As an old, apparently not Chinese saying goes: Be careful what you wish for; you might get it.
Once upon a time the great minds behind the Hillary Clinton campaign wanted to run against Donald Trump. They believed that Trump would be the easiest Republican to beat. To be fair, they might have been right. Another Republican might have beaten Hillary by more. But, the truth is, they could not beat Trump.
The American left has been having something of a hissy fit over the Trump election. Good manners have gone by the wayside. Throughout the mainstream media bigot-shaming is the order of the day. The vice-president elect cannot sit through a play without being booed from the audience and lectured from the stage. Anyone who imagined that the post-election period was a time for American to attempt to come together has, by now, been disembarrassed of his naïveté.
One notes, in passing, that bigot shaming—or just plain shaming—was a notable characteristic of Mao Zedong’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. It was designed to strip people of their self-respect, the better to draw them into a guilt culture.
Two decades ago I compared the Great American Cultural Revolution to its Chinese ancestor. Apparently, the comparison still holds. One suspects that the Red Guards among us see the Trump election as a great defeat. Thus, the wails of anguish and the constant bigot-shaming. Hopefully, the new administration will not react by trying to arrest the Gang of Four.
The sad part of it is that so many leftists are doubling down on a failed strategy. (My earlier analysis here) The American public has rejected the politics of multiculturalism. In the Age of Obama the Democratic Party—aka the diversity party— has suffered defeat after defeat at every level of government. Such are the facts.
And yet, amidst the heat generated by those who want to show off how passionately they believe in their credo, there are a few rays of light. Among them Columbia Prof. Mark Lilla's excellent article about why the liberal left’s obsession with diversity has failed.
Lilla is concerned that identity politics has drowned liberalism and rendered it incapable of governing. His would be one explanation for why the Age of Obama has seen the wholesale destruction of the Democratic Party:
But how should … diversity shape our politics? The standard liberal answer for nearly a generation now has been that we should become aware of and “celebrate” our differences. Which is a splendid principle of moral pedagogy — but disastrous as a foundation for democratic politics in our ideological age. In recent years 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.
“Moral panic”… an excellent phrase, one that you can see in action throughout the mainstream media today.
Why did Hillary lose? Lilla answers: when she stopped speaking about policy she did not tailor her message to all Americans, but only to those whose grievances were covered by the diversity police:
Hillary Clinton was at her best and most uplifting when she spoke about American interests in world affairs and how they relate to our understanding of democracy. But when it came to life at home, she tended on the campaign trail to lose that large vision and slip into the rhetoric of diversity, calling out explicitly to African-American, Latino, L.G.B.T. and women voters at every stop. This was a strategic mistake. If you are going to mention groups in America, you had better mention all of them. If you don’t, those left out will notice and feel excluded. Which, as the data show, was exactly what happened with the white working class and those with strong religious convictions. Fully two-thirds of white voters without college degrees voted for Donald Trump, as did over 80 percent of white evangelicals.
The excluded groups rose up and voted for Donald Trump. But they did not see themselves as yet another aggrieved group. They saw themselves as Americans, first.
Perhaps more importantly, the emphasis on diversity, in schools and in the media, has been divisive. Children are taught to identify as members of oppressed groups before they are taught to identify as Americans. Patriotism becomes expendable when people are taught that their first loyalty must be to a subgroup. Multiculturalism describes a society where different people belong to different cults and where they worship different gods…. it’s an atavistic yearning for polytheism.
Lilla explains it well:
But the fixation on diversity in our schools and in the press has produced a generation of liberals and progressives narcissistically unaware of conditions outside their self-defined groups, and indifferent to the task of reaching out to Americans in every walk of life. At a very young age our children are being encouraged to talk about their individual identities, even before they have them. By the time they reach college many assume that diversity discourse exhausts political discourse, and have shockingly little to say about such perennial questions as class, war, the economy and the common good. In large part this is because of high school history curriculums, which anachronistically project the identity politics of today back onto the past, creating a distorted picture of the major forces and individuals that shaped our country. (The achievements of women’s rights movements, for instance, were real and important, but you cannot understand them if you do not first understand the founding fathers’ achievement in establishing a system of government based on the guarantee of rights.)
