There are a couple of articles in yesterday’s NYT about the failure of identity liberalism in the Trump upset. Mark Lilla argues that when Democrats break the world down into the groups they’re for and those they’re against, they lose a core value of liberalism: we’re in this together. They end up spending too much time arguing about transgender bathrooms and too little on factory workers displaced by globalization.
Ross Douthat makes some similar points, but ends up arguing that while identity politics can lead a party to take its eyes off the ball, being part of an identifiable group—including the group that embraces identity politics—is a necessary human condition, and while Democrats might be better off worrying more about jobs than bathrooms, their best solution is to expand their circle to include more identities. (I think that’s a fair summary. Douthat’s piece is densely argued; I feel like I need to know more political sociology to fully grasp where he’s coming from.)
OK. But she did win the popular vote, and demographics are on the side of progressives. And it’s easy and tempting to over-interpret one election with a couple of very unique candidates, one of which was a solid symbol of the establishment in an anti-establishment moment.
Still, these arguments make some good points and are worth cogitating over. Having done so, here’s where I come out:
Maybe this isn’t really that complicated. It’s seems both morally wrong and politically misguided to suggest: “we’re for these groups, but not for those groups,” especially when your party’s values and goals share common ground with “those groups.” The progressive tent surely cannot accommodate the wealthy who want to get rid of the estate tax or racists, sexists, and xenophobes. But it can just as surely accommodate displaced manufacturing workers who justly feel that their opportunity set—and more grippingly, that of their kids—is collapsing in on them. Of course, that implies we have a policy agenda that convincingly speaks to them, which we do not, and that really is a serious shortcoming of the progressive status quo.
Meanwhile, the core of our work continues to be supporting a functional, amply funded government sector that offsets market failures (which we see around more corners than do conservatives), provides social insurance, health care, labor standards, and anti-poverty and counter-cyclical policies while pulling for full employment and, all the while, relentlessly crusading against racism, sexism, and xenophobia.
We should and will continue to carefully dissect the entrails of the disastrous election. But the path forward may ultimately not be that complex.