there’s no conflict here

I see a lot of people going on about a supposed conflict between something called “identity politics” and something called “economic populism,” which is strange because I doubt any of them thinks there’s an actual substantive conflict. Instead there’s just a liberal managerial class that has essentially abandoned any interest in economic justice at all and so has cooked up a phony pretense that these things are somehow contradictory. Liberals talk constantly about “class first” or “class only” leftists, but with my very large network of left-wing connections I can name not a single actual person who holds that position. Instead I see a lot of class-never liberals who clearly have no particular interest in fighting poverty as such, inequality as such, or the 1% as such and have ginned-up a phony fight as a distraction.

The elementary divide in politics remains as clear as ever, even as the two creaky coalitions called “liberalism” and “conservatism” slowly die and people with limited imaginations scramble to understand the new world.

The basic idea is this: that all people deserve equal rights, material security and comfort, and human dignity by virtue of being human and for no other reason. These things are not deserved, nor can your right to them be fairly taken from you, regardless of what you’ve done, what you believe, and whatever culpability we imagine you might have for your condition. My analytical position is that people are almost never actually responsible for their own immiseration, though our culture is set up to get you to think otherwise. But even if that were not my analytical position, my moral position would be that it’s irrelevant. You cannot lose your moral claim to food, shelter, clothing, medical care, equal rights and participation in government, or human value through any action or inaction, or through possessing any belief, no matter how ugly or retrograde. If you believe that some people deserve their hardships, you’re my enemy, and it doesn’t matter what color tie you wear.

Naturally and of necessity, the left has spent a lot of energy focusing on people in traditional marginalized groups, as these groups are those most likely to be denied those basic human entitlements I named above. If you believe that all people deserve equal rights, you will necessarily be a feminist, because those rights are so routinely denied to women. If you believe that all people deserve economic security, you will necessarily fight against racism, because economic security is so routinely denied to people of color. If you believe all people deserve to live lives of human dignity, you will necessarily fight for LGBTQ people, because dignity has so routinely been denied to them. Any political platform that fights to guarantee the rights that I have enumerated here is necessarily feminist, anti-racist, and so on, because the people that suffer from bigotry are those who have been denied them. That such a platform would also help a white straight man in the destitute corridors of Appalachia could only be perceived as a flaw by those who have fundamentally misunderstood the essential question of contemporary politics. Racism and sexism and homophobia are uniquely pernicious and require our special attention; that special attention presents no conflict at all with our absolute need to help those white or straight or male people who suffer too. Anyone who sees a contradiction between the two halves of that sentence is someone who is not actually committed to the fight for human progress.

What is the actual substantive conflict here? What policy are we meant to think hangs in the balance? What specific, material dimension of a political platform is this fight over? Answer this for me: what do the two camps who are supposedly fighting this fight disagree about in terms of what we should actually be trying to do?

The social conflict that has developed online political spaces is just that, a social conflict. “Class vs. race” has no ideological grounding whatsoever. It is substantively empty; there is no content there. What people are fighting such fierce battles about is purely affective: it’s a fight about what we prioritize (or “center,” if you must) not in terms of actual substantive policy but in terms of social and linguistic cues. Typical of contemporary progressivism’s obsession with the symbolic, the fight over what we center isn’t connected to any meaningful dispute in actual material strategy. To act as though we must constantly define one group or another’s interests as a higher priority, even in political messaging that is intended to attract as many people to our cause as possible, is like a parody of liberalism’s inability to simply develop a program and implement it. For weeks thousands of people have said to themselves “I want to take part in pretending there’s a conflict between these two values and engage in a solidarity-destroying fight about it even though I can name no specific issue on which there is a meaningful difference.” This is the response to incipient fascism. It’s breathtaking.

Which would I choose, if I thought I had to either fight racism or fight poverty? I don’t know, if both your children were hanging off a ledge and you could only save one of them, which would you let die? If you could cure cancer but the cure killed all the pandas would you do it? Who would win in a fight, Jaws or the Ghostbusters? It’s an asinine, juvenile question, bullshit dorm-room sophistry, an empty bit of moral posturing wrapped up in virtue signaling and the smug self-satisfaction of those for whom political questions are entirely academic. Please. Save your absurd hypotheticals for Reddit or conversations with your weed dealer. Here on planet Earth we have actual problems to worry about.

The supposed political conflict is also no conflict at all. How do you get the white working class to vote for your politicians? Show them you care about their problems and will work to help solve them. How do you get the support of a diverse electorate? Show them you care about their problems and will work to help solve them. A huge part of politics is simply being able to credibly say to voters that you hear them, that you take their problems seriously, that you acknowledge them as problems. Bill Clinton, as odious as I find him, was masterful at this. And Barack Obama has been even better, appealing to both diversity and economic populism effortlessly, and to the effect of two huge electoral victories. I don’t pretend that he’s delivered on either real diversity or real economic justice, but his political messaging synthesized both easily. It’s not complicated. Yes, yes we can. Si, se puede. The example of the current president completely undermines the notion of a conflict between these values. That suggests that those who claim there is a conflict are really just trying to prevent any substantive economic reforms. That’s all that’s happening here: some people who consider themselves liberals or progressives out of inertia and cultural comfort are butting up against their fundamental political conservatism and are acting out about it.

