When The New Republic decided to publish a roundtable considering President Obama’s legacy, it was no surprise to see the conversation dominated by Obama’s race, Hillary Clinton’s gender, and the disparate (and therefore necessarily oppressive) race and gender of many of their Republican opponents.
After Donald Trump’s surprise win, most progressives are not willing to engage in a discussion of what, if anything, went wrong within their movement. Obama and Clinton are not to be critiqued for their positions, decisions, or policies. They are blameless—oppressed and condemned merely for their race and gender. Or so many would claim.
Many, but not all. Andrew Sullivan—formerly of the well-known blog “The Dish”—often spoke with clarity and reason in the midst of the New Republic roundtable’s echo chamber.
I’ve excerpted some portions of the conversation, because I think they are deeply indicative of how identity politics has seeped into most every argument of the left. But the excerpts also reveal how some reasoned voices, like Sullivan’s, could rise above the fray and help us achieve some measure of bipartisan understanding. If we are to advance and find cohesion, we’re going to need more of the latter—not the former.
Obama Was Blameless Over His Two Terms
First, TNR’s Eric Bates asked participants the following question: “How much responsibility do you think that [Obama] himself bears for creating the conditions that allowed Trump to get elected?”
NELL PAINTER: I don’t think it has anything to do with him personally, except that he’s a black man. The election of Trump was a gut-level response to what many Americans interpreted as an insult eight years ago, and have been seething against ever since. The only way you can see Trump as somehow Obama’s fault is Obama’s very being. It’s ontological.
ANNETTE GORDON-REED: I agree with Nell. There’s nothing he could’ve done in this climate other than be somebody else. We know the record of obstruction by Republicans, the lack of cooperation. Some Democrats suggested that Obama was giving things away before they were even asked for, to try and be accommodating. But there was no chance for bipartisanship—it was obstruction from day one.
Alrighty, then. This theme continued further on in the conversation, after John B. Judis complained that Obama didn’t fight Wall Street enough:
PAINTER: We’re also forgetting the cultural context of all this: that Obama was operating as a black man among a whole bunch of white guys. They were middle Americans whose gut sense was distrust—not being comfortable with him, not wanting to go along with him. There was a lot of static going on. He had to prove that he wasn’t a communist. That’s part of the reason, I’m guessing, that he didn’t move further left against the banks and kept on the side, really, of the Republican financial establishment.
GORDON-REED: He didn’t have to go very far to be too left for some people. For the first black president, there were all kinds of psychic things going on that just don’t apply for a ‘regular’ person. He couldn’t have gone too far left and won.
PAINTER: This is the only place I’m sort of separating myself from John. Because you, John, are thinking of this context without the racial dynamics that played a big part in narrowing his room to maneuver.
And then in comes Sullivan with the rebuttal:
SULLIVAN: He won more white voters in 2012 than Hillary Clinton just did, OK? He was always popular with white people in the Midwest. This whole racial thing is just so myopic.
GORDON-REED: No, it’s not myopic. We’re talking about his responses to things. We’re talking about why an individual maneuvers in a particular way. If you are an African American person and you are in this setting, you can’t maneuver like a white person. Sure, there are white people who like him—that’s not the question. The question is, why did he act in a particular way?
SULLIVAN: What should he have done otherwise and didn’t because he’s black? … They keep saying that because he’s black he couldn’t move left.
PAINTER: Andrew, that is so gross, in the sense of using such a big club. You’re not hearing what we’re saying in terms of context, psychology, and culture. It’s not a toggle switch of racism, or ‘because he’s black.’ It’s because of the fine-grained nature of our society. What he could accomplish changed month by month, week by week, congressman by congressman, senator by senator. What I’m trying to say is that there’s more going into this than just the policy and the politics.
I’m not entirely convinced that “because he’s black” isn’t being used as a “big club” in the above instances. But let’s move on.
Hillary Clinton Lost Because She Was an ‘Older Woman’
When Sullivan suggested that Hillary Clinton might, in fact, be “a dreadful candidate, and someone almost no one can imagine being president of the United States,” the floodgates opened:
SULLIVAN: She’s a terribly unpopular person. Horrible: no inspiration, no political skills, complete mediocrity. So that’s the mistake—allowing the Clintons to keep control of the party and then allowing this mediocrity to be his successor.
PAINTER: [Gesturing to the other women around the table] Can we just say: We entirely disagree with that.
JAFFE: Well, I don’t know. I think Hillary Clinton was a lousy candidate.
