The left professes diversity as its vehicle and goal to expand power and bring more of the deserving into the system but, ironically, it’s one of the reasons why the Democrats fared so poorly in the 2016 election. Some, like Jay Haug, blame their intolerance. They force their issues of race, gender, and sexuality in the faces of their opponents with a politically correct inevitability that backfires (American Thinker, 1/20/17). Similarly, J. T. Young claims their diverse pitch is undercut by their homogenizing of substance and badgering methods (The Daily Caller, 11/30/17).
Could they have diversified and softened their pitch to those outside their orbit?
It’s difficult to imagine how believers in traditional marriage, for example, could have engaged in a productive conversation with the LGBT community. The left needed a more flexible frame to approach these outsiders—especially moderate, working class, and rural whites—and set aside their differences at least long enough to win elections, something the right has been very good at for some time now.
These differences were no minor obstacle. The success of the Sanders campaign challenged the Democratic Party’s established position on who should be included in its coalition. The Democrats have left the lower and working classes behind over the past forty-plus years as they’ve shifted to the right. In the mid-to-late 1970s the Democrats began to embrace identity politics, the special endorsement of racial, ethnic and gendered groups believed to be deprived and deserving of special treatment. As Robert Benn Michaels shows, the energy spent in protecting and elevating these groups consumed the field, leaving the class narrative to lie fallow (“Introduction” to The Trouble with Diversity, 2006). Their love affair with diversity erupted from this shift, replacing the mandate to expunge racism from society that had motored the civil rights movement into the 1970s and the solid support for equality that had been a mainstay of its platform. Though never completely losing the initiative to fight racism and inequality, the focus was on celebrating the differences that people of color brought to the social mix and finding ways to include them more successfully. The working class was and is not all white, of course, but the effect of this shift has been the exclusion of significant numbers of whites, particularly the lower classes. The Democrats and, more broadly, the left, have acted and legislated according to the belief that this approach was a necessary corrective since “white” is synonymous with “privileged.”
The 1977 Bakke case, where a white medical school applicant was successful in claiming reverse discrimination against the affirmative action process, was the beginning of a challenge to the easy conflation of white and privileged. Ronald Reagan’s election a few years later captured many of these disaffected whites for the Republican Party where they’ve mostly remained. The 2008 economic collapse should have returned them in droves to the Democrats, and would have to some version of the older party.
The priority given by the new Democratic Party to demographic inclusion over economic justice helps explain this failure and why so many people of color, especially Blacks, rejected Sanders. But more pointedly, according to Briahna Gray, they believed that since he is white his policies would exclude them—a misperception since these policies were more progressive than Clinton’s and geared to reduce inequality across the board and help keep the disaffected working class males from supporting Trump (The Intercept, “Fetishizing ‘Identity Politics’ Could Cost Democrats,” 6/18/18).
Those left of the liberals and the fringe to their left, relatively small in terms of numbers but not inconsequential, fought to include moderate, working class, and rural whites in the coalition because of their belief that economic justice issues should trump demographics. Had they had a more influential voice, the right would not so easily have captured this group.
But as it turned out, the reigning bloc of liberals wrote off small-town, de-industrialized, red-purplish-state America with its surfeit of deprived whites—and even sectors of moderate white suburbia—where many were certainly waiting for change. Had they scoured these areas inspired to grasp the economic damage these sectors suffered they could’ve possibly found a way to include these victims, though this would’ve required some quite innovative therapeutic conversion strategies.
They could’ve schmoozed with those privileged whites living in trailer parks on the non-living wages of the flexible, global economy and found ways to bring them into the majority. They could’ve become profilers and identified potential candidates with darker drops of blood and made use of the new testing technologies celebrated in the criminal procedure TV shows to learn if they possessed the requisite one percent or even more, and then worked out how much of a percentage was needed to make it into the coalition.
Once they knew who was in or out they could’ve held a meeting where these candidates, the drop-challenged, were interviewed about their role in slavery, giving them a chance to repent and receive political absolution. Many of the candidates would likely have acknowledged the injustices of slavery but also suggested they follow the money and go after families which accumulated great wealth from these injustices, even offering to authorize a payroll deduction at their credit unions in good faith. Some would surely have asked for help, however, in getting their kids into the better state colleges which had begun to recruit diverse candidates from outside the country to get higher tuition for their budget crises.