Up from below. For universal rights or against them. In support of egalitarianism or in support of the vicious inequalities of “meritocracy.” These are the conflicts. If you’re a conservative who thinks that black people in poverty in Detroit deserve it because of a supposed culture of dependence, you’re my enemy. If you’re J.D. Vance, author of Hillbilly Elegy, and you think white people in poverty in the Cincinnati suburbs deserve it because they don’t take initiative in their own lives, you’re my enemy. If you’re Donald Trump and you think undocumented immigrants deserve to be kicked out of the country, you’re my enemy. If you’re some wealthy liberal aristocrat writer, sneering down at the rubes and condemning them to misery because you’ve decided they’re all bigots, you’re my enemy. People deserve their suffering or they don’t. I say they don’t. That’s it, that’s all there is.

93 Comments

  1. Thank you! I just finished reading “Hillbilly Elegy” in an indignant sweat. Yours is the first comment about the book with which I totally agree. The book was a right-wing denunciation of the unworthy disguised as a colorful (albeit white) memoir of lovable deplorables. I hated it. In addition to your critique of Vance, I find your essay a readable and insightful expression of my own beliefs. I fail to understand how separating “identity politics” from economics is useful let alone ethical.
    given that racism and sexism and homophobia are part and parcel of quite a large chunk of white support for Trump, I suspect that the call to mute the identity politics rhetoric means suggesting that we on the left are willing to court under-educated white people by minimizing support for or emphasis on oppressed groups. Better to widen the net of what we call oppressed, perhaps. In any event, thank you and Nikhil Singh for posting your words.

    1. “I fail to understand how separating “identity politics” from economics is useful let alone ethical.”

      While I can’t explain the ethical (because it’s not ethical), I can explain how it’s useful.

      Say that you are a minority in some way, but you are rich and powerful with lots of influence. You’d like to rival straight white males in this, but you don’t want to give any comfort to the poor, less you lose class privilege. So what you do is, you completely undermine and destroy the anti-poverty left at all cost, while promoting how unfair it is that a powerful rich straight white lady isn’t as powerful as a rich straight white man. If you lose the election, well, at least you still have disgustingly large piles of money and influence. The up side is larger than the down for these folks, because they don’t actually care about other people.

  2. “If you’re J.D. Vance, author of Hillbilly Elegy, and you think white people in poverty in the Cincinnati suburbs deserve it because they don’t take initiative in their own lives”

    Does J. D. Vance actually think this- I mean the part about “they deserve it”?

    Compare Kevin Williamson : “The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die.”

    1. Vance grew up in that environment. He didn’t make that judgment against them, and I am not sure how de Boer got that from the text of Hillbilly Elegy.

      1. I am far from the only person to have made this observation of his book. Here’s Peter Beinart, for one. “In this sense, Vance is something of a Reaganite. He describes his Appalachian friends and neighbors with deep affection. And he suggests that, at the margins, smart public policy might improve their lot. But he defines their problems as more cultural than economic. In the book’s introduction, Vance describes a young man and his pregnant girlfriend who hold decent jobs at a local tile factory. Their atrocious work ethic gets them both fired. Vance describes food stamp fraud, white “welfare queens” and liberal state legislators whose efforts to eliminate predatory lending would actually harm the poor people they’re designed to help. He acknowledges the decline of manufacturing jobs. But to hear him tell it, the biggest problem facing the white working class is “the feeling that our choices don’t matter.””

        1. “the feeling that our choices don’t matter.”

          Is that a direct quote from the book? I don’t have my copy handy. I’ll assume it is, though.

          That kind of grinding poverty and environment eats at a person. He’s describing traits which, far from blaming them for it, shows the why of certain circumstances happening. The economic despair inform the culture. People buying 20 dollar sneakers rather than 70 dollar ones even though the 70 dollar ones will last 10 times as long.

          He addresses this in regards to traumatic events; when exposed to certain stimuli, it engrains behaviors in people. Like if we are surrounded by people who read to us, we have a better chance to become readers. Or if we grow up dirt-poor in Appalachia, we might not think our choices matter if, despite doing what we feel are all the ‘right’ things, we still get harmed.

          Outlook is huge in all this. If you don’t think there are prospects, you are going to act a certain way. And this is structural. It’s one thing for you to lose your job, quite another to be in a depressed region, be it urban or rural. Especially if you are a white male of a certain age, whose identity is wrapped up in your ability to provide.

          I guess we will disagree with the ‘deserve it’ claim. Pointing out the despair of the region and the structural problems there in doesn’t read like what Beinart claims.

          BTW, my poor friends often have said some variation of “our choices don’t matter”. It’s not confined to Appalachia; but the concentration of people who feel that way will certainly shape the environment.

