JANUARY 14, 2017
ANDREW HOBEREK: Since November 8, there has been a lot of talk about how Donald Trump appealed (or Hillary Clinton failed to appeal) to voters on economic issues. This discussion has generally focused, in an extremely limited way, on a real or imagined group of white working-class voters in the “Rust Belt,” with the unfortunate effect of reigniting debates about the difference between class and identity politics — as though economic justice were not also crucial to people of color and other minority groups. Moving forward, how can we overcome this false distinction and think about economic issues in a way that encompasses — while taking full account of the differences among — various groups?
KEONA K. ERVIN: In the cacophony of voices weighing in on the meaning of Donald J. Trump’s presidential election victory, an old construction, the “(white) working class,” has reemerged in public discourse. Embedded in this concept is the assumption that the American working class is not only white, but male. Pundits have been telling stories about the forgotten and ignored “white working class,” suggesting that Trumpism is what results when white working-class resentment goes unacknowledged. The outcome of the election, we are told, may best be understood as the failure of the Clinton campaign and the effectiveness of Trump strategists to appeal to (white) workers’ economic concerns. Decades of alienation and hardship have resulted, according to this narrative, in an economic resentment forceful enough to transform a quintessential Wall Street tycoon into a so-called populist savior. The election of Trump, commentators tell us, was an understandable response to years of neglecting white working men.
We’ve been here before. Associating white masculinity with “the working class” has long served particular political and economic purposes. Throughout American history, white, male, able-bodied, industrial, and trade unionist defined the American working class. This understanding shaped public policy, American trade unionism, notions of the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor, and designations of which laboring bodies mattered to the state.
Studies have, of course, taught us differently. Workers of color and women workers of color were much more than simple contributors to the story of the making of the American working class. The labor they performed — confined as they were to menial, low-wage jobs — became critical arenas for class formation, working-class struggle, and class consciousness. One need only look to the corpus of works on capitalism and slavery or those which address black women’s labor within the carceral state, for example, to discover how our story of American labor fundamentally shifts when we bring forgotten laboring bodies into the story of the “house of labor.” Meanwhile, labor historians have interrogated the racial and gender categories of whiteness and white masculinity that have undergirded our traditional conception of the working class. Such works radically disrupt and move beyond the false binary of class versus “identity politics.”
For one thing, invocations of the white working class often ignore the ways in which the economic resentments of white working-class people are conceptualized and expressed through race. Moving from the assumption that invoking class automatically means that race isn’t at work, commentators who cited white voters’ support for Obama in the 2008 and 2012 elections as evidence that white working-class voters for Trump weren’t motivated by racism, for instance, missed how race, as George Lipsitz says, “takes place” or finds expression through economic entitlement and possession. Trump supporters’ racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, and support of mass deportations, a wall along the US–Mexico border, and a Muslim registry are inextricably bound up with their economic resentment. In this respect, the “white working class” construction fails to confront Trump supporters’ erroneous zero-sum calculation that advancement for racial, ethnic, and sexual minorities and women means economic misery for them. The act of making “white working class” synonymous with “Trump supporter,” moreover, diverts attention from the cross-class and cross-gender unity among white voters for Trump. What about white middle- and upper-class Trump supporters, and the white women who supported his candidacy? It also makes monolithic assumptions about the politics of white working-class people, erasing white working-class men in the rural- and post-industrial-Rust-Belt-America, for example, who hold anticapitalist and antiracist views.
And yet, the economic suffering of the white working class is real, and our political discourses have, in fact, often ignored white working-class suffering for a variety of reasons, good and bad. Neoliberal policies, corporatization, deindustrialization, the erosion of the social safety net, the gutting of public institutions, expanding marketization, and rising inequality eviscerated the working class in general. And while it is clear that economic restructuring since the 1970s differently impacted the segments of this class — and that these differential impacts matter — we can’t lose sight of the serious precarity that all working people face. The problem with discussing the white, male working class is not that it has not also suffered from these shifts, but that unexamined constructions of labor as white and male incorrectly advance a line of thinking that people who are understood to “bear” race — immigrants of color, Muslims, blacks, Latinxs — lack class concerns. Let’s engage the work of Kimberlé Crenshaw, BYP100, and Angela Davis, for example, to understand why such conceptualizations are a dead-end.
