The Defense of Liberty Can’t Do Without Identity Politics
In his post introducing the Niskanen Center’s project to revitalize liberalism, Will Wilkinson called for both restating old liberal truths and for updating them for our own era, in light of what we have learned, echoing F.A. Hayek’s articulating of his own task in his era. My first essay was a restatement of the “old truth” of, well, truth, recalling arguments from Hayek’s own era of the struggle against totalitarianism. This one will be more of an updating, a defense of an important evolution in liberal ideas. Since Hayek’s time, liberalism has become more, and more self-consciously, amenable to what’s sometimes (and usually derisively) called “identity politics.” This is progress to hold onto, not a mistake to be abandoned.
There’s a hypothesis afoot that identity politics or “political correctness,” particularly on the left, generated a backlash that elected Trump. This backlash is sometimes understood as a self-conscious turn to white identity politics, and sometimes as just sheer middle-[white-]American irritation with cultural elites and an attraction to Trump’s willingness to ignore their taboos and pieties. Part of the claim about identity politics is that it is self-undermining and so needs to be discarded, regardless of its substantive merits. In the language of political philosophy, the claim is that attention to the concerns of minorities violates a requirement that norms or ideals demonstrate stability when acted upon. Given the prominence of this idea in post-election commentary, I think it’s important to show that it’s wrong before turning to the actual merits of identity politics.
Throughout I’ll be using the contemporary language of “identity politics,” but building on arguments I developed using the different language of “multiculturalism” in The Multiculturalism of Fear and of “intermediate group pluralism” in Rationalism, Pluralism, and Freedom.
The politicians and commentators who have talked about the election as a backlash against identity politics and political correctness range from the Bernie Sanders left to the George Will right. Some of the most prominent voices have been libertarians or centrist-liberals like Reason’s Robby Soave or historian of political thought (and my former colleague) Mark Lilla. What they all share, as far as I can tell, is an irritation with identity politics that predates the election.
Soave is a fixture on the “political correctness” beat and his post-election commentary openly acknowledged that its purpose was to tell us that he told us so.
Lilla’s book The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reaction had already approvingly cited the idea that “left-wing activists [in France] made a disastrous mistake in the 1970s by abandoning the traditional working class and turning toward identity politics. Deserted, the workers turned toward the National Front and adopted its xenophobia…”
Not everyone who has been sounding alarm bells about identity politics and political correctness has written a post-election commentary blaming them for Trump’s victory; longtime critic Jonathan Chait has been conspicuous by his refusal to indulge the genre. But those post-election blamings have all come from such pre-existing critics. This alone should tell us to be on the lookout for the so-called “pundit’s fallacy,” the idea that one’s own normative commitments just happen to also be the best political strategy. The pundit’s fallacy when applied to losses takes the form of a morality play: because you fools did the thing I don’t like, the voters punished you. Lilla solemnly noted that “those who play the identity game should be prepared to lose it.” The headline on Soave’s article was less subtle still: “Donald Trump won because leftist political correctness inspired a terrifying backlash: What every liberal who didn’t see this coming needs to understand.”
The 2016 election is bringing forth especially strange versions of pundits’ fallacies and morality plays. Donald Trump received a smaller share of the popular vote than Mitt Romney did in 2012, but his Electoral College victory was so unexpected that it seems to call forth explanation after explanation. The result is almost certainly over-explanation: theories get offered that, if they were true, would seem to imply that Trump should have done much better than he did, and much better than Romney did. But there is a powerful temptation to attribute the surprising and dramatic fact of Trump’s win to some issue about which one had some preexisting ax to grind.
The backlash hypothesis is of this sort. Trump got a lower share of the white vote than Romney did (58% vs 59%). There was some change in both directions within the white vote: college-educated whites shifted toward the Democratic column by a few points (though a plurality still voted for Trump), but non-college-educated whites moved in larger numbers toward Trump (he got 67% of their votes, versus 62% for Romney). White men shifted toward Trump by 1% relative to 2012, white women in the other direction by 3%. This back-and-forth of course meant that Trump eked out victories in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, and therefore the presidency, by a combined 80,000 or so votes across the three states. But fundamentally, voting patterns didn’t change enough between 2012 and 2016 to justify big claims about new national moods or about Trump’s distinctive appeal. I believe the consequences of this election will be deeply abnormal. But the voting behavior that brought it about was, in the end, very normal.
