This column is a venture into the treacherous waters of “identity politics” or “political correctness,” or whatever you want to call these braided strands in current liberal thought.
But wait — a correction is already in order. Because, yes, the Trump campaign drew enormous energy from mocking and deriding the liberal language police with our “n-word” and our obsessive debates over how to address transgendered people. But identity politics was also the bedrock of the Trump campaign, the very politics he conned followers into thinking he opposed. Or did you see the pandering to racists and the beleaguered “white working class” as anything other than identity politics?
That there’s a right-wing version of identity politics should come as no surprise. In its pure form, identity politics can be traced back to the Ku Klux Klan, which first wielded it against blacks, later Catholics and Jews.
The difference this time around, the thing that differentiates left-wing identity politics from the right-wing version, is this: Trump used identity politics to divide and conquer; Democrats invoked identity politics to assert moral superiority and feel self-righteous. It didn’t go well, did it.
So now what?
For starters, it’s time for media to move past the boohoo phase of liberal reaction to the Trump election. Time to stop bursting into tears over how badly we were blindsided by flawed polls. Time to drop the mea culpas for neglecting to cover the world between the coasts. Yes, it’s shameful that America would put so vile a man as Trump in the White House.
In his second post-election week, the celebrity TV star remained a repulsive presence on the domestic and international stage. The lying continued, with Trump claiming credit for saving an auto plant Ford had no intention of shutting down. Much more consequentially, Trump failed to “go presidential” and instead pandered only more aggressively to racists and xenophobes with his startlingly crude cabinet picks.
But it’s time to look beyond lamentation and start trying to figure out where to from here. To that end, two post-election media classics cropped up in the past few days. Each, in very different ways, is profoundly insightful. I’ll save the more delicious for last in the hope that you’ll stay with me long enough to relish it. (It’s a video clip and not a long one.)
The first is an op-ed column that appeared over the weekend in The New York Times. It will not sit well with liberals, but neither does it suck up to triumphant Trumpistas. Hopefully it will challenge more than a few readers on both sides of the fence.
Mark Lilla, a professor of humanities at Columbia University, sees the liberal obsession with identity politics as central to the Democratic Party’s 2016 debacle and calls for an end to this kind of thing. His prescription — it’s time to end identity politics — seems flawed to me, or maybe just naïve, given that identity politics’ ugly big brothers (racism, misogyny, xenophobia) have not been more prominent or powerful in American politics since Reconstruction. They’re not going away.
But Lilla, who celebrates the greater diversity of today’s America, seems right to me in calling out the fecklessness and narcissism to which identity politics and its handmaiden, political correctness, have devolved in recent years.
As events bore out, it simply wasn’t enough to spend the summer feigning shock and disgust over Trump’s coded and not-so-coded racism and misogyny — meanwhile failing so abysmally to counter the phony agenda for economic reform that he also put forward. (Sanders kind of aped some of that agenda, the trade part; Clinton put up a good website but then talked incessantly about her gender.)
Hey, all you campus “activists”: Shaming a professor who defends the right to wear “offensive” Halloween costumes can make for a moment of galvanizing self-righteousness and maybe even enhance your stature in the student lounge, but does it have anything much to offer a low-income family coping with joblessness and opioid addiction in Central City or Appalachia?
I’m older than Lilla. The cool kids on my college campus — and I certainly wanted to be one of them — prided ourselves on being among the first to stop calling black people “negro” or “colored.” In sequence, those words were warm-hearted successors to terms in wide use that today are unprintable. Soon enough we learned to let “black” go in favor of Afro-American. The measure of white liberal hipness then centered on remembering to drop that hyphen and go with African American, which seems to have held on, at least among whites. (On the streets, of course, young black men use the unprintable term more joyously and frequently than a 1950s Dixiecrat.)
Today, equally exquisite linguistic nicety is focused on pronoun use with transgender people and the concoction of trendy neologisms like “cisgendered.” These are matters of deep concern to marginalized or oppressed groups and should be gotten right by all of us. But they are matters of etiquette, not politics. Mistaking one for the other dooms progressive thinking to equally narcissistic self-delusion — like thinking that a vote for Jill Stein wasn’t a vote for Trump; that instead your Stein bumper sticker “identified” you as someone just a little too special to support Hillary Clinton.
As Lilla puts it:
“In recent years American liberalism has slipped into a kind of moral panic about racial, gender and sexual identity that has distorted liberalism’s message and prevented it from becoming a unifying force capable of governing.”