The “white working class” construction thus flattens our analysis and stifles our political imagination. It renders workers of color invisible and ignores their economic concerns. Constructions of the “white working class” also tend to render working-class struggle itself, especially that which emerges from mobilizations by workers of color and struggles that exist outside of the traditional framework of industrial trade unionism, as politically unintelligible. Yet working-class movements like the Fight for $15 and struggles waged by the National Domestic Workers Union and the Chicago Teachers Union — some of the most important of their kind today — would have been impossible without the innovative political leadership of women workers of color. Worker centers like the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles and Latino Union of Chicago do critical work in merging struggles for immigrant rights and worker power. UNITE HERE, a union for workers in the hospitality industry, is among the leaders of its kind as it builds a multiracial worker movement; its culinary union Local 226 was crucial to one of 2016’s few Democratic Party wins in Nevada, a “swing” state.
There are many more examples (too many to cite here) that are not only disrupting long-held ideas about the composition of the American working class, but are also advancing innovative tactics and strategies of worker self-organization. To imagine alternative futures we need to build a labor movement that centers social justice. We need to reignite efforts to mobilize and establish solidarity among members of the real American working class, efforts that necessarily involve the struggle to “free white working people from the paltry wages of whiteness,” as Robin D. G. Kelley has put it. Visionary struggles — past and present — that have accurately defined the working class and have imagined working-class struggles in the largest and most inclusive terms serve as models for identifying and targeting common enemies and working toward a better future for all workers.
SUE J. KIM: As with the phrase “regular Americans,” the term “working class” often refers implicitly to white workers, but quite often these days, the actual phrase “white working class” is used. These terms generally refer to those in rural and urban areas devastated by deindustrialization. We must, we are told, feel their pain. Such insights have gone hand in hand with the exhortation to leave behind “identity politics” and “diversity,” which have, so the claim goes, distracted liberals and the left generally from the problems of the working class.
I will be among the first to admit that there are problematic forms of identity politics — particularly the sort of liberal multiculturalism which focuses on simply adding “diverse” folks to existing corporate, governmental, and institutional structures. But critique of these problematic and ultimately superficial forms of decolonization is not the object of these recent appeals. Rather, the “class versus race” dichotomy is designed to defang progressive movements seeking to undo the ravages of both.
The idea that we should pay attention to the white working class instead of “identity politics” ignores the actual history of how issues of identity and class have always been intimately interconnected at least since the beginnings of capitalism. Learn about the origins of colonialism with the Dutch East India Company or the British Royal Niger Company, or read the work of Manning Marable and Angela Davis. Study the history of most Asian groups in the United States — our polyglot histories are more often than not the results of a combination of commerce/labor needs, colonialism, and the Cold War. The issues informing the Dakota Access Pipeline protest did not suddenly arise in 2016. Issues of race, gender, and class are by no means “new” issues — they are literally woven into the fabric of American and Western society. It’s only the explicit discussion of these histories and ongoing processes that is relatively new.
So attempts to divorce class from race have two major implications. First, they suggest that issues of race, gender, sexuality, disability, et cetera, are at best distractions from the “real issues,” at worst exercises in self-affirmation. While issues of identity formation are critical — especially for the young — almost all such movements are also critiques of structures and systems of exploitation and oppression, ranging from the prison-industrial complex to reproductive access to education. Progressive anticapitalist, antiracist, feminist, LGBTQ, climate change, and other activists understand that identity is always embedded in social structures — including the identity category of “white working class.” Only an extremely superficial notion of identity politics or diversity asserts that the main issue is individual identity.