An 80,000 vote margin in a 137 million vote election, about .05%, is susceptible of almost endless plausible explanations. The number of different factors that might well have moved that many votes is very large. So there are a lot of different true but-for explanations: but for Clinton’s failure to campaign in Wisconsin, but for the Comey letter, but for stricter voter ID laws and reductions in the numbers of polling places, but for Jill Stein, and so on, ad infinitum. A Democratic party strategist has good reason to take lots of them very seriously. But anyone trying to generalize about popular beliefs or the electorate’s mood should be very wary of any of them. Grabbing a plausibly-true but-for explanation of 80,000 votes, as if it says something big and true about the whole electorate, will over-explain the outcome. An explanation that is one of the many valid ones for those 80,000 votes, and thus for the Electoral College outcome, but that implies some large shift in opinion or mood toward Trump, is a bad explanation overall.
So too is any explanation that is incompatible with the observed variation in the polls over the course of the campaign. The worst moments for Trump’s campaign focused on egregious episodes of political incorrectness. These included his sustained attack on Judge Gonzalo Curiel as being unfit to judge a lawsuit against him because of his “Mexican heritage”; his feud with Khizr and Ghalaza Khan after the Democratic National Convention, prominently including his suggestion that Ms. Khan wasn’t allowed to speak on camera because she is Muslim; the week when he kept attention on the Alicia Machado story and thus on his history of sexist remarks; and the days after the release of the Billy Bush video in which he bragged about kissing and sexually grabbing women without their consent. In other words, the more the electorate focused on his proud political incorrectness, the more they recoiled from him. The narrative about some broad celebration of his political incorrectness can’t account for this in any sensible way. Ultimately Trump’s racism, misogyny, Islamophobia, and willingness to give a platform to online anti-Semitism didn’t stop a normal level of white voters from voting for him. But the poll evidence suggests that they were most reluctant to support him at the moments when these things were most vividly on their minds.
Even among explanations that are unpersuasive because they overpredict Trump’s support, some are worse than others—for example, any that depend on implausible claims about voter knowledge. The kinds of pet explanations that appeal to professional pundits are very likely to be of that sort. Take Soave, who has been complaining about “political correctness” on university campuses for years. The day after the election, he wrote:
But there’s another major piece of the puzzle, and it would be a profound mistake to overlook it. Overlooking it was largely the problem, in the first place. Trump won because of a cultural issue that flies under the radar and remains stubbornly difficult to define, but is nevertheless hugely important to a great number of Americans: political correctness. More specifically, Trump won because he convinced a great number of Americans that he would destroy political correctness.
Soave covers disputes about political correctness for a living. Other media professionals, as well as academics, might read this and nod worriedly; they follow the flare-ups about cultural politics and freedom of speech on university campuses, or disputes about which celebrity has said or done something “problematic,” routinely. But these remain obscure to the vast majority of voters. And the important thing to know about voters who are still undecided a week or two before a presidential election is that they know exceptionally little about politics. To a first approximation, we should guess that they know nothing about any particular political dispute that isn’t on national television that day. Journalists and academics constantly overestimate how much other people follow political news (as well as overestimating what proportion of important and relevant political information we ourselves have, a separate problem). This is one of the sources of the pundit’s fallacy. And it absolutely applies here.
I should be clear that I’ve got my own list of wacky, ridiculous, and sometimes quite wicked excesses of identity politics and political correctness. I suspect that most people who spend much time on university campuses, and aren’t themselves very far on the left, do. It turns out that 18-year-olds seized of the conviction of their own righteousness are prone to immoderation and simplistic views. (Who knew?) And the last several years have absolutely seen a new level of identity-politics policing of popular culture. This has certainly not come only from the left: witness GamerGate and the preemptive online fury against the new women-led Ghostbusters movie. But there have been cases on the left I would identify as excesses.
