The Perils of Identity Politics
How to think about this election: white working class voters just decided to vote like a minority group. They’re >40% of the electorate.
— Nate Cohn (@Nate_Cohn) November 9, 2016
Somebody as consistently wrong about Trump as I was doesn’t really have the right to say “I told you so,” but I’m going to do it anyway, with respect to something I’ve been saying for a long time to liberals.
Let us examine a characteristic liberal reaction this morning, this one courtesy of Miss L.V. Anderson, a white, female editor at Slate. Excerpt:
According to CNN, 53 percent of white female voters voted for Donald Trump. Fifty-three percent. More than half of white women voted for the man who bragged about committing sexual assault on tape, who said he would appoint Supreme Court justices who would overturn Roe v. Wade, who has promised to undo legislation that has afforded health insurance to millions of uninsured Americans, whose parental leave plan is a joke, who has spent his campaign dehumanizing nonwhite people, who has spent 30-plus years in the public eye reducing women to their sexual attributes. More than half of white women looked at the first viable female candidate for the presidency, a wildly competent and overqualified career public servant, and said, “Trump that bitch.”
What leads a woman to vote for a man who has made it very clear that he believes she is subhuman? Self-loathing. Hypocrisy. And, of course, a racist view of the world that privileges white supremacy over every other issue.
If you want to know one reason why Trump won, look no further than the analysis of Miss L.V. Anderson, though not for the reason that she thinks. Miss Anderson does not trouble herself to understand why 53 percent of white female voters would choose Trump over Clinton. For her, the explanation of self-hatred, hypocrisy, and racism suffice. They always do with trite liberals like her (for a much more realistic explanation, read liberal Thomas Frank).
Notice, though, that Miss Anderson does not fault these white women for voting according to identity politics. She only faults them for choosing the “wrong” identity: their race, not their sex.
Here is the scary truth: This is the election in which a vocal minority of white people began to see themselves as a minority, and to act as a self-conscious minority group, with interests that are separate from those of other ethnicities. White Republicans have voted that way before, but with more subtlety. Trump traded the party’s dog whistles for a bullhorn. The white nationalists who emerged to cheer him on were just a fraction of his support, but the worldview they articulate resonated with many Trump voters, even if they weren’t quite ready to articulate it.
Let’s say for the sake of argument that this is true (and it may well be, I dunno). If so, on what grounds do liberals argue against it? It is they who for decades have made a fetish of identity politics, of arguing that identity inheres in groups, not in individuals and their ideas. Identity politics are liberal politics. It usually passes itself off under the sham euphemism “diversity,” but it’s almost entirely about privileging females, non-whites, non-heterosexuals, and other members of the Non-Deplorable-American community, and calling it virtue. It’s the kind of thing that convinces a black female Yale student from a privileged background that she is a victim because of the color of her skin, and that some toothless white Appalachian man on disability is an oppressor, because of his. When you give yourself and your political party over entirely to left-wing identity politics, issues of class become invisible to you, and you end up forgetting that you ever knew people like the white working-class and rural people of the Rust Belt. You lose elections that way.
I do not like identity politics. I believe it is dangerous, especially in a pluralistic democracy like ours. But look, if that’s how the left is going to rig the system, then it should not be surprised when white people get tired of it, and decide to play by the same hardball rules.
Look at this:
How precious. These academic liberals are opening a
self-pleasure “self-care and dialogue space” for the multicultural (read: not white), the queer and trans folks, and the women, all for them to come together and gripe. Now, do you think the University of Minnesota would in a million years create a “self-care and dialogue” space for poor or working class non-gay white kids, or for conservative Christian students feeling upset over the election results? Please. For one, they shouldn’t; it ought to be humiliating that a university coddles its adult students like this, whatever their politics. But for another, these white kids aren’t even on their radar — and if they are, it’s as the Enemy. Because of identity politics.
I got a lot wrong in the Trump campaign, but I got this, from November 6, 2015, quite right, in a post called “Why Trump Matters.” Excerpts, this first one from a NYT report at the time:
Something startling is happening to middle-aged white Americans. Unlike every other age group, unlike every other racial and ethnic group, unlike their counterparts in other rich countries, death rates in this group have been rising, not falling.
That finding was reported Monday by two Princeton economists, Angus Deaton, who last month won the 2015 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Science, and Anne Case. Analyzing health and mortality data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and from other sources, they concluded that rising annual death rates among this group are being driven not by the big killers like heart disease and diabetes but by an epidemic of suicides and afflictions stemming from substance abuse: alcoholic liver disease and overdoses of heroin and prescription opioids.
The analysis by Dr. Deaton and Dr. Case may offer the most rigorous evidence to date of both the causes and implications of a development that has been puzzling demographers in recent years: the declining health and fortunes of poorly educated American whites. In middle age, they are dying at such a high rate that they are increasing the death rate for the entire group of middle-aged white Americans, Dr. Deaton and Dr. Case found.
The mortality rate for whites 45 to 54 years old with no more than a high school education increased by 134 deaths per 100,000 people from 1999 to 2014.
“It is difficult to find modern settings with survival losses of this magnitude,” wrote two Dartmouth economists, Ellen Meara and Jonathan S. Skinner, in a commentary to the Deaton-Case analysis to be published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
I commented on the findings, in part:
Now, there is one more aspect to white working-class despair: dispossession. It does not take a sociologist to grasp that the tectonic social changes in American life since the 1960s have been at the very least disorienting to whites. The point to grasp here is not that we shouldn’t have had those changes; many of them were just and necessary, others, not so much. The point to grasp is that the experience of those changes may have been psychologically traumatic to certain whites who expected the world to work in a different way — a way that favored them.
Perhaps there is a comparison to be made with Russians after the collapse of the Soviet Union — which was, of course, a vastly more severe phenomenon, but I think there may be some comparison to be made, re: a people who assumed that the world was a certain way, and woke up rudely to the fact that it was not. Add to that the fact that among elites in our culture — especially academic and media elites — white working-class people are the bungholes of the universe, and, well, here we are.
And, one year and three days later, here we all are, with President-elect Donald Trump.
The American left had better wake up and realize what its obsession with identity politics is doing to it, and to the country. Many of you think the white Trump voters were motivated by nothing more than racism, because that’s how you have come to see the world. This ideological obliviousness has blinded you, as much as a related ideological obliviousness blinded the GOP establishment to the changes in its own base that prepared the way for Trump. You have no grounds on which to oppose Trump’s brand of identity politics if you insist on practicing identity politics of your own.
The Trump voters may not understand much about Leninist theory, but they can spot the “Who? Whom?” principle at work a mile away — that is, the idea that the only really important question is who will be the dominator of whom. What is fascinating is that Joan Walsh really does seem to believe that left-wing identity politics are somehow universalist. It’s the craziest thing.