The Limits of #MeToo: Sectionalism, Economism, and “Identity Politics” on the Left

Photo by Rob Kall | CC BY 2.0

There’s no question that the #MeToo movement is succeeding in directing much needed public attention to the issue of gender oppression. The rise of public resistance to misogyny has led to regular coverage in the news media toward the very real problem of sexism in the workplace. One problem with the coverage, however, is that it is highly episodic, focusing on individual high-profile cases of sexism, rather than thematic and spotlighting broader trends in sexual harassment and assault throughout society. This episodic framing has been seized on by the far-right in their effort to turn sexual harassment into an exotic issue, as they emphasize only high-profile cases of gender repression. To make matters worse, detractors are seeking to construct a new narrative suggesting that #MeToo is little more than a witch hunt and part of a broader feminist campaign that grants favoritism and privilege to women, while discriminating against and repressing men. Right-wing attacks seek to depict harassment and assault incidents as isolated or trumped-up, rather than reflecting a broader societal problem. These developments are highly unfortunate. For every high-profile male sexual abuser in Hollywood or in the halls of Congress and America’s newsrooms, there are countless harassers, misogynists, and sexual predators at work in corporate America, in the mid-to-lower levels of government, and in other occupational and institutional settings.

Contrary to the speculation of critics, sexism in society is a serious problem in modern America. Half of women report experiencing sexual harassment in occupational settings. But as a result of recent protests, two-thirds of women now say that recent attention to gender discrimination has made them “more comfortable speaking out and challenging” abusers than in the past. The movement is also beginning to have a political impact, as seen in the announcements from 8 Congressmen that they were either stepping down or not seeking re-election due to sexual assault and discrimination allegations.

#MeToo is a serious component of the larger anti-Trump political movement that speaks to the legitimate anxieties of women who have long been treated like second-class citizens. But in an age of record inequality, plutocratic politics, and sustained racial and gender discrimination, we should also pause to discuss the limits of #MeToo, at least for those concerned with building a broad-based progressive uprising. “The left” in U.S. politics and culture is deeply fractured among liberal and radical elements, and comprised of many different identity groups. Cooperation across these groups is often lacking, despite the encouraging rise in a discourse aimed at spotlighting “intersectional” oppression that operates at the junction points between class, race, and gender identities.

Modern left movements have done much to highlight the needs and interests of society’s disadvantaged. Black Lives Matter draws attention to rampant racial profiling and police brutality in American law enforcement. #MeToo is sensitizing the public to the problems of continued sexism and gender discrimination. Occupy Wall Street spotlighted record inequality and the concentration of political power among business and financial elites. And the Fight for $15 movement has had success at the state level in pushing higher minimum wages for workers, and in prompting a national discussion – via the Bernie Sanders campaign – on the need for a living wage.

But without the proponents of social movements broadening their appeals, left uprisings will continue to suffer from sectionalism and balkanization. And as with all social movements, #MeToo has run into problems in universalizing its appeal. In seeking to better understand the uprising, I commissioned a nationally-representative survey of Americans, completed in January 2018, to gauge what factors are driving support for, and opposition to #MeToo. I undertook a statistical analysis of various demographic factors, to understand the appeal of this movement.  I asked respondents: “Regarding recent allegations of sexual harassment and assault that have been made against prominent men in entertainment, politics, and the media, would you say that you somewhat or strongly agree they are mainly isolated incidents of individual misconduct, or somewhat or strongly agree they reflect a widespread problem in society?”

The major finding from this survey was that 60 percent of respondents agree that news stories of sexual discrimination speak to a widespread problem in society. This suggests that most Americans are taking #MeToo seriously, which is encouraging considering the widespread problem of gender discrimination. However, there was also significant antagonism toward #MeToo, seen in the 40 percent of Americans who deny that news stories on sexual harassment and assault speak to a larger societal problem with sexism. Statistically, some demographic groups are much more likely to deny that sexism is a significant problem, and this sentiment is most strongly embraced by younger men (18-29 years old), right-wing conservatives, and those heavily trusting in, and reliant on right-wing media outlets, including Fox News, Breitbart, Rush Limbaugh, Drudge Report, and InfoWars. More revealing is the lack of significance for other variables in predicting support for #MeToo. These include: individual’s political partisanship, education level, race (self-identified whites, LatinX, and black Americans), and income. Support for #MeToo is also lacking from specific disadvantaged demographic groups, including Hispanic women, poorer Americans, poorer Hispanic women, poorer white women, and older men. However, the movement is significantly more likely receive support from some groups, including women (younger and older), black women, poorer black women, liberals, and older Americans in general. These findings suggest the movement is speaking to large segments of the public, even if not to all demographic groups.

