Politico has a fascinating story from Minnesota, about the fight splitting up the foundation started by the late Sen. Paul Wellstone’s family and supporters. A majority of the board of Wellstone Action, which trains progressive activists, kicked the senator’s sons off the board. Why? They cared too much about rural poor white people. Excerpt:
Founded after Wellstone’s death in a plane crash in 2002, Wellstone Action has trained thousands of progressive candidates, campaign operatives and community organizers throughout the country, with alumni serving in local and state offices and in the U.S. House. In 2016, the last year for which tax filings were available, the group reported providing training to 2,135 data and digital strategists, 723 nonprofit leaders and community organizers, and 854 aspiring political leaders.
David Wellstone and other Democrats close to his father began objecting last year to what he described as Wellstone Action’s abandonment of disaffected Democrats in the rural Midwest — the rural poor were an early focus of the late senator — with an increasingly narrow focus on gender politics and people of color.
“I said, ‘After Trump, we’ve got to figure out how we are going to go back after those Democrats that we lost,” David Wellstone said. “We can do all the stuff we do. We do great stuff on communities of color, we’re doing great stuff on gender identity politics. But we need to do some of these other trainings. … Nobody wanted to have a discussion about that.”
Serious question: how many people think that having a truly liberal, non-identity politics is possible anymore? On this day in which Tom Wolfe’s death was announced, I’m reminded of this passage from his final novel, Back To Blood. The speaker is a character named Edward Topping IV, a white American who, in Wolfe’s fiction, is editor of the Miami Herald:
“Everybody… all of them… it’s back to blood! Religion is dying… but everybody still has to believe in something… So, my people, that leaves only our blood, the bloodlines that course through our very bodies, to unite us. ‘La Raza!’ as the Puerto Ricans cry out. ‘The Race!’ cries the whole world. All people, all people everywhere, have but one last thing on their minds – back to blood!”
The novel (which is not very good, or at least not the part I read until I gave up from boredom) is about ethnic cultural conflict in contemporary Miami. Tom Wolfe built his entire career as an observer of status in American life. I wonder what he thought of what was going on in Trump’s America, and how we were dividing over race and other identity markers. Look at this headline from an essay in The Forward today: “Intersectionality Has Abandoned Jews. Should We Abandon Intersectionality?” If the emerging left-wing politics has no role for poor, rural, and working-class white people, and a diminished role for Jews, will they turn to the Right? What about white gays, as the gay rights issue fades among Republicans (the GOP leadership already doesn’t care about it, and it’s going to become a non-issue as older Republicans die off).
If thinking about American politics this way makes you uncomfortable, well, I think it should. But progressives — the kind of progressives who kicked Paul Wellstone’s sons off the Wellstone Action board for caring more about economics than identity politics — are driving this train. David French writes:
Linker’s essay reminds me of a recent Remnant podcast with Jonah Goldberg and Michael Brendan Dougherty. I’m paraphrasing, but Michael made the point that the Left is simultaneously crowing about the decline of the white voter while scolding any white voter who racializes their politics. A message that essentially declares, “Ha! White people your time is over!” and “It’s racist for you to care” is unsustainable outside progressive academies or corporations. [Emphasis mine — RD]
The answer isn’t for politics to strive to ignore race. To ignore the role of race and racism in American history (or the American present) is to ignore reality. But I can think of few developments more destructive than doubling-down on racial identity as the defining strategy for coalition-building. Given the fact that American demographics are hardly changing at the same rate in every community, this is a recipe for Balkanization and division far more than it’s a recipe for Democratic dominance.
Another serious question: what are the meaningful forces in American culture that push back against racial balkanization and other forms of identity-politics balkanization? Can they be strengthened?
A final question: It is a Noble Lie that America only started practicing identity politics recently. Our politics have always had a strong racial and ethnic element. Sometimes they were nakedly present (e.g., Southern segregationist Democrats’ appeals), but more often they were submerged in the peaked waves of meringued rhetoric like Woodrow Wilson’s speeches about how ethnicity doesn’t matter in America. Is it better to be honest, or will we miss the Noble Lie when it is gone?
UPDATE: A view from across the Pacific, from reader Seoulite:
To frame this in terms of race, with a view from an outsider:
The US originally was a white empire with black slaves which became a white dominated multi-ethnic empire. Until now this has been relatively stable because: 1) there was one undisputed majority group, and 2) economic and political ascendancy allows people to look past a lot of grievances. Like an indebted gambler who’s still on a winning streak, those niggling problems seem like far away things to be tackled some other day.
Now that whites are no longer the undisputed dominant group (at least in the mind of the people, not yet in reality), the empire is starting to fracture as do all multi-ethnic empires. Think of what is holding China together: 1) economic prosperity, 2) the relentless dominance of the Han Chinese. If the economy was seriously faltering or Beijing started giving an equal voice to any and all identity groups, how long do you think the country would hold together?
So in answer to your questions Rod:
1) non-identity politics is no longer possible because there is now a feedback loop. Identity politics grants one power, which means more people in power are identity politicians, which strengthens identity politics, and so on. Heck, many groups aren’t even really in the game yet. Whites haven’t yet taken the field in earnest under this new paradigm. Nor have East Asians, or those from the Subcontinent. Let alone black Africans. It could also be argued that hispanic identity politics is still nascent, as the conversation in America is still dominated by black-white history. This identity politics thing has barely even begun.
2) The meaningful forces that could have held the US together were civic nationalism and Christianity.
We have already begun to see some groups reject civic nationalism outright (#NotMyPresident, #TakeAKnee, pulling down statues, renaming buildings, Founding Fathers were racist, etc). It clearly does not have the power to unite people anymore. Or those who previously rejected it no longer feel the need to keep quiet.
The Church, as you’ve said many times, is weakening. The only religion that could hold the US together would be a muscular (Islam-style) Christianity that strongly rejected racial identity while enforcing Christian identitarianism. This of course would be rejected out of hand by atheists, liberal Christians, and any others who believe that multi-faith, multi-ethnic empires are sustainable. It is far too late for any of that.
As I’ve written above, this has barely begun. The legacy of slavery narrative is still so loud that other conflicts are being drowned out, but as time goes by this black vs white history of America will be replaced by a multitude of voices. I’m thinking of the political battles between Asians and Hispanics in California. Or Hispanics and Blacks in California. Or Muslims and whites in Michigan. The list goes on and on.
The story of the American Dream requires prosperity and American exceptionalism to unite people. If the USA is no longer #1, what is this American Dream and why would an immigrant from North Africa care who died in the civil war and what they blasphemed about one nation under a false god?