Second, such stances often imply that poor- and working-class whites are somehow subhuman. Many seemingly compassionate gestures participate in a long history of “sympathy” that in fact dehumanizes the other. Coded in such conversations is an undercurrent of blame of “others” who live only in certain parts of the nation (the South, the deindustrialized Rust Belt). An atmosphere of melancholy and mourning, hilariously depicted in Dave Chappelle’s Saturday Night Live’s sketch about election night 2016, haunts the disbelief of white liberals in particular. As Patrick Thornton puts it, we need to “stop infantilizing and deifying rural and white working-class Americans.” Rather, we should treat working-class people — like all people — like human beings, which means listening to their concerns as well as holding them responsible for their thoughts and actions.
The difference is between “blame” and scapegoating, on one hand, and understanding causes, on the other. It’s one thing to understand that the system is broken for a lot of people. It’s another thing to blame the disastrous results of this election on the sheer ignorance of “deplorable” members of the lower classes. We must hold people accountable for their views, but by the same token, we must examine our own complicity in producing the terrible state of education, health care, child care, jobs, prisons, drug addiction — the list goes on. Post-election stories on NPR and in other venues repeatedly suggest that we should try to understand these natives from a foreign land called the “white working class,” rather than examining the histories and reasons for why social groups have taken certain forms.
Some poor whites voted for Trump. But so did suburbanites with no good reason other than a combination of racism, misogyny, Islamophobia, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, et cetera. In fact, the majority of people whose income is under $50,000 voted for Clinton. White people across the board — in terms of education, age, economics — voted for Trump and his particular brand of white supremacy and xenophobia. A study of far-right movements in the United States and Europe that was conducted before the election found that “far-right party platforms differ from country to country, including on major social issues like feminism and economic issues like the size of the welfare state. The one issue every single one agrees on is hostility to immigration, particularly when the immigrants are nonwhite and Muslim.” And yet the narrative we keep hearing is that “the white working class” voted Trump into office.
The Democratic Party in the United States — by shifting to the center/right during the Clinton era — turned its back on the working classes and people of color, and these multiracial working classes are struggling. Yet despite this, many working-class whites and people of color I know did not vote for Trump. Even knowing that the Democrats would not necessarily make their lives substantially better, they chose to vote for Clinton. Their votes were acts of self-sacrifice and generosity on a scale that pundits and politicians seem incapable of comprehending, and that we seldom hear about.
So my ire is reserved for the significant portion of upper-middle-class voters who voted for Trump, as well as for those who refuse to examine why the working class across the board may have felt at best tepid about the Democratic ticket. As Julianne Escobedo Shepherd writes, “One of the worst and most dishonest liberal sayings is ‘It’s not about race, it’s about class,’ as though race and class are not as uniquely intertwined as every other demographic […] It’s about class, it’s about race. And we’re all fucked because of it.”
CURTIS MAREZ: Both sides of the class versus race debate in critical accounts of Trump’s election presuppose the question, “What do white working-class voters want?” This of course centers whites and marginalizes people of color in representations of the working classes (and the plural here is important). Since so many of Trump’s white supporters are middle and upper class, the focus on “the white working class” defines class in abstract, culturalist ways at some distance from material realities. Many Trump fans, to paraphrase Stuart Hall, experience their class via their race and gender (and vice versa).
At the same time, most of the Muslim, Mexican, and black people whom Trump has vilified labor for a living. He has thus pitted different workers against each other while imaginatively excluding people of color from the category “worker,” here imagined to mean “deserving, white worker.” Trump’s agenda was, arguably, not so much to exclude workers of color as to discipline them and “put them in their place.” Women of color in particular bear the brunt of such attacks. And commentators who have unthinkingly reproduced traditional conceptions of a white, male working class have been complicit in these assaults.
