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Colloquy: On Whether Identity Politics Defines Today’s Democrats

[This is a colloquy resulting from my earlier review of Mark Lilla’s The Once and Future Liberal.  Italics are my interlocutor, a partner in a noted opinion research firm with strong Democratic connections.]

Charles, I appreciate you calling my attention to this volume. It’s a slim volume and a breezy read, its central argument delivered with vigor and confidence, briskly unencumbered by evidence or data. It reflects a line of argument that has been quite popular on the right in recent months, with a handful of adherents on the left, and one in need of rigorous analysis and discussion — which this book does not provide.

But let me start with areas where Lilla and I agree; there are several. Like him, I am a liberal – and like him, I would like liberals to be more effective in accomplishing their policy goals. With that goal in mind, Lilla makes two observations with which I wholeheartedly agree.

First, he argues that liberals must focus on the hard and unglamorous work of winning elections and engaging in institutional politics. Having good ideas is worthwhile but not sufficient; achieving political goals requires (as Lilla describes it) “system politicians and public officials sympathetic to movement goals but willing to engage in the slow, patient work of running for office, drawing up legislation, making trades to get it passed, and then overseeing bureaucracies to see that it is enforced.” Over the past two decades, Republicans have done a much better job than Democrats of engaging in this process – and have been rewarded with unprecedented control of state legislatures and governorships, which have facilitated the re-writing of political regulations and re-drawing of districts to cement their control. To their credit, national GOP leaders and their allies on the right patiently planned, funded, and organized campaigns starting at the local and school board level – dating back to the mid-90’s – with the vision that they would bear fruit today. Democrats have learned, by painful experience, that they cannot rely on demographic shifts and national elections alone to move policy change in their direction.

Second, Lilla correctly observes that we have reached a critical juncture in American politics. His concept of a “Roosevelt Dispensation,” terminating the in dawn of the “Reagan Dispensation” is uncontroversial. His observation that we are now at the end of the Reagan Dispensation, with Trumpism hastening American conservatism’s collapse into incoherence as a practical governing philosophy, becomes more obviously accurate by the day.

Lilla documents the “fit of hysteria” to which the conservative movement fell in the Clinton years, and into which it plunged deeper as the “Jacobins of the conservative movement, funded by a new class of fanatical billionaires with no experience in Washington, were in control and purifying the ranks . . . the grunts of aggressive know-nothings drowned out real conversation.” The result is that a Republican Party which once stood for free trade, entitlement reform, support for European allies with limits on Russian expansionism, and well-managed immigration now stands for protectionism, expanded government spending on entitlements, withdrawal from Europe and encouragement of Russia and other petty strongmen around the globe, and the xenophobic construction of an expensive and pointless wall on our southern border. Lilla rightly points out that traditional conservatism has dissipated as a political force, and that dissipation puts us on the cusp of another great transition in American politics.

So far, so good. But that takes us to Lilla’s central thesis, which is that in the waning days of the Reagan Dispensation liberals “. . . threw themselves into the movement politics of identity, losing a sense of what we share as citizens and what binds us as a nation. . . . They are losing because they have retreated into caves they have carved for themselves in the side of a what was a great mountain.”

There are two meaty assertions here – first, that liberals are “losing” their argument with to American peoples; as you note with mildly restrained glee, Lilla proclaims that in apocalyptic terms throughout the book. Second, that liberals are overtly campaigning with appeals to “identity” rather than to what he calls “citizenship” – values and policies that would bind us together as a people while still advancing progressive goals.

I was intrigued to see the data on which Lilla’s argument was based. Both certainly line up neatly with a narrative the right has recently tried hard to sell – and which the right has an obvious political self-interest in selling. But neither seemed to me an accurate description of the available public opinion data, nor the campaigns I (as a voter and Democratic political professional) have seen my party wage over the last few decades. But like any good liberal, of course I am open-minded – and so I turned the page.

And the next. And the next. And then on through all 141 pages of the book. I found plenty of confident assertions about liberals’ reliance on identity politics, treated as self-evident, but little else. The book has neither footnotes nor a bibliography, and that’s reasonable — it is intended to be an extended essay for the general public to read rather than an academic treatise. But would it be too much to ask for a few numbers? A direct quotation from a Democratic candidate from the last decade? More than a handful of anecdotes?