          1. The liberal outlook however is that prospects are dim. We ridicule Trump promising to bring back the jobs. But in the same breath we have no alternatives to offer. Obama promised “Green jobs” 8 years ago and still they wait for their arrival. They have made 96 mortgage payments since then.

        2. Given that you claimed in the post that your “analytical position” about the causes of poverty was independent of your “moral position,” it seemed worthwhile to leave open possible grounds of agreement on the latter between someone like you and someone like Vance: you might disagree about the role of culture in determining the lives of the poor, but you might agree that they deserve better in any case.

          The efficacy of particular policies in improving things would then just be an empirical question. (“efforts to eliminate predatory lending would actually harm the poor people they’re designed to help”- well, that’s either true or it isn’t, but Vance’s critique is grounded in the view that harming poor people is wrong.)

  3. I totally agree with this, except for that the “liberal managerial class that has essentially abandoned any interest in economic justice at all”. I’ve never quite understood how you can have such a clear, and in my opinion, correct, view of how to make progress and avoid infighting, and yet don’t seem willing to give even highly qualified support for the Democratic party or mainstream liberalism. Hillary represents the liberal managerial class even more than Bill or Obama, and yet there are literally countless issues on which she was proposing real plans for real progress on economic and many other types of justice that will instead come under attack over the next four years. I understand that your problems with her, the Democratic party, etc. are matters of real principle and not really of the same type as the psuedo-conflict you describe in this piece. But unless you really subscribe to the “heighten the contradictions” theory, I don’t see how you can suggest there is a conflict between choosing, in a two party system, the side that will at least make some progress on the issues you care about even when acting in other ways you consider wrong, and continuing to speak out as to why those actions are wrong.

    1. This is a tough but fair comment – Freddie, I am interested in your response. As background, I’m a former national staff for Bernie Sanders, loathed the “America is fine” message of HRC, and loathe this early (and worthless) chatter that Cory Booker may end up being the nominee in 2020.

      I agree full heartedly with the above comment; I disagree that the liberal managerial class, which I think by definition includes all elected officials in the Democratic Party, has “essentially abandoned” the cause of economic justice. They may have half-ass proposals, and campaign even less energetically. They may – they do – rely overwhelmingly on identity politics. But HRC, for all her abundant flaws, really did get health insurance for kids, probably really did want to increase taxes on the wealthy, really did want to raise the minimum wage.

      Anyway, this post is tremendous, Freddie, and I’m sharing widely. Just wondering if maybe this was an overstatement in the heat of an argument.

    2. Clinton’a friends at WaPo recently tabulated that the overwhelming majority of her advertising budget was spent airing attack ads on Trump’s character. Only a tiny, single digit percent of them has an economic message.

      So while it may be true, buried somewhere in her website there was an arguably superior* economic plan, that was not the message of her campaign.

      *I might personally also disagree her economic plan is “superior” on two basis: 1. It was warmed over plan Democrats have failed to sell for a decade. 2. Superior plan or not, it just isn’t selling to the voters.

  4. They reject any class element not for coherent ideological reasons but strictly for reasons of self-interest. Isn’t that the sneaking suspicion we’re all sharing? I hate to be simplistic but it’s getting harder and harder to imagine any other reason for the abject horror they express at even the tepid class element that Bernie introduces.

  5. I agree up to a point, but I’d be lying if I said the philosophy nerd in me just doesn’t believe such a theoretical difference is so easily resolved through an appeal to humanism. Marxism, if it is to be about the actual texts and ideas of the man and others rather than just a label, entails an acceptance of historical materialism, base/superstructure, and the idea that productive relationships determine ideology in the last instance among countless other things. It may seem pedantic (and on some level probably is), but theory matters. While I agree that anyone who claims to be a socialist should see racism, sexism, and homophobia as serious problems which need to be eradicated I feel as though you are too dismissive of the political theories these issues are conceptualized under. To make statements such as “all politics are identity politics” is directly contradictory to this, reducing class to just another identity, to say nothing of ignoring the role of productive relationships in forming political ideology.

    Identity politics, particularly in how it is conceptualized in the present day, arose out of a liberal theoretical milieu, a sort of Rawlsian “Veil of Ignorance” sort of political thought. That’s all well and good, but Marxist it is not, not in any serious way. In short, I must admit that I think the fight exists for a reason, and is just one in a very long line of battles between liberalism and socialism. Theory is something to be taken seriously, and contradictions cannot simply be wished away.

  6. I know this is a hypothetical question, but

    “What is the actual substantive conflict here? What policy are we meant to think hangs in the balance? What specific, material dimension of a political platform is this fight over? Answer this for me: what do the two camps who are supposedly fighting this fight disagree about in terms of what we should actually be trying to do?”

    “White people are bad”

    versus

    not that

    plus, the entire social justice progressive stack is upended with class in the mix, and there’s also nothing cool about it. That means a lot of people are going to fight against the re-inclusion of class, and call anyone who centers class racist or white supremacist or et cetera. Well, that’s the price you pay for allowing a bunch of squealing children to shout “racist” for so long; first they turned on us, now they turned on you.