It is almost as though scholars in Ethnic Studies, Gender Studies, and related interdisciplinary fields have not spent the past quarter century, at least, analyzing inequality in terms of intersecting hierarchies of race, class, gender, sexuality, and ability. In a foundational 1991 article, for example, UCLA law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw famously theorized the concept of “intersectionality,” and her discussion of Trump in this essay was prescient, to say the least. Drawing on the work of another black feminist scholar, Valerie Smith, Crenshaw analyzed intersections of race and gender in the Central Park rape case, where the young men of color accused (and subsequently exonerated) of raping a white woman were racialized as “savages,” “wolves,” and “beasts.” “Given the chilling parallels between the media representations of the Central Park rape and the sensationalized coverage of similar allegations that in the past frequently culminated in lynchings,” Crenshaw wrote, “one could hardly be surprised when Donald Trump took out a full page ad in four New York newspapers demanding that New York ‘Bring Back the Death Penalty, Bring Back Our Police.’” In the period when Trump was focusing attention on the Central Park case, many equally horrific rapes occurred, the majority of whose victims were women of color. Yet none “elicited the public expressions of horror and outrage that attended the Central Park rape,” leading Crenshaw to conclude that black women are devalued both because they are black and because they are women.
I was reminded of that part of Crenshaw’s essay when Trump launched his presidential campaign by foregrounding the figure of the Mexican rapist. A blatant appeal to white nativists, this figure not only vilified working-class immigrant men but also implicitly invoked violated white women while diminishing the violence faced by women of color. And even as Trump has launched assaults on people bearing the disproportionate burden of intersecting inequalities, he has set out to undermine the interpretive frameworks that would help us to understand these people’s struggles. Trump stands on the shoulders of decades of right-wing efforts to discredit education in general and research and teaching about intersections of class, race, gender, and sexuality in particular. His criticisms of “political correctness” can be traced to the early 1990s, when — as Chris Newfield details in Unmaking the Public University — conservative intellectuals and think tanks began using the concept in an effort to defund public universities. The revived battle against political correctness that was already underway in red state legislatures before Trump took the wheel is partly a war on working-class students of color and their worldviews. As Roderick Ferguson argues, the student demands of the 1960s and 1970s prioritized the dramatic redistribution of resources and greater access for working-class students of color, and Trump’s reanimation of “political correctness” is a club wielded against such aspirations.
Similar logics are at play in campaigns against Ethnic Studies in Arizona high schools and elsewhere, and more broadly, in the state-level gutting of public education from colleges to K–12. All the news stories of Trump-inspired hate speech in high schools and elementary schools suggest the culmination of a long reactionary march though the public school system, aimed at bullying the next generation of low-wage workers of color and reproducing white-nationalist constituencies.
Liberal political analysis and representation that focuses on children is sometimes criticized for displacing a larger critique of structural violence with sentimental invocations of threatened innocence. But I want to end by discussing a different sort of child-focused movement operating at the intersection of class, race, gender, and generation. Shortly after Trump announced his campaign, a group of fifth graders from Bell Garden Elementary in Montebello, California, a significantly Latinx area and school district, lobbied the California State Legislature to pass a bill encouraging public school teaching about the era of mass deportations in the 1930s. This was the era during which as many as a million people of Mexican descent, including a number of US citizens, were deported from California to Mexico. As fifth grader Nicole Sandoval told reporters, “My whole class felt that this is wrong […] It happened to kids like us who are Mexican Americans, and we do not want history to repeat itself.” Participants in the artificial class versus race debate would do well to ponder the fact that we now live in a world in which working-class girls of color represent the oppositional vanguard.