The real challenge then would’ve been to get the parties to engage in a conversation, no mean task since the effects of years of segregation have seeded fear and distrust in everyone’s minds. Those astute in conversion therapies might’ve succeeded in producing a consensus that more fairly placed the blame. But therapists would’ve faced an especially formidable challenge in getting those giving priority to racial, demographic justice and those pushing the priority of economic justice to see through the other’s eyes. Drop-challenged high school grads from deficit-ridden rural and inner city public schools would’ve had to mix it up with the drop-wealthy, some educated at elite schools and who might’ve been fairly recent arrivals from challenged countries. Could they have bridged the divide?
The “demographic destiny” of the drop explosion, the priority given to race, then as now, conforms to a certain ethic of equality. The liberal mandate is to mostly include the excluded, provide opportunities through expanded access that will somehow give the recipients a greater share of income and wealth, and spread the correct bodies through the social matrix in the hope that filter-down economics will deliver them from material evil. The flaw here, though, is that they will have to face off with the occupational structure and this means hierarchy and exclusion, no sure guarantee that the new included will find greater equality in a system that dispenses so many low wages.
As Jennifer Delton points out, while post-1970s diversity policies have successfully darkened the working populace in both the public and private sectors, this is mainly evident at the professional levels and, tellingly, as the society has witnessed an increasing gap between top and bottom (Washington Post, “The Left’s Grand Delusion,” 7/28/17).
The economic justice camp conforms to a different ethic. It pushes toward an equality of results, though never fully endorsing this extreme since it conjures a host of taboos for Americans. It means too much action from government and that will lead to welfare and eventually socialism, or even communism, since the individual must be free to achieve on their own. And the leaders are all-too-aware of the occupational barriers that must be confronted, not to mention the political ones. Many of the Great Society programs, for example, have been severely weakened, if not eliminated. So this camp has been ineffective, defaulting to an equality of opportunity approach that is easier to execute—just let the forces of our self-correcting system play out!—and sounds so right.
Perhaps these therapists can temper the drop friction and find a way to move forward. But more likely they’ll have to honestly admit that these notions of equality, ambiguously referenced in the Declaration of Independence, rift the cultural fabric and can’t be successfully united without force, some form of top-down authority that would surely provoke a backlash in the absence of a changed consciousness among the populace, and especially among liberals on the left whose diversity fundamentalism still mostly holds through the 2018 midterms.
While the recent election witnessed the success of progressive Democratic candidates and those of color who prioritized economic justice, the most progressive ones fell short as Ryan Grim claims (The Intercept, “How Midterm Results Will Keep Democratic Infighting Going,” 11/6). The electoral map shows that the Democrats’ biggest gains were in the suburbs (New York Times, 11/6). The Republicans still mostly captured those in economically deprived areas and the working class. According to national exit polls, the working class voted for Trump by 37 points in 2016 and Republican House candidates by 24 points in 2018 (Working Class Perspectives, “Class Prejudice and the Democrats’ Blue Wave,” Jack Metzgar, 11/26/18). This split between demographic diversity and economic justice will continue, according to David Brooks (Meet the Press, 11/11), until either the Republicans attract more people of color, beyond their already substantial following, or the diversity liberals can manufacture a new coalition. Otherwise 2020 won’t be much different than 2018.
The engineering of a vague sense of equality through the inclusion of many who are already privileged and the targeting of others strictly because they fit protected categories will continue to invest the ethic of equalization with contradictions and absurdities and invite further backlash in the absence of a fully inclusive coalition.
Consider the current lawsuit against Harvard by Asian Americans who contend they were denied admission in favor of lesser-qualified applicants (to create a more balanced student body, the school claims, based on life experiences as well as academics). There are simply not enough slots in elite or any other institutions to accommodate the qualified and tinkering with this balance from above and outside can only make our hyper-competitive society even more impossible, our democracy more fragile. The only fair and honest quota system is one that is fully inclusive but also realistically achievable. This will require an overhaul of the wage and occupational structures to absorb the surplus of applicants and compensate for the inevitable glitches and exclusions.
Forced and deficient quota systems invite a reactionary PC. Political correctness is a legitimate response to rigidity, the refusal of the system to change. It targets specific sectors where unsolved issues fester, and the link between race and class is certainly one. But politics is rarely correct. It is riddled with experimental errors forced through by special interests. Political rationality is irrationality masking as progress. It offers mostly sketchy constructs awaiting deconstruction.
Thanks to the student input from my Fall writing seminar in the expression of these thoughts.
John O’Kane teaches writing at Chapman University and is the author of three books.