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Politics Is Identity Politics

President Reagan greets Sen. Jesse Helms at a dinner honoring the North Carolina Republican in this June 16, 1983 photo in Washington. (AP Photo, Ed Reinke)
President Reagan greets Sen. Jesse Helms at a dinner honoring the North Carolina Republican in this June 16, 1983 photo in Washington. (AP Photo, Ed Reinke)

Above: Remember the Good Old Days, When Politicians Avoided Appeals to Racial Identity?

I was going to ignore Mark Lilla’s “identity politics” essay — it’s pretty much the definition of self-refuting — but…let us get to the grim task at hand:

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.

Note here that Lilla is playing the same card from the center that is sometimes played from the consciously anti-liberal left, identifying “improved corporate life” and “Hollywood’s efforts” as the primary goals of “identity politics,” and describing the end goal of Black Life Matters as delivering a “wake-up call.” The silliness of Lilla’s argument would be more ready if he identified products of “the moral energy surrounding identity” like the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Act, additional antidiscrimination laws at the federal and state level, a federally established right for a woman to choose to obtain an abortion, a federal right to same-sex-marriage, etc. This would also allow us to see that far from being settled issues these rights are all under serious threat and many or all are about to be diminished severely during a Trump administration. A “wake-up call” is not enough to address the effects of unjustified police violence and mass incarceration. And of course, none of these issues can be meaningfully separated from class. It isn’t affluent women in big cities who will have their effective access to safe abortions severely curtailed if Roe v. Wade is further cut back or overruled. Mass incarceration combined with felon disenfranchisement (and other forms of vote suppression) is crucial to Republicans maintaining advantages in state and federal legislatures. Lilla gives away the show by trivializing the issues at stake from the get-go.

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 dunno, just me but I would say that the ongoing segregation of our schools is a far greater factor in any such bubble that any alleged “fixation on diversity.” Whoops — did I just engage in “identity politics” by noting the concrete effects of ongoing racial discrimination and their material effects on American politics? Sorry about that!

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.

I have to say, I’d like to see some actual evidence for such claims. It sure seemed like Sanders’s appeals on economic policy were effective at reaching young people who only care about diversity.

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?

Who could possibly care about the dignity of a group of people routinely subjected to discrimination, harassment, and violence, amiright? Where is the MORAL URGENCY?

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.

First, I would say that the attempted diversification of the major American media is an…incomplete project. Second, an alleged tendency among journalists “simply by focusing on identity they have done their jobs” is something I’m going to need more evidence for than random anecdotes from someone who’s obsessed with spotting “identity politics” while sojourning in Europe.

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.

I see, so Donald Trump riding the politics of white resentment to the White House is the fault of “identity liberalism?” And when have American politics ever not involved “difference”? Wait, he has an answer:

And it will be dominated by whoever best captures Americans’ imaginations about our shared destiny

He wrote this in the immediate aftermath of Donald Trump winning a presidential election. Really.

Ronald Reagan did that very skillfully

Remember that campaign that started in Philadelphia, Mississippi talking about states’ rights and talked about strapping young bucks buying Cadillacs with welfare checks? It was an appeal to our shared destiny that did not involve a politics of “difference.”

So did Bill Clinton, who took a page from Reagan’s playbook. He seized the Democratic Party away from its identity-conscious wing,

That’s…one way of looking at it!

concentrated his energies on domestic programs that would benefit everyone (like national health insurance) and defined America’s role in the post-1989 world. By remaining in office for two terms, he was then able to accomplish much for different groups in the Democratic coalition.

It’s interesting though — he might have “focused” on national healthcare reform legislation, but he didn’t preside over its enactment, although he did sign a terrible welfare reform bill, a terrible anti-LBGT bill, and some bad crime control bills. (None of which had anything to do with identity politics, of course.)

I do have a very dim memory of a politician who is not mentioned in Lilla’s piece. He abandoned Clinton’s “seizure” of the party from its “identity-conscious wing.” If I recall correctly, this guy not only won two terms in office but actually signed a major health care reform law, as well as several more good laws and many fewer bad ones than Clinton. Anyone remember?

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.)

Nah. Also, on what planet did Hillary Clinton not appeal “to Americans as Americans” or “emphasize issues that affect the vast majority of them?” You’d think from Lilla’s account that Clinton’s speeches consisted of thirty seconds of shout-outs to various democratic constituencies, “elect me, I’m a woman!” and leaving the stage. It’s certainly true that the media failed to report on the important economic issues that Clinton’s campaign talked about constantly, but I don’t think an excessive concern with “identity politics” is the problem. Have our schools with their excessive fixation on diversity caused the media to become selectively obsessed with email server management?

But, of course, takes like this never address what candidates are actually saying. As always, any election with a bad result means that the Democratic Party should do what the pundit is saying it should be doing had it won. But advocates changing the direction of the party need to make a case on the merits, and in this case I’m giving a hard pass.

…Echidne has more.

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