Liberals, It’s Not About Being Nice

The hand-wringing about whether liberals should be more accommodating misses the point.

Demonstrators protest along Michigan Avenue on April 2 in Chicago in response to the police shooting of Stephon Clark in Sacramento, California, and other victims of police shootings.
Demonstrators protest along Michigan Avenue on April 2 in Chicago in response to the police shooting of Stephon Clark in Sacramento, California, and other victims of police shootings.
Photo edited by Slate. Photo by Joshua Lott/AFP/Getty Images.

Over the weekend, the New York Times published an op-ed titled “Liberals, You’re Not As Smart As You Think.” In it, University of Virginia political science professor Gerard Alexander accuses American liberals of arrogance and warns them against making broad negative generalizations about large swaths of the population. “Liberals often don’t realize how provocative or inflammatory they can be,” he writes. “In exercising their power, they regularly not only persuade and attract but also annoy and repel.” Alexander cites a few particular examples of recent annoying and repulsive liberal behavior, including comedian Michelle Wolf’s performance at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, but the heart of the piece is a broad indictment of identity politics as practiced by liberals and the left. “Racist is pretty much the most damning label that can be slapped on anyone in America today, which means it should be applied firmly and carefully,” Alexander writes. “Yet some people have cavalierly leveled the charge against huge numbers of Americans—specifically, the more than 60 million people who voted for Mr. Trump. In their ranks are people who sincerely consider themselves not bigoted, who might be open to reconsidering ways they have done things for years, but who are likely to be put off if they feel smeared before that conversation even takes place.”

The piece was the latest in an unending stream of commentary attributing Democrats’ electoral misfortunes to conservative cultural backlash—a variation on a theme in punditry that was old hat long before Hillary Clinton made the supposed mistake of calling Trump supporters “deplorables.” Alleged gaffes like that, the story goes, form part of an imperious posture Democrats take on questions of identity politics that alienates simple folk who haven’t caught up with the progressive consensus on social questions.

This argument has very little to do with the actual state of American public opinion on those questions. Survey data suggests that identity politics as practiced by Democrats and the left has been quite successful and persuasive. Take racial issues, for instance. According to Pew, the percentage of white people in America who believe that the country “needs to continue making changes to give blacks equal rights with whites” has grown by 18 points since the beginning of the decade. Most of this can be attributed to white Democrats moving left on the question, but the numbers show change on the right as well: The number of Republicans and Republican leaners who believe this has grown by six points to 36 percent over the same period. The percentage of Republicans and Republican leaners who say that “racial discrimination is the main reason why many black people can’t get ahead these days” has also jumped about five points to 14 percent. These are, of course, still small minorities on the right, but given talk about how liberal arrogance and piety have alienated those who disagree with Democrats on racial identity politics into a backlash, one would expect the numbers to show … well, a backlash. Instead, they suggest that post–Trayvon Martin, Ferguson, and Black Lives Matter, rhetoric and activism may be working quite well on a broad cross section of Americans.

Next to race, issues facing transgender Americans are perhaps the next most commonly cited wedge issue splitting sanctimonious Democrats from the rest of the country. Historians will likely take great interest in the question of how the plight of a population facing a wave of violence and staggering poverty was framed so casually and easily as the froufrou obsession of wealthy liberal arts students and coastal elites. In the present, major outlets and voices on both sides of the political divide insist diffidence is sensible. “ ‘Gender identity disorder’ was considered a form of mental illness until recently,” Alexander writes, “but today anyone hesitant about transgender women using the ladies’ room is labeled a bigot.” In his post-election essay, “The End of Identity Liberalism,” Columbia professor and author Mark Lilla, a liberal himself, agreed that “America is sick and tired of hearing about liberals’ damn bathrooms.” On Monday, Never Trump conservative and U.S. Naval War College professor Tom Nichols warned that messaging about “transgender bathrooms” may lead to Trump’s re-election.

Comments like this reveal not only a disdain for transgender people, which is obvious enough, but the extent to which a good deal of casual political commentary on cultural politics runs on fumes and folk wisdom. A poll by the Public Religion Research Institute last year found that a majority of Americans oppose laws that would force trans people to use the restrooms that correspond with their birth identities. An Ipsos survey from earlier this year found plurality support for trans people using the bathrooms of their choice along with majority support for increasing trans protections (51 percent). Americans also broadly disagree with conservatives that society has become too permissive of trans identity (50 percent), that trans people are violating cultural norms (54 percent), or that trans people are mentally ill (51 percent). Conservative commentators routinely and intentionally misgender prominent transgender people like Caitlyn Jenner and Chelsea Manning—a practice we’re supposed to imagine captures the feelings of everyday Americans on the issue. A National Review piece titled “Laverne Cox Is Not A Woman” by Kevin Williamson is characteristic. “Regardless of the question of whether he has had his genitals amputated,” he wrote. “Cox is not a woman, but an effigy of a woman.” This kind of antagonism is roundly opposed by most Americans. According to Ipsos, 56 percent say they would refer to a transgender woman with either female or neutral pronouns, and 56 percent also say they would refer to a transgender man with male or neutral pronouns. Empirically, the majority of Americans are closer to the campus left on the issue than they are to Ben Shapiro.

