Amid the climate of disbelief and fear among Democrats following Donald Trump’s election, a fascinating debate has broken out about what’s called “identity politics” on the left, “political correctness” by the right.
And about time, I say. The kind of race- and gender-based moral bullying prevalent on many college campuses and in certain media outlets has been extremely damaging to the Democratic Party.
My only fear is that the argument will be too polite. Sometimes, people just need to get smacked right between the eyes. Anyway, the whole thing was started by an essay in The New York Times by Columbia University historian Mark Lilla called “The End of Identity Liberalism.”
“In recent years,” Lilla writes, “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.” Instead of the Democratic Party’s core message of inclusion -- all for one, and one for all -- we’re fed a seemingly endless list of grievances and a litany of blame.
That certainly wasn’t the message Hillary Clinton wanted to send. Her traditionally Democratic campaign slogan, after all, was “Stronger Together.” On the stump, however, she most often directed her rhetoric to discrete categories of voters: African-American, Latino, LGBT, women, etc. Anybody, it sometimes seemed, but the one group that can’t be named.
They noticed. “If you are going to mention groups in America,” Lilla warned, “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.”
Bill Clinton used to bore pundits and attract voters with great laundry lists of specific policies addressing their needs. Hillary spent her energy and advertising dollars warning against the impending catastrophe that is Donald Trump -- something this column also did plenty of. One result, however, was that ordinary voters across wide swaths of the country concluded that she had nothing to offer them. They’re wrong, but you can see how they got the idea.
Just so you know what we’re up against, here’s how the top-rated comment about Lilla’s article on the Times website began: “This article is insulting to people who are not cisgendered, heterosexual white men. Identity is not something which can be quietly set aside in pursuit of common goals, since historically those goals were set by and for white men.”
Sorry, professor, you lost me at “cisgendered.” That’s academic cant for somebody with hair on his chest who thinks he’s a man. (And no, I can’t be sure the author’s a professor, but it’d be more alarming to think that anybody capable of emitting such gibberish had escaped the campus and wanders at large.) Too often, an obsession with tolerance has created an intolerance of its own.
If you don’t understand how such nonsense is creating young Republicans by the truckload, you’re not paying attention. As one of my smarter friends has observed, it also “tends to paralyze young Democrats. How can you work for social change when everybody is limited to their own class/race/gender?”
Well, you can’t. My own experience has been that trying to reason with identity-obsessed social justice warriors is like being mobbed by crows -- not so much harmful as exhausting. In practice, there are few ideas more illiberal than the notion that demography is destiny.
Try reading “Until Proven Innocent,” Stuart Taylor and KC Johnson’s book on the infamous Duke University lacrosse team rape hoax for a scary example of this kind of thinking in action. To a noisy minority of Duke’s faculty, the falsely accused athletes were guilty simply by virtue of being, yes, “cisgendered, heterosexual white men.” Most held to that conviction long after the lacrosse players’ complete innocence became clear.
One unintentional result of such episodes, as Michelle Goldberg writes in Slate, has been “the politics of cultural revenge delivered by a billionaire in a gold-plated airplane.”
She worries that Trumpism will lead to a new Dark Age descending over America’s racial and sexual minorities, and that “the focus of left-of-center politics in the dark years to come must be on protecting the groups of people who are targets precisely because of their identities.”
Maybe so, although I suspect such fears are overblown. I’d never deny that being a straight white man has eased my way. But I didn’t create the world either, and I’m a Democrat precisely because I do believe we’re all in this together. A politics rooted predominately in race, gender and cultural identity invariably leads to tribalism -- the great enemy of democracy.
As Lilla reminds us, “the first identity movement in American politics was the Ku Klux Klan.”
He’s correct: To succeed, Democrats need to address “Americans as Americans,” as citizens sharing common interests and the necessary protections of the rule of law.
Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of “The Hunting of the President” (St. Martin’s Press, 2000). You can email Lyons at email@example.com.