Democratic Politics Have to Be “Identity Politics”

Ignore the PC backlash. Under Trump, the Democratic Party needs to focus on the concerns of its most vulnerable members.

A supporter of Donald Trump wears anti–Hillary Clinton buttons at a campaign event on Oct. 16 in Manheim, Pennsylvania.

Jessica Kourkounis/Getty Images

We are going to spend the rest of our lives arguing about the precise mix of economic desperation and cultural grievance that drove the calamitous election of Donald Trump. Already, however, there’s an emerging consensus that the Trump apotheosis can be blamed in part on “identity politics” and “political correctness.” In Sunday’s New York Times, the liberal Columbia University historian Mark Lilla proclaimed “the end of identity liberalism.” In the libertarian magazine Reason, an essay was headlined, “Trump Won Because Leftist Political Correctness Inspired a Terrifying Backlash.” Bill Maher lectured liberals, “You’re outrageous with your politically correct bullshit and it does drive people away.” A Politico piece argued, “To many Trump supporters, Clinton … was merely another ‘PC’ liberal griping about ‘micro-aggressions’ and ‘triggering’ language.”

Identity politics and political correctness aren’t the same thing, but they are interrelated. One situates political claims in a person’s racial and sexual status. The other tries to force a surface consensus on racial and sexual equality through taboos and speech codes. Lilla sees both phenomena at work in Trump’s triumph. The liberal obsession with diversity, he writes, “has encouraged white, rural, religious Americans to think of themselves as a disadvantaged group whose identity is being threatened or ignored.” These Americans, he says, “are reacting against the omnipresent rhetoric of identity, which is what they mean by ‘political correctness.’ ”

There is truth in this analysis, but also a very real danger that it will be used to dismiss demands for equality for women and people of color. We are entering a moment of reaction that will reshape not just our politics but also our culture. Liberal assumptions that had become part of the atmosphere—that female leadership is desirable, that dismantling racism is an urgent social imperative, that diversity in gender expression constitutes progress—will likely fall out of fashion. In the 1970s, feminism seemed unstoppable; after Ronald Reagan’s election, it was treated as an embarrassing anachronism. If you haven’t lived through a cultural backlash before, you will be stunned by how quickly and how profoundly the intellectual weather can change. And none of us has lived through a backlash as severe as the one we’re facing.

Before we get to that, though, let’s start with the part of the analysis that’s true. Over the course of the presidential campaign, I attended Trump rallies in the Northeast, the South, and the Midwest. Among the dozens of Trump supporters I interviewed, not one mentioned NAFTA, but many—perhaps most—complained about political correctness. Again and again, people told me how much they resented not being able to speak their minds, though none of them wanted to articulate what exactly they were holding in. They said they hated being shamed on social media, though they usually didn’t want to say what they had been shamed for.

The spasms of unchained bigotry we’ve seen post-election suggest that some Trump supporters were simply longing to howl NIGGER! KIKE! CUNT! FAGGOT! Among those I spoke to, however, some felt bullied for violating more arcane speech rules they neither assented to nor understood. Social media had forced them to submit to an alien set of norms; Trump liberated them. The late cultural critic Ellen Willis might have seen this coming. “Coercion and guilt-mongering—the symbiotic weapons of authoritarian culture—inevitably provoke resistance; when the left uses these tactics it merely encourages people to confuse their most oppressive impulses with their need to be themselves, offensively honest instead of hypocritically nice,” she wrote in a 1992 essay aptly titled “Identity Crisis.” “Perversely, racism and sexism become badges of freedom rather than stigmata of repression, while the roots of domination in people’s rage and misery remain untouched.”

Right now, there is particular fury against social justice culture on college campuses; Trump voters seem to want to see students punished for their moral superiority. An Iowa lawmaker responded to post-election campus protest with what he calls the “suck it up, buttercup” bill, targeting the budgets of universities that offer grief counseling or other support for students devastated by Trump’s victory. After he introduced it, #SuckItUpButtercup quickly became one of the Trumpist movement’s online rallying cries.

The Friday after the election, I was a guest on the Brian Lehrer radio show, speaking to women who voted for Trump. One caller, a mother from Connecticut who’d worked in automotive and construction management, insisted: “Most women that have to deal with households vote for the economy. It’s economic issues that drive us.” But when pressed on Trump’s economic policies, she shifted to a denunciation of oversensitive college students who needed time off to process the election results. “It grieves me that these college students are all being given passes out of classes for an election,” she said, the heat in her voice rising.

Trump himself gives every indication of thinking that his victory was driven by rage at what we might call woke culture rather than by inequality. Consider the fact that, on Nov. 15, he snuck away from his press pool to have a $36 hamburger at the 21 Club in midtown Manhattan. The well-heeled patrons applauded him when he arrived, and he was recorded promising to lower their taxes. No one considered this to be a gaffe. If any of Trump’s economically anxious supporters felt betrayed to see their savior gladhanding plutocrats, they’ve been pretty quiet about it.

