Aesop Weeps: Liberalism, Identity Politics, and the 2016 Election
Did Trump win or did Clinton lose?
Trump's Shocking Victory? Clinton's Shocking Defeat?
In the days before the presidential election, not a single major news outlet in the country was predicting that Donald Trump could defeat Hillary Clinton. Conventional wisdom suggests that the pundits were not wrong for favoring Clinton, though the historical record did. After all, she was leading in the polls; she outspent her opponent nearly two-to-one; she was the first female candidate to win a major party nomination; she was facing the most disliked and gaffe-prone man in America; she had more experience and more support from the political establishment; she was enthusiastically endorsed by a popular sitting president; her opponent had just been caught bragging about sexual assault, while awaiting trial for raping a minor; etc.
None of these advantages proved to be difference makers on election day as Trump sailed to an easy electoral victory even as he lost the popular vote by a margin that continues to grow. Since the election, the left has been put in the familiar but unenviable position of trying to figure out what went wrong.
2016 Electoral Map
What Went Wrong For Clinton?
Explanations for Clinton’s failure to win the electoral vote vary widely, from critical takes on her as a person and candidate; to her campaign strategy; to the changing nature of the economy; to third party candidates syphoning votes; to nearly tautological reiterations of the pre-election narrative. Some of the more outlandish pieces suggest that TV shows like The Walking Dead subliminally aided Trump or purport to explain how Jon Stewart’s absence from the Daily Show helped Trump. Few acknowledge the fact that Hillary Clinton raised more than a billion dollars over the course of the election while earning a lower percentage of women, millennials, white, black, and Latino voters than President Obama did in 2012.
Just as significantly and very tellingly, explanations of who is not to blame for Clinton’s loss have also been plentiful. White women, despite a majority going for Trump, bear no responsibility for Trump’s victory since white women were just voting their party line, not supporting Trump’s platform. In a nearly perfect denial of agency and accountability, an alternative thesis acknowledges that white women voted for Trump but blames “internalized misogyny” imparted by men. As the popular “Son of Baldwin” argues in a passage as illogical as it is wishful, a similar phenomenon explains why Kanye West (and presumably other black men) preferred Trump.
To a fault, these analyses and others reiterate the basic liberal assumption found across the intellectual landscape: desirable behaviors are explained by agency while undesirable behaviors are explained by oppression.
Was Trump the beneficiary of overusing terms like racism, sexism, etc?
Why Didn't People See Trump For What He Is?
For someone like myself, whose training is in history, it’s hard to accept that any explanation can come close to the truth this soon after the election. The one thing I am certain of is that neither the economy, foreign policy, immigration, identity politics, or any other single issue can explain this outcome. This used to be common knowledge after elections. Thus, the confluence of reasons for Clinton’s defeat are not my concern here.
Instead, I am writing as a concerned liberal who feels like he is watching the left commit the sort of intellectual and political suicide that frequently occurs in the wake of defeat.
The social dynamics of party politics dictate that when a group of people abandon a party, the remaining people push the party even further in the direction that caused the loss in the first place in a perverse form of social evolution. To make sense of that concern, let’s start by considering the ubiquitous question that is never far from the center of post-election liberal thought: Why don’t more people see Trump as a racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic, anti-Semitic, misogynistic, rape-culture enabling, bigot? If we cannot answer that question accurately then we cannot hope to win future elections.
Unfortunately, but totally unsurprisingly, the most prevalent response can be fairly boiled down to “America is even more racist and sexist than we thought.” This is as wrong as it is convenient. It’s almost a way of saying that liberals were right about everything, as proven by a defeat. From a political standpoint, the real question is not why didn’t the nation see the bigot that the left saw, the question is why were leftists so thoroughly unconvincing when making the charge? If the answer is not evident, remember the parable of The Boy Who Cried Wolf. You know the story. After falsely claiming that a wolf was on the prowl, none of the villagers believed the boy when a real wolf appeared. Is there a better analogy for 2016?
Let me give you an idea of what I’m talking about. Did you know: Pumpkins and pumpkin spice lattes are racist? If you like yoga you’re probably guilty of cultural appropriation? Muslim women are the “true” feminists, empowered by mandatory modesty? Star Wars is racist? Glaciers and global warming are best understood in the context of sexism and also, racism? Holding the door open for women is benevolent sexism akin to forcing “yourself into her space” but also, you should probably still do it anyway? You can be one of the leading champions of civil liberties and Islam and be an “anti-Muslim extremist” at the same time? You can refer to homosexuals as pedophiles and non-Muslims as animals and still be a leading liberal thinker? Wearing a safety pin in solidarity with marginalized peoples is racist? Affirming your right to life as a white person is affirming racism? Joking about sexual encounters with drunk women is not sexist or misogynistic but spooning and marriage proposals are? Inclusive housing is racist? Math is racist? We have a real crisis regarding Halloween costumes? Referencing “biological sex” is transphobic since sex is a social construct? Bernie Sanders is racist and so is Hillary Clinton? People who opposed President Obama are racist and so are people who supported him? Noticing that Keith Ellison was chastised by both the ADL and the Holocaust Museum is a political smear because he was fueled by “anger” not “bigotry?” Using the term “hardworking” to describe anyone other than slaves is racist? It’s okay to immediately conclude that Robert Deer attacked a Planned Parenthood facility because of Christian Republican hate but days, months and years after the Ohio State attack, San Bernardino attack, Pulse Nightclub attack, Chelsea Bombing, Minnesota stabbings, Ft. Hood attack, Chattanooga attack, and others, we still can’t be certain what the common denominator is?
