient facts, Warren appears to think a strategy in which she can be anointed as a sort of honorary Native American might serve to undermine any criticism. In her speech to the NCAI, Warren admitted that, “You won’t find my family members on any rolls, and I’m not enrolled in a tribe. And I want to make something clear: I respect that distinction, I understand that tribal membership is determined by tribes, and only by tribes.”

Yet rather than leave it at that, Warren didn’t apologize for past claims of identity and then asserted that she had never used those claims to get ahead in her career, even though that is disputed. She also went on to say that whenever she is attacked for her past fibs in the future, she would “use it to lift up the story of your families and communities.” And indeed, she has lately signed up to co-sponsor some bills of interest to Native Americans that were promulgated by other senators.

But at the same time, she hasn’t apologized for listing herself as a Native American during the course of her career as a law professor, which may have given her a leg up in the fierce competition for coveted spots on the Harvard Law School faculty. Nor has she stopped sticking to her unsubstantiated story about her father’s family opposing her parents’ marriage because of her mother’s tribal ties; she even retold it during her speech to the NCAI.

While Warren’s puzzling choice to try and have it both ways can be attributed to poor judgment, it also demonstrates the fatal appeal of identity politics on the left. In a political culture that prizes any link to victimization, Warren still can’t resist holding onto her past claims, even though a simple apology would seem the smarter move.

Warren’s supporters point to the fact that Scott Brown, her 2012 Senate opponent, didn’t seem to profit from his campaign’s emphasis on the “fake Indian” issue. But once she’s competing for liberal votes in Democratic primaries, rather than counting, as she did then, on her party uniting behind her no matter what the opposition says, it will be a very different story. She’ll likely discover that the game she’s playing is a lot more dangerous on the national stage than it was in Massachusetts.