“It is crucial that we not ignore the self nor the longing people have to transform the self, that we make the conditions for wholeness such that they are mirrored both in our own beings and in social and political reality.” — bell hooks, Sisters of the Yam
In modern politics, they are many phrases that we use that have no genuine meaning. For example, the U.S. upper class is referred to often as “job creators.” This frames the wealthy 1% as benevolent employers, totally erasing the actual work of their productive employees. Another case is “political correctness,” the policing of discourse by sensitive liberals who treat harmless, everyday language as offensive and immoral. The term thrives in the lexicon of conservatives who frequently deploy it as a defense when accused of racism, sexism, or some other form of prejudice. Lately, many pundits have identified “political correctness” as the reason why Hillary Clinton failed to win the 2016 U.S. presidential election, despite polls and those same pundits predicting that she would defeat the worst presidential candidate in recent history, a racist narcissist.
Adam Johnson has a superlative, comprehensive piece at FAIR that gathers pieces from Vox, The New York Times and The Washington Post that all attribute a fixation on “identity politics” as a critical error of the Clinton campaign. On the November 19th episode of Saturday Night Live, Colin Jost said that Tinder adding 37 different gender identity options to its dating app represented “why Democrats lost the election.” On November 26th, Mother Jones columnist Kevin Drum disparaged the “fad” of signaling progressive bona fides by referring to “every sign of racial animus” as white supremacy. There appears to be a growing media consensus that the victories of Donald Trump and the Republican Party stem from effete, out-of-touch liberals who have prioritized affirming their own social values to the point of self-parody, alienating moderates and forgoing any compromise.
The central problem with this is that most journalists and pundits are confusing the “political correctness” canard with genuine identity politics: the struggle of women, people of color, the LGBT community, and others against exclusion and belittlement. For decades, vulnerable social groups have sought to obtain a voice after being silenced for time out of mind, fighting against the institutional obstacles (in politics as well as society and the economy) depriving them of equality. It is a fight that continues to this day, as evidenced by the Black Lives Matter movement against police brutality aimed at African-Americans, by the ongoing battle for transgender rights, and the seemingly never-ending campaign to secure for women equal pay for equal work. It would be (rightfully) outrageous if Colin Jost had implied that embracing feminism had cost Hillary Clinton the election, so he took a page from the “political correctness playbook” and mocked Tinder adding additional genders: an inclusive, innocuous act that only seems absurd to some because the idea of gender being non-binary is still a novel concept to some — as it was once incredulous that women or black people could vote.
There is also a bias among the “liberal intelligentsia” toward always finding the center, the reflexive inclination that “the truth is somewhere in the middle.” Racism and white supremacy exist, say these liberals, but only in rare cases. If African-Americans are much more likely to be incarcerated than whites in their lifetime, it must be because of “a few bad policies” rather than a pervasive institutional bigotry seeking to defend and extend power in the hands of a historically white political class. Similarly, if African-Americans are routinely killed by police officers without any consideration of due process, it must be because of “a few bad apples” instead of a endemic culture of racial profiling and prejudice throughout law enforcement agencies. Through their public platforms, these liberal talking heads set the limits of “acceptable” outrage. Movements that seek “dialogue,” piecemeal reform and symbolic concessions gain the stamp of approval. Those that demand drastic overhauls of the system or that white Americans become more self-aware of their racial privilege and its effects are labeled dangerous, foolish and self-defeating. (Noam Chomsky has covered this topic and the myth of the “liberal media” extensively, including how pundits suppress dissent by deciding what dissent should be.)