I could go on. If you are even vaguely familiar with liberal thought, so could you. The point is not that these are examples of the quality of liberal thought but rather a reflection of the fact that “quantity has a quality all its own.” The bottom line is that after decades of being accused of bigotry for the most petty and pedantic of reasons, a major chunk of the country just stopped listening. This is not an excuse for not listening. To be perfectly clear, the people who voted for Trump or refused to vote altogether have no one to blame but themselves.
This is the time, however, for self-reflection and evaluation. Just how helpful has it been to liberalism to shout racist, sexist, etc. at anyone and everything liberals don’t like? How useful is the white liberal who expects the rewards of being “woke” while paying none of the cost and taking none of the risk for so diluting words like racist and sexist that they lose meaning and power? Can we not admit something is wrong here? Of course, mine is not the only critique of the inextricable tensions at the heart of modern identity politics, nor am I alone in worrying about crying wolf. In the weeks before and after the election such scholars and journalists as John McWhorter, Mark Lilla, Ross Douthat, and others, all published warnings and reflections about identity politics and crying wolf. The response was as swift as it was predictable. From across the leftist spectrum, journalists, activists, and scholars perfectly recapitulated and reified the very thought process that led to the need for a critique in the first place.
Hadley Freeman and the Attack on the Critique of Identity Politcs
Hadley Freeman’s piece in The Guardian was a particularly egregious example. Freeman’s principal gripe is with liberals who blame Clinton’s loss on identity politics. The gist of Freeman’s argument is that “playing identity politics is precisely how Trump won the election. Anyone who can’t see that is revealing that they think the white straight male as the baseline norm.” Her logic here is that those liberal thinkers and strategists who see modern identity politics as in some way problematic are inherently adopting the conservative axiom that straight white men are rational and objective, while everyone else is defined by a special interest. This would indeed be problematic if it were true. Alas, it is not.
Beginning with a point of common ground, Freeman is certainly correct that politics is personal, and that “political elections have always played identity politics” in so far as all policy has specific consequences for specific people. Yes, Trump voters are also engaged in identity politics. The problems, however, start to pile up after that. Whether the critiques are accurate, Freeman is inexplicably lumping together those liberal white men arguing for liberalism with those white men who reject liberalism. Should we return the compliment and reject her arguments purely because she is a white woman; a representative of a group that supported Trump and was historically slow to support Democrats, only doing so en mass since the 1990s? If we did, we’d be just as guilty. Only a good argument can defeat a bad one.
With that in mind, Freeman makes certain assertions that just cannot stand up to scrutiny. Consider her assertion that the Electoral College is “bogged down in identity politics” that favor rural whites, to the detriment of “racially diverse big cities.” This is as egregious an example of a post hoc fallacy as I have seen outside of listening to creationists. It’s a clear example of the dangers of reading history backwards. You cannot look at a consequence in the world today and assign a causal motivation to the past. Now, I personally believe that the Electoral College is outdated as we no longer live, or want to live, in the federalist amalgamation of states that the Constitution designed. This is very different than assigning a sinister intent to, or calling the system rigged.
Secondly, Freeman’s logic, from the subtitle forward, relies on an ad hominem attack in which those who she disagrees with are wrong, principally because of who they are rather than what they say. In a bit of unintentional irony, having categorically rejected the opinions of white men, she concludes with, “So when people say identity politics exacerbates differences, it’s hard not to suspect that what they’re objecting to is not the acknowledgement of differences but the existence of differences, full stop.” Given the fact that white men are being held accountable for Trump’s victory, is it surprising that liberal white men would object? Who is it that’s unable to acknowledge differences of opinion here without exacerbating the divide to the point where white men can no longer even be liberal unless silently, obediently agreeing to their own collective guilt?
Lastly, and most importantly to her thesis, it’s astonishing that anyone who followed this election could not see how identity driven the Clinton campaign was; she made Barrack Obama’s 2008 campaign look Republican by comparison. This does not mean that Trump’s campaign wasn’t fueled by white identity as well–these two things are not mutually exclusive. But even if we were to accept the premise that Trump won because of identity politics it would not negate the liberal critique. If anything, the fact that a Republican outmaneuvered a Democrat with working class people should lead us to wonder why class consciousness is being replaced by identity consciousness.