What I can’t see any excuse for doing is mapping my list of excesses onto the voting behavior of 80,000 very-low-information voters in three states, and then ignoring either Trump’s unpopularity at the moments of his own political incorrectness, or the absence of any general (or white) swing in Trump’s direction relative to the baseline of ordinary partisanship. A lot of butterflies flapped their wings to bring about the November 8 result, but we have particularly little reason to think that this was one of them.
What this means is that identity politics hasn’t somehow been shown to be self-undermining by this election. It doesn’t violate what’s sometimes referred to as the stability condition of a normative project. If we had reason to endorse identity politics on November 7, we didn’t lose it on November 8. Of course, Soave, Lilla, and company all would have denied that we had good reason to support it on November 7. I now turn to the argument that we did.
Identity politics and political action
Let’s begin by making clear that identity politics isn’t really the name of a new phenomenon. Relative to an Old Left expectation that economic classes are the fundamental lines of political division, the New Left of the 1960s and 1970s associated with the civil rights movement, with American Indian politics, and with women’s and gay liberation seemed anomalous. But there was never any reason to believe the Old Left’s story in the first place, least of all in the United States where a large proportion of the country had almost always been governed by a political coalition defined by white identity politics.
There is something particularly absurd in the post-election morality plays that say “whites [or white Christians, or white Christian men] have now learned how to do identity politics and how to vote like an aggrieved ethnic group, because that’s what other groups have been doing all these years.” White identity politics is a constitutive fact of American politics, and if an election in which the Republican got the normal share of the white vote counts as white identity politics in action, well, that suggests a deep problem, but it doesn’t suggest a new problem.
White identity politics has moreover been a constitutive fact of the illiberal expansion of state power. The effect of some of the oldest instances of this are still with us, as is seen in the recent struggle over placing the Dakota Access Pipeline on lands that were reserved to the Sioux nation in an 1851 treaty that was subsequently violated but never voided. The effects of the decades-long white welfare state and the redistributive subsidizing of white wealth accumulation through housing policy are very much still with us in the wealth gap between whites and blacks, to say nothing of the enduring effects of racially discriminatory housing and urban policy on the shape of American cities. But the most currently politically salient effect of white identity politics as a source of state power is the combination of policing, imprisonment, crime policy, and drug policy.
If you think—as I think any liberal who cares about liberty, whether classical, market, neo-, welfarist, Rawlsian, or whatever, must—that the combination of mass incarceration and aggressive policing amounts to a grave injustice, then you need to be able to think in race-conscious terms. What brought about this crisis? The war on drugs and police militarization, some readers will say. Okay, but what brought about the war on drugs and police militarization? The answer isn’t some simple intellectual mistake. The answer is deeply tied up in American racial politics.
The disproportionate impact of mass incarceration and aggressive policing on African-Americans isn’t some unfortunate side-effect of well-intentioned policies. The politics of drug prohibition, the war on drugs, and the subsequent expansions of police power and imprisonment were never racially innocent to begin with, and it is no accident that Nixon launched the War on Drugs when the ink was barely dry on the formal end of Jim Crow segregation and disenfranchisement.
As has so often happened in American history, state power expanded in order to persuade white voters that blacks were being kept under control. The appropriation of the language of freedom and anti-statism by those seeking to defend state-level racial tyrannies in the south fools more people than it should, but illiberal state power has far more often been caused by white racism than resisted by it. To think otherwise, one has to think that police and prisons don’t count as instances of state power at all.
Let’s return to Lilla:
The moral energy surrounding identity has, of course, had many good effects. Affirmative action has reshaped and improved corporate life. Black Lives Matter has delivered a wake-up call to every American with a conscience. Hollywood’s efforts to normalize homosexuality in our popular culture helped to normalize it in American families and public life.