    1. Setting aside our disagreements about whether anyone outside of a fringe is actually saying “white people are bad” as a political point- you still haven’t identified a policy, a material program, that people disagree about. You’ve instead focused on language. Which is kind of my point here.

      1. mine too

        Look, you guys allowed a certain class of person to jump on your bandwagon because it was cool to be there, and now they fucked it up. Worse, now they won’t leave, because they think they’re good people for having hopped said bandwagon, and just enough of them are angry minorities for you to not be able to attack them for fear of being called “racist”. Sanders submitted the mildest of criticism and got called a white supremacist for his troubles.

        If class is centered, then race is no longer as key an issue; rather, everything radiates from class, with additional spokes of different races, genders, sexualities, ethnicities, religions. And the problem is, this makes sense: it’s obvious that someone in crushing poverty is worse off than, random example, a millionaire going to a state university who may or may not have had some slurs shouted at him from the back of a pickup truck.

        As for actual policies – let’s take affirmative action. Under what logic should a black billionaire’s son be admitted to Yale over a more qualified white boy raised in the Appalachians surrounded by meth heads and crippling poverty? Under the logic of the current system. Never mind that black billionaire boy, if he wasn’t qualified by his current grades, is likely going to fail, or at least fail to derive much value from his education, whereas white boy number five might actually achieve his dreams in more ways than one.

        But let’s get back to it – the key point really is just rhetoric, you’re not wrong about that. But you underestimate just how much of the Left is rhetoric and laser focus on social wedge issues, at the current moment (arguably, the Right too, but we’ll get back to that at some later date – I think not as much, anyhow, after 8 years of Obama). That’s because it’s good politics; when you employ this type of rhetoric, you don’t need to get down into the weeds of whether or not your policies are actually better than the alternative. Unfortunately it’s addictive, because if you really believe the other side to be terrible people, you can’t just turn that off. Here’s the point where you think that your policies will succeed and you want to stop the flow of rhetoric, and admittedly 4 to possibly even 8 years of Trump will do that to some extent, (like 8 years of Obama arguably did), but ultimately it comes down to whether or not you think your policies are a good idea, and also whether or not people agree with you sufficiently to elect a president putting forth those ideas; you probably think the first, many don’t agree, but the second is a heck of a question mark.

        1. If class is centered, then race is no longer as key an issue;

          I just spent a thousand words explaining why I don’t think we need to “center” either. You’re responding to this piece by simply presuming that its central contention is incorrect, which is not helpful.

          1. oh, sorry

            it’s not incorrect so much as it is orthogonal, which brings up the question of why you wrote the piece

            if you want to get centered on issues again, good . but let’s be clear that this is the problem: rhetoric > issues. So much so that things do need to be centered because people are motivated to participate politically based on certain types of rhetoric being central.

            I also think, like I was saying, you will suffer heavy resistance, in the form of very angry minorities who want to publicly perform said anger, likely out of feelings of victimisation.

            well, that’s about that. I don’t think you have any chance of success, but don’t lose hope. Or at least do very well in your job and derive happiness from that.

          2. I just spent a thousand words explaining why I don’t think we need to “center” either.

            The problem is that politics is zero-sum to a certain extent. Take Obama’s stimulus plan, it was originally targeted mostly at industries that had the worst job losses. Those industries also happened to be male-dominated. NOW got involved and managed to get a lot of those funds diverted to industries with more female employees.

            This left men jobless, while helping women. That was a choice to center women, which did help women (and hurt men).

            Ultimately, a lot of people don’t want equality, even if they pretend they do, they want their group to do well.

        2. “Under what logic should a black billionaire’s son be admitted to Yale over a more qualified white boy raised in the Appalachians surrounded by meth heads and crippling poverty?”

          Everything else aside, a) under the logic that racism is a powerful and pernicious detriment to student success and so we should give special admissions criteria to students of color by virtue of that fact alone and b) this is a totally fanciful representation of what actually happens at elite institutions. That, too, is dorm room debate fodder, the idea that wealthy domestic black students keep out poor Appalachian geniuses. It’s just not an honest representation of the actual conditions that continue to make race-based affirmative action necessary. Beyond that I’m not interested in going into the weeds on this issue here; this post is not a debate about affirmative action and the fixation on that issue is not constructive.

          1. I think a huge part of the problem with identity politics is that it frames the conversation in these terms. As if admitting a few people from a selected minority to Yale amounted to any kind of substantive change. That’s really what it’s degenerated into, arguing that a more diverse elite is somehow not an elite, that a few high profile minority figures does anything meaningful for the 99% of the population outside of that.

            That’s a large part of why I was saying earlier that theory matters, just agreeing that racism, sexism, and homophobia are problems isn’t enough. The imagined solutions to the problem will take on a drastically different form based on your political ideology. A “race to the top” or free, high quality university education for all. A few minority CEOs or gainful employment and social democracy for the ghettos?

          2. “Under what logic should a black billionaire’s son be admitted to Yale over a more qualified white boy raised in the Appalachians surrounded by meth heads and crippling poverty?”