Context From the Democratic Debate
Just consider the political climate we’re in. At the Democratic primary debate in Milwaukee on 2/11/2016, this exchange actually took place:
GWEN IFILL: Let me turn this on its head, because when we talk about race in this country, we always talk about African-Americans, people of color. I want to talk about white people, OK?
BERNIE SANDERS: White people?
IFILL: I know. [laughter] So many people will be surprised to find out that we are sitting in one of the most racially polarized metropolitan areas in the country. By the middle of this century, the nation is going to be majority nonwhite. Our public schools are already there. If working-class, white Americans are about to be outnumbered, are already underemployed in many cases, and one study found they are dying sooner, don't they have a reason to be resentful, Senator — Secretary Clinton?
Are you still surprised the Democrats lost working class whites? Yes, after lines of questions about women (code for white women) followed by lines of questions about racial minorities, the idea of even talking about white people (code for white men) was mocked and laughed at. Now it should be noted, that Clinton went on to give a good answer to this question in which she correctly noted that “If you look at the numbers, there are actually as many, if not more white communities that are truly being left behind and left out.” Indeed, there are more poor whites in the United States then every other group of people combined, a fact that is hardly recognized on the left and indeed went totally unacknowledged by Bernie “poor white people don’t exist” Sanders when he got the question. One must assume that white liberals are afraid to stand up for the economically disadvantaged mainly for fear of being thought racist for not putting poor people of color specifically at the center of the poverty discussion. As though poverty was more of a racial than economic issue. Of course, if you insinuate that people of color should be principally discussed as poor, that too is racist.
If you can’t see why this is alienating, then you’re revealing the central truth of the critique of identity politics. If you can’t see the difference between the very necessary act of considering perspectives and the very toxic act of equating argument with identity, you’re revealing the central truth of the critique of identity politics.
The Critique of the Critique
Part of the difficulty in addressing the problem in liberalism right now is the election itself. It’s easy to forget that in the immediate aftermath of an election, racism and all of the phobias are discussed as a product of voters’ actions while in the banality of liberal thinking, they’re considered a product of who you are. This, in part, explains why more liberals don’t express concerns about toxic identity politics in non-election years, and why those who do pay an immediate price. There’s an inexplicably circular reasoning in which both “whiteness” and “maleness” are a priori deemed to be problematic. Thereafter any rebuttal of this premise serves as proof that the premise is true! This is how “white man” has linguistically turned into an argument in and of itself and how “fragile” became the best adjective for those who disagree. As Michael Rectenwald phrased the problem:
No sooner does one make a critique of identity politics, than is one’s identity deemed the cause of said critique. It is as if identity explains the argument itself, and causes it. Once identity is deemed the actual causal factor of a statement, nothing that is said means what it says. Everything is explicable only in terms of identity, and the content of the statement becomes identity itself. Once set, identity is a trap from which no one escapes. Of course, such defenses are circular, reverting to that which is being critiqued to explain those doing the critiquing.
Rectenwald makes two immensely significant points here. The first is that identity politics creates the illusion that both the purpose and truth of a message is better determined by assessing the identity of the messenger than the content of the actual message. This is why the validity of a grievance is measured as a function of the marginalization, at the group level, of the speaker rather than by the truth of the claim or the actual life circumstances of the speaker. It’s also why no matter how privileged a person is, to bolster their argument they will tend to highlight the collective victimization of their most marginalized identity. The second point Rectenwald makes is that identity politics tends to immunize itself from criticism by building a wall between those identities that are valued and those that are suspect. Here then come the neologisms and all the varieties of “splaining:” whitesplaining, cisslaining, mansplaining, hetsplaining, etc., any of which is as good as saying, “you’re wrong because of who you are.”
Losing My Religion
I used to joke that my nightmare was waking up and discovering that Dennis Prager was right and that liberalism really has devolved into a political religion. Now I don’t joke about that possibility and I suppose that in some small way this is this my attempt to make sure that it never happens. With one concluding analogy, let me say that as an atheist, I realized a long time ago that observations about what’s true in the world never convince religious people that there’s a problem with their conception of God. Whatever happens in the world is compatible with their conception of God, however vile, however contradictory to their last analysis. Religion as an ideology, has the power to account for all outcomes without ever having to adapt based on circumstances; it’s premise is that God is good and so is its conclusion. The logic of the argument is irrelevant. Moreover, when you try and tell a religious person that evidence for God is lacking, they tend to: 1) Become offended and treat your disbelief as a threat; 2) Become even more entrenched in their view, as your disbelief makes their belief all the more special and important; 3) Chalk up your disbelief to personal failures and identity; if you’re as good a person as they are, you too would be religious; 4) Conclude that their inability to convince thinking adults about the merits of religion is a problem best solved by proselytizing among the youth.
Replace “God” with “identity politics” and “religion” with “liberalism” and you’ll know my concern.