In the totality of the book, here are the main pieces of evidence Lilla sites to back up his twin assertions that the GOP has won the hearts and minds of the American people, and that modern Democrats campaign explicitly in terms of identify politics:

• A comparison of the websites of the Republican and Democratic Parties (which involves an elision of the facts almost too rich to be believed, discussed below)
• The “rambling Port Huron Statement” of 1962
• The “influential” Combahee River Collective manifesto of 1977 (had to look that one up)
• A brief reference to Rachel Dolezal of the Spokane NAACP
• Reset, a “lively political magazine” published by Italian leftists

That’s it. Nothing else to document the left’s supposed obsessive focus on campaigning through identity politics. In fact, except for mentions of a few Presidential candidates (but few of their actual words) and a historical description of the Roosevelt and Reagan Dispensations, this is nearly a complete list of the proper nouns Lilla uses in the book.

I mean really, he’s really not trying very hard. On a typical Tuesday night on Fox News, Carlson and Hannity will give you at least a half-dozen examples of identity politics practitioners on the left. (I know because I watched a few Tuesdays ago and counted them.) These are carefully cherry-picked outliers far from the heart of actual Democratic campaigns, but Lilla doesn’t even offer us that.

Lilla half-heartedly tries a few other gambits, like comparing the chants of “We Shall Overcome” with “We’re Here, We’re Queer.” He trots this out in almost every interview, claiming that the latter phrase shows a vacuous affinity for identity over meaningful action. But Lilla only gets there by choosing to leave out the imperative clause at the end of that well-known chant – “Get Used to it.” The term was the motto of Queer Nation, used as far back as the early 1990s, at a time when “queer” was used as a slur and explicit discrimination against LGBT people was law in many parts of the country. In that environment, a demand for acceptance was both bold and required substantively meaningful changes in law, policy and public attitudes which have since been won. Lilla is either ignorant of the historical context or willfully distorting it; neither serves his argument.

This is not to say that Democrats don’t have, and vocally defend, policy positions that would explicitly or implicitly address challenges faced by women, immigrants, religious minorities, communities of color, LGBTQ Americans and others. These groups face many concerns that are shared by other Americans, and also many that are unique to their own circumstances. To name those challenges, and voice support for policies that will address them, is not identity politics – it is responsible public policy, and most Democratic candidates rightly advocate for it.

The burden of proof for Lilla should be higher – not simply to point to examples of occasional individuals that speak from a perspective of “identity politics,” as he defines it. Instead, Lilla needs to show that in fact, this has become the dominant method of discourse for major institutions and political campaigns on the left. As a result, it’s worth asking where Lilla’s perceptions come from. I suspect there are two sources.

The first is college campuses. Lilla is a professor at Columbia, and his entire tome has the weary air of a late-career professor who, after a few decades in the seminar room, has tired of self-righteous 19-year-olds sermonizing to him about his insensitivities. That’s understandable. What’s less credible is Lilla’s attempt to paint the activities of college campuses as the beating heart of practical Democratic politics. Lilla asserts, again without a shred of data, that “today’s activists and leaders are formed almost exclusively in our colleges and universities, as are members of the mainly liberal professions of law, journalism and education . . . liberalism’s prospects will depend in no small measure on what happens in our institutions of higher education.”

That’s an extraordinary statement. Sure, today most leaders of liberal institutions have gone to college – but so have most leaders of conservative institutions; I’m guessing every member of the US Chamber of Commerce has a BA. And there is little reason to believe that the four years they spent in college indelibly form their political identity. College students (whatever their ideological inclinations) are young, idealistic, passionate, full of a sense of their own importance, have lots of time for activism, and often see things in Manichean terms. But then they go out in to the world, get knocked around a little and often become very different people. The people who actually run campaigns – raising and spending money and shaping messages and making tactical decisions – are thoroughly pragmatic and data-driven; they can’t afford not to be. While there may be more passion and idealism in the grassroots than in the professional political class, it’s hard to argue that college campuses are the dominant force there either; far from driving the political conversation in 2016, youth turnout fell off a cliff, largely to the Democrats’ detriment. There is no readily apparent reason to treat what happens on college campuses as an accurate indicator of our national political discourse – unless of course, you are a college professor and that’s what you see on the quad outside your window as you sit down to write your book.

The second source of Lilla’s perception that identity politics has taken over the left likely comes from politicians and media on the right. There is no shortage of thinkpieces in the Weekly Standard, National Review, Wall Street Journal, and other conservative media that piously denounce Democrats for engaging in such politics, in addition to the Fox News rants mentioned above. Most pluck out a few outlier examples of extreme language from individuals on the left who are in no way central to actual Democratic campaigns, and generalize their offhand comments as if they represent a concerted strategy.