There is even the argument that, by giving more consideration to race and its role in politics and society, we are actually promoting white supremacy. In a September 2015 article, Conor Friedersdorf warned that white people encouraged to scrutinize race relations and how discrimination benefits them would come away not as humbled or more enlightened, but that they would embrace and celebrate their “whiteness.” Identity politics, he argued, would actually create more white supremacists. He instead endorses the long-standing, long-ridiculed “colorblind” approach: “I don’t see race.” The tragic irony of this, however, is that “colorblindness” does not do away with differentiation in politics, creating a united front. It serves instead to continue the muting of issues facing people of color, who go on chafing against institutions that are not colorblind, but in most cases were shaped precisely in order to include some and exclude others based on race. It is more important, however, to liberals like Friedersdorf that well-meaning whites not be “stigmatized” when they say or do something racist, but that they be “persuaded” to see the error of their ways. In this we see reflections of the liberal hand-wringing and pearl-clutching over protesters using violence against Trump supporters at Trump rallies. We also see echoes of the cringe-worthy praise heaped on Michelle Obama for hugging George W. Bush, the man responsible for an illegal war that killed thousands, and the fundraising by liberals to rebuild a bombed GOP headquarters in a bastion of racism and transphobia.
Neither identity politics nor its mythical cousin, “political correctness,” caused Trump to win the 2016 presidential election. There was no surge of angry white voters who, after being forced to examine their whiteness, picked up the Turner Diaries and started preparing for a race war. According to the exit polls, he won the white vote by a margin similar to that of Mitt Romney in his unsuccessful 2012 presidential campaign. Secondly, while the media has made much about the so-called “alt-right,” the far-right white nationalists on the fringe of U.S. conservatism, they represent only a small portion of the 60 million U.S. voters who cast their ballots for Trump. They did not guide Trump into the White House; rather, Trump validated their open racism and confrontational manner with his own toxic views and behavior. This is not to deny that racism permeates almost all aspects of U.S. politics (as Drum did). It is erroneous, however, to argue that white supremacy alone cemented Trump’s electoral triumph. Notably, he won with fewer votes than what John McCain and Mitt Romney lost with when they ran against Barack Obama.
Hillary Clinton did not lose because of identity politics. She lost because what she offered in terms of social issues was a watered-down version of identity politics, a cultural phenomenon known as “wokeness.” The term first started to gain major traction in the early days of the Black Lives Matter movement, when activists would encourage others to “stay woke” to the reality of white supremacy, to not fall back into the false consciousness that systemic racism exists only in the past. It quickly became a buzzword, however, and to be “woke” became a fashionable way for white people to indicate they are one of the “good ones.” Social consciousness gave way to self-righteousness and self-admiration societies. Online, white people desperate to prove how “woke” they are would yell at each other about the sufficient checking of privilege, why a popular TV show was “problematic,” and speak effusively in therapeutic terms about their white guilt. Jia Tolentino called this “performative allyship” in an article about Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey wearing a “Stay Woke” shirt even though the social media giant has a huge problem with diversity and inclusion. “Wokeness” turned confronting prejudice — a difficult process centered around introspection — and turned it into a narcissistic peacock-style way of signaling how perceptive and sophisticated a person you are while simultaneously doing nothing to combat the social ills you are clearly conscious of. A prime example would be a “woke” white person witnessing a hate crime on the street, and rather than saying or doing something, going home and writing a blog post about how witnessing racist violence traumatized them as an observer.
White supremacy is not a fad, as Kevin Drum claims, but performative allyship is, and the Hillary Clinton campaign embraced it totally. Rather than offer anything concrete to the Latino-American community, as someone truly concerned with identity politics might have done, she dubbed herself everyone’s “abuela.” Yes, she made criminal justice reform part of her campaign, but she never fully tackled how the legacy of her and her husband’s crime bill and welfare reform in the 1990s impacted to the African-American community. Her reaction to being confronted by protesters about her having called black teenagers “super-predators” and similar comments was not to own her history and speak about it, but to campaign less and less to avoid such interactions. Her praise about Nancy Reagan and her “action” on the AIDS crisis reminded the LGBT community that, far from being an outspoken proponent of marriage equality, she held back support until it became clear that it would become law — thereby making it electorally safe for her. Time and time again during the 2016 campaign, the sincerity of Clinton’s progressive principles were called out, either by protesters or the candidate’s own gaffes, and the response each time was to retreat and wait out the media storm rather than address the issues behind them. Again, no actual confrontation of privilege or prejudice, no genuine introspection.