IGNACIO M. SÁNCHEZ PRADO: If one brackets Donald Trump’s victory, the most dangerous thing that occurred in the 2016 presidential election was the transformation of both the Democratic and Republican parties into full-fledged cultural parties. They both have bases thoroughly defined by clear identity coordinates. The former is, roughly, a multiculturalist urban coalition tied to a progressive form of identity politics (anchored in the expansion of racial and gender rights) while significantly committed (albeit not without dissent) to creative-class neoliberalism — gentrification, innovation, et cetera. The latter is, at its core, a white-supremacist party encompassing a series of radicalized (and occasionally contradictory) right-wing cultural identities — libertarians, Evangelicals, deindustrialized working classes, suburban economic elites — that coalesce around a reactionary nostalgia aimed at the destruction of social institutions created by and in the aftermath of the Civil Rights movements. Without denying that the former coalition constitutes a lesser evil — and recognizing that the Sanders movement may have planted the seeds of a different Democratic party — it is important to recognize that, in their current form, both institutions resort to voter suppression (through voter ID laws, gerrymandering, negative campaigning, misinformation, inaccurate polling, and targeted data-based electoral ground games) to try to win elections on the basis of their existing constituencies. They each represent around 25 percent of the electorate, which means that their strategies ignore roughly 50 percent of the electorate. Most elections are noncompetitive, and the parties have devoted themselves to building up safe districts and territories, that, when they turn “competitive,” can still be won or lost by a small number of points produced by turning out (or failing to turn out) the party bases.
There is no American exceptionalism here. This electoral process is part of a long-term, global erosion of the political that has taken place under neoliberalism. Silvio Berlusconi, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen, Viktor Orbán, Mauricio Macri, and Álvaro Uribe are all figures embodying the same logic as Trump: the emergence of reactionary right-wing nationalism to channel the anger of declining middle classes into an adversarial relationship with marginalized constituencies of all sorts (black people, migrants, Muslims, peasants, et cetera). This strategy in turn grows out of the long-term erosion of the middle classes that has already been extensively studied using a number of different names: “Undoing the Demos” (Wendy Brown), “Expulsions, Brutality and Complexity” (Saskia Sassen), “Precarization” (Judith Butler, Isabell Lorey). Of course from a global perspective what is problematic about all these accounts is their nostalgia for a past that was never as rosy or just as it sometimes looks in retrospect. That the Fordist mode of production is now seen as a dream world by many critics of neoliberalism is depressing at best.
What is missing from the conversation is an idea of the future, of utopia, where the divisions of the present can truly be overcome and not simply preempted by the traps of a contemporary discourse that falsely poses the “white working class” and “identity politics” as oppositional terms that one must choose from. Although a few recent writers (like Fredric Jameson, Erik Olin Wright, and Peter Frase) have ventured to speculate what an economically just utopia would look like, contemporary politics are largely held hostage by what Svetlana Boym has called “restorative nostalgia,” a structure of feeling organized around past idealisms or past wrongs that actively blocks our potential futures. This is why the projects that we group under the name “identity politics,” understood as the action of self-asserting marginalized groups to render visible and fight against their oppression, have begun to show their limits and to backfire. Although no one in their right mind would deny the concrete oppression of specific groups and the need to recognize the racialization and genderization of injustice, we must also acknowledge that a significant number of the practices and vocabularies that proponents of identity politics have developed have been co-opted and weaponized by the enemies of justice (men’s rights activists, Christians committed to politicizing what they see as their victimization, critics of political correctness masquerading as champions of the First Amendment, and so forth). To recognize this is not to demonize “identity politics” or to demean the repertoire of political strategies and discourses deployed by peoples marginalized by race or gender. It means, rather, that there are limits of that repertoire that must be acknowledged, both in terms of their political efficacy in addressing their goals of inclusion and justice, and in their heuristic understanding of what marginalization or justice means. That the utterance of “working class” or the idea of class in itself triggers rejection because it is mistakenly identified solely with the white proletariat of the Fordist era, and the fact that our reifications of the concept of race blind us to the marginalization of working-class white subjects, render visible a problem of political forms of mobilization that fail to account for the actually-existing version of the working class today.