Importantly, the current discourse about trans people and public restrooms is the product of a wave of right-wing mythmaking and hysteria that began with North Carolina Republicans passing a bill nullifying local ordinances on LGBT rights across the state. This was in response to the passage of a law in Charlotte banning discrimination on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation in public accommodations. Roy Cooper, who refused to defend the law as attorney general, defeated incumbent Republican Pat McCrory in the 2016 gubernatorial election, even as Donald Trump beat Clinton in the state, and the Republican bill was opposed by a solid majority of voters. The fact that a story about Republicans in Raleigh imposing their will on localities that disagreed with them, and then losing an election as a consequence, fed a narrative about Democrats fatally overreaching on identity politics is, in fact, perfectly emblematic of the dynamics animating punditry about the attitudes and dispositions of liberals and the left.

Political commentators generally take very little interest in thinking through the implications and consequences of arrogance and condescension on the right. How often are Republicans told by centrist surveyors of the cultural scene that they might benefit politically from reaching out to enthusiastically pro-choice young women, that the fire-and-brimstone approach of calling supporters of Planned Parenthood pro-infanticide and symbols of the fall of man might be counterproductive? How much respect for ideological opponents is evinced whenever conservative pundits call the activists of Black Lives Matter thugs and black Democrats dupes? Is the average liberal or leftist in America today more clueless or judgmental about lifestyles different from their own than Republicans who spent years warning that gay marriage and the decriminalization of homosexuality would justify and enable bestiality? Is the average left activist on campus more hostile to dissenting opinions than Ben Shapiro was when he argued that Iraq war critics should be prosecuted for sedition?

These questions are rarely asked for two reasons. The first is that American political journalists are still wired to view a nonrepresentative subset of white people somewhere out in the middle of the country as baseline Americans who cannot talk down and can only be talked down to. The second is that conservative parts of the country benefit from certain structural advantages within the American political system—namely the Electoral College and the allocation of senators—that both delude conservatives about the extent to which their views are representative of the country and largely prevent them from facing national political consequences for that delusion. This is only problematized by the press every now and then, but the abolition of the Electoral College, statehood for D.C. and Puerto Rico, and ending the filibuster will likely be live issues in the 2020 Democratic primary, perhaps prompting overdue conversation about whether this democracy of ours should be made, for the first time, a fair one.

Until then, liberals and the left will have to figure out how to win against a stacked deck. The consensus of the Alexander-and-Lilla crowd is that liberals must shift away from identity politics to win back disaffected white working-class Democrats who went for Trump. They don’t, actually. Obviously, the white, blue-collar former Obama voters who made the difference in swing states that Clinton lost are generally more culturally conservative than the country at large. But the economy remains their top concern, and it has been well established by polling that white working-class voters are supportive of leftward solutions to inequality and economic malaise, like raising the minimum wage and raising taxes on the wealthy. It’s entirely plausible that the Democrats could win some defectors back with a bold and easy-to-understand economic platform without changing the substance of their identity political positions. Last year, polling from the think tank Demos and the political consulting firm SKDKnickerbocker even found that more than 40 percent of white working-class Obama-to-Trump voters strongly support an economic agenda that would fix “racial disparities in pay, education, healthcare, and housing.” Additionally, it is seldom acknowledged that veering away from identity politics to build cultural credibility with Trump voters would, in all probability, depress turnout among minority Democrats, potentially rendering whatever speculative gains might be made among culturally conservative blue-collar whites a wash. A drop in black-voter turnout that has yet to capture the interest and attention of most pundits fixated on white Appalachia demonstrably hurt Clinton in swing states like Florida and Wisconsin. It’s generally taken for granted by analysts that Democrats will have a hard time replicating the enthusiasm among black American voters inspired by Barack Obama, but an ambitious economic platform offering a hand to struggling communities could animate many and pique the interest, too, of the general nonvoting population, which we know skews Democratic.

Such an agenda would dovetail easily with rhetoric casting Trump, a historically unpopular president, and the Republican Party, broadly speaking, as enemies of not only decency but economic justice—powers aligned with the wealthy and big business against everyday Americans trying to make ends meet. It’s incredibly hard to imagine what it would be like if liberals inveighed against conservatism the way Republicans inveigh against liberalism and leftism—“Honestly,” Sean Hannity said in an interview last year, “I think liberalism has to be defeated”—but Democrats should put their thinking caps on anyway and wave away any fear that a more aggressive approach might make them meaningfully more like their badly behaving opponents. That won’t be the case unless, for instance, the Democrats take to systematically kicking reliable Republicans off voting rolls. Politesse is not substantive politics and it has failed the Democrats as political strategy. The party’s reward for meeting the demagoguery, hyperbole, and febrile paranoia of the GOP with civility, moderation, and good-faith engagement has been the expansion of Republican hegemony, with conservatives now in control of the White House, the House, the Senate, the Supreme Court, and 26 state governments across the country. It is time to stop worrying about how to address the right. It is time to take seriously the project of beating them.