The End of Identity Liberalism
It is a truism that America has become a more diverse country. It is also a beautiful thing to watch. Visitors from other countries, particularly those having trouble incorporating different ethnic groups and faiths, are amazed that we manage to pull it off. Not perfectly, of course, but certainly better than any European or Asian nation today. It’s an extraordinary success story.
Yeah, we're doing a bang-up job!
But how should this diversity shape our politics? The standard liberal answer for nearly a generation now has been that we should become aware of and “celebrate” our differences. Which is a splendid principle of moral pedagogy — but disastrous as a foundation for democratic politics in our ideological age.
Why? Because Democrats lost one election? With the most unpopular nominee they've ever had? Embracing diversity is somehow to blame for that debacle?
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.
Moral panic? How is "yes, gay people should be allowed to get married" and "cops should stop shooting unarmed black men in the back" and "Chaz Bono should be able to pee" constitute a "moral panic?" For most people, this is just common sense.
What would "unifying" look like? We all just agree to come together and only care about the problems of white male heteroes?
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.
How dare she?
Also, Hillary Clinton was never uplifting. That's a big reason why she lost. She isn't a great speechifyer. No one finds her inspiring. I mean, her life and accomplishments and her strength in the face of 30 years of right-wing slander and hatred are quite inspiring, but she's not an inspiring speaker. Shouldn't matter, but it does.
And why would it be a problem to call out to minority groups?
Let me guess. Because white guys get their little feelings hurt?
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.
Waaahhhh!! ALL lives matter!
Jeezus. Speaking as a straight white man, we are the biggest bunch of fucking babies in the world. We all want to think we're Sonny Corleone but really, we're Johnny Fontane
Technically, Godfather, I AM acting like a man!
. . . 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.
Oh my God, and white evangelicals were totally going to vote for Hillary Clinton, the woman they've spent 3 decades demonizing, if only she hadn't given black Muslims a shout-out!
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. . .
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.
I don't even understand. Isn't the whole idea of being fixated on diversity kind of the opposite of being insulated into self-defined groups? Isn't reaching out to Americans in every walk of life kind of the definition of diversity? I read this sentence like twenty times and I can't make heads or tails of it.
At a very young age our children are being encouraged to talk about their individual identities, even before they have them.
What? At what age do people not have an identity? Very small children may not understand the constructs of race or gender and certainly not sexuality, but they know if they're white or black, boy or girl, old or young, etc. They have identities.
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.
Wow! Have you ever met a college-age young person? If you wanted to meet some, I could've told you where to find a bunch a few months ago. They were phonebanking for Bernie Sanders and talking about the economy, class, war, and class war. As well as race.
The economy is especially important to people of that age group who find themselves drowning in student debt with little or no job prospects. They care about the economy as much as or more than any other demographic group.
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.)
Oh my God! What if they talk about women in history and the Founding Fathers don't get mentioned? Whatever will old white men do? If we aren't constantly being acknowledged, we cease to exist!
Also, are you really trying to tell us that high school history classes are omitting the Founding Fathers?
This sounds like the same bullshit we heard when English classes decided that they could maybe include Alice Walker or James Baldwin or Isabel Allende and stupid conservatives rent their garments and wailed "they're getting rid of Shakespeare! Oh who will save Mark Twain?"
When young people arrive at college they are encouraged to keep this focus on themselves by student groups, faculty members and also administrators whose full-time job is to deal with — and heighten the significance of — “diversity issues.” Fox News and other conservative media outlets make great sport of mocking the “campus craziness” that surrounds such issues, and more often than not they are right to. Which only plays into the hands of populist demagogues who want to delegitimize learning in the eyes of those who have never set foot on a campus. How to explain to the average voter the supposed moral urgency of giving college students the right to choose the designated gender pronouns to be used when addressing them? How not to laugh along with those voters at the story of a University of Michigan prankster who wrote in “His Majesty”?
yes, it's just so hilarious and silly that people might want to be addressed by the pronoun that fits their identity. A sensible person would just refer to Laverne Cox as "him." It would be "craziness" to show a modicum of respect!
You know how much effort she has to put into looking this good?
You can't take half a second to remeber to say "her?"
How to explain tho the average voter? Really? How thick do you think the average voter is? It's not a matter of "moral urgency," it's just basic manners. I wish I could remember what comedian said it (Paul F. Tompkins maybe?) but it's like if someone says "my name is William, but I prefer Bill" and you say "well, you were born a William, so I'm just going to call you William," you're a dick. If someone wants to be called she /her even though their dna is male, it takes literally zero effort to say her instead of him. It inconveniences you not at all and it's just common fucking courtesy.
And if the lunkheads of FOX news want to use this bit of basic decency to de-legitimize education, well they're going to do it anyway, because that's their schtick. Normal people can't go around basing their actions on what the reaction might be at FOX. FOX is going to demonize and ridicule evryone and everything that doesn't conform to their narrow, sad little worldview. You can't please them no matter what you do. It's stupid to even try.
This campus-diversity consciousness has over the years filtered into the liberal media, and not subtly. Affirmative action for women and minorities at America’s newspapers and broadcasters has been an extraordinary social achievement — and has even changed, quite literally, the face of right-wing media, as journalists like Megyn Kelly and Laura Ingraham have gained prominence. But 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.