We thus need to imagine a future for economic justice that requires neither annulling the plight of individual groups (whether they be Black Lives Matter or the precarized white working class) nor imagining a working-class politics that is inherently white or US-based. For better or for worse, we have very significant solidarity gaps, both within the United States (between whites and nonwhites, but also between and within nonwhite identity groups) and internationally (American workers who fear competition from immigrants, or who want “their” jobs to stay in the United States at the expense of fellow workers in Mexico or China). With the rise of a CEO from the fast-food industry to head the Labor Department, it becomes patently urgent to understand the working class in the racially diverse, multigendered, geographically decentered way it functions today. That entails not only recognizing the differences among workers, but also understanding that any form of engagement that does not account for their relationship to capital and production is bound to fail as a politics. Identity politics, white nationalism, and nation-centric forms of left politics alike are all mechanisms which support neoliberal capital by forestalling the sort of wide, united-front politics necessary to rethink justice. And the sort of white-nationalist reawakening we see today is only possible in the void of economic ways of thinking marginalized subjects at large.
MIN HYOUNG SONG: In 1944 and 1945, the top marginal tax rate in the United States was 94 percent. This meant that any income above $200,000 (or roughly $2.7 million in today’s dollars) would have been taxed at this rate. So, if you made $100 over this limit during either of these years, you would have kept just six dollars of this amount. This is the highest top marginal tax rate ever achieved in this country. Remarkably, this rate stayed over 90 percent until 1964, when President Kennedy finally lowered it to 77 percent. In 2013, the top marginal tax rate was 39.6 percent, up from 35 percent the year before. As sensational as these facts are, we should keep in mind that very few people ever paid this rate and those who did had the bulk of their income taxed at much lower percentages. Nevertheless, as symbol, a steep progressive tax rate speaks to a period of high civic mindedness.
It can be easy to feel nostalgic for this immediate postwar period, when even taxes spoke to a desire to distribute wealth evenly and reflected, if not helped produce, the familiar bell curve of income equality that was the hallmark of this era in American history. We must, however, approach this nostalgia with skepticism, as we know this brief era was marked by all sorts of racial exclusions, along with gender and sexuality discrimination. Someone like me, who was born in Asia to a working-class family, would not have been allowed to immigrate to this country. African Americans, Native Americans, and Latinx would have, alongside Asian Americans, encountered intense housing discrimination, numerous barriers to educational advancement, and few opportunities for work, much less workplace promotion. Homosexuality was labeled an official psychological disorder, white women had few opportunities outside the home, and women of color were disadvantaged in even more daunting ways. It’s easy, of course, to flatten out the past, and exaggerate its worst features. But it’s equally easy to give the past the glow of a golden age that never existed.
I was once asked by a teacher to write about a historical era in the United States that I’d like to visit. I chose the 1920s, mostly because I had just started to read the writings of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, but even then I felt an uneasiness about the kind of racial denial my selection entailed. If I were being honest, I should have written that I wouldn’t want to be an Asian American before the 1980s. Even in the early 1980s, when I was a young boy growing up in a Detroit suburb, I experienced a lot of racism. Strangers yelled slurs at me from passing cars. Service at restaurants, like the local Denny’s, could be noticeably bad, even hostile, when my family and I went out to dine. Students in my middle school teased and bullied me when they weren’t actively pretending I didn’t exist. I would come home and cry in my dining room because I was so miserable. In high school, I worked one summer as a busboy in a restaurant in downtown Birmingham, which was — and I assume remains — an upscale town full of trendy shops and highly educated people. A diner said to me, “It’s hot outside. But your people are used to the heat, so it probably doesn’t bother you.” In the age of Trump, such experiences have again become common occurrences, if they ever went away.
My memories of such racial harassment are, however, tempered by fond memories of the time I spent with my next-door neighbor Art. I was at the time maybe seven or eight, and he was already retired. He liked to hunt and make things. He set up a box with a trap door in his backyard, and a string that led to his back window. When a bird went into the box, he’d pull the door shut. I sat with him for many hours waiting for a bird to do exactly this. Whenever we caught one, we’d let it go. He also took me fishing, and taught me all sort of useful things, such as how to tie a knot properly — which, sadly, I have since forgotten. He would even take me out to eat and introduce me to his friends, all of whom were white like him and some of whom were decidedly less friendly to me. Their curious gazes, barely tolerant because of Art’s presence, called to mind how generous Art himself was.
