Heavy Traffic Ahead: Political Identity, Class, & Culture at a Crossroads

(Published 3 December 2016, in The Moderate Voice.)

As a result of recent defeats at the national and state levels, Democrats are in a period of forced reflection, and no little internecine rancor and resentment. The détente that followed Clinton’s victory over Sanders in the primaries, the hope that their respective supporters could find common cause after a successful election, has been broken. Much of the current debate centers on questions of identity and class. Less attention has been paid to culture.

Identity Crisis

Writing in The New York Times recently, Mark Lilla suggested that Democrats have been so focused on diversity and identity politics that many in the party have grown self-absorbed. They’ve forgotten about the rhetoric and/or reality of the common good. And he argues that this backfired in the recent presidential election by ‘encourag[ing] white, rural, religious Americans to think of themselves as a disadvantaged group whose identity is being threatened or ignored.’

Lilla’s post-identity 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….

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. And it would take seriously its responsibility to educate Americans about the major forces shaping world politics, especially their historical dimension.

Among other things, this echoes central themes of the Bill Clinton era. Then, a wide variety of thinkers made contributions of different sorts to the policies and programs of the Democratic Party: Amitai Etzioni, William Galston, Mary Ann Glendon, Robert Putnam, Michael Sandel, Charles Taylor, Michael Walzer, the contributors to Habits of the Heart (1985), among others. Not surprisingly, Hillary Clinton still looks to some of these authors as guides. But the shock defeat of Al Gore and the tragedies of 911 and the war in Iraq fractured both President Clinton’s centrism and his focus on community.

Lilla’s article proved to be a lightning rod for many liberals, not least because some mistakenly read him as denying that identity was important. And among other things, it was easy to get confused about who was guilty. As Josh Marshall’s noted, whatever else happened in the elections, Clinton didn’t run a campaign rooted in identity, though she inevitably had to concern herself with demographic and political realities. She explicitly appealed to the commons. We were, she said, ‘stronger together’. And being a woman hardly seemed a narrow ploy for identity voters.

Insofar as identity liberalism was a problem this year, it was the inheritance from a party who’ve found themselves otherwise impotent to act in other ways. Having passed an economic stimulus package to pull us out of the Great Recession he inherited and, eventually, passing the Affordable Care Act, President Obama and the national Democratic Party made little legislative headway after 2010. Republicans, especially those of the Tea Party, effectively stymied further progress.

Looking to do what they could, Democrats spoke prominently on same-sex marriage and, later, transgender rights. But to many centrist voters, such concerns appeared esoteric, if not elitist. Swing voters began to believe that bailouts and bathrooms were more important than their bills and beliefs. And coming just as white anxieties were at fever pitch, the combination of legislative inaction and executive and judicial actions created a perfect storm. That it did so just as Democrats were anticipating a demographic revolution that would put Republicans in perpetual opposition is particularly tragic.

Class Dismissed

Beyond the critique of identity politics, a larger number of pundits have argued that Democratic losses resulted from the failure to embrace economic populism. The lesson is ‘back to class.’ Such economic populism can be combined with a critique of identity politics, as Sanders has, though he seemed to do so, in part, by confusing identity politics with vulgar tokenism. For Thomas Frank, an ‘enlightened professional class’ hostile to labor and economic equality, is to blame. For him,

the real swing voters are the working people who over the years have switched their loyalty from the Democrats to Trump’s Republicans. Their views are pretty much the reverse of the standard model. On certain matters they are open to conservative blandishments; on economic issues, however, they are pretty far to the left. They don’t admire free trade or balanced budgets or entitlement reform – the signature issues of centrism – they hate those things. And if Democrats want to reach them, they will have to turn away from the so-called center and back to the economic left.

Where Lilla criticized social liberals, Frank attacks centrists. Even here, he focuses only on economics; he appears oblivious to culture. With other allies of the far Left, his comic revisionist tale of the Clinton presidency is a farce of neo-liberalism and triangulation.

Of course, the demand to move to the left after Democratic defeats is a recurrent chorus for many progressives. But it’s not obvious that it’s a solution. Looking at the Senate results, for example, Andrew Prokop noted that the two Democrats most identified with populism under-performed in comparison to Clinton, while two who ‘frame[d] themselves as moderates did better’. Indeed, it’s just as easy to suggest that Sanders’ lengthy primary challenge long after he could win, rooted in repeating the most vulgar attacks of the Right against Clinton, was an important factor in Democratic defeats.

Even if you approved of Sanders politics, there are numerous reasons to suggest that he wasn’t a viable candidate for the presidency. And it’s increasingly clear that Clinton performed well, and indeed outperformed much of the party. Whether this was due to real or perceived centrism or that fact that she ran to the economic Left of any nominee for a generation is unclear. In any event, it’s useful to remember that the political center is movable. It is frequently defined by the peripheries and even my political enemies. Perhaps elite identity politics and blue collar economic populism are at odds, but both are to the left of political centrism and cultural populism.

It’s the Culture

Debates between centrists and both economic populists and social liberals are long-standing. They don’t reflect a simple division between elitism and populism, but a more complex, fluid mix of middle class liberalism and at least two variants of populism. If centrists seldom meet the demands of the economic populists, the latter defend a populism from which culture has been almost completely denied or drained. This is the result of the reductionist idea that the working classes struggle under a false consciousness that leaves them, at least at present, ignorant of the true champions of their economic interests. But neither politics nor populism is so simplistic.

