As a Democrat with an internet connection, I have been subjected to a number of 2016 election postmortems from The Professional Left. They mostly have one thing in common: complaints that Democrats lost the White House (or, in the case of Wisconsin-specific critiques, lost Wisconsin) because we did not adequately kowtow to white men.
As a white man, the only response I can muster is, simply, stop. That view is part of the problem, not anything to do with the solution.
The prime example of this flavor of critique was in Sunday’s edition of The New York Times. Columbia professor Mark Lilla argues “the age of identity liberalism must be brought to an end.” That is, the makeup of the Democratic coalition (minority voters, non-Christian voters, most women, the LGBTQ community) “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.”
To prove this, he cites the overwhelmingly Republican votes of the “white working class and those with strong religious convictions.” Or, as some would call them, Republicans.
Lilla’s thesis is not merely that Democrats lost the Republican vote, but that we are also wrong to blame a “whitelash” – the idea that white voters suffering financially turned their anxiety into “racial rage” – for our loss. Blaming the “whitelash,” he says, “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” and “because it sanctions a conviction of moral superiority and allows liberals to ignore what those voters said were their overriding concerns.”
Insert eye-roll emoji here!
Lilla is arguing, first, that Democrats’ so-called “identity politics” have given traditionally Republican voters an “identity” of their own that they formerly lacked. This is patent falsity. Indeed, this country’s first, and its still most-prevalent “identity,” is that of white, male and wealthy. That identity alone was given the franchise in 1787. That identity controlled vast swaths of U.S. history, from the post-Reconstruction “Redemption” period to every civil rights struggle of the 20th century.
That identity has repeatedly concerned itself with the status and, indeed, “identity” of The Other, from scrupulous laws detailing exactly what fraction of African blood comprises black people to Japanese internment to, not that long ago, a national registry of suspicious Muslims.
That identity alone remains the default “normal” in America despite its absolute minority status.
Historically, culturally and politically, identity liberalism, as Lilla calls it, emerged not from a sterile vacuum as some sort of fully formed, source-less movement; rather, it developed as a direct response to the white identity conservatism that has held power in nearly every era of this nation’s existence. To paraphrase Billy Joel: Liberals didn’t start the fire of identity politics; we were the ones burning from it since this nation’s founding.
As Adam Johnson from Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) notes at the end of his response to Lilla and others making this argument, it’s likely Lilla “hated identity politics to begin with, and would have regardless of who won” the election. Writers like him are blaming it for Clinton’s loss but no doubt would have lamented the way Clinton won by polarizing the electorate and shutting out those poor forgotten white men.
Second, Lilla argues that Democrats didn’t listen to what Republican voters wanted. In fact, Lilla is the one not listening. I would direct him, first, to the Democrats’ platform, which is full not of polarizing “identity liberalism,” but of real-world solutions for the kind of economic anxiety he claims those voters sought relied from. I would also remind him that only one of the major-party candidates in this past election spoke regularly of “commonality” and “shared destiny,” the message Lilla insists Democrats must embrace to win. Hint: That candidate’s slogan was “Stronger Together,” and her name rhymes with “Schmillary Schminton.”
Every honest report on Donald Trump’s economic agenda both then as a candidate and now as president-elect spells out exactly how that agenda actually fails to benefit the white voters suffering economic distress. Over and over again, Trump promised to roll back the clock not just on the status of the white folks but also on the inevitable progress of commerce and manufacturing.
For example, Trump made great campaign hay of an out-of-context quote by Clinton saying she was going to put coal miners out of work. What Clinton actually said was that as the coal industry dries up – a process well underway due mostly to coal’s expense compared to natural gas – those workers need retraining and investment in replacement careers. What Trump offered those coal workers, instead, was a continued life working in a coal mine, stuck underground breathing toxic dust and being subject to more per-capita danger than almost any other workers in the country. I’m not a coal miner, but come on; how is that a more appealing message?
In case after case, from the Obamacare repeal to tax policy, Trump’s actual policy positions have little to do with making the day-to-day lives of so-called “whitelash” voters any better.
Lilla’s misunderstanding comes not just from ignoring what the candidates actually said, but also from ignoring those white-identity voters. There were no doubt many who felt economic anxiety, but overwhelmingly Republican voters do have a sense of backlash – or, you know, “whitelash” – that exists outside of whatever their economic status may be.
Take this IPSOS poll from last year. The researchers suggest their results show a pretty severe strain of “nativism” among U.S. Republicans, with majorities from that party saying “I don’t identify with what America has become” and “I feel like a stranger in my own country.” Trump spoke directly to those feelings with those stupid red hats. If you feel like America is changing around you, you’re not going to vote for the candidate asking you to embrace what we have in common; you’re going to vote for the one telling you we can roll back all those changes.
Further, exit polling data shows clearly that Clinton won low-income Americans’ votes. Some of that is because she overwhelmingly won the youth vote, and younger people early in their careers don’t make as much as their older counterparts. But it’s also because Trump’s message of protectionism and nostalgia was tailored to those with something to protect – higher incomes – and a past worth glorifying.
But perhaps most importantly, Republican voters themselves admit to exactly the “whitelash” Lilla says is a figment of our imaginations. University of Wisconsin political science professor Katherine Cramer has been going Jane Goodall with Wisconsin’s small-town, rural white voters for a decade. In a recent piece for Vox, she describes both the run-up to and immediate after-effects of the election.
Despite data showing that these groups were not disadvantaged compared to other groups in the state, “people expressed a deeply felt sense of not getting their ‘fair share.'” They felt marginalized by everything from participation in state decision-making to state investment in their communities. Again, Cramer says, they were not getting the shaft on taxes, and consider that every leadership position in state government (aside from Walker, a suburban Milwaukeean) is held by someone not from Madison or Milwaukee.
Mostly, Cramer says, these voters “thought that they were not getting their fair share of respect.” In this, I can maybe see a glimmer of Lilla’s thesis about identity liberalism. But it comes not from any Democrats’ active disdain for these voters, but rather by the way Democrats do not privilege these voters over others. For groups used to being on top, being merely equal to others is a significant demotion.
So that’s that: Trump’s campaign wasn’t about policy to improve these “whitelash” voters’ lives; it was, instead, about returning to the nostalgic days when those voters had “respect,” back when America was great the first time. And in what we’ve seen so far, Trump is living up to this promise. Earlier this week, Trump went on a Twitter rant against the hip-hop musical “Hamilton,” which casts Hispanic and African American actors as America’s white founding fathers. That’s not why he says he’s mad at the play, sure, but the optics are pretty clear.
And, as I write, Trump has named as possible cabinet members and key staffers more white guys named Mike than he has women or minorities. Barack Obama’s cabinet, the one that looked like America as it is, is on its way out, to be replaced by a cabinet that looks like America as it used to be.
If winning again, whether in Wisconsin or nationally, means returning to a nostalgic America where only white men (like me!) matter, count me out. All of you on The Professional Left blaming the Democrats’ traditional coalition – and its strongest voting blocs – for losing the election can stuff it.