All of this sidesteps a much more important point about the actual practitioners of identity politics in modern America. This groundless furor about “identity politics” on the left is ironic when one considers that “identity politics” is much more essential to rallying the increasingly fractious interest groups that pass for a conservative movement today. The Republican base is increasingly white, Christian, rural and exurban, as evidenced in exit poll results. With that narrowing base, the only way to win elections is to maximize turnout among those demographics – and Republicans have increasing chosen to do so by maximizing the sense of threat from other Americans who do not match that profile.

The conservative movement has, of course, engaged in implicit white identity politics for decades: the Willie Horton ad, Jesse Helms’ “white hands” ad, Pete Wilson and “They Keep Coming” – the examples are legion. What has changed is the degree to which Donald Trump has made white identity politics explicit – and the degree to which what passes for conservative leadership in elected office has embraced or acquiesced to it. No need to go through the particulars here, but since Lilla neglects to provide examples I’ll touch on the greatest hits – birtherism, Mexican rapists, Judge Curiel, Muslim ban, “my African-American,” “no transgender” in the military, “fine people on both sides,” never heard of David Duke, pardon of Joe Arpaio, re-tweets of anti-Semitic bloggers, etc.

One could argue that the President doesn’t speak for all Republicans, and certainly not all conservatives. (By the way, I am using “conservatives” and “Republicans” largely interchangeably as they data shows they have become nearly the same thing, and whatever portion of the “conservative movement” is distinct from the Republican Party is politically irrelevant.) Indeed, a handful of principled conservative intellectuals have rejected these racial appeals, and the rest of Trumpism. But the number of Republicans in elected office who have consistently and vocally done so can be counted on one hand; the Republican Party owns Trump and his tactics, and if one subtracts Trump and his supporters conservatism has dwindled to a minor political force. I know conservatives love to have David Brooks quoted to them, but he summed it up quite precisely a few weeks ago, and used actual numbers in his argument, so grit your teeth and bear with me:

“The Republican Party has changed since 2005. It has become the vehicle for white identity politics. In 2005 only 6% of Republicans felt that whites faced ‘a great deal’ of discrimination, the same number of Democrats who felt this. By 2016, the proportion of Republicans who felt it had tripled.

“Recent surveys suggest that roughly 47 percent of Republicans are what you might call conservative universalists, and maybe 40 percent are what you might call conservative white identitarians. While universalists believe in conservative principles and think they apply to all people, and their white identity is not particularly salient to them. White identitarians are conservative, but their white identity is quite important to them, sometimes even more important than their conservatism.”  Brooks also notes that 48% of Republicans believe that there is “a lot of discrimination” against Christians in America, and 43% see a lot of discrimination against whites. 41% of white working class voters do not see white supremacists as a threat to the country.

This is not to say that Republicans are racist – Brooks points out that the same survey shows an equivalent number of Republicans see a lot of discrimination against Muslims, immigrants, and transgender people. But it does say that there is a significant split in the GOP, and nearly half of white GOP voters are driven by a sense of victimization, grievance, and resentment more than by conservative principles. And they have quite a bit to be resentful about – working people, whatever their race, have faced stagnating wages for decades driven by globalization, automation, and other macroeconomic changes that neither party have adequately addressed. (See Katherine Cramer’s The Politics of Resentment for a thought-provoking discussion of these concepts.)

What has changed, of course, is the way the Republican Party has campaigned – abandoning most of its core conservative policy principles, as described above, and following Trump into an explicitly populist, nativist white identity politics designed to capitalize on the sense of grievance among white Republicans. Simply put, the white identitarians are ascendant and the conservative universalists are in decline. That the right then shrieks, jumps up and down, and attempts to pin the “identity politics” label on the left (pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!) is just a clever way to reinforce this narrative it needs to use to hold on to its white identitarian base.

So that summarizes my objection to the first of Lilla’s two assertions, that the left is practicing identity politics; I’ve made the case above that there is minimal evidence for appeals to identity politics on the left, and ample evidence on the right. I also dispute a second assertion Lilla makes, again without evidence – that the left has lost the battle for the hearts and minds of American voters.

As I have already acknowledged, the left is losing elections – badly and all over, especially at the state legislative level. That is a crisis, and we on the left must change it. But to change it, we need to understand what is going wrong – have we lost the battle of ideas, or is our failure one of campaign tactics?

