After every election, as the winning party pops the champagne and gets the transition underway, there is a sort of harsh reflection that the losing party undergoes. We’ve seen it happen recently with Republicans in 2008 and 2012, when the party released official reports stating that in order to survive, they had to court Latino/a and queer votes. And we saw it with the Democrats in 2014, when President Obama decided his strategy of passive leadership was a political failure and he began taking executive action to enact his agenda.
In the wake of the 2016 presidential election, Democrats and liberals have, to put it gently, been cannibalizing one another. This election was supposed to be triumphant, the cementing of a popular Democratic President’s legacy and a rebuke of the politics of fear and obstruction that have defined the modern Republican Party. “The American people are better than Donald Trump,” Democrats told themselves.
Among the narratives that have emerged post-election, one seems to be taking hold amongst the East Coast Liberal Elite®. It goes something like this: Hillary Clinton and Democrats lost because rural whites in the Midwest felt alienated by the Democratic Party’s embrace of “identity politics”, and so to win future elections the Democrats must abandon identity politics in favor of Bernie Sanders (and/or Bill Clinton) style economic populism. Put another way: It’s the economy, stupid!
You see, the narrative goes, small town folk have simple concerns, primarily centered on two things: their pocketbook, and their religion. That’s what Mark Lilla argued in his New York Times Op-Ed entitled “The End of Identity Liberalism” (which Colin Jost would later cite while defending an awkward joke about gender identity on Tinder). A post-identity liberalism “would concentrate on widening its base by appealing to Americans as Americans and emphasizing the issues that affect a vast majority of them.” Even Bernie Sanders has jumped in the fray since November 8th, saying “one of the struggles that you’re going to be seeing in the Democratic Party is whether we go beyond identity politics.”
Liberals and Democrats are being told that they just don’t understand small town life. These people aren’t racists, they aren’t sexists, they aren’t homophobes or Islamophobes; they just were able to overlook those minor details in Donald Trump’s character because they heard the alleged billionaire speaking directly to them about their struggles. Those struggles being dying industry, an economic recovery that hadn’t fully made it to them and, perhaps most bizarrely, a sense of religious persecution.
This narrative misses a very key point: that many liberals were born and raised in these small towns, and many still live in them.
The “coastal liberal elite” and small town conservatives often view each other in monolothic ways. The liberals think everyone from a small town is closed minded, conservative, and unambitious; the townfolk think liberals are people who live elsewhere, who don’t understand small town life, and who care too much about Beyoncé, memes, and global warming.
Putting it that way, most people would probably say “of course that’s not true.” Yet those are the broad brushes these groups of people are painted with in mainstream discourse. This leaves liberals who are from small, rural towns, and those that still live there forgotten and unheard — both on the opinion pages of the New York Times and the headlines of conservative sites like Breitbart and InfoWars.
I grew up in Conway, South Carolina. I like to tell people it’s the town where you get stuck in traffic on your way to Myrtle Beach. One day, eventually, they might actually finish building the interstate to the beach and the businesses on Hwy. 501 won’t be able to survive. For now, though, Conway is a modestly growing town that serves as the crossroads for a number of different communities: white people and black people, who make up about an equal percentage of the population; rich people and poor people, with the income inequality as stark as it is anywhere in the country; and townfolk and countryfolk, with bustling downtown and highway areas and backwoods neighborhoods with giant yards and ponds and open skies.
I don’t want to romanticize my hometown — there is a reason I took advantage of my opportunity for relocation (I now call Marin County, California home). What I would like to do is point out that there are many bleeding hearts like me with firsthand knowledge of small town America and it’s residents — because we are its residents.
As a supporter of Hillary Clinton (and an undiscriminating antagonist of Donald Trump), I sympathized with the incredible media scrutiny over everything Hillary did or said on the campaign trail while Trump — held to a much lower standard — was often given a pass. This included the “gaffe” of referring to half of Trump’s supporters as “deplorables”. My caustic political nature made me want to not just accept the comment, but celebrate it as an example of the sort of truth telling the news media should be doing. But I thought of my own family and friends, many of whom Hillary would likely include in the “deplorable” category, and I understood how the comment could be likened to Mitt Romney’s 47% comment. Writing off so much of the country is not only bad political strategy for a campaign with a theme of “Stronger Together”, but it serves as another example of liberal smugness toward people who live in rural places.
