On the attacks against “identity liberalism”


Image from the New York Times

Far & Near column in the Hindustan Times (published 1 December, 2016)

Since Donald Trump’s shock victory last month, the Democratic Party and its supporters have plunged into a cantankerous inquest. The search for answers has lingered on voters in the “Rust Belt” states of Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, areas of the country that haemorrhaged manufacturing jobs in recent decades. Once “blue” states, they swung to Trump this year. The Democratic representative Tim Ryan suggested that Hillary Clinton lost the Rust Belt because she didn’t have a clear and forceful economic vision. “We have not focused on the economic issues that are so important to people in working-class places,” Ryan said. “Our economic message clearly isn’t penetrating.”

That is a fair critique of the Clinton campaign, which only seemed to offer technocracy dressed in slogans, a hodgepodge of programmes without an overarching and compelling narrative. But Ryan took it further, blaming Clinton’s result on her courting the vote of minority groups. “We try to slice the electorate up,” he lamented in a recent TV interview. “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.’” Instead of engaging in “identity politics”, Ryan claimed, the Democrats should focus on devising a platform that can “connect” with voters in places like the Rust Belt.

There is an echo here of political language often heard in India, when people critique the Congress party and its allies for their supposed reliance on minority “vote banks.” One of the perils of democracy in diverse societies is that an inclusive politics can easily become cynical, making an instrument out of religious or racial difference. Like her centre-left counterparts in India, Clinton was accused by her opponents of “pandering” to minorities rather than speaking to “all Americans.”

Yet who are the all Americans, or all Indians, or, to borrow the words of the Brexit campaigner Nigel Farage, “the real, decent people” of Britain who voted to leave the EU? For Trump (and even the Democrat Tim Ryan), this invocation of a greater collective was not universal, but rather targeted to a specific group: white voters predominantly in the middle and south of the country.

Some thinkers describe this successful feature of the Trump campaign – his appeal to a white “heartland” identity – as a response to how liberals have sought to enshrine minority identities. Mark Lilla, a professor at Columbia University, penned a provocative piece in the New York Times claiming that Trump’s victory heralded the end of “identity liberalism.” He blamed the left’s “obsession with diversity” for sparking the revivified white nationalism that powered Trump’s campaign. “National politics in healthy periods is not about ‘difference’,” he wrote, “it is about commonality. And it will be dominated by whoever best captures Americans’ imaginations about our shared destiny.”

The irony is that Trump, who now dominates national politics, based his campaign almost entirely on “difference.” Americans did not choose him because of their economic concerns. According to exit polls, Clinton won strong majorities of poorer voters and voters in areas more heavily affected by immigration and globalisation. Racial – not economic – anxieties seemed to have animated those who turned out to vote for Trump. As I’ve written several times in this column, he galvanised supporters by arraying them against a welter of supposed enemies: Latino immigrants, Muslims, and the “coastal elites.” He conjured and manipulated identities, and in so doing won.

Of course, the kind of liberal identity politics that takes place on college campuses or in certain media circles, for example, can be overly dogmatic and strident. As an Indian fiction writer living in the United States, I bristle when well-meaning liberals seem to expect me, as a member of a minority group, to only be interested in turning my art inward in exploration of my identity. In the words of Jim Sleeper, a particularly thoughtful American analyst of liberalism and multiculturalism, people “don’t want to be corralled into ethno-racial holding pens by curriculum writers and policymakers.” Why should my skin colour and my heritage be the sum of who I am?

But what the argument against “identity liberalism” neglects is that identity politics has always been part of American democracy. Over two centuries ago, a nation was born in which only a fraction of people (not women, not the poor, and certainly not black slaves) had suffrage. Fitfully and with great struggle in the intervening decades, more and more Americans won political rights. At every stage, they were resisted by conservative, often hateful forces that can only be described as the original purveyors of American identity politics. If the multicultural left places too much emphasis on the importance of identity, it is only in reaction to the centuries-old insistence that the nation does not belong equally to all its inhabitants.

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