I have seen and heard many people attributing the political woes of the left to its obsession with so-called “identity politics” rather than the economic concerns of the working class. While I am tempted to reject the either-or premise of this outright, there are plenty of people affected by identity politics that belong to the working class and, conversely, economic power is fundamental to the advancement of any group – the concern at least deserves discussion. I agree that policy failings have played a role in this time of political struggle, but I tend to think it mostly boils down to a battle of perception that the left has been losing.
By now, we are all familiar with the national embarrassment of the Charlottesville events and the unending political fallout. As it continues to unfold, it has become another example of the left finding an issue on which they somehow manage to alienate people that agree with them. Like President Trump has done so successfully throughout his political run, he has been able to make white, working-class people fear being lumped into a group of “deplorables.” In this case, he has turned an ugly and dangerous display of white supremacy into an issue about the preservation of Confederate monuments and U.S. history, and many leading Democrats have eagerly engaged. As a result, while there are plenty of Americans who agree that white supremacism is unacceptable, many are now worried about the removal of anything remotely offensive to anybody, such as monuments to the former slave-owning president, George Washington. That’s right, Trump managed to bring the issue full circle to a matter of oversensitive and overreacting liberals demanding draconian political correctness that is ruining the country.
A couple of recent events served to further stoke fears of a slippery slope of oppressive political correctness in the minds of Middle Americans. First, ESPN announced that it would pull an Asian-American commentator named Robert Lee (which happens to be the name of the famous Confederate general) from calling a college basketball game in Virginia. Then, the Mayor of New York City announced his intent to complete a full of review of “all symbols of hate,” which likely will lead to the removal of a monument to Christopher Columbus. Now, I am well aware of the litany of legitimate reasons to not celebrate Christopher Columbus – and I remind people of them every year when his namesake holiday rolls around – but this type of effort is representative of the left’s continued struggle with effectively prosecuting issues that fall under the umbrella of identity politics in a way that that does not erode its support across many demographics.
A victory for Trumpists and the like has been to create the perception that a commitment to fighting for the rights of ethnic and religiousness minorities, women’s rights, and the LGBT community comes at the expense of focusing on the needs of the working class. This perception has been created, in part, by throwing out numerous ridiculous and offensive statements on a host of wedge issues, solely with the intent of unleashing the left’s widespread and forceful outrage. Like it or not, there are many voters in the centre that are quite socially conservative – this is something of which I must remind myself on a daily basis as I see Trump support on my newsfeed. These people are not quick to get behind the latest liberal cause célèbre, and are often resistant by default.
As we are being baited into responding to every issue Trumpists choose, a big portion of the electorate suffers from whiplash. This in addition to the hostile reaction people can be met with for not displaying 100% purity on such issues – I will also admit guilt in unleashing such wrath. I have spoken to many rural, white working-class people who are simply afraid to speak about such issues for fear of somebody waiting to pounce on them for using an incorrect term. This sentiment gives an opening for idiots like Trump to lament about political correctness run amok and actually find a sizable, sympathetic audience.
Ultimately, a national party has to be a basic brand with an overarching, baseline set of values for which it stands. There must also be infrastructure in place for local and regional parties to gain power and, sometimes, forge their own paths on issues. This also means we need candidates that reflect their regions, even if that sometimes conflicts with some national party values. I am reminded of a U.S. congressman that represented my home area in northern Michigan. A pro-gun, anti-abortion Democrat, he represented the area for 18 years from 1992-2010, during which time his white, working-class district voted for George W. Bush twice by 7 points (and more recently supported Trump by a margin of 19 points).
There is no doubt that this congressman would have forcefully admonished the white supremacist display and violence that occurred in Virginia. I am not sure, though, that he would have had anything to do with a campaign to rid the nation of confederate statues, and may have even opposed such action. Some Democrats recently have argued that people like this are not wanted in the party and should not receive any funding, as they don’t meet the national party’s purity test on all issues. While I would prefer everybody vocally support the removal of such monuments, I’d much prefer Democrats occupying many more of those marginal seats that they have lost in recent years.
But moderation should win the day. This does not mean watering down core principles, but being more disciplined and targeted with approach. Most white, working-class people are not bigots, but they are interested (like everybody) in a governing philosophy that protects their economic self-interest and general way of life. Ultimately, there was a great deal of perceived preservation of economic self-interest by Trump voters that brought him to victory, as was the case when the same voters helped deliver the presidency to Barack Obama.
These voters do not care if a party supports policies related to racial or sexual minorities; they’ve even showed willingness to vote for candidates belonging to such communities. However, if they believe that the party is more focused on those issues than things like working-class wage stagnation, unemployment, and the effects of globalisation on the job market – regardless of whether the belief is founded in reality – then they’ll probably go shopping for a candidate that seems to be more concerned about these, even a disingenuous demagogue.