            Let’s go back to Freddie’s original text, in which he clearly delineates *exactly* this kind of hypothetical binary as, and I’ll quote, “an asinine, juvenile question, bullshit dorm-room sophistry, an empty bit of moral posturing wrapped up in virtue signaling”.

            The reality is that Yale isn’t accepting either of those students– or else Yale is making its own decisions, for its own reasons, that have nothing to do with the project that we are and ought to be undertaking here. As a modern progressive liberal, I have no lever by which to influence Yale’s decision, and I actually don’t give a fuck who’s going to Yale.

            To quote john anon’s comment, “But let’s get back to it.” I appreciate that you, on some level, recognized the inanity of your own hypothetical, here. If your point is the the left is [currently] invested in a focus on rhethoric, well, yes. Let’s fix that, by focusing instead on meaningful policy, that speaks to a wider range of disenfranchised people.

            Wasn’t that Freddie’s point, in the first place?

          3. They hypothetical is extreme, but that doesn’t mean criticizing affirmative action is invalid. Middle class immigrants from the Caribbean and Africa are over-represented among black college students. I don’t believe they were the original group that these policies were intended to help.

            My biggest concern with affirmative action is whether or not it actually helps minority students succeed. I’ve seen a lot of dismissive proponents of “mismatch theory,” as racist without actually supplying any data for their side. I feel some people decide that affirmative action is the moral thing to do, and that any questions of effectiveness are irrelevant, because we don’t do it because it is effective; we do it because it is moral.

          4. There’s little question that elite colleges cook the books to get wealthier students of color – and thus access to potential future donors – in a way that undermines the initial intent of AA policies. This is why I would prefer a race-plus-class hybrid system of AA, in a perfect world.

          5. “the fixation on that issue is not constructive.”

            looks like you’re doing to me what others often do to you. By no means did I fixate on the issue; you asked for an example, I gave it and elaborated. Though I think, at this point, that there is constructive dialogue to be had here, specifically on this point:

            “racism is a powerful and pernicious detriment to student success and so we should give special admissions criteria to students of color by virtue of that fact alone”

            Given that this is true, it means that minorities are subject to a force which keeps them from learning the material correctly and thus decreases their grades. But why would that end in college? You obviously know that campus demonstrators are busy bees on the subject of racism, so there can’t be none left, right? I just think this is a problem with modern progressivism; it can’t attack the root causes of a problem and it can’t bring itself to accept the damage and route around it. Instead it tries to barrel right through by lavishing resources on those damaged, which doesn’t always work, but does always out the user as the most virtuous person possible. Which, of course, comes back to the problem: the reason class and race can’t coexist is because it’s a battle of the most virtuous, even though in terms of issues-based politics they sure as shootin can.

        3. Sanders was attacked and ridiculed as tone deaf in a double standard.

          During the campaign Clinton dismissed a Black Lives Matter protester at her high dollar fundraiser by telling her to run for elected office. On what planet is it not “tone deaf” for a white multi-millionaire to suggest a poor minority woman’s path to DC is just that easy? Ask Deray about his ill fated run for Baltimore mayor this cycle.

          Had Sanders said this amongst his rich donors I cannot imagine it being ignored.

  7. Incredible article! Beautifully put and a wonderful rebuttal to all the liberal thinkpieces attacking economic justice because we’ll lose sight of social issues.

  8. Identity politics is such a broad brush term. IMO, you’ve got 1) internet tribalists, 2) cultural studies absolutists and 3) DNC (and its media arm) cynics appropriating the first 2

    A lot of people just don’t find political economy interesting and would rather debate discourse, symbols, spend all day virtue-signalling etc. I think the only solution is to keep organizing, publishing, and raising consciousness about structural issues. I’m more interested in winning than word-wrestling with apolitical media liberals, anyway

  9. “People deserve their suffering or they don’t. I say they don’t.”

    I would agree, but these questions of morality and who “deserves” what get hairy. It’s a difficult task to convince people to agree with your moral judgment when they derive their sense of these things from different backgrounds, cultures, religions.

    I think maybe a more useful argument is that this attitude that people deserve suffering has never proven helpful. Our punitive prison system, for example, has never been shown to produce better outcomes than less punitive ones. You can’t punish people into behaving better.

    Is the moral argument ultimately more meaningful and important as an undergirding principal? Absolutely. But if we start from the baseline that punitivism just doesn’t work maybe we at least win over the technocratic liberals.

    1. “People deserve their suffering or they don’t. I say they don’t.”

      So you’ll draw a hard line here, but insist identity politics vs. class isn’t either/or?

  10. Thank you, thank you, thank you for writing this. Every line is golden. This is a brilliant retort to the particularly inane discourse we’ve all been stuck in lately.

