One of the many lessons of the recent presidential election campaign and its repugnant outcome is that the age of identity liberalism must be brought to an end. Hillary Clinton was at her best and most uplifting when she spoke about American interests in world affairs and how they relate to our understanding of democracy. But when it came to life at home, she tended on the campaign trail to lose that large vision and slip into the rhetoric of diversity, calling out explicitly to African-American, Latino, L.G.B.T. and women voters at every stop. This was a strategic mistake. If you are going to mention groups in America, you had better mention all of them. If you don’t, those left out will notice and feel excluded. Which, as the data show, was exactly what happened with the white working class and those with strong religious convictions. Fully two-thirds of white voters without college degrees voted for Donald Trump, as did over 80 percent of white evangelicals.I've never heard of Mark Lilla before this article appeared in the NYT this weekend, but it is the best explanation I've read yet about why the Democrats lost the election (even though they are projected to win the popular vote by 3 million votes; see my last post for more). The intense narcissism produced by identity politics has produced an ironic reaction: individual self-identifying groups of people who are completely lacking in empathy towards people different than them ("othering," to use the common phrase).
The moral energy surrounding identity has, of course, had many good effects. Affirmative action has reshaped and improved corporate life. Black Lives Matter has delivered a wake-up call to every American with a conscience. Hollywood’s efforts to normalize homosexuality in our popular culture helped to normalize it in American families and public life.
But the fixation on diversity in our schools and in the press has produced a generation of liberals and progressives narcissistically unaware of conditions outside their self-defined groups, and indifferent to the task of reaching out to Americans in every walk of life. At a very young age our children are being encouraged to talk about their individual identities, even before they have them. By the time they reach college many assume that diversity discourse exhausts political discourse, and have shockingly little to say about such perennial questions as class, war, the economy and the common good. In large part this is because of high school history curriculums, which anachronistically project the identity politics of today back onto the past, creating a distorted picture of the major forces and individuals that shaped our country. (The achievements of women’s rights movements, for instance, were real and important, but you cannot understand them if you do not first understand the founding fathers’ achievement in establishing a system of government based on the guarantee of rights.)
It is at the level of electoral politics that identity liberalism has failed most spectacularly, as we have just seen. National politics in healthy periods is not about “difference,” it is about commonality. And it will be dominated by whoever best captures Americans’ imaginations about our shared destiny. Ronald Reagan did that very skillfully, whatever one may think of his vision. So did Bill Clinton, who took a page from Reagan’s playbook.Let's pause to note: he's discussing electoral victory, not the fact that these are two of the more failed presidencies in terms of mass incarceration, punishment as political capital, and the war on poor people and people of color. In fact, the anger towards Hillary Clinton among these disenfranchised groups was directly attributable to her husband's draconian welfare and punishment policies of the 90's. But I digress...
The media’s newfound, almost anthropological, interest in the angry white male reveals as much about the state of our liberalism as it does about this much maligned, and previously ignored, figure. A convenient liberal interpretation of the recent presidential election would have it that Mr. Trump won in large part because he managed to transform economic disadvantage into racial rage — the “whitelash” thesis. This is convenient because it sanctions a conviction of moral superiority and allows liberals to ignore what those voters said were their overriding concerns.I so agree. If there was a dumber term than "whitelash" this election cycle, please direct me to it.
The whitelash thesis is convenient because it absolves liberals of not recognizing how their own obsession with diversity has encouraged white, rural, religious Americans to think of themselves as a disadvantaged group whose identity is being threatened or ignored. Such people are not actually reacting against the reality of our diverse America (they tend, after all, to live in homogeneous areas of the country). But they are reacting against the omnipresent rhetoric of identity, which is what they mean by “political correctness.” Liberals should bear in mind that the first identity movement in American politics was the Ku Klux Klan, which still exists. Those who play the identity game should be prepared to lose it.Not to mention, to these rust belt, non-college degree white folks (especially white males) the idea that they are somehow a "privileged" group is only something a person living in the true confines of privilege could assert. There is nothing "privileged" about a manufacturing job that paid $25/hr + benefits and was outsourced to China (Gina!) being replaced with a job as a sales associate at Wal-Mart making $10/hr with no benefits. And all the rhetoric suggesting otherwise simply manifests itself in a hatred of the "educational elite" and other clueless eggheads on college campuses.
We need a post-identity liberalism, and it should draw from the past successes of pre-identity liberalism. Such a liberalism would concentrate on widening its base by appealing to Americans as Americans and emphasizing the issues that affect a vast majority of them. It would speak to the nation as a nation of citizens who are in this together and must help one another. As for narrower issues that are highly charged symbolically and can drive potential allies away, especially those touching on sexuality and religion, such a liberalism would work quietly, sensitively and with a proper sense of scale. (To paraphrase Bernie Sanders, America is sick and tired of hearing about liberals’ damn bathrooms.)Put it this way: when the Democratic party put transgender bathroom access as a top priority in its party platform agenda, you lose a generation of angry, white, working class voters (the once backbone of the party) for whom this issue is beyond irrelevant. That's not to say the issue itself is irrelevant, but priorities, people.
Teachers committed to such a liberalism would refocus attention on their main political responsibility in a democracy: to form committed citizens aware of their system of government and the major forces and events in our history. A post-identity liberalism would also emphasize that democracy is not only about rights; it also confers duties on its citizens, such as the duties to keep informed and vote. A post-identity liberal press would begin educating itself about parts of the country that have been ignored, and about what matters there, especially religion.Now, I understand that faith was largely ignored by both candidates in the 2016 election (also, so was public policy or anything resembling a substantive political campaign). How Trump won the evangelical vote by upwards of 80% or more is astonishing for someone who is about as a-religious as it gets. And Clinton herself was no Bible-thumper who rarely, if ever, brought up faith on the stump.
But the Democrats are more frightened of talking about religion, or nominating a candidate for whom faith is central to their "identity," because it's likely to be derided as "non-inclusive," "hateful," or "what about my faith," or whatever the hell. And it's that precise sort of othering and condescension that breeds resentment among the electorate, particularly those for whom faith is kind of a big deal.
None of this is to take away from the neo-Nazi ugliness, antisemitic behavior, and explosion of hate crimes across the country, perpetrated by angry whites, since the election (this headline on CNN "Are Jews People?" was astonishing). It makes you wonder what the reaction would have been had their "anointed candidate" lost. You can call them "alt-right" or "white nationalists" (or better, "sore winners") and try to normalize hatred, but it won't work. These people are good old fashioned racists, using the election to mainstream their twisted ideologies. The sooner the media turns that rock over, the better.
But Lilla isn't giving this kind of hatred a pass or excuse, because the article is about electoral politics, not the aftermath. What he is saying is that the past 25 years of "political correctness" and other multicultural pronoun/language calisthenics has produced a coalition of Democrats who are sure to keep losing election after election for the foreseeable future. As he notes, what wins elections is "us" and "we," not "them" and "those" (or hir and ze).
Democrats can dismiss him if they choose, but should be prepared to remain in the electoral wilderness and watch as the real assault on freedom begins by people who don't really care about identity groups, safe spaces, bathroom access or, ironically, the uneducated working class white folks who ushered them into office.
The shitstorm is a coming...happy thanksgiving.