Lilla, without evidence, asserts the former, and you concur – though you also note that the left is winning policy battles consistently. But if we turn to actual data and practical experience, the public is embracing center-left ideas and elected leaders, even on the right, are behaving accordingly – which is why they are winning the policy battles. More Americans identify as Democrats than Republicans, and have consistently dating back to at least the early 90’s; since the late 80’s, the Republicans have won the popular vote for President exactly once – the Democrats have five times; Democratic Senate candidates received more votes than GOP candidates last fall, and while the GOP won the House vote, it did so only by a narrow plurality (our political system is currently structured to privilege GOP votes over Democratic ones and give them more weight). And in addition, most key elements of the left’s policy agenda are broadly popular and have been growing in appeal – social issues like marriage equality, DACA, marijuana legalization, but also key elements of economic policy – more progressive taxation, stricter regulation of business, and nearly every single element of Obamacare.

Now you may pull out polls of your own to counter these assertions, though it’s notable that Lilla doesn’t. So let’s turn to the evidence on the ground. We have a Republican President, House, and Senate. Unified party control, paired with the overwhelmingly center-right preferences you claim the public holds, ought to have yielded instant and massive policy realignments to match them. But where are we? No Obamacare repeal. Still no “tax reform” plan. No changes to drug control or abortion policy. In fact, not one meaningful piece of legislation after eight months of unfettered single-party control. Oh, except the Schumer/Pelosi hurricane relief, CR, and debt ceiling bill that just passed – great conservative victory, that. (Go team!)

You can chalk this up to the manifest incompetence of the current crop of GOP elected officials, especially the President, and who am I to argue? However, I think it’s something deeper. If Americans really hungered to eliminate Obamacare, cut taxes for the rich, deport Dreamers, and shut down medical marijuana dispensaries, the GOP has had ample opportunity to make it happen. But they can read polls like the rest of us. They know that Democrats and many independents reject their agenda. And crucially, even within their party the policies the white identitarian base wants are deplored by their conservative universalist base, and vice versa. And that leaves conservatives paralyzed in the policymaking arena. If conservatives were winning the argument, their Obamacare repeal plan wouldn’t poll at 17%. And if it didn’t poll at 17%, they would have made it law.

Meanwhile, the nation continues to change. The Republican Party that has appealed to white, Christian, rural and exurban identity is facing an electorate that is growing less white, less Christian, and more urban. In this context, the embrace of “identity politics” on the right poses growing problem. Smart Republicans know that relying on a shrinking base of resentful rural whites – and jury-rigging electoral rules to insulate themselves from the true desires of a changing electorate – is not a smart long-term bet.  And there is solid evidence that the GOP knows it. Which allows us to conclude with one of Lilla’s most glaring – and telling – distortions. The clearest (sole?) evidence he offers that Democrats practice identity politics while Republicans don’t comes in the introduction, when he compares the Internet home pages of the two parties. He says the GOP homepage prominent features a “Statement of Principles,” with positions on 11 prominent issues; the Democrats have “no such document,” he claims, but scrolling to the bottom of their page provides a list of 17 different constituencies, each with its own web page. Those awful Democrats, determined to divide us while the Republicans only see indistinguishable, apple-cheeked Americans.

Compelling comparison. So I went and checked. First, the Democrats: yes, they have that list of 17 groups down in the small print at the bottom of the page, mixed in with their contact information and a similarly organized list that says “Issues.” But to get there, Lilla had to avert his eyes as he scrolled past a bright green box covering the entire middle of the page with a link saying “What We Believe,” connecting to the Democratic Party platform, with detailed positions on every imaginable issue. You would expect a party obsessed with identity politics would put the 17 groups more prominently, and bury the issues – which is what Lilla implies. The truth is, in fact, the reverse.

So on to GOP.com. Sure enough, just as Lilla describes one can find the eleven “Principles for American Renewal” about halfway down the page – in a box covering about one-third of the middle of the page, featuring a link. But then my eyes were drawn to a series of boxes surrounding it, each equal in size to the “principles” box: links to “GOP Hispanics” “Black Republican Activists, “Asian Pacific Americans,” “GOP Faith, “GOP Millennials,” and “Veterans and Military Families.” Golly, somehow Lilla must have missed those. Broadening conservative identity politics to include groups other than whites falls far short of a solution to the crisis in conservatism, but it is a sign that, perhaps, the GOP has a dawning anxiety about where its current direction will take it.

I appreciate the lengthy and thoughtful response. I especially admire the iron discipline you exhibit in not responding to the many chunks of bloody meat I trolled in the water, and sticking to the points you want to make!

One benefit of this particular colloquy is that, for once, we are in agreement in large areas of the analysis, which makes this more an analytical than a polemical exercise. I am on a quest for political insight (I like to call it a “vision quest”), and I find these colloquies with intelligent liberals very valuable. Along these lines, for example, I have subscribed to, and been reading, Dissent magazine. It’s been a bit disappointing as far as intellectual content, frankly, though this debate between the editors of Dissent and the new American Affairs is quite interesting (although I think it does show the addiction to identity politics on the Left that you deny exists). But my point is not the substance of that debate, but to thank you for responding at length in that it helps me in my quest.