  11. This is excellent. I would add, however, that the current discourse also seems hell-bent on driving a wedge between the poor and the middle class. Many people have pointed out that the median income of a Trump voter was ~$70k to argue that the election boils down to white nationalism, fullstop (and therefore there is no need to *also* consider economic issues). This ignores 1) that Trump also outperformed Hillary among poor whites, and 2) the well-documented stagnation and increasing risk of downward mobility in the middle class. Trump voters overall were more likely to say that their personal financial situation has gotten worse in the last five years, and that they think things will be worse for the next generation. Having your home foreclosed upon, or having to choose between your children’s education and your retirement, are legitimate concerns that should have a place among the priorities of the left, if it is to be a functional and effective political party.

    [P.S. Not a fan of the rhetoric of “enemies” in your post, but we now officially live in a populist era so ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ ]

  12. The actual conflict is about emphasis not exclusivity I don’t see how your post deals with that at all.

    1. Sure it does. What does emphasis mean, concretely? What does emphasis mean, in terms of policy? The answer is, nothing. That’s my point: it’s a phony conflict.

      1. At the very least it means what issue you lead in on when you’re giving your stump speech, or where you spend your political capital. Unless you’re calling for an exact even split 50/50 for economic issues and identity issues then it’s likely you will either emphasize the particular – how specific groups are impacted in unique ways – or a color-blind universal.

        1. “At the very least it means what issue you lead in on when you’re giving your stump speech, or where you spend your political capital

          Once again, this has got nothing to do with policy. It has no material dimension.

          1. “Where you spend your political capital” has a material dimension. Imagine that you have two SJ policies:
            – A that mostly helps poor black people
            – B that mostly helps poor white people

            Realistically, you can choose to try to get all of A, all of B or a bit of both.

            Identity politics is about choosing A and doing B ‘manana.’

          2. An example is that affirmative action style policies intend to give black people a ladder out of poverty, while ignoring that social mobility has decreased for everyone. AA policies don’t fix that problem or address the actual causes of racial disparities, they just take away a job/position from one group and give it to the other. It’s zero sum.

            And in fact, these policies seem to primarily benefit the already successful black people, so they don’t even work as intended.

            Poor (and precarious middle class) white people are increasingly losing belief in the left because they don’t see positive results. A lot of black poor people seem very socially conservative and increasingly seem to lose faith as well. There are two SNL sketches about ‘black jeopardy,’ where on one, they have a Trump supporter and on the other, they have a white African Studies professor. Guess which one bombs completely and which one fits in.

            The black vote may very well see a major switch if the left keeps focusing on identity politics (and narratives that blame large groups of people of causing the problems by ‘oppression’), rather than actually addressing class issues and how the globalization that benefits the upper classes, harms the lower classes.

          3. No, it’s objectively not zero sum. That’s absurd and a statement of flat economic conservatism. I think that’s all we need to hear from you.

        2. i suspect this is attitude underlies most “identity” criticism of the contemporary left. a substantive argument about race-specific or broad class agendas, for instance, may be valuable. but ultimately, it’s obvious that these two can and should co-exist as part of a progressive platform. and because class remains the mechanism through which most privilege oppresses, both components are essential. but, due to internet tribalism and a politics of self-expression, you get “class and race matter” versus “stop centering class!” These two ideas are not in dialogue. they are talking past each other, and it’s worth investigating why

        3. Look at how the “Fight For $15” vs. “Settle for $12” played out in the Democratic primary. People who will never (again) have to work for min wage disregarded $3/hr difference as an totally insubstantial difference in policy. The very act of staking out a higher goal for America’s working poor (of all colors and genders) was largely regarded as evidence of lunacy.

        1. There’s a healthy level of irony inherent in censoring a comment which focuses 80% of its words on the mechanics of coalition building because the final paragraph told you that your description of your opponents was arrogant and unproductive. Let this blog be filed under “Dishes, Can’t Take.”

        2. I was going to suggest after this election I am less inclined to surrender to tone police. I think we illustrated staying civil is not all it is cracked up to be.

  13. I agree that the “class vs. race” conflict has no analytical grounding, but I think it may have substance through the way it’s presented in a practical, political context.

    For example, many (most?) in the liberal managerial class profess to share this same belief in the goal of universal equality, which isn’t irrational or implausible. An economically equal society is more stable and peaceful; life in such a society would be more fulfilling, and so advancing economic justice is in the self interest of every person. Arguing that these progressive elites are actually preserving their *true* self interest by opposing economic reform policies implies that they’d be less happy in a more equal society – that an unequal surplus of material goods is essential to their happiness. In a two-party system, isn’t it necessary for the economic justice coalition to include the group of liberals who favor redistributive policies (even if you find them personally distasteful or misguided)?

    Similarly, at this moment in US politics, it seems possible to generate political support by disingenuously making economically grounded appeals that are tied together with racial/religious resentment. This isn’t a message of justice, and it’s not what anyone that I’ve read on the internet left is saying. But I think it’s the origin of some of this concern on the part of the “identity” liberal commentators: that the political coalition will compromise its message on racial and gender equality in order to draw in a group of voters who (for example) oppose the TPP.

    1. “An economically equal society is more stable and peaceful; life in such a society would be more fulfilling, and so advancing economic justice is in the self interest of every person.”

