For forty years or so the left has been preaching against neoliberalism—the view that capitalism and markets should mostly be left alone to generate prosperity with only modest regulation and a frugal welfare state. For forty years the left has polemicized against this economic model, frequently despairing that they could ever get through to ordinary voters, particularly working class voters, who, the left said, were duped by political elites who either promoted this model or were afraid to challenge it.
Well a funny thing happened in the wake of the Great Recession, a worldwide pandemic and persistent, maddening economic inequality: ordinary voters, including working class voters, are sick of neoliberalism. They’ve had it and they’re ready for something different.
The answer to the left’s prayers right? The opportunity—finally!—to push the American economic model in their preferred direction by building up the mass support the left has always lacked.
A great opportunity, yes, and also an opportunity that’s being impressively blown by today’s left and, in the process, is taking the Democratic party down with them. At the very moment when neoliberalism has been comprehensively discredited, the left has become more and more associated with unpopular sociocultural issues and less and less with solving the problems of working class people. This has branded the left as a movement out of touch with the concerns and language of ordinary voters—a movement that is using its increased influence within the Democratic party to promote pet causes and interfere with effective governance. This is undermining the Democrats’ ability to garner mass support for the very economic transition the left has been promoting for forty years.
How did this sorry state of affairs arise? This is best illustrated by looking at the area of culture and language where the left’s estrangement from ordinary voters is most obvious and which has increasingly defined the left’s brand—and by extension the Democratic party’s.
The culture of the left has evolved and not in a good way. It is now thoroughly out of touch with its working class roots and completely dominated by college-educated professionals, typically in big metropolitan areas and university towns and typically younger. These are the people that fill the ranks of the media, nonprofits, advocacy groups, foundations and the infrastructure of the Democratic party. They speak their own language and highlight the issues that most animate their commitments to ‘social justice”.
These commitments are increasingly driven by what is now referred to as identity politics. This form of politics originated in the 1960s movements that sought to eliminate discrimination against and establish equal treatment and access for women and for racial and sexual minorities. In evolving to the present day, the focus has mutated into an attempt to impose a worldview that emphasizes multiple, intersecting levels of oppression (“intersectionality”) based on group identification. In place of promoting universal rights and principles—the traditional remit of the left–advocates now police others on the left to uncritically embrace this intersectional approach, insist on an arcane vocabulary for speaking about these purportedly oppressed groups, and prohibit discourse based on logic and evidence to evaluate the assertions of those who claim to speak on the groups’ behalf.
Is America really a “white supremacist” society? What does “structural racism” even mean and does it explain all the socioeconomic problems of nonwhites? Is anyone who raises questions about immigration levels a racist? Are personal pronouns necessary and something the left should seek to popularize? Are transwomen exactly the same as biological women and are those who question such a claim simply “haters” who should be expunged from the left coalition (as has been advocated in the UK)? This list could go on. What ties the questions together is that they are closely associated with practitioners of identity politics or adherents of the intersectional approach, who deem them not open to debate with the usual tools of logic and evidence. Politically derived answers are simply to be embraced by the left in the interest of “social justice.”
The left has paid a considerable price for its increasingly strong linkage to militant identity politics, which brands it as focused on, or at least distracted by, issues of little relevance to most voters’ lives. Worse, the focus has led many working-class voters to believe that, unless they subscribe to this emerging worldview and are willing to speak its language, they will be condemned as reactionary, intolerant, and racist by those who purport to represent their interests. To some extent these voters are right: They really are looked down upon by the dominant elements of the left—typically younger, well-educated, and metropolitan—who embrace identity politics and the intersectional approach. This has contributed to the emerging rupture in the Democratic Party’s coalition along lines of education and region.
This rupture was solidified by the election of Donald Trump in 2016. By far the dominant interpretation of white working class support for Trump on the left was that these voters were racist and xenophobic, full stop. They just didn’t like the loss of status and privilege allegedly attendant upon being white as America evolved to a more multicultural, multiracial democracy. This was odd since the left has just spent the last many decades sternly denouncing neoliberalism and how it was ruining the lives and communities of all working people. But that counted for little as the left digested the Trump victory and girded for battle as “The Resistance”.
The Trump years further deepened the identity politics commitments of the left, particularly in the wake of the nationwide movement protesting the murder of George Floyd. This left its stamp on the 2020 edition of the Democratic party, notwithstanding their old school standard-bearer, Joe Biden. Not surprisingly Biden did not do much better than recent Democrats among the white working class. But, especially shocking to those on the left, the “racial reckoning” and four years of Donald Trump, did not produce enhanced support for Democrats among nonwhites, but rather significant erosion in that support, particularly among working class nonwhites.
I do not see many signs that the processing of these electoral signals has led the left back toward a more universalist approach. In fact quite the opposite seems to have happened. The left is holding ever more tenaciously onto policies and rhetoric linked to identity politics.