Contrast that reaction with what happened on Friday, when Mike Pence attended Hamilton. At the show’s conclusion, the actor Brandon Victor Dixon delivered a message to the vice president–elect, asking for respect for the groups targeted by Trump. “We, sir—we—are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights,” he said. Unlike Trump’s trip to the 21 Club, this sparked screeches of indignation about New York elitism. There was a viral #BoycottHamilton hashtag campaign, and a threat from Bikers for Trump to blockade the Richard Rodgers Theatre. Trump himself tweeted a number of attacks on the Hamilton cast’s lèse-majesté. He seems to understand that a good portion of his followers are more inflamed by assertive cosmopolitanism than by capitalists luxuriating in their wealth, power, and access.

Trump offers his followers the fascist bargain that Walter Benjamin described in the epilogue to The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. “Fascism attempts to organize the newly created proletarian masses without affecting the property structure which the masses strive to eliminate,” he wrote. “Fascism sees its salvation in giving these masses not their right, but instead a chance to express themselves.” Benjamin, a Marxist, treated this as an example of false consciousness. Perhaps, however, we should pay Trump voters the courtesy of assuming that at least some of them knew what they were doing when they opted for the politics of cultural revenge delivered by a billionaire in a gold-plated airplane. The question, then, is what those of us who are the objects of this revenge should do now.

I certainly won’t mourn if the more illiberal aspects of social justice politics wither before the Trump juggernaut. Campus leftists who formerly disdained free speech will learn its absolute importance when faced with a regime that attacks protesters, the media, and dissenting artists. Perhaps progressive activists, newly aware of how many Americans reject their intellectual priors, will stop responding to clumsy questions with a sneering, “It’s not my job to educate you.” I’d like to see the language of privilege jettisoned altogether in favor of civil rights or equal justice, since the number of people who want to see their own privilege dismantled is vanishingly small. Maybe Everyday Feminism, the website that encompasses everything insufferable about social justice culture, will finally be revealed as an elaborate right-wing psy-ops campaign.

But many of the writers and thinkers now attacking identity politics are after more than the end of trigger warnings and safe spaces and incredulous condescension toward the unwoke. They’re objecting not to the absurd excesses of political correctness, but to race and gender politics themselves. In a post-election piece titled “Democrats Must Drop Identity Politics,” the syndicated columnist Froma Harrop, a Clinton supporter, wrote, “One could argue that Trump played white identity politics … but people get confused when ‘Black Lives Matter’ is deemed as acceptable and ‘All Lives Matter’ as racist.” Lilla called for a reinvigorated version of what he called “pre-identity liberalism,” a liberalism that would “concentrate on widening its base by appealing to Americans as Americans and emphasizing the issues that affect a vast majority of them.” On issues involving sexuality and religion, Lilla’s liberalism “would work quietly, sensitively and with a proper sense of scale.”

Now, if people are, as Harrop writes, actually confused about the message of Black Lives Matter, they should be engaged rather than mocked. But the movement’s heartbreakingly modest demand—that black lives be valued as highly as white lives—must remain at the forefront of progressive politics. Lilla offers Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1941 Four Freedoms speech, which proclaimed a universal right to freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear, as a model for the liberalism he has in mind. The speech is beautiful, and the New Deal a model of welfare state expansion to which liberals should aspire. But if FDR-era liberalism didn’t get bogged down in identity, it was only because it assumed a white male citizen. (It’s worth remembering that FDR refused to back an anti-lynching bill because he needed the support of powerful Southern Democrats.) The New Deal coalition fell apart when large parts of the white working class rebelled first against the civil rights movement and then against feminism.

Those who believe that a purely class-based appeal can woo working-class whites back to the Democratic Party never fully reckon with the reason they abandoned it in the first place. Consider the people profiled in Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right. They are hard-working residents of Louisiana’s cancer alley; petrochemical plants have sickened their families, destroyed the waterways where they once fished and swam, and in some cases driven them from their homes. There is nothing abstract to them about the murderous price unfettered capitalism is exacting, and yet they’d much rather pay it than make common cause with those who don’t share their increasingly dysfunctional culture. “Pollution is the sacrifice we make for capitalism,” says one. Their wages have fallen or flattened, but they blame that “mainly on the rising costs of welfare,” Hochschild writes. “They also felt culturally marginalized: their views about abortion, gay marriage, gender roles, race, guns and the Confederate flag were all held up to ridicule.”

By voting for Trump, people like this have shown us what they value. In this moment of triage for civil society, liberals must hold fast to values of their own.

Certainly, Democrats should champion the interests of working people. They should struggle to expand the social safety net and defend the labor movement against conservative attempts to destroy it. They should work to preserve the gains of the Affordable Care Act, even for those Trump supporters who just voted to gut their own health care. But there can be no going back on defending the tenuous gains of women and people of color, or foregrounding their demands for full equality. They are the base of the party, the people who gave Hillary Clinton a popular vote majority but will now be ruled by a hostile minority.

Trump may very well oversee the end of abortion as a constitutional right in America. He wants to register members of a religious minority. His vice president is vehemently opposed to laws protecting gay people from discrimination. Lilla’s prose is vague, so I’m not sure what he considers to be the “proper sense of scale” in responding to these threats. I am sure liberals should not respond to them quietly. Trump’s nominee for attorney general is a racist opponent of the Voting Rights Act and must be stopped whether or not a campaign against him appeals to white Americans. 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. To sideline their interests is to accede to a backlash that has just begun and will only get worse. If Democrats standing up for diversity makes Trump voters feel disrespected, the best response is a slogan popular among enemies of political correctness at Trump rallies: Fuck your feelings.