The Clinton campaign centered itself on a bourgeois feminism that relied heavily on a shallow, hollow feminist discourse that avoided facts and figures and played strictly on emotion. When Bernie Sanders supporters attacked Clinton, many Clinton supporters in the media attacked “Bernie bros,” left-wing misogynists who hated Hillary not for her convictions (or lack thereof) but simply because she was a woman. The “Bernie bro” label even extended to women (including women of color) critical of Clinton. Supporting Bernie Sanders became “problematic.” To be “with her” was to be “stronger together,” a catchy slogan with zero substance behind it, with no real plan to elevate the oppressed. The strategy only had credibility because Clinton was running against an openly xenophobic and sexist major presidential candidate. Her stance on social issues did not need to be deep because the alternative was a billionaire buffoon who bragged on tape about sexually assaulting women and who promised to build a wall to keep out the “criminals and rapists” coming from Mexico to steal U.S. jobs and corrupt “American culture.”
And yet she still lost.
Hillary Clinton did not lose because of identity politics. She lost because Hillary Clinton depressed her own turnout. Rather than offer anything meaningful to traditional Democratic voters (young people, people of color, the urban poor, etc.) she took their votes for granted and attempted to woo moderate Republicans. The exit polls prove that her campaign botched invigorating groups that turned out for large numbers for Obama. Granted, the polls and Trump’s numerous scandals no doubt lured many would-be Clinton voters into complacency. Also, strict voter ID laws passed by Republican state legislatures suppressed Democratic votes. Yet, if these had been the main reasons for Clinton’s defeat, the election would have been much closer than it was. In several key battleground states where there were no harsh voter ID laws on the books, Clinton still under-performed compared to Obama in 2012. Her failure to do so cannot only be attributed to an absence of economic populism in her message. She also failed to inspire social groups whose support she took for granted, who she assumed would gravitate to her clear “wokeness.” When they did not, many Clinton supporters leaped at the chance to blame third party voters, despite there being no assurance those voters would have voted for Clinton under different circumstances. Some have even sought to defend Clinton’s “base” from the loss, when critics are clearly attacking Clinton for her inability to inspire and lead.
The clearest evidence that the Clinton campaign did not engage in identity politics was its decision to use “America is already great” as a counter-argument to Trump’s “Make America Great Again.” No one who seriously acknowledges the long U.S. history of marginalizing, repressing and murdering disadvantaged communities would make the assertion that the United States has ever been great; rather, we are a deeply flawed society with imperfect institutions striving to create a more just and equal country for those hitherto underrepresented and disenfranchised. “America is already great” has traditionally been the position of social conservatives in this country, those reactionaries who look back at our past with rose-tinted glasses and visualize the 1950s as a “wholesome” and “honorable” society full of white, God-fearing nuclear families. It was also a time of rampant racism and sexism. For the Clinton campaign to have adopted that stance, to have totally abandoned “hope” and “change” for the sickening, delusional patriotism typically characteristic of the Republican Party, illustrates just how utterly divorced the Clinton campaign was from even the basest elements of identity politics.
The U.S. left needs to remain committed to identity politics, but it needs to be honest and devoted to that commitment. Posturing and platitudes are not enough. We need to admit that there needs to be a social revolution in the United States, no matter how much milquetoast liberals protest otherwise. We do not need to be “tolerant” of hatred and we do not need to “persuade” white supremacists. On the contrary, we need to be more resolved against backwards reactionary politics than ever. If Democrats want a coalition with the same intensity and numbers as 2008, they cannot just pin their hopes on another relatively unknown charismatic politician of color coming along. They need to be willing to endorse policies and programs that acknowledge most people are deeply dissatisfied and alienated with the status quo in this country. They need to pair serious economic policy proposals that help the poor with meaningful social justice agendas that provide more than token representation or snail’s-pace improvements. For that to happen, though, the U.S. left must organize and remain as fired up as it was on November 9th, 2016. Most importantly, though, we have to honest about what went right — and what went wrong.