      I’m unconvinced by that analysis. Historically and currently, we see that when income inequality becomes sufficiently large, the ultra-rich are able to insulate themselves from any sort of unpleasant experience. Under these conditions, advancing economic justice is not in the self-interest of the ultra-rich (in that it makes them less rich, at least relatively speaking, and makes it harder for them to insulate themselves from unpleasant experiences– which may, for example, include even *knowing* that other people are suffering).

  14. “I can name not a single actual person who holds that position”

    Edges close to the “literally nobody is arguing X” rhetorical style that you commonly criticize in this blog.

    1. Perhaps. But given that the debate here is about the character of the left – whether its insistence on caring about class necessarily implies a lack of caring about race/gender/etc. – there’s no way around considering the question of relative numbers and prevalence.

  15. “What is the actual substantive conflict here? What policy are we meant to think hangs in the balance?”

    it’s not a policy per se, but the question of whether or not the democrats should cooperate with trump insofar as his economic policies are to their liking (as sanders suggested) is what’s currently in dispute.

    1. I think the idea that Sanders is calling for broad cooperation with Trump is frankly a slander built on the typical desire to attack and undermine him from Clinton partisans.

    2. I think the idea that Sanders is calling for broad cooperation with Trump is frankly a slander built on the typical desire to attack and undermine him from Clinton partisans.

      1. sanders: ““Clearly there is no working with a president who believes in, or will bring forth, programs or policies based on bigotry, whether it is racism, sexism, homophobia, or xenophobia, and there can be no compromise on that,” … “But if Trump is prepared to work with me and others on rebuilding our infrastructure and creating millions of jobs, on raising the minimum wage, on passing Glass-Steagall, on changing our trade policies—yes, I think it would be counterproductive on issues that working-class Americans supported and depend upon if we did not go forward.”

        so he’s paying lip service to the idea that trump’s bigotry is disqualifying, but that’s all it is: we know trump is a bigot, there’s nothing left to discover on that front. but this doesn’t preclude cooperation with him from sanders’ perspective.
        the democracts could conceivably resist trump to the best of their abilities, as the republicans did to obama, but sanders clearly doesn’t favor that strategy. so again, there’s a real disagreement here that goes well beyond beyond rhetorical niceties.

        1. 1. Who says Sanders is the avatar of the working class?
          2. Have you been following what Sanders has said beyond that? How he has repeatedly and forcefully called for a complete rejection of Trump’s bigotry?

          This is what I’m talking about: you WANT there to be a conflict when there is none. And there’s not going to be any big Trump populist legislation forthcoming, as his transition team and cabinet picks make clear.

          1. “1. Who says Sanders is the avatar of the working class?”

            no one, but he’s the most prominent left wing politician in the us.

            “2. Have you been following what Sanders has said beyond that? How he has repeatedly and forcefully called for a complete rejection of Trump’s bigotry?”

            as have many other democratic politicians, but talk is cheap. he’s publicly stated that he’d be willing to set aside his differences with trump if the economic policies he brings forth are to his liking.

            “This is what I’m talking about: you WANT there to be a conflict when there is none. And there’s not going to be any big Trump populist legislation forthcoming, as his transition team and cabinet picks make clear.”

            so we have some progress, now you claim that the conflict is illusory not because there are can in principle be no tensions between class and race based struggle (as you argue in your post), but merely because the conditions that sanders stipulates for cooperation will not be realized. we’ll see. certainly trump won’t move to tighten regulations on the financial sector or anything like that, but what about trade? his agenda largely converges with sanders’ there.

          2. No, no progress. Who says that turning back against trade liberalization would be against the interests of people of color? No one has been more devastated by NAFTA or similar than the black middle class. And again, there’s no tangible discussion of any specific policy that Sanders or any other leftist has agreed to work together with Donald Trump on. This is pure sophistry. You’re trying to create this convoluted notion of a conflict through the transitive property, and it’s all based on meaningless hypotheticals. There’s no material conflict here.

        2. The premise you are working from is false: “bigotry is disqualifying.”

          I know it is fashionable to declare Trump “disqualified,” but by virtue of having won the presidential election he qualified as president. Whether we choose to accept this fact or not.

          Obviously there can be good faith disagreement on how to proceed on trying to salvage something the next four years. I myself appreciate Sanders efforts to hold Trump accountable to the progressive economic rhetoric he campaigned on, even granting that it is unlikely to manifest in policy. But who knows? Trump is actually vain enough to be vulnerable to pressure. His policy positions flip flopped daily during the campaign.

  16. Enjoyed your article and your points. I would posit, however that there are some actual, tangible policy points which are in fact in jeopardy and which need to be addressed. I wouldn’t say that they aren’t related to class or economic issues, but then again…

    -Voter Rights Act (affects POCs more than folks with less money…)
    -Recognizing gender non-confirming individuals as a protected class
    -Providing services for LGBTQ students and minors (protection and prevention of suicide and homelessness)
    -Urban planning and redlining is an economic issue, but affects POC more
    -Token straw-man arguments designed to distract, like bathrooms and wedding cakes are distractions with real consequences if policy is ignored.
    …others…

    So I think only one of those can be resolved strictly through policies on class and economics–urban planning. But to say that any of these stand in conflict to progressive economic or class efforts is clearly only true if one denies the importance if these issues outright.

