Jacob Levy on Identity Politics

I never like disagreeing with Jacob Levy, but here goes. Jacob writes:

There’s a hypothesis afoot that identity politics or “political correctness,” particularly on the left, generated a backlash that elected Trump. This backlash is sometimes understood as a self-conscious turn to white identity politics, and sometimes as just sheer middle-[white-]American irritation with cultural elites and an attraction to Trump’s willingness to ignore their taboos and pieties. Part of the claim about identity politics is that it is self-undermining and so needs to be discarded, regardless of its substantive merits. In the language of political philosophy, the claim is that attention to the concerns of minorities violates a requirement that norms or ideals demonstrate stability when acted upon. Given the prominence of this idea in post-election commentary, I think it’s important to show that it’s wrong before turning to the actual merits of identity politics.

But, he continues:

Trump got a lower share of the white vote than Romney did (58% vs 59%). There was some change in both directions within the white vote: college-educated whites shifted toward the Democratic column by a few points (though a plurality still voted for Trump), but non-college-educated whites moved in larger numbers toward Trump (he got 67% of their votes, versus 62% for Romney). White men shifted toward Trump by 1% relative to 2012, white women in the other direction by 3%. This back-and-forth of course meant that Trump eked out victories in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, and therefore the presidency, by a combined 80,000 or so votes across the three states. But fundamentally, voting patterns didn’t change enough between 2012 and 2016 to justify big claims about new national moods or about Trump’s distinctive appeal. I believe the consequences of this election will be deeply abnormal. But the voting behavior that brought it about was, in the end, very normal.

An 80,000 vote margin in a 137 million vote election, about .05%, is susceptible of almost endless plausible explanations. The number of different factors that might well have moved that many votes is very large. So there are a lot of different true but-for explanations: but for Clinton’s failure to campaign in Wisconsin, but for the Comey letter, but for stricter voter ID laws and reductions in the numbers of polling places, but for Jill Stein, and so on, ad infinitum. A Democratic party strategist has good reason to take lots of them very seriously. But anyone trying to generalize about popular beliefs or the electorate’s mood should be very wary of any of them. Grabbing a plausibly-true but-for explanation of 80,000 votes, as if it says something big and true about the whole electorate, will over-explain the outcome. An explanation that is one of the many valid ones for those 80,000 votes, and thus for the Electoral College outcome, but that implies some large shift in opinion or mood toward Trump, is a bad explanation overall.

This seems both right and wrong to me.

It’s lazy, and wrong, to say that there’s a white identity politics majority out there. But it may be right to say that there’s a white identity politics governing minority out there, and that we can infer something about the next four years based on the desiderata of white identity politics, which has captured (or re-captured, or really never let go of) the Republican Party. The existence of a plethora of “but-for” counterfactuals out there can’t really erase the months and months of calculated anti-PC rhetoric from the Trump campaign. That rhetoric seems a lot more informative of where we are headed as a nation than does the campaign of Jill Stein, and the counterfactual of where we might be without her, doesn’t it?

No, most Americans are not siding with a white-identity backlash against political correctness. But it seems like whistling past the graveyard to suggest that such a backlash won’t be a major force in the political culture of the next four years. It clearly will be. It’s by design that minorities are empowered to govern in our system; our incoming governing minority might have won power while enunciating other arguments, but the fact is that it did not.

The stated motivations of Republican voters are not trivial because they are in the minority. Nor are Republicans’ stated motivations trivial simply because most of them would have voted for some other Republican anyway, and for other stated motivations. Those things might both be true, but both are now irrelevant: The Republican Party might have nudged voters away from white identity politics, but in our world the party once again nudged voters toward white identity politics.

Nor are the excesses of political correctness confined to campus hotheads, as Jacob also suggests. Would that it were, but it’s all over our social media too. Indeed, it’s hard not to see the rise of the alt-right, also a social media phenomenon, as a reaction to a stimulus that remains localized to the environment of the stimulus itself. But for all that, it’s no less real, and it’s likely increasingly important.

Let’s look at just my yesterday on Twitter, because it’s representative enough: Yesterday I learned of the evil of “manthreading,” in which – I shit you not – men oppress women by threading Tweets.

Oh I wish I were joking.

I mean, come on, people. Every moment we talk about manthreading, we’re ignoring harassment, stalking, doxing, and all kinds of other genuine manifestations of sexism. In fact, the charge of manthreading is so stupid that it makes me almost want to change my vote: Credibly promise to destroy this… and I might just join you. Even if you are Donald Trump.