He goes on:
“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. 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.”
And just in case you missed that swipe at journalism, Lilla drives home the point:
“It also appears to have encouraged the assumption, especially among younger journalists and editors, that simply by focusing on identity they have done their jobs.”
Finally, he wants to deny us whatever comfort we might hope to get from tarring right-wing identity politicians with the brush he has been using to tar their liberal counterparts:
“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.”
Here I think Lilla himself falls prey to stereotyping and monochromatic thinking. The Trump crowd did indeed have some “overriding concerns” but those concerns did not immunize them from dishonorable impulses. You don’t have to live in the South to know that “whitelash” is for real. You don’t have to be a Klansman or even a birther, like Trump, to know that racial rage has been a powerful adhesive in bonding voters to other items on the GOP agenda, even to items that are deeply contrary to their own economic interests. Examples? How about tearing up Obamacare? How about the tax cuts Trump promises the wealthy?
But let’s not get washed away on a wave of liberal guilt. No thinking person can deny that identity politics has had constructive uses. It was hugely important to the black power movement that supercharged the fight for civil rights in the 1950s and ‘60s. Today it remains an important tool — Black Lives Matter — in the fight against summary execution of young black people by police. It was and remains an inextricable part of the fight for gay rights and women’s rights and trans rights. God knows Muslims and Latinos are going to need to stand together if they are to survive the threatened assault from Trump.
And, lest we forget, identity politics was at the heart of an unexpectedly successful political campaign, Trump’s, that duped even his followers into thinking he was in uproarious revolt against it.
So, no, Prof. Lilla, this is not the end of identity politics. Wishing won’t make it so. It’s more likely a new and uglier beginning.
Where does that leave us?
I would offer a slightly different takeaway. Not that identity politics can, should or ever will end. It’s that we liberals (or progressives, if you prefer) need to get over the notion that tribalism, enforced by political correctness, is somehow an end in itself.
We need to recognize that the deep appeal of group identity must be yoked to a progressive political agenda that cuts across races and classes. Everything I know about history and politics tells me that’s going to be an agenda rooted in economic issues, buttressed by legislation.
Black America fought de jure segregation and demanded voting rights, job opportunities, equal pay and equal access to schools and other public accommodations.
Those on the barricades for gender rights today are still fighting for equal pay and to prevent gender-specific conditions — like pregnancy or gender reassignment — from being barriers to workplace advancement. Trans activists in New Orleans are fighting housing discrimination and bigoted policing. This is identity politics in service to clear and constructive outcomes.
But too many of us — those privileged with the time for this kind of thing — have settled for verbal parlor games. We mince words, feign deep personal offense over any departures from p.c.’s latest book of manners and secretly savor frissons of self-righteous indignation when lapses occur. It amounts to a kind of virtual politics that should never have been mistaken for the real thing.
Meanwhile, as we perfect our parlor speech and scold each other so piously for any linguistic gaucherie, the American working class has been upended by the probably unstoppable forces of globalism and technological innovation.
A more genuinely progressive agenda would have obsessed over job retraining, tax reform, upgraded schools. Democrats would not have stood by for a generation while unions were destroyed. There would have been a furious resistance to the ongoing campaign to rescind hard-won voting rights and the Supreme Court’s acquiescence to that campaign.
We would not have pretended that Occupy Wall Street was anything more than nostalgia for a Sixties-style communitarianism — but without the organizing force that gave dissidence a purpose and excused at least some of its follies: the war in Vietnam.
Maybe Lilla is right. Maybe the recent Democratic fiasco combined with the ugly purposes to which Trump has put identity politics will so stain the brand that we will consign it (like communism and pacifism) to the ash can of outmoded leftist creeds. More urgently, I think we need to figure out how to yoke it to a more substantive agenda of sweeping economic, financial, and social reforms.
Here endeth a dry sermon. Thanks for sitting through it. Your reward, accompanied perhaps by a deep draught of your favorite beverage, is producer/writer Tess Rafferty’s viral rant. Turn your speakers up loud and make Rafferty’s face fill the screen. She’s as incisive as Lilla. Her clip is also a zenith in identity politics of the most self-indulgent variety — exactly the kind of thing Lilla warns us has got to stop. Rafferty wants to make you hate Trump and all those saps who fell for his con. But, then, if you’ve read this far, it’s because you probably already do.
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