You, of course, are a man of practical politics. Some of what you say on a strictly factual level seems not to comport with the reality of Republican politics with which I am familiar—but I am not very familiar at all with modern Republican politics, so perhaps my reality is false. Thus, you ascribe current Republican dominance at the state and local level to “national GOP leaders and their allies on the right [who] patiently planned, funded, and organized campaigns starting at the local and school board level. . . .” If true, for the most part such a set of campaigns has escaped me, especially to the extent it is nationally directed. (It also seems to contradict your assertion that recent “white identity politics” is what actually drives Republican success, but more on that later.) Most Republican politics seems, to me, far more reactive and locally oriented, and state and local success much more the result of voters simply preferring what Republicans have to offer. This is most definitely true in Indiana, but to be honest, I can’t speak from firsthand knowledge beyond that. Nonetheless, this Republican prowess at long-term organizing seems to me to be mostly a liberal chimera, similar to Lilla’s describing in loving detail a totally mythical educational network among conservatives in the 1980s and 1990s. Hardcore organizing for political gain in the modern world, especially because it’s often driven by ideology and the hard work of people who obtain meaning through this work, seems to me to be much more the province of liberals—see, e.g., Obama’s career (I am currently reading Garrow’s Rising Star, which is quite good, if heinously long), or the description of retail politics in Colorado in The Blueprint. Republicans are generally organizationally incompetent—that’s certainly what we were told in the aftermath of Romney’s campaign and during the most recent campaign, and why they would magically be more competent at lower levels isn’t clear to me. If I’m right, that lends some support to Lilla’s argument, in that voters may be voting Republican simply because of Democratic failure to accurately gauge and guide “public sentiment.” You reject Lilla’s argument that public sentiment is repelled, rather than captured, by modern liberalism. But maybe state and local results are the best evidence for it.

While your description of two camps of Republicans is pejorative to the side most willing to oppose liberals, it is not inaccurate. It’s probably too bipolar—what a “Republican” or a “conservative” is does not have the clear meaning it had until relatively recently, and your positing a coherent “Republican Party” with power, and a scattering of other players lacking power outside of it, is too simple. I, myself, have no use whatsoever for Paul Ryan, who is in many ways, on paper at least, a “conservative.” (I don’t have any power, though—yet.) Nor do I have any use for the National Review crowd, #NeverTrumpers, and so forth. In part it’s that I disagree with them on some substantial issues, especially on economics, taxation, and foreign policy. In part it’s because I disagree with their refusal to actually use the power they have earned, especially to the extent doing so might earn them opprobrium from the cocktail party set whose good opinion they crave. Right now I think the political spectrum is best defined as a quadrant—to quote my favorite author, me, from my review of Arlie Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land:

A more fruitful dichotomy for Hochschild’s analysis would have been to view American political thought today as roughly in the form of a quadrant. In the upper left square are corporatist liberals—so called “neoliberals.” They endorse progressive social stances, but are as equally fond of open borders, globalization, and corporate hegemony. Hello, George Soros! (Are you dead yet? No? Too bad.) In the lower left square are progressive liberals—say, Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren. In the upper right square are corporatist conservatives—somewhat more conservative than neoliberals on some social issues (but by no means all) and generally in favor of lower taxes and less government regulation, but also fond of open borders, globalization, and corporate hegemony, and happy to have government regulation if it serves crony capitalist purposes. In the lower right square are neoreactionaries—a growing group, aggressively socially conservative, vigorously opposed to government overreach in the social sphere, but opposed to all forms of corporate hegemony and crony capitalism, and willing to not maximize GDP if it will help society as a whole, in particular disadvantaged groups. Neoreactionaries have traditionally been subordinated in (Republican) party politics to corporatist conservatives, but no longer. Think Jared Kushner vs. Steve Bannon.

It will surprise nobody to discover that I am, in this analysis, neoreactionary. You will be glad to hear that I am about to embark on a series of reviews and commentary on the entire concept of neoreaction. I will send you a bound copy. But, whatever the details, the conclusion is the same—as you say, conservatism as understood for the past several decades has dissipated as a political force.