This makes Jacob’s praise for identity politics puzzling to me: An equivocation is occurring here, between good and bad, both claiming to be “identity politics.” In cases like that, it’s morally imperative to differentiate rather than to lump together. I fear the equivocation is being fomented by people with a vested interest therein, and I fear he’s fallen victim to it. The fomenters stand to ruin everything good about – just for example – Black Lives Matter – for the sake of preposterous, separatist, self-righteous clickbait.

The idea behind much though not all of identity politics is that no actions of the out-group are ever innocent in principle. So, for example, as a gay man, I must always read Jacob Levy’s writings as a presumptive attempt to oppress me. He is not of my tribe. I can only ever trust gays and lesbians, and maybe not even them, because a lot of them are not sufficiently woke.

To this way of thinking, a failure to find clear evidence of oppressive intent does not and cannot ever fully exonerate anyone of the suspect class. Doing identity politics in this vein requires the intellectual and social subordination of all who don’t share the identity.

On questions of race, it requires whites to sit down and shut up, not to affirm that Black Lives Matter. And it finds the most sinister motives whenever a white grandmother from Duluth refers in passing to “the blacks.” (To my mind: It’s gauche, but it’s not apartheid.)

The worst sort of identity politics denies that whites can play any constructive role at all, asking for example for “black villages,” described as follows:

disrupting the Western-prescribed nuclear family structure requirement by supporting each other as extended families and “villages” that collectively care for one another, and especially “our” children to the degree that mothers, parents and children are comfortable.

If my many black neighbors really thought that I were being so unhelpful, I’d be moving out. But that’s not a good way to go, whether for a neighborhood or for a society. It does fail the stability criterion, and it fails good and hard. It would produce the apartheid that it proposes to destroy. There are sound reasons to reject that kind of politics, and that kind of semiotics, from which it is inseparable.

That said, I do hope we un-woke and hopelessly western white people can still support much of the activism that Jacob praises elsewhere in his essay, although it would be naive to say that the two forms of identity politics don’t usually blur together. They do: The “black villages” passage I quoted is from the website of Black Lives Matter. The movement has done a lot of good, but I can’t say I endorse everything that’s ever been done under that name, and I don’t think Jacob can either.

Now, if we whites ever propose to distinguish good from bad here, we are in for a lot of grief. As whites, we’re a suspect class. We can never escape that designation, and that hardly seems fairer than the treatment that (yes!) whites constantly gave to people of color in the past, and that whites still give people of color today.

I am sorry that the current backlash against minority identity politics has taken the form of white people doing identity politics, but now even harder, and using the vehicle of a demographically typical winning Republican presidential coalition to do it.

But that is where we are. Isn’t it?

5 thoughts on “Jacob Levy on Identity Politics

  1. The overton window got an earthquake and now there is more than one overton window out there. This group has this overton window, that group has that one.

    There are clicks to be made pointing out the things that are in their overton windows that are not in ours.

    I’m not sure that we’ll be able to go back to just one overton window to rule them all.


  2. To be fair, that “manthreading” article was immediately panned by other social justice folks on Twitter. Though I can’t link to the author’s Tweet right now, it’s easy to find.

    But I’ll grant that the fact that it was even posted and liked by some people is evidence that there’s a segment of social justice people who take up bad ideas like that. That’s a comparable what you could find happening in segments of Alt Right, among some environmentalists, and so on.


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  4. You say the BLM movement has done *a lot* of good. I have a hard time seeing this, even though I agree with many of their goals.

    (That is, I agree that police often harrass African Americans excesively and disproportionally, and that this foments distrust. Also that the system is poor at holding accountable police who abuse their power.)

    The movement was, literally, founded on a lie (“hands up don’t shoot.”) It routinely calls cops “murderers” in almost any instance, refusing to give them ANY benefit of the doubt even when, for example, the suspect/victim is armed. It shouts down likely allies like Bernie Sanders, who attempt to build common ground by saying “all lives matter.” It ignores all evidence (e.g. from Roland Fryer) that disparities in lethal force are mostly (perhaps entirely) caused by group differences in crimanal behavior.

    And what has it accomplished? Murder rates are way up in many heavily black cities. People like me are totally turned off. And Trump is president. I suspect even many black cops voted for him.


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