In the Trump era Democrats need to revive their critique of the abuse of economic power.
In the immediate aftermath of the November election, we witnessed what may well be the beginning of a political paradigm shift. Rooted in what might be best described as a literary crisis of political narration on the left, this crisis was exemplified in the reaction to a New York Times op-ed written by Mark Lilla, a political philosophy professor at Columbia. Lilla’s essay marked the demise of what he called identity liberalism, a public intervention notable not only for its argument but mainly for how that argument was received. On the right it produced little more than supportive jibes directed at the difference-based politics often celebrated by the Democrats, which Lilla painted as a failure. But on the left it was greeted with either a shock of realization or the kind of contempt reserved for heretics.
What provided Lilla’s essay with such moral force on the left was not its thesis, that class divisions were coming to replace cultural divisions in the hearts and minds of the people, which had been offered many times before, but the fact that such disastrous failure for their agenda now convinced progressives, for a time, that they truly did not understand how to make sense of recent developments on the political scene. What was increasingly called “the narrative” had shifted against Democrats and progressives, whatever the sanguine demographic predictions promised them.
Lilla’s essay was only one example of a slew of similar commentaries that drew on the same insight. The powerful prediction of Stanford philosopher Richard Rorty from his 1998 book, Achieving our Country, made similar claims about the tensions between what he called Reform Liberalism and Cultural Liberalism. Rorty anticipated that if surging economic inequality was not addressed with a reform-based class politics, the country risked handing itself over to a populist strongman (a forecast that, since the election, has been oft-cited on Twitter and has served as a centerpiece for articles in The Guardian and Slate).
Other prominent examples of class narration were on offer as well, including the recent ethnographies of Arlie Hochschild, Katherine Cramer and Justin Gest, each of which provided powerful insights into the thought process of the now much-discussed demographic category of the white working class. Especially astute in this regard was the Harvard Business Review essay by the famed scholar of gender, work, and family balance, Joan C. Williams, in which she unpacked liberal and progressive prejudices about white working class people to offer narrative inroads for the perplexed and downtrodden progressive. Namely, Williams points out that the working class is really middle class, that working class people often resent the poor, that the rural-urban divide disguises class sorting by geography, that working class people are motivated primarily by economic arguments and not strictly cultural ones, and that blue-collar resentment is not merely code for racism.
Each of these arguments about how story, identity, and inequality are becoming the central axes on which American politics turn should be taken seriously, but what I find most interesting about them is that this genus of class argument was not received as an earnest and consequential diagnosis about what ails liberalism until this election season.
The rising rhetorical power of these arguments points to the passing of what I have called the eclipse of equality, by which I mean the rise of one genre of injustice—that which concerns the violations arising from bigotry and symbolic humiliation—over and above another narrative of injustice, now thrust to the fore—that which has to do with economic exploitation or opportunity hoarding. The imagery of eclipse was intended to suggest a temporary overshadowing of class narratives by cultural narratives, a trend that could not last forever. Critical to this perspective was the sense that Democrats had largely abandoned the class story as other concerns took precedence.
The result of this dynamic has resulted in the dualism that defines partisan politics today: Democrats fight against bigots, Republicans fight against bureaucrats and it is not clear which party stands against the power of elites, especially economic elites. It is not that Democrats and progressives no longer appeal to the common man and the working people, but their arguments have become thin, weakly supported by economic theory, and stale. It almost seems as if Democrats go through the ritual of appealing to their class roots as a warm-up so that they can get to the real work of fighting for their more recently consecrated causes of confronting bigotry, chauvinism, and marginalization.
Now that Trump has come as he did, riding the wave of the resentment and indignation of the white working class, augmented by geography and gerrymandering, the problem is too big to ignore. Many Democrats now wonder, if we can’t beat Trump, who can we beat? Why have voters at the state and local level abandoned us? What explains this glaring Democratic disconnect?
Democrats fight against bigots, Republicans fight against bureaucrats and it is not clear which party stands against the power of elites.
The answer, as many of our leading political interpreters are now starting to argue successfully, lies not in a demographic but in literary strategy, not in a technical fix, but in a conceptual one. Democrats need to tell better class stories to win, and class stories need context, villains, and scientifically supportable economic plotlines to convince. And if Democrats don’t tell the left-wing version of the class story, the Republicans will learn from Trump how to tell the right-wing version.
Critics of the emerging Democratic class narrative have good reason to be concerned, which explains why Lilla was so bitterly attacked for his New York Times piece. After so much progress, in terms of increased rights and political representation for historically underserved groups, including African Americans, women, and the LGBTQ community, the Democratic Party of the future cannot abandon its commitment to the politics of difference or to send those arguments to the back of the rhetorical bus. But because its leaders will increasingly recognize the need for change on the literary plane of politics, the Democratic Party will increasingly encourage its newly diverse leaders to use the older class-themed arguments that were once the preserve of white men. Just as white union bosses of the 1950s had to adapt their rhetoric to recognize the abuses of cultural power and privilege that defined the civil rights and women’s movements, so too will the more diverse power players of the identity era need to adapt their arguments to win over the median voters of the red states that have left the Democratic fold.
The more diverse power players of the identity era need to adapt their arguments to win over the median voters of the red states.
The key is to undergo a shift not only in messaging but in conceptualization. A society that exhibits tolerance for people of different cultural backgrounds is not equivalent to one that establishes equal competitive conditions for individuals, irrespective of their family background and resources. The difference highlights what makes status domination distinct from class exploitation. The Democratic answer to Trumpian right-wing populism is not to celebrate the culture of the white working class but to enable its members’ grandchildren to have the life they once wanted for themselves: a career, quality housing, affordable college, natural beauty and recreation, and access to cutting-edge advances in healthcare.
Sometimes you need to hit bottom to realize that you have a problem. With Republicans controlling, or soon to control, all three branches of the federal government and three state houses for every two the Democrats control, one would think this would qualify as a climb-out-of-the-gutter moment for the Democrats. Nevertheless, even if the leadership of the Democratic Party cannot contain its instinct to fight the last war and will not adapt its concepts to the emerging anti-elite spirit that will form the political currents of the next generation, the political culture will adapt around them. Identity liberalism has not come to an end—but it will now have to share the stage with an older cousin.