GORDON-REED: I don’t think she was a lousy candidate. But for a candidate to lose to someone who’s never been in the military, who’s never held public office—he’s not like any candidate who’s ever run before. So there were other forces at play here, most notably her gender.
PAINTER: She’s an older woman.
GORDON-REED. That’s right. It’s clear that many people have a hard time paying attention to older women as anything other than mothers or grandmothers.
SULLIVAN: She’s just a bad candidate and a terrible politician whom large numbers of people despised. You can see it in the polls: She represented everything that people hate about Washington.
PAINTER: Yeah, because she’s an older woman.
I’m not entirely sure how being an “older woman” equates with representing “everything that people hate about Washington.” Jeb Bush, an older white male, suffered a colossal loss in the primaries because he, as an establishment candidate, “represented everything that people hate about Washington.” This, despite having the correctly oppressive gender and race.
Additionally, many conservatives would protest that they have had no trouble “paying attention to older women as anything other than mothers or grandmothers” throughout history. (See Abigail Adams, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Clara Barton, Susan B. Anthony, Rosa Parks, Margaret Thatcher, Condoleezza Rice, Faith Whittlesey, and many others.)
Identity Politics Aren’t Divisive and Frustrating
When discussing “Obama’s biggest political failure,” many roundtable participants came up empty—or proffered clandestine compliments, such as stating that Obama’s biggest failure was “Overestimating the ability to work across the aisle. Coming in and thinking that he could work with Republicans.” Gee, what a vice.
Yet Sullivan, though he also calls himself an “Obamaphile,” was willing to lay some faults at the feet of the president. Beyond faulting him for choosing Hillary Clinton as his successor and thus jeopardizing his legacy, Sullivan proffered the following:
SULLIVAN: [Obama’s] other failure is not doing enough to confront the identity politics of the left. Because the left’s obsession with race and gender and all the other Marxist notions helped create the white identity politics that is now going to run this country.
[Laughter and shouting]
GORDON-REED: Marxist? Marxist identity politics?
SULLIVAN: That’s what has allowed white identity politics to emerge and to win. And insofar as the left is going to respond to Trump’s election by intensifying that, it’s going to empower the forces of Trump even further. Obama didn’t stand up firmly and solidly enough when the left was taken over by this madness.
The Tea Party Movement Was about Racism
The conversation surrounding identity politics did not stop there. Debate continued further on:
JAFFE: Keep in mind that the Tea Party came first. It wasn’t Black Lives Matter. The Tea Party was ready to be angry at Obama on day one, explicitly because he was a black president. It’s just chronologically backwards to say that thousands and thousands of Americans who finally got fed up with racial injustice and took part in protest movements were somehow responsible for polarizing the conversation or rejecting common ground.
For some reason, I thought the Tea Party movement was about reining in government spending and decentralization of the federal government. Or something like that. Excuse my ignorance.
SULLIVAN: But this is all a slow disintegration of an American identity, which is not racial.
JAFFE: Has there ever been an American identity that was not racial?
SULLIVAN: Yes. There can be understood to be something that transcends race, as a citizen with no race.
PAINTER: Maybe if you’re really rich.
Indeed, only the rich have received the ability to express thoughtful, reasoned ideas apart from their gender or race. (Setting aside those Americans throughout history—such as Phillis Wheatley, Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and Alexander Hamilton among them—who rose from impoverished, oppressive backgrounds and accomplished incredible things that spoke to our collective humanity and worth.)
What Should American Identity Look Like, Going Forward?
Setting aside sarcasm, for those of us who believe a government “by the people, for the people” should not perish from the earth, it is important to ask: what does the term “people” signify? Is America necessarily made up of various, opposing, tribalistic identity groups? Or can we become a diverse yet respecting citizenry, one that seeks to unite around the pursuit of truth and the common good—not around the similarity or dissimilarity of one’s race, gender, or sexuality?
After their upsetting November 8 loss, Damon Linker noted that liberals have embraced a “historical dogmatism [and] certainty in progressive triumph, that inspires them to insult, denigrate, mock, and denounce millions of Americans who stand on other sides of our nation’s political and cultural divides.” Linker warned that liberals must “relearn how to talk to people like this…”
But even more fundamentally, liberals must first be willing to embrace the notion that maybe, just maybe, conservatives are not all just racist, xenophobic bigots. Until they do this, the conversation will stay stuck at “laughter and shouting.”