In case you don’t know it already, let this liberal from a small town explain it: despite the fact that many of the Democratic Party’s policies should resonate with rural working class whites, they have a major trust problem. Many people in rural communities view the Democrats as being the party of a coastal elite that takes every opportunity to look down on them. There is a debate to be had about whether the Clinton campaign engaged in this sort of behavior, but on the whole there is serious truth to this. I have found it in the looks I get when I tell people in the Bay Area where I’m from, and in articles like Lilla’s that read as opportunistic attempts to both speak down to liberals about small town life and backhand small town people by dumbing down their values. For a liberal small towner, it’s doubly offensive.
Barack Obama was able to overcome the trust problem. Hillary Clinton was not. The reason is not identity politics. Mark Lilla is correct when he says mainstream liberals have an issue connecting to working class rural whites, but he still can’t shed the arrogant tone of supposing how that connection should be made.
What does he suggest? “We need a post-identity liberalism, and it should draw from the past successes of pre-identity liberalism. Such a liberalism would concentrate on widening its base by appealing to Americans as Americans and emphasizing the issues that affect a vast majority of them…. As for narrower issues that are highly charged symbolically and can drive potential allies away, especially those touching on sexuality and religion, such a liberalism would work quietly, sensitively and with a proper sense of scale.”
Lilla would prefer if liberals avoided “highly charged” issues like the Black Lives Matter movement, conservatives preventing people from using the bathroom without fear of assault, conversion therapy, Muslim civil rights, and anything else he can lump under the tent of “identity politics” (except, of course, white religion, which he counts as something of which liberals need to be more understanding but is somehow not identity politics).
This suggestion is a joke. Republicans have had no problem with “highly charged” issues. Lilla’s article, and the narrative it supports, completely ignore the realities of the person working class whites did vote for: a man who said Mexicans are rapists, Muslims are terrorists and should be on a registry, women who get abortions should be punished, a federal judge was incapable of doing his job due to his ethnicity, and who selected the face of the anti-LGBT movement as his Vice President.
The Republican politics of white supremacy, racial and religious fear, and faux family values are as much identity politics as what you will find in the Democratic platform. It’s the messaging that is different. Where Republicans told working class whites that, essentially, minorities and immigrants are the reason the economic recovery hasn’t made it to them, Democrats did not offer an alternative answer. Rather, they too frequently chose the politics of shame, simply telling people how awful Donald Trump is instead of offering a true alternative.
Lilla’s viewpoint requires two things to be true: A) that white working class voters are fundamentally racist, and B) that Democrats need to placate racists to win elections. Actually, the answer for Democrats is not to retreat from these issues, but to engage. Democrats and liberals should trust that white working class people who live in rural and small town areas are willing to participate if invited. After all, many of them voted for Barack Obama — twice. President Obama offered hope, and in many ways he delivered. But Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party of 2016 offered inevitability, something akin to a slow (and torturously long) death march to the White House, and it was an inevitability that the white working class overwhelmingly rejected.
And while they’re at it, Democrats and cultural liberals should stop acting as if small town residents are aliens from another planet. Republicans have participated in our great national polarization through obstruction; Democrats have done it through shame. Lilla is correct that Democrats have alienated potential allies, but it isn’t through merely discussing highly charged issues; it is the result of not adequately competing with the Dystopian America rhetoric employed by Republicans, choosing instead to disengage. We can roundly and rightfully criticize Republicans for their draconian political tactics without pretending as if our claim to the moral high ground is obvious and indisputable.
2020 will not be easy. Democrats are going to have to earn it this time. And they have to do it without abandoning anyone, or there is no reason to have an opposition party at all.
Photo: lookseebynaomifenton/Creative Commons