You frame Lilla’s argument as two-pronged, which I will agree with here. Let me talk about the second prong first—whether liberals (which we can for these purposes conflate with the Democratic Party) are “overtly campaigning with appeals to ‘identity’ rather than to what [Lilla] calls ‘citizenship’ . . . .” Of course, this is hard to prove, since it is largely qualitative. Given the brevity of the book and its focus on political action, using a comparison of websites of the major parties seems like a reasonable stab at quantification. You cackle with glee (more my habit than yours, admittedly) at your discovery of Lilla’s elision of the Democrat’s prominent placement of what they believe. But you make a critical error in your website analysis—assuming that current status is evidence of past status. To be more precise, Lilla complains that the Republican Party website has as its focus a statement of principles, while “[t]here is no such document to be found on the Democrat’s homepage,” rather a set of links to discrete identity groups. You point out correctly that actually, the Democrats have as a centerpiece “a bright green box covering the entire middle of the page with a link saying “What We Believe.”

But I went to the Internet Archive. As of January 1, approximately the time Lilla started writing, the only things displayed on the Democratic Party homepage, other than the list of identity groups, were a request for emails and six mid-sized boxes, saying “Hold Trump Accountable—Take a Stand”; “Thanks, Obama!”; “Chip In For the Fights Ahead”; “Rebuild Our Party”; “Shop The Official Store”; and “Questions About the DNC Officer Elections?” In other words, nothing of substance, and, as Lilla complains, nothing about Democratic beliefs at all—other than identity politics (which admittedly is at the bottom of the page, as Lilla also says). The website remained that way until July 18—that is, until just about the time word of Lilla’s book must have reached the relevant people. This strongly suggests Lilla is on much firmer ground than you think, and the website is therefore exactly as effective as evidence as he asserts, I think.

On the other hand, we are all subject to confirmation bias, and to wishful thinking. I think it is self-evident, as Lilla does, that identity politics is the core of the modern Democratic Party. But, naturally, conservatives love arguments like Lilla’s, both because it suggests political weakness on the Left, and more importantly because it vindicates their feelings of persecution. On the other hand, as they say, it’s not paranoia if they really are out to get you. Just ask Brendan Eich and James Damore. No doubt conservative media emphasize particularly egregious examples of identity politics. But that says little or nothing about whether underlying those examples are legions of less egregious examples that are collectively more pernicious. Lilla certainly thinks that is the case. Similarly, conservatives believe, unlike you, that the total leftist dominance of universities for decades has extremely deep consequences—it’s not that what happens on campuses on the quad that matters, but the political indoctrination. I think this is also self-evident. However, it’s hard to prove, and it’s always hard to shake the feeling that confirmation bias plays a role, perhaps too much of a role. Nonetheless, in your obsessive quest for “data,” you seem like Ahab, missing the bigger picture (with less risk of drowning).

I think you fall down badly, too, with a superficial analysis about “white identity politics,” which is (just as you allege Left identity politics is for conservatives) a mostly mythical beast cooked up to avoid having to actually focus on what those not voting Democratic are really looking for. You don’t go so far as the odious Ta-Nehisi Coates, but really, I think you should dig a bit intellectually deeper. There is probably something there—it would be surprising if there weren’t, especially on Lilla’s premises. You can only tell a group so long that it is a guilty and evil set of people because of its immutable characteristics, as opposed to everyone else who is virtuous and worthy of transfer payments and reparations because of their immutable characteristics, until the first group decides to act as a group, even if only informally (a problem exacerbated by the demise of Christianity—as Ross Douthat has said, if you don’t like the Christian Right, you really won’t like the post-Christian Right). (And, if white people become a minority, as the Democrats keep telling us is imminent, does that then give them rights to organize as white? Partially that’s a bad joke, since history suggests that not all people should be treated the same—and white people have, in some ways, a pernicious history vis-à-vis some other groups in the United States. But it’s not wholly a joke, because that’s what people will do, regardless of history. And history similarly suggests that unlike the Democratic approach to identity politics, where all oppressed groups are equally oppressed and equally deserving of round robin emancipation, the reality is that African Americans, say, are far more deserving of our societal concern than, say, Hispanics. Not to mention that Asian-Americans are apparently not deserving of concern at all.) But to suggest that “whiteness” is the key, or even a very important, element of Republican insurgency is flat out bonkers. More to the point, it is self-harming, and your endorsing this view tends to show that Lilla is right.

(Related, you may remember John Judis, who in 2002, along with demographer Ruy Teixeira, wrote The Emerging Democratic Majority, an enormously influential book endorsing your view of the supposedly “shrinking base” of Republican voters. Today, September 14, 2017, Judis announced “I was wrong.”)