Art was as far as I know a union man who worked in the nearby automobile assembly line, just like my father did at the time. I like to think that his treatment of me was typical of the world of fraternal solidarity around which the working classes used to organize themselves. Historical accounts speak of how unions hosted reading groups and even sustained theatrical productions among its members, and of course one of the great perks of a job in an automobile factory was that you earned enough not only to own a house and keep you and your family well fed, but also to engage in all sorts of hobbies, like the kind Art excelled at. I always feel lucky to have had Art in my life because he showed me such kindness at a time when I needed it most, and because he allowed me to see a social world that has largely been lost to us. The opportunities for play and socialization that were so obviously a part of working-class experiences don’t seem to exist anymore. Blue-collar jobs don’t pay as well, they don’t offer very good benefits, and they are a lot less secure. While it could be racially exclusionary, it also seems plausible to me that racial boundaries were more permeable than we remember, and that worker solidarity could take many surprisingly capacious forms. The loss of this working-class world is, among other things, something to be mourned. Could it be a model for the kind of world we’d like again to make possible? Or is this merely a flawed left nostalgia?
At no time, it seems to me, has a cross-racial and international popular social movement focused on a coordinated redistribution of wealth downward ever been so urgently needed. Liberal calls to forget identity politics simply do not help in this regard. Mark Lilla’s article in The New York Times is probably the worst example of these calls, though hardly the only one. Lilla insists that
We need a post-identity liberalism, and it should draw from the past successes of pre-identity liberalism. Such a liberalism would concentrate on widening its base by appealing to Americans as Americans and emphasizing the issues that affect a vast majority of them. It would speak to the nation as a nation of citizens who are in this together and must help one another.
This argument mimics the kind of nationalism that Richard Rorty advocated for in one of his final books, and it’s no surprise perhaps that Achieving Our Country has also been widely cited as a prophetic work that somehow anticipates our moment.
My problem with both Lilla and Rorty is that they place the blame for our divisions squarely on racial minorities, women, gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transgender, immigrants, and Muslims. We are the ones who are too focused on what sets up apart, and as a result we fail to see what we have in common, which presumably is our national identity. Not only does this blame the very people put most at risk by a Trump presidency, it also echoes the thinking that allowed Trump (just barely) to be elected. And like all forms of nostalgic nationalism, its vision of the future is built on an idealized vision of the past. What Lilla in particular seems oblivious to is how the emergence of Trump is not an isolated event, but one that is connected to the emergence of far-right leaders in Europe, Russia, India, the Philippines, and elsewhere. What arguments like Lilla’s and Rorty’s miss, then, is the need for greater economic equality that cuts sharply across national boundaries and shores up badly damaged civic institutions in each country.
There have been many recent instances of popular revolt against inequality and for greater democratic forms of government, from the WTO protests in the late 1990s to the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, Syriza, Black Lives Matter, the massive anti–Park Geun Hye demonstrations, Standing Rock, and others. On one hand, there are these movements for greater democracy and more equality. On the other, there are forces that extoll authoritarianism and promote ever greater levels of inequality. If the former are to succeed in countering the rise of what increasingly looks and feels like fascism, they will have to be attentive to differences of every kind. They will have to learn from our hard-fought efforts to be more inclusionary and more respectful of each other. They will have to respect the disabled and the queer alike. They will have to promote women’s reproductive rights and acceptance of religious differences. They will have to fight against the criminalization of the poor and racial minorities. They will have to honor the rights of native peoples everywhere. They will have to understand how local struggles are inextricably part of struggles in far-flung places. And they will, most of all, have to take account of the fact that these struggles take place during a time of intense and increasing ecological crisis. As Jedediah Purdy succinctly observes, “The politics of the Anthropocene will be either democratic or horrible.” Democratic movements cannot afford to pit social and economic populisms against each other. How to maintain the idea that both are, in fact, inextricably bound up with each other — at times perhaps even indistinguishable — is one of the most pressing intellectual questions of our time.