Regarding opposition to #MeToo, the above findings suggest the movement has its work cut out for it in terms of cultivating support from various disadvantaged groups, and from younger men, the conservative-right, and right-wing media viewers. Furthermore, mainstream political institutions seem to be doing a poor job of sensitizing Americans to gender repression, as is evident in the lack of a relationship between education and Democratic partisanship on the one hand, and support for #MeToo on the other. These findings raise questions about detractors’ claims that liberal-Democratic elites are pushing “identity politics” claims, while diverting public attention from more ‘important’ economic and class issues. If political elites are trying to manufacture public support for #MeToo, they’ve done a very poor job of it thus far.

The relatively weaker support for #MeToo among poorer Americans and LatinX respondents is also concerning. It suggests that many individuals in both groups haven’t spent enough time contemplating broader societal problems with sexism and occupational discrimination, which most certainly have a negative impact on the poor and poor people of color. A greater awareness of gender discrimination in the workplace is necessary among these groups for #MeToo to make greater progress on combating societal and occupational sexism.

The lack of support for #MeToo among various demographic groups is not exclusive to this movement. Many progressives lauded Occupy Wall Street for its in-your-face protests, its civil disobedience in occupying public space, and for its success in forcing a discussion of the inequality in mass political and cultural discourse. But the movement was also notorious for its blind spots regarding gender and racial oppression. Previous scholarship documents in detail how Occupy demonstrators routinely gave short shrift to black and female activists in the New York City Zuccotti Park encampment, thereby artificially limiting the appeal of the movement among racial minorities and women. Apparently, the ‘white dudes hanging out in parks’ phenomenon did not speak much to the very real physical repression that black and LatinX peoples face daily in a criminal ‘justice’ system that’s defined by structural racism. As a result, the Occupy movement failed to connect with people of color, who struggle even more than whites when it comes to the problem of low-wage occupations. One of the main problems that Occupy faced was its economism, which is a common trait on “the left” these days. Historically, many leftists have discounted issues like gender and racial oppression, viewing them as tangential or insignificant issues, or (at worst) portraying them as ruling class tools used to divide Americans and divert their attention away from the only issue that ‘matters’: class. This perversion of leftism would be abhorred by left activists of the 1960s such as Martin Luther King, who understood that oppression of disadvantaged groups was multidimensional in nature, and included racism, classism, and imperialism.

Available data leaves little doubt that Occupy demonstrators failed to appeal to black and LatinX Americans. My examination of the Pew Research Center’s October 2011 national survey on Occupy finds that, statistically speaking, numerous groups were not only unsupportive of the movement, but actively opposed to it, including LatinX Americans, African Americans, Latina women, black women, poorer Latina women, and poorer black women. According to the Pew survey, the movement was more likely to receive support from whites, white men, and poor white men, which is no surprise considering its elevation of white males into the limelight and its heavy discounting of oppression against people of color. The movement succeeded in speaking to poorer whites, which is a significant accomplishment. But the artificial limits imposed on Occupy by white male leftists was also debilitating. Despite the movement drawing attention to plutocracy and inequality – a plurality of Americans agreed with Occupy that inequality was a serious societal concern – the movement failed to unite oppressed groups across race, gender, and class lines.

Civil rights concerns did emerge as a major national issue following Occupy’s decline with the rise of Black Lives Matter (BLM), and protests of police repression in Chicago, Ferguson, Baltimore, New York City, and elsewhere. These protests have sustained themselves over the last half-decade, and had a significant impact by drawing public attention to the ongoing tragedies of societal racism and worsening race relations in America. The movement has succeeded in pushing for substantive reforms in the criminal justice system across numerous municipalities with the worst reputations for racial profiling and police brutality. Unfortunately, BLM has also suffered from some unnecessary limits and setbacks. My analysis of the CNN/Kaiser August-October 2015 national survey of public opinion on BLM finds opposition to the movement, statistically speaking, among numerous groups, including whites, LatinX men and women, and poorer Latina women, although the movement is more likely to receive support from African Americans, black men and women, poorer black men and women, younger Americans, younger black men, Democrats, and liberals. Of particular concern is the opposition to the movement among not only whites, who historically are more likely to discount protests from minority groups about racial discrimination, but also from various LatinX subgroups. Considering the long history of law enforcement discrimination against both black and LatinX peoples, the opposition to BLM among the latter group is troubling. But this opposition should not be surprising either. BLM explicitly elevates black lives, at the expense of emphasizing police repression against LatinX individuals and communities. As a result, the movement has unnecessarily restricted its support base among people of color.