As far as David Brooks, house “conservative,” he may offer numbers, but he offers no cites. He does say “Recent surveys suggest that roughly 47 percent of Republicans are what you might call conservative universalists and maybe 40 percent are what you might call conservative white identitarians.” I have no idea where this came from, or whether we do, indeed, call them “conservative white identitarians,” and if so, why? But I do know that this type of uni-dimensional analysis, where apparently the only issue that divides Republican universalists (i.e., the type of Democrat lite that you, and all liberals, celebrate as the only true conservative, as you do at the start of your comments) from other Republicans is race, is dumb and ignores that those in the “neoreactionary” quadrant care deeply about a range of issues that have nothing to do with racial or ethnic identity—issues that both the Republican and Democratic elites would prefer not to talk about. Enter Trump! Who, I am told yesterday by Politico, is doing just fine with the voters. (And there is a lot of discrimination against Christians. Do you think any Christian who expressed, say, standard Christian doctrine for 2,000 years regarding homosexual acts at Google, Facebook, or any large company (the expression, not the acts) would have a job by the end of the day?)

If the response of Democrats to Lilla’s charges is, as you suggest it should be, “that’s BS—it’s really Republicans who engage in identity politics,” in order to keep “rallying the increasingly fractious interest groups that pass for a conservative movement today,” that may be true and carry the day, I suppose. But if it’s not true, it’s going to be fatal to Democrats—if, and only if, conservatives can destroy, by whatever means are necessary, the stranglehold liberals have on the real power in this country, the judicial tyranny of the federal courts. But that’s another topic.

On the second major thread you address, the electoral success of Republicans and Democrats, I think you are hung up on certain irrelevant indicia, but you may well be correct that “most key elements of the left’s policy agenda are broadly popular and have been growing in appeal.” (We can leave aside for now that I disagree that “the left is winning policy battles consistently”—in fact, many of those wins, as Lilla emphasizes, are merely the result of anti-democratically using the courts as a super-legislature.) It would not be surprising, certainly—those offering vice to the masses tending to the destruction of society, throughout history, are often the most electorally successful. Until, of course, they’re swept away by the cold hand of Reality.

Related, though distinct, is your point that national Republicans have accomplished nothing in eight months—which is certainly true, though at least in part due less to the results of polling and rather to the desire of Republicans to keep the good opinion, as I say, of DC cocktail party participants. I am disappointed, but not surprised. Where is my concealed carry reciprocity and rollback of other excessive gun control? The restoration of religious liberty? The smashing of the administrative state? The sweeping prosecutions of abuse of power under Obama? I know where—in Ryan and McConnell’s joke jar. (I may yet get a reduction in my federal tax rate from 40% to 20%, if tax reform, as seems likely, changes the rate on pass-through taxation for manufacturing businesses to the corporate rate. Yay!) Regardless, the times, they are a-changin’. A new dispensation is in the offing, as we both agree. This may or may not end well, but it will not be orderly along the way. Frankly, I am all for getting on with the disorder. You are a nuts-and-bolts guy. I am a flaming sword guy. The times will call for one of us.

Thank you for the thoughtful responses, Charles. We actually find ourselves in agreement on many aspects of the current political situation – and those where we disagree are largely matters of subjective interpretation, where neither of us is likely to persuade the other and dispositive facts probably can’t be produced. Nonetheless, a few reactions.

First, on the subject of conservative political organizing in the 1980s and 1990s – I totally agree with you that fantasies – on both the left and right – that the opposition has some secret network of mystical data analysts who have cracked the secret code of public persuasion, and are disseminating their dark learning through some shadowy network of PACS and think-tanks, is totally ridiculous. Neither George Soros nor Richard Mellon Sciafe has figured it out.

at said, I have read numerous accounts dating back to the 1990’s which indicate that conservative activists and financiers have been much more willing to invest in a long game of organizing and wining campaigns at the very local level. (I have numerous books describing these activities, but sadly they are at my office and I don’t have the specific cites at hand.) This is nothing sinister or even particularly innovative; it simply shows discipline, commitment, and an eye on the long game which has benefited conservative activists greatly. The Koch brothers invest in state legislative races; winning those races gives you control of redistricting; of selective de-funding of labor and political organizations on the left; of bogus “voter fraud” legislation to remove Democrats from the rolls; and numerous other tactics which make it easier to win elections without having to be responsive to broader public opinion. While not particularly respectful of democratic norms, it’s an effective tactic.

Second, you suggest that state and local votes are the best evidence that conservatives are “winning the argument,” particularly that you perceive Republicans as organizationally incompetent. I’d argue the reverse; as I pointed out in my original post, Democrats collect more votes that Republicans in many different electoral venues, but Republicans have shaped the rules of the game to yield representation completely out of proportion to their votes. A good explanation from my beleaguered home state of Wisconsin can be found here. Again, this is not a criticism of what the Republicans are doing, though I think it is harmful to the country since it is in service of a party with bankrupt ideas. They know how to use the levers of power, and are using them. Good on them. It’s up to us to win them back.

