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Why Liberals’ Coming Fight Over Identity Politics Will Be Ugly


Progressives have a lot to learn in the wake of Donald Trump’s astounding victory this month, and chief among those lessons may be this: the old ways don’t seem to work anymore. The tried-and-true formula of liberal success served reasonably well throughout the young twenty-first century and quite well throughout much of the second half of the twentieth. Yet this boiling stew of identity politics centering on race, sex, and sexual orientation failed the Democrats at precisely the moment it should have been their Excalibur. If this political playbook cannot win against Trump, of all people, what good could it possibly be?

There is good reason for the Left to consider an alternative way to do politics. They might look into discarding identity politics for something better. But abandoning this political model will almost certainly not be easy. It will, in fact, probably be quite an ugly internecine fight between the more practical wing of the Democratic Party and the more manic, single-minded constituency largely comprised of young liberals.

At The New York Times last week, Columbia University professor Mark Lilla made a case for this “post-identity liberalism,” a politics that would “[appeal] to Americans as Americans and [emphasize] the issues that affect a vast majority of them.” That means no more “war on women” hysteria, no more wild claims that Republicans are going to send black Americans back to the antebellum South, no more screaming that proponents of traditional marriage are morally and functionally equivalent to Nazis. Regarding the “narrower…highly charged” issues, especially “those touching on sexuality and religion,” Lilla writes, this new liberalism “would work quietly, sensitively, and with a proper sense of scale.”

Good idea. But this could prove much more difficult than the optimistic Lilla is willing to concede. After decades of aggressive identity politicking, many if not most liberals—and younger ones in particular—will probably not take kindly to working “quietly” or “sensitively” on these hot-button issues.

Millennials Ain’t Baby Boomers, Ya’ll

Democrats will have to come to grips with the young activist bloc sooner or later. The older generations—Baby Boomers and others—might be amenable to softening the relentless liberal identity game, if only because they can remember a time when things were done differently. But the share of older generations within the voting population is shrinking, and will continue to. As Pew pointed out, 2016 may have been the last election dominated by voters born prior to 1980.

This will be a problem for Democrats looking to soften the party’s approach to identity issues. On questions of “identity,” or what is often broadly termed “social issues,” younger voters are far more liberal than their older counterparts.

Consider, for instance, the millennial position on LGBT rights. Data suggest that overwhelming majorities of young voters favor “LGBT nondiscrimination protections,” while nearly three-quarters of millennials favor re-defining marriage to include same-sex couples. Half of the same demographic believes “gender isn’t limited to male and female.”

Young Americans have embraced the LGBT agenda en masse. Will young progressives go along with a proposal to work “quietly” and “sensitively” regarding these issues? Not likely. Young liberals are markedly fanatical and overbearing about the LGBT agenda. They see it as a choice between progress and something resembling 1920s Mississippi. “It’s not uncommon,” wrote Hunter Schwarz last year, “to see Millennials compare LGBT rights to civil rights struggles of the past, and posting about it can feel like a way to be a part of that tradition — a way to be ‘on the right side of history.’”

My colleague Hans Fiene calls this “Selma Envy,” and it’s probably not going anywhere for a while. A liberalism that tries to tone down the wild rhetoric on gay rights will likely meet stiff resistance from these modern-day wannabe Freedom Riders.

Their Politics Determine Their Views on Religion

Then, too, the notion that younger liberals will be willing to restrain themselves about issues “touching on…religion” is dubious at best. Young voters have opinions on religious institutions that are noticeably more negative than the rest of the population; those low numbers are the result of a favorability decline of about 20 percentage points over the past five years.

This astonishing dip is likely due in no small part to the beating religion has taken in the media over the past half-decade: the contraception debate, the gay marriage debate, and other rancorous public dialogues have targeted churches, and millennials have responded accordingly. Young people do not like religion, and they will probably grow to like it even less as the years go on. If someone comes along and tells them, “Hey, you have to start listening to and respecting these religious people you’ve been taught to despise,” how do you think they will respond?

What about identity issues surrounding race? A poll earlier this year revealed that a majority of young adults 18-30 supports the Black Lives Matter movement; a plurality “strongly” supports it. Many millennials have grown up in a toxic social-media-fueled stew of racial histrionics and paranoia: they have been taught that every police shooting of a black man is a modern-day lynching, every real or imagined “microagression” against an ethnic minority is an act of mini-terrorism, and every criticism of a black president is a hatred-fueled injustice. Knee-jerk beliefs like this are difficult to unlearn, particularly as mainstream liberals in politics and the media have more or less reinforced them for the better part of a decade.

In a practical sense, this means a Democratic Party interested in a kind of subtle rhetorical reform likely has an uphill battle ahead of it. For the most part, American liberals have not raised their sons and daughters to be soft-spoken policy wonks. The dominating progressive posture since at least the year 2000 has been a kind of screaming self-righteous fury mixed with a genuine revulsion of anything that smacks of any kind of conservative bent.

For nearly two decades there has been no “proper sense of scale” among the ranks of American liberalism. Reversing this handicap will be very difficult if not, in the near future, impossible. It will surely only get worse under Trump, a man who seems to confirm all of the wild fever dreams the Left has had about identity politics in recent years.

All this means Lilla, and those who think like him, are too optimistic by half. This is not going to be easy, if even doable. American liberals have built a political apparatus that has, for some time, served them well enough, yet now it seems to have backfired on them in the most spectacular and humiliating fashion possible.

This was supposed to be the year when the Democratic Identity Machine shone. Instead, it failed, with a decisiveness that was almost shocking. It is no wonder that some liberals are calling for a different approach in the years to come. And it will not be surprising when more than a few other liberals refuse to go along with it.