The problem of sectionalism within American minority communities on issues of racial justice is not insurmountable. Targeted racial justice campaigns are more effective than restrictive sloganeering (a la “Black Lives Matter”) in cultivating minority support. For example, the 2014 protests of the Ferguson, Missouri police department after the killing of Michael Brown received strong support from various minority groups. My analysis of Pew’s August 2014 national survey on Ferguson finds that various subgroups were more likely to agree that the protests raised serious questions about the practices of law enforcement. Support was significantly higher among LatinX men and women and poorer LatinX men and women, in addition to African Americans, black men and women, poorer black men and women, urban blacks, younger urban blacks, Democrats, and liberals. The lesson here seems clear: considering historic opposition to civil rights activism from much of white America, BLM cannot afford to neglect its allies among people of color. To maximize its appeal, the movement should continue to focus in the future on spotlighting abuses of, and repression against specific individual people of color, thereby personalizing the struggle for racial justice. But it should also begin to look for alliances across color lines, via a shift from the more restrictive “Black Lives Matter” slogan to a more encompassing position that “Brown Lives Matter.”

Although it has been hampered by a lack of public visibility in the news media, perhaps no other modern social movement has more potential to link together disadvantaged Americans than the Fight for $15 campaign. The movement was launched by American union organizers at the SEIU and was embraced by the Sanders campaign. The movement has wide appeal, as raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour will benefit disadvantaged Americans across racial and gender lines. In a time of stagnating wages, record inequality, and rapidly growing costs for essential items such as health care and higher education, turning the minimum wage into a living wage means pulling tens of millions of Americans out of poverty and near-poverty. My examination of Pew’s August 2016 national survey on American opinions of the $15 minimum wage finds strong support across many demographic groups, including lower-income individuals, black and LatinX men and women, poorer white, black, and LatinX men and women, older Americans, Democrats, liberals, and those who are concerned with societal inequality. Like any movement, some groups are more likely to oppose the Fight for $15, including whites in general, Republicans, and conservatives. Nonetheless, an alliance between supporters of #MeToo, Black/Brown Lives Matter, and living wage advocates would mean the emergence of a powerful mass-left movement with the potential for raising the living standards of the masses. This mass movement should focus on the broader problem of societal repression, while spotlighting multiple examples as related to class, race, and gender.

My analysis of modern social movements demonstrates that, contrary to its detractors, intersectionality is a very real phenomenon. It is not, as some critics suggest, an analytical framework with little specificity or real connection to the observable world. It is not, as recently claimed, a propaganda tool conjured up by political elites and ivy-league egg-heads to misdirect the public from more ‘important’ class issues that Americans face. Quite the contrary, individuals experience oppression in a variety of ways, as related to class, gender, and race identities, and at the intersections of those identities. This point has been consistently neglected by vulgar materialists who focus on economics and class issues at the expense of recognizing other dimensions of individuals’ lived experiences and identities.

What the American ‘left’ needs is a commitment to pragmatic, workable alliances that unite activists to combat racial, gender, and class oppressions. Without these alliances, there’s little chance for building a progressive, mass-based party that can commit to long-term democratic transformation. In her important book, From #Black Lives Matter to Black Liberation, African American studies scholar Keenga-Yamahtta Taylor calls for just such an alliance between Black/Brown Lives Matter and the living wage movement, so that progressives can unite across different identity groups. And yes, class is an identity, just as much as race or gender, contrary to the claims of those who lament “identity politics” and who adhere to economism.  Taylor’s call for building left-identity alliances displays the kind of vision that’s often lacking on the ‘left.’

The push for activism that’s committed to broad-based movement building isn’t impossible. It’s been done in the past. The civil rights movement prioritized fighting racial oppression, bigotry, and segregation, while targeting poverty as a societal disease. In response to these pressures, the Johnston administration prioritized racial and economic justice via the War on Poverty and the push for civil rights legislation and desegregation. While the idea of intersectionality was not recognized in mainstream political discourse until relatively recently, the 1960s-era protests demonstrate that activists and government can prioritize multiple dimensions of oppression simultaneously. We need a broad-based left movement today, and the potential for such a coalition becomes more feasible considering mass public anger over institutionalized sexism, racism, and classism. Mass anger is the foundation upon which a progressive movement must be built.

Anthony DiMaggio is Associate Professor of Political Science at Lehigh University. He is the author of Rising Fascism in America: It Can Happen Here (Routledge, 2022), in addition to Rebellion in America (Routledge, 2020), and Unequal America (Routledge, 2021). He can be reached at: A digital copy of Rebellion in America can be read for free here.