Third, your four “squares” of ideology make sense to me, as far as they go. But I think you ignore some fractures within the “neoreactionary” square. Let’s say that this square houses the 35% of hardcore Trump supporters – socially conservative, anti-corporate, anti-globalist. No doubt, nearly all of these voters would describe themselves as anti-big-government. But while some of these voters have a consistent belief in reducing the size of government, and would readily agree to eliminate three or four federal departments, drastically scale back Medicare and Medicaid and many forms of social insurance, all in exchange for lower tax rates – I think that group (which I presume includes you) is a fraction of the square. Maybe 10% of the electorate. You, Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, and all your friends. I would estimate the other 25% are people who are firmly committed to smaller government and less spending in principle – but utterly opposed to it in practice.

I’m put in mind of a number of surveys we have done, where we ask people if they think a state budget should be balanced by raising taxes or cutting spending. They overwhelmingly choose cutting spending. Then we read a list of the different places the state government actually spends money, and they only identify one – prisons – where they would like to see spending cut. They actually want MORE spent on almost everything else – schools, health care, transportation ,etc. You can get the same results when you ask the questions at the federal level. There’s lots of consensus on cutting foreign aid, but that’s about it.

Your “neoreactionaries,” I suspect, break down along these lines. It’s the “keep your government hands off my Medicare” crowd. This is why the GOP continually fails to repeal Obamacare; to develop a “tax reform plan” that consists of anything but budget-busting giveaways; or to make any meaningful reduction to federal spending. There is simply no constituency for it in practice but the 10%. And so we stumble on: Democrats get into power, raise spending, and pay for it with tax increases; Republicans get into office, raise spending, and pay for it with tax cuts. The neoreactionaries fume and lose.

Fourth, you identified what I feared was a potential weakness in my argument about the websites. As I was writing, I realized I didn’t have a window into what was in the Internet six months ago, but you found one. Fair point. However, I note that you don’t describe what was on the GOP website at the same time. As it stands, appeals to “identity politics” are more prominent on the GOP site than on the Dem site – was that the case six months ago?

Fifth, you contend that “you can only tell a group so long that it is a guilty and evil set of people because of its immutable characteristics, as opposed to everyone else who is virtuous and worthy of transfer payments and reparations of their immutable characteristics, until the first group decides to act as a group.” Without citing a single example, I suppose you are imputing this behavior to “the left” – which is exactly what Lilla does.

I’ll reply when someone – anyone – builds an evidence-based argument that this is what mainstream Democratic politicians are saying – rather than just what conservatives really really wish they were saying because it would allow them to feel victimized and righteous. (Until then, I will just point out the pleasant irony that for most of our country’s history, reams of state and federal law drew exactly the odious distinctions you are describing, placing white male Christian property owners in the latter group, and most other Americans in the former.) For my part, I cited numerous of examples from Donald Trump – the leader of the Republican Party and what passes for a neoreactionary movement – detailing his explicit appeals to white identity politics. The last two weeks have offered yet more, in reference to African-American NFL players and the residents of Puerto Rico.

As for what this all adds up to, in the month we have been going back and forth we have been treated to 30 more days of Republican inaction. Another farcical attempt to repeal Obamacare, which ran aground not on the disdain of the DC cocktail party circuit, as you posit, but on the cold hard fact that once again 75% of the American people didn’t want it. And tax reform should be yet another delicious opportunity for collapse. This week the Republicans trotted out a list of all the taxes they want to cut, and the neoreactionaries jumped up and clapped. Those cuts were accompanied, of course, by a vague magic asterisk about deductions they plan to eliminate later. I look forward to seeing all the good neoractionaries who voted for Trump stay on their feet and continue clapping when he proposes to pay for corporate tax cuts with the elimination of deductions for home mortgage interest or state and local tax payments. Should be a piece of cake, and yet another decisive legislative victory produced by the conservative policy consensus.

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Published in Charles Colloquies Left-Liberalism Political Discussion & Analysis

3 Comments

  1. Fascinating discussion you two!! I think this sentence just about sums up our problems:

    And so we stumble on: Democrats get into power, raise spending, and pay for it with tax increases; Republicans get into office, raise spending, and pay for it with tax cuts.

  2. Charles Charles

    The obvious solution is for the Democrats to keep digging themselves a hole, and to destroy and rebuild the Republican party, stripping power from its current masters.

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