On the other side of the scale, he puts… the demands on college campuses to allow students to identify the gendered or non-gendered pronouns by which they wish to be addressed. Treating these as comparable in magnitude suggests a deep failure of perspective.
Black Lives Matter has provided the first truly large-scale political mobilization against police violence and mass incarceration since the War on Drugs began. It’s perfectly true that many liberal (very much including libertarian) scholars and analysts have been calling for reform of police practices, an end to police militarization and civil forfeiture abuse, respect for civil liberties, and drug decriminalization or legalization for a long time. It’s true that it’s possible to offer those analyses in a race-neutral way. But given that the policies aren’t race-neutral, it shouldn’t surprise us that opposition to them isn’t either, and that the real political energy for mobilizing against them would be race-conscious energy.
If Black Lives Matter is “identity politics,” then identity politics has provided one of the most significant political mobilizations in defense of freedom in the United States in my lifetime. That doesn’t belong on the “to be sure” exception side of a rule that is driven by the politics of gender pronouns. It’s precisely the other way around.
If there is any feature of identity politics that has triggered a political backlash, I think it is far less likely to be gendered pronouns or the more exotic extremes of campus politics that Soave covers on a regular basis, and far more likely to be the high-profile Black Lives Matter. But on any plausible account of political action and political change—something liberals have sometimes lacked—the political energy provided by BLM is sure to be vital to any effective long-term solutions to the policing and incarceration crises.
The point generalizes. Until 2003, many states criminalized a variety of forms of sexual behavior between consenting adults. There were identity-neutral ways of describing the illiberal wrong of this. But the laws weren’t identity neutral in intent, and often weren’t even formally identity-neutral; they were criminal prohibitions on homosexual sexual activity that legitimized routine police harassment even when they weren’t enforced. The laws were unjust according to liberal principle, but would never have been repealed (in many states) and struck down (in the rest) without the identity-conscious political mobilization of gay and lesbian activism.
Identity politics at its best, in other words, isn’t just a matter of being on some group’s side. It’s about fighting for political justice by drawing on the commitment that arises out of targeted injustice, and about having the intellectual resources to let us diagnose that targeted injustice. It lets us spot the majority group’s identity politics rather than treating it as the normal background state of affairs, and to recognize the oppression and injustice that it generates.
By all means, we should criticize identity politics when it goes wrong, as it often does in moments of symbolic, cultural, and campus politics. But there’s no source of political energy and ideas that doesn’t sometimes go wrong; goodness knows that a commitment to abstract philosophical principles often does. But a revitalized liberalism must be a vital liberalism, one with energy and enthusiasm. The defense of liberal principles—freedom of speech and religion, the rule of law and due process, commerce and markets, and so on—has to happen at least in part in the political arena. In that arena, in liberal politics, we’ll always depend on the passionate and self-conscious mobilization of those who are the victims of state power and domination.
Lilla insists that liberalism is founded on principles that all could share, and that liberal politics should “speak to the nation as a nation of citizens who are in this together and must help one another,” then appeals to FDR, one of the architects of the white welfare state and the imprisoner of Japanese-Americans, to drive the point home.
As political scientist Ira Katznelson has documented, Roosevelt’s ability to bring the New Deal into existence depended on active complicity with southern white identity politics—an easy and tempting thing to do for those who are too convinced that their political goals represent neutral and universal political truth.
Political fights aren’t won with universal principled arguments alone, and pretending that they are is often a mask for the identity politics of the staatsvolk. As citizens of a liberal state trying to preserve it, we need to be able to hear each other talking about particularized injustices, and to cheer each other on when we seek to overturn them. Members of disadvantaged minorities standing up for themselves aren’t to blame for the turn to populist authoritarianism; and their energy and commitment is a resource that free societies can’t do without in resisting it.
Jacob T. Levy is Tomlinson Professor of Political Theory and Director of the Yan P. Lin Centre for the Study of Freedom and Global Orders in the Ancient and Modern Worlds at McGill University; author of Rationalism, Pluralism, and Freedom; and a Niskanen Center Adjunct Fellow and Advisory Board Member