Oh fer fuck sake. If you had just gone ahead and used the specious term "liberal media" in the first paragraph we could have saved a lot of time by dismissing your argument out of hand right then. No one who uses the term "liberal media" is making any kind of legitimate argument. (Unless by "liberal media" you mean The Nation, Mother Jones, Z Magazine, Pacifica Radio, etc)
And what the hell does it mean when you say "simply by focusing on identity they have done their jobs?" What journalists and/or editors do you see in the media landscape that are "focusing on identity?" Name one. Go ahead, we'll wait.
That's what I thought.
Recently I performed a little experiment during a sabbatical in France. For a full year I read only European publications, not American ones.
You seriously don't think that the powerful political and religious currents in Egypt are not the determining factors on what the fate of transgendered Egyptians will be?
My thought was to try seeing the world as European readers did. But it was far more instructive to return home and realize how the lens of identity has transformed American reporting in recent years. How often, for example, the laziest story in American journalism — about the “first X to do Y” — is told and retold. Fascination with the identity drama has even affected foreign reporting, which is in distressingly short supply. However interesting it may be to read, say, about the fate of transgender people in Egypt, it contributes nothing to educating Americans about the powerful political and religious currents that will determine Egypt’s future, and indirectly, our own.
Also, American journalism's obsession with the "feel-good" human interest story is not so much an outgrowth of identity politics as it is the dumbing-down of American culture in general and the news media in particular. News programs are expected to be profitable now and you don't get profitable by paying investigative journalists to do months-long investigations of serious issues. That's why news magazine shows like Dateline and 48 hours are all murder mysteries all the time. They started out with high hopes of doing serious journalism, but quickly were turned into lurid info-tainment.
But 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.
You did see who won the last election, right? The guy whose entire campaign was based on vilifying "them." Promising to deport Mexicans and ban Muslims and encouraging his supporters to commit acts of violence against dissenters, that's not exactly an appeal to "commonality." Promising to "Make America Great Again," by which he means great for straight, white, Christian men, is not exactly unifying. Trump's campaign was specifically about "difference," about fear and loathing of the "other," and he won. Granted, he got fewer votes, but he won.
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. He seized the Democratic Party away from its identity-conscious wing, concentrated his energies on domestic programs that would benefit everyone (like national health insurance) and defined America’s role in the post-1989 world.
And got impeached.
Yes, Bill Clinton so brought the nation together that the right pursued every stupid salaciuos rumor they could dig up to try and find some scandal that would stick and then when they couldn't find any actual high crime or misdemeanor, they impeached him for getting blown. Unity!
By remaining in office for two terms, he was then able to accomplish much for different groups in the Democratic coalition. Identity politics, by contrast, is largely expressive, not persuasive. Which is why it never wins elections — but can lose them.
Who in the Democratic coalition was helped by NAFTA? Or the repeal of Glass-Steagel? Or welfare "reform?"Or the Crime Bill? Or the Telecommunications bill? Bill Clinton talked a good progressive game, but mostly he governed as a Republican. And they still impeached him.
Also, why is it only "identity politics" when it's minorities or women or LGBTs? Why is appealing to straight white men not "identity politics?" Straight and white are identities. So is Bible-thumper. And gun-humper.
How is this not "identity politics?"
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.)
Okay, first of all, it is the reactionary right that is obsessed with bathrooms.
Secondly, a liberalism that is ashamed of dealing with the issues of the oppressed religious and sexual minorities is not something any decent person should wish for.
Third, Progressives are NOT winning back the angry white guy vote. No matter how universal their appeal. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama both proposed national health care plans that would benefit Americans of every ethnicity and gender. The angry white guys screamed Communist! at Bill Clinton and, inexplicably, Fascist! at Barack Obama. There is nothing that progressives can do to peel away Trump voters. They are steeped in the identity politics of Rush Limbaugh and FOX "news" and there is no prying them back into reality.
The good news is that it's not necessary. The problem with the last election wasn't that Trump got too many votes. It's that Clinton didn't get enough. (At least not in the swing states) If Hillary Clinton could have just turned out the voters that showed up to vote for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, she'd have won.And you're not going to appeal to those voters with bland centrism. The voters want to know what you are going to do for them. They want to know why should they vote for you?
Look at the two bumper stickers
Is it stupid? Sure. But it lays out a reason for voting. Vote for me and I will make America
So what do I get if I vote for Hillary?
okayyyyyy. . . but what do I get for being with her?
Yeah, but. . .
Where is it" Where's the reason to vote for her? Barack Obama promised us Hope and Change. That was a winning slogan.
And it's not about bumper stickers and slogans. It's about giving people a reason to vote for you. People knew why they wanted to vote for Trump. They believed that he was a great and successful businessman who could make America great and successful in his image. They believed he would build a wall and make Mexico pay for it. They believed he would intimidate other world leaders into bending to America's will. They obviously were dead wrong about all those things, but they believed them.
But Hillary Clinton never had that "vote for me and I will . . . ." narrative. Other than "holy fuck, you can't possibly elect this blithering orange hued pustule as president" what motivation did she ever give anyone to leave their homes, drive to a polling place, wait in line and pull the lever for her? If it was there, I never heard it. I voted for her anyway because I'm not a monster, but if I lived in one of those precincts where Republican secretaries of state had closed polling stations and reduced the numbers of voting machines, I'm not sure I would have stood on line for any great length of time just to vote against Trump.
You have to give the voters a reason to choose you. Bernie Sanders did. That's why he consistently polled ahead of Trump during the primaries while Hillary wobbled between a narrow lead and virtual tie. Democrats lost this election in the primary. And it had nothing to do with "identity politics."