For better or worse, Hillary Clinton was no Bill Clinton. President Clinton’s 1992 campaign famously reminded its organizers, ‘It’s the economy, Stupid.’ But Bill Clinton’s economic policies were always rooted in a cultural populism, and a cautious distance from identity politics. Secretary Clinton’s views aren’t far removed; she has her own complex relationship to the political center and to community. But this year, she had good reason to believe that she could both move the center leftwards and receive the support of moderate voices who would reject Trump. She made a moral appeal to Republicans for their support, but no meaningful policy concessions.

Clinton got this wrong. But so did nearly everyone else. Instead of a battle for economic populists, the result was, as Glen O’Hara has noted, ‘the culture wars election par excellence’. Her distance from identity politics wasn’t sufficient. In addition to carrying the burden of two decades of conservative lies, renewed by progressives in the primaries, Clinton represented a status quo that many believed to be threatening to them. This was true despite the fact that the unemployment rate is now the lowest since 2007.

This isn’t to suggest that the President’s race and Clinton’s gender weren’t issues. Jack Schwartz has perhaps captured this best. As he writes, Trump’s

alliance was not primarily economic—although painting it so was politically potent—but cultural. Many of its members were affluent, quite a few well off. They had little problem with technology and globalization, much less well-placed lobbying, from which many benefited. Their grievance was that they were being left behind not economically but socially. As Donald Trump astutely pointed out in cultivating them: “This is your last chance.” His brilliant appeal to “make America great again,” was, for most, not a call for economic redistribution or job opportunity but for social relevance. His message was nothing less than to literally Take America Back to an imagined past that was as longed for as it was illusory, a past where their values were ascendant and where the others knew their place.

Make no mistake, this election was not primarily about the economy. For Trump’s adherents, it was about nothing less than saving the soul of the nation. Their quarrel with government was not that they were doing badly but that “the others” were making inroads, catching up, and, if unchecked, they would somehow surpass the Real Americans. The impulses of Trump’s legions were not racial, but tribal. What was “elite” about their foes was not their finances but their fluidity, their openness to change, which conservatives saw as a challenge not to their pocketbooks but a threat to their belief system.

Precisely those demographic elements that Democrats thought would lead the country to a new era of progressive politics – cultural diversity and increasingly secular society – triggered a reactionary, often racialized and xenophobic, response rooted in a defense of white identity and culture.

Empathy for the Devil

Whether rooted in its own elitism or naivete, the argument that economic populism is the natural home for blue collar whites simply ignores the fact that many Americans see themselves as having important cultural interests, too. This can occlude or trump their other concerns, including worker pay, rights, etc. And this isn’t the direct result of the corporation-friendly policies of Democratic Presidents Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton. It’s the continuing backlash to the civil rights movement, Roe v Wade, the evangelical embrace of politics, the successful rhetoric of Reaganism, etc, etc.

No amount of speaking louder and more slowly about economics will make this fact go away. If progressives are to win elections, they must counteract Republican voter suppression and gerrymandering, with or without the elimination of the Electoral College. But they must also act mindful of those at the middle who see their culture under threat both by corporations and the courts.

Progressives must find a way, that is, to appeal to the better angels of people battling demons, individuals who chosen to respond to cultural change by denial, by searching out false facts that confirm their biases, or, most recently, denying objective facts exist. This process will require dialogue and empathy. Indeed, this is ideally not an electoral strategem, but a daily engagement by ordinary progressives in the countless conversations – at the water-cooler, after Sunday services, and online – that mean more than any party’s platform. And if it’s impossible to neatly direct such change, it’s that much more important that we get started.

This shouldn’t be confused with rejecting the progressive social and economic agendas. Instead, it’s the recognition that political principles must be adjusted, not abandoned, to political context. We may wish for a more supportive and secular democracy, while acknowledging that a middle path is more likely to achieve sustainable progress over time.

Just a year ago, my very red State of Louisiana elected John Bel Edwards, a Democrat for Governor. As with any election, this reflected local circumstance, not least a very unpopular Republican incumbent and a deeply flawed Republican candidate. But it also suggests other possibilities. Surely, such Democratic moderates are preferable to Republicans? A year in, Governor Edwards has a 62.8% approval rating.

In an interview after his critique of identity politics had gained traction, Lilla was asked about the anger of some of his liberal critics. He responded:

Those are the liberals who are in love with noble defeats, and I’m sick and tired of noble defeats. I prefer a dirty victory to a noble defeat. The president who did the most for black Americans in 20th century history was Lyndon Johnson, and he got his hands dirty by dealing with Southern senators, Southern congressmen, horse trading with them, cajoling them, learning what not to talk about. And he got civil rights passed and Great Society programs. That should be the model. Get over yourself.

Lilla doesn’t suggest that identity is unimportant, but partial. The same is true of both class and culture. None of these is sufficient on its own and the precise calibration between these elements will be different in different places and at different times. But of the three here and now, it may be culture that is most neglected and most important.

A native of Louisiana and long-time resident of Ireland, Seán Patrick Donlan is a Law Professor and Deputy Head of the University of the South Pacific School of Law. No, really.

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