Biden and leading Democrats have sought to defuse controversies around this brand of politics by characterizing the controversies as Republican attempts to distract voters from Democrats’ more popular policies. This is certainly better than directly endorsing the highly unpopular rhetoric and practices of the left in areas like crime, immigration, ideological “anti-racism,” and language policing. But, because it falls short of direct criticism and because the Biden administration itself has drenched many of its own initiatives in rhetoric of “equity,” “systemic racism,” and other buzzwords central to identity politics, the Democratic party has not escaped association with that approach’s more unpopular aspects.
As a result, the party’s—or, at least, Biden’s—attempt to rebrand Democrats as a unifying party speaking for Americans across divisions of race and class appears to have failed. Voters are not sure Democrats can look beyond identity politics to ensure public safety, secure borders, high quality, non-ideological education, and economic progress for all Americans. A universalist message is simply not getting through.
Instead, the Democrats find themselves weighed down by those whose tendency is to oppose firm action to control crime or the southern border as concessions to racism, interpret concerns about ideological school curricula and lowering educational standards as manifestations of white supremacy, and generally emphasize the identity politics angle of virtually every issue. With this baggage, rebranding is impossible, since decisive action that might lead to such a rebranding is immediately crippled by a torrent of criticism or simply never proposed.
In short, Democrats are stuck. The left will not allow the party to escape the gravitational field of identity politics and the party’s inability to do so means that their brand cannot sustain a durable majority. Indeed, there are signs that Democrats are experiencing more and more slippage among working class voters of all races. For a left of center party, that is catastrophic—not just for 2022, but far beyond.
There is a way forward and it involves embracing the core views and values of ordinary voters, particularly ordinary working class voters. Logically, the left should be promoting this approach since realistically a transition away from neoliberalism—the economic program fervently advocated by the left for forty years—will take years and a far broader coalition than the Democrats currently have.
Below I present a list of such core views and values, cast in terms that would be congenial to ordinary working class voters but nevertheless reflect the liberal commitments of the Democratic party. Democratic politicians, including those on the left, should be able to put forward these liberal-but-not-radical statements without feeling embarrassed or afraid they will get attacked by their own side.
- Equality of opportunity is a fundamental American principle; equality of outcome is not.
- America is not perfect but it is good to be patriotic and proud of the country.
- Discrimination and racism are bad but they are not the cause of all disparities in American society.
- No one is completely without bias but calling all white people racists who benefit from white privilege and American society a white supremacist society is not right or fair.
- America benefits from the presence of immigrants and no immigrant, even if illegal, should be mistreated. But border security is still important, as is an enforceable system that fairly decides who can enter the country.
- Police misconduct and brutality against people of any race is wrong and we need to reform police conduct and recruitment. But crime is a real problem so more and better policing is needed for public safety. That cannot be provided by “defunding the police”.
- There are underlying differences between men and women but discrimination on the basis of gender is wrong.
- There are basically two genders but people who want to live as a gender different from their biological sex should have that right and not be discriminated against. However, there are issues around child consent to transitioning and participation in women’s sports that are complicated and not settled.
- Racial achievement gaps are bad and we should seek to close them. However, they are not due just to racism and standards of high achievement should be maintained for people of all races.
- Language policing has gone too far; by and large, people should be able to express their views without fear of sanction by employer, school, institution or government. Good faith should be assumed, not bad faith.
A president cannot and should not micromanage local policing and schooling, much less the private decisions of “woke” business. What he can do is state his own liberal-but-not-radical position in the cultural struggles of the day, as did former presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama at various times.
Maher is not the only American who subscribes to liberalism in its old sense while balking at group rights, equivocation over crime (many of whose victims are poor minorities) and the minefield of modern speech. It is not as though Biden need turn into J Edgar Hoover to win these voters over. And if and when they are reassured, the Republicans’ own capacity for cultural over-reach, perhaps in the form of judicial rulings on abortion and other issues this year, will stand out.
At the moment, Biden is relying on his bona fides to get him through. He has spent much of his career at the conservative end of his party. He is a Catholic who came of age before the Permissive Society of the 1960s. If anything, the worry upon his third bid for the White House was that the author of hardline criminal justice laws was too draconian and old-fashioned for modern America.
Perhaps to compensate for that past, however, he has been nervous to shout down the strident voices to his left. He is caught between strict liberals and the kind of progressives for whom liberalism is a polite cover for all kinds of structural inequities. Refusing to pick a side is a good way to maintain the uneasy peace within the Democratic party. Unfortunately, it is also a good way of arousing the mistrust of large parts of the country.
It is time for Joe Biden to pick a side. The left is dragging his party and Presidency down. And in the process the left is blowing its big opportunity to move American society away from the neoliberalism they’ve been criticizing for forty years. In that sense, Biden, by taking a side, would be doing the left a favor and saving them from themselves. That is, if they still believe in replacing neoliberalism.