Does this have anything to do with the way the actors in Hamilton responded to the presence of vice-president elect Pence? Lilla analyzes; you decide.
Today’s college campuses are obviously a national embarrassment. There the average voter sees the nation’s most privileged young people indulging themselves, wasting their talents, and rendering themselves dysfunctional.
How to explain to the average voter the supposed moral urgency of giving college students the right to choose the designated gender pronouns to be used when addressing them? How not to laugh along with those voters at the story of a University of Michigan prankster who wrote in “His Majesty”?
Identity politics has infested journalism. How many times did we hear that we needed to vote for Hillary because she would be the first female president? How many people voted for Barack Obama because he would be the first African-American president?
Obviously, once you establish the principle, those who bought it will have to justify their decision by writing everything into a diversity narrative:
Fascination with the identity drama has even affected foreign reporting, which is in distressingly short supply. However interesting it may be to read, say, about the fate of transgender people in Egypt, it contributes nothing to educating Americans about the powerful political and religious currents that will determine Egypt’s future, and indirectly, our own. No major news outlet in Europe would think of adopting such a focus.
Lilla is describing a decline and degradation of American intellectual life, a willful blindness to objective facts, a blindness imposed by the identity drama.
Identity politics has run amok during the Obama administration. Obama’s supporters feel obliged to defend and rationalize everything he did. They believe that the election of a black American is ipso facto a good thing because it advances the narrative. Thus they must believe, as Obama himself does, that he was a great success.
Diversity narratives are divisive. They divide the nation. They make it impossible to join together for common effort. They demean patriotism in favor of mindless rants.
Lilla explains it well:
National politics in healthy periods is not about “difference,” it is about commonality. And it will be dominated by whoever best captures Americans’ imaginations about our shared destiny. Ronald Reagan did that very skillfully, whatever one may think of his vision. So did Bill Clinton, who took a page from Reagan’s playbook. He seized the Democratic Party away from its identity-conscious wing, concentrated his energies on domestic programs that would benefit everyone (like national health insurance) and defined America’s role in the post-1989 world. By remaining in office for two terms, he was then able to accomplish much for different groups in the Democratic coalition. Identity politics, by contrast, is largely expressive, not persuasive. Which is why it never wins elections — but can lose them.
The media, Lilla continues, has portrayed the election results as a revolt of another aggrieved group: uneducated white males. Diversity liberals might have lost but they will never give up the narrative. For his part Lilla rejects the notion that it was a “whitelash:”
This is convenient because it sanctions a conviction of moral superiority and allows liberals to ignore what those voters said were their overriding concerns. It also encourages the fantasy that the Republican right is doomed to demographic extinction in the long run — which means liberals have only to wait for the country to fall into their laps. The surprisingly high percentage of the Latino vote that went to Mr. Trump should remind us that the longer ethnic groups are here in this country, the more politically diverse they become.
Finally, the whitelash thesis is convenient because it absolves liberals of not recognizing how their own obsession with diversity has encouraged white, rural, religious Americans to think of themselves as a disadvantaged group whose identity is being threatened or ignored. Such people are not actually reacting against the reality of our diverse America (they tend, after all, to live in homogeneous areas of the country). But they are reacting against the omnipresent rhetoric of identity, which is what they mean by “political correctness.” Liberals should bear in mind that the first identity movement in American politics was the Ku Klux Klan, which still exists. Those who play the identity game should be prepared to lose it.
Liberalism got lost in the forest of identity politics because it embraced multiculturalism and cosmopolitanism… to the detriment of patriotism. It has chosen to pander to special interests and has failed to articulate a message of inclusiveness and love of country.
In Lilla’s words:
Such a liberalism would concentrate on widening its base by appealing to Americans as Americans and emphasizing the issues that affect a vast majority of them. It would speak to the nation as a nation of citizens who are in this together and must help one another.
In the midst of the din Lilla has proposed a sensible analysis of what is wrong with American liberalism.