Op-ed: Can Democrats quit identity politics?

  • By Rich Lowry
  • Wednesday, November 30, 2016 4:37pm
  • Opinion

For the Democrats, no activity is immune from reflexive accusations of sexism and racism, not even soul-searching.

The initial postelection debate on the left has brought some tentative breaks with the party’s oppressive and self-limiting identity politics. And they have been met, predictably, with a furious counterattack wielding all of the usual rhetorical weapons of identity politics — lest fresh air penetrate the intellectual and political hothouse where transgender bathroom issues loom incredibly large and it is forbidden to say “all lives matter.”

Rep. Tim Ryan, an Ohio Democrat, is mounting a challenge against House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, and argues that Democrats are hurt by a paint-by-numbers view of politics. “We try to slice the electorate up,” Ryan said on “Meet the Press” over the weekend. “And we try to say, ‘You’re black, you’re brown, you’re gay, you’re straight, you’re a woman, you’re a man.’”

Ryan might have pointed to a critique of his own leadership bid by a writer at the website ThinkProgress, who opined that his run against Pelosi “is how sexism works.” How so? Ryan is a male; Pelosi is a woman. Q.E.D.

Outside of its political effects, this style of argument is childish and intellectually deadening, yet is too ingrained and widespread on the left to be extricated easily.

A recent essay in The New York Times elegantly diagnosed the problem and inadvertently illustrated it. Mark Lilla, a professor at Columbia and highly respected intellectual historian, wrote that “American liberalism has slipped into a kind of moral panic about racial, gender and sexual identity that has distorted liberalism’s message and prevented it from becoming a unifying force capable of governing.”

His piece itself occasioned a moral panic, focused overwhelmingly on how Lilla is, in fact, himself a white male. His op-ed was denounced from the left as “the whitest thing I’ve ever read,” and part of an “unconscionable” assault on “the very people who just put the most energy into defeating Trumpism, coming from those who will be made least vulnerable by Trump’s ascension.”

Most reprehensibly and sophomorically, a Columbia colleague, Katherine Franke, accused Lilla of promoting a “liberalism of white supremacy” (and, for good measure, of “mansplaining”). One wonders if Franke has any conception of words and arguments as a means to persuade rather than to excoriate and shut down debate, or any inkling of her own self-satisfied intolerance.

Bernie Sanders has entered this debate over identity politics, and, incredibly enough, as a voice of reason. He is cautiously on the side of less emphasis on race and gender. “It’s not good enough,” Sanders said the other day, “for someone to say: ‘I’m a woman! Vote for me!’” (Whom possibly could he have been thinking of?) The Vermont socialist argues, not surprisingly, that his style of populist economics is the real key to appealing to working-class voters.

The Sanders approach will have a lot of allure for Democrats, since it promises renewed political success on the basis of Hillary Clinton’s policy agenda, only more so. There’s nothing more comforting to any political party than the idea that the true religion is also a reliable vote-getter.

What Democrats won’t want to grapple with is that their problem with Middle America goes deeper than an insufficiently socialistic economic agenda, and deeper than their hard-to-control instinct to call people who disagree with them names. To have broader appeal, Democrats will actually have to meet working-class voters partway on a few cultural issues, whether it is abortion or guns or immigration, even if their concessions are symbolical or rhetorical.

This is what Bill Clinton did in the 1990s when he made inroads into what would come to be known as Red America. This will be a truly painful step, and surely anyone advocating it will be accused of every -ism and -phobia in the book.

Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: comments.lowry@nationalreview.com.

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