    Again, I agree with your premise, but caution that there is a tangible conflict if these sorts of policies aren’t specifically included in a platform, plan or at least addendum to a conversation.

    1. I just don’t agree that any of those actually are in conflict, and I haven’t seen evidence that they motivated white working class voters at all.

  17. Great essay. I basically agree with it, but can think of one policy debate that’s getting at something concrete: reparations to racially oppressed groups vs. universal social programs. A dialogue between Cedric Johnson, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Adolf Reed in the last year or two comes to mind. I’m not sure I buy the idea that a black managerial elite, whoever they are, is somehow exploiting anti-racist struggles to secure more (petty?) bourgeois status for black people. This is one way though that “centering” race in the delivery of economic justice informs a policy in a concrete way, that someone’s written about and certainly has been read.

    http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/06/the-case-for-reparations/361631/

    https://www.jacobinmag.com/2016/02/ta-nehisi-coates-case-for-reparations-bernie-sanders-racism/

    http://nonsite.org/editorial/the-case-against-reparations

  18. The basic idea is this: that all people deserve equal rights, material security and comfort, and human dignity by virtue of being human and for no other reason.

    A noble idea, but we don’t live in a world yet where people can enjoy such things without the mandatory contribution of work by humans to the provision thereof. So the question of what is owed for what one receives isn’t going to go away – it’s not useful to speak of it solely as whether one has these by right regardless of contribution or not.

    1. I think liberals’ empathy well runs pretty dry when discussing white under class in Appalachia or the rustbelt. Rather than discuss systematic solutions that keep these people from having economic opportunity the conversation runs more often toward “Serves them right for voting against their own best interest.”

      Poverty is not fun or easy to get out of in Appalachia either. And economic solutions could be found but for the fact there is no genuine political will to be found in either party, IMO. Though they were once the Dem base they are now seen as traitors and not as a voting bloc we need to work to recapture.

  19. I’m not sure JD Vance thinks poor whites in Appalachia deserve to suffer. I think he thinks there’s very little the government can do to make it better and a lot it can do to make it worse. Are people who disagree with you about the likely efficacy of policies also enemies?

    1. “I think he thinks there’s very little the government can do to make it better and a lot it can do to make it worse.”

      Just give people money. It has a fantastic track record.

      1. I guess I am becoming a bit of a socialist. Money is good but people need a purpose too. So perhaps rather than an Uber welfare state, incentivizing employment where jobs are most scarce? Maybe even subsidizing manufacturing is a good investment? Radical I know.

  20. Great essay, and I agree that there is no substantive divide on policy between identity and class goals. So, yes, the difference is only rhetoric.

    But aren’t some of the class-centered folks’ critiques actually that the rhetoric of identity prevented us from reaching working class whites? As you say, all we need to do to win the group is convince them that we care about their issues, but haven’t we struggled with voters who some say are “voting against their interests”?

  21. I would actually take it further and say the drummed up conflict is about turf wars. The people most threatened by a rise of the underclass are themselves as Michael Tracey says, liberal economic elites. Joy Reid, Jonathan Capehart, Paul Krugman, Charles Blow, Jamalle Bouie, what do these people know of the lives of displaced workers in Appalachia and rustbelt bet? They took a class at Harvard?

    What is economic struggling for them? Their $5M check from the Speakers Bureau comes a few weeks later than expected?

    Michael Moore however despite being the disfavored, disheveled, straight white man residing in unfashionable flyover Flint called it correctly 6 months before the election. Is it possible actually living in the rustbelt among displaced workers gave him some magic insight?

  22. Without getting too tied up in my own views on identity politics, it would seem that when your political strategy involves having, say, a million people show up in front of the Washington D.C. on the day of Donald Trump’s Inauguration to shout slogans, it does actually matter which slogans they are shouting. Broadly speaking, the stakes of this debate, which you’re dismissing as empty, are 1) which slogans the crowd shouts, and 2) which messages are most likely to get the crowd to assemble in the first place.

    1. He can speak for himself but Freddie doesn’t seem to a big advocate for calls to action that are theatrical and satisfying, but ultimately impotent (like a million people shouting anything at Trump’s inauguration).

        1. He seems to miss your bigger focus is that political theatrics is poor substitute for sound economic policy and a concise, coherent message that can actually sell it to voters.

          I am myself convinced the white working class is not wrong when they conclude the Democratic party does not care about them, and therein lies the problem. Poverty and lack of economic opportunity in the rustbelt and Appalachia is seen by so many of my fellow liberals not as a problem to solve, but as their just desserts for leaving the Democratic Party. Until we get passed that we will have great difficulty applying ourselves to the task of improving their lot in life as well and winning those voters back.

  23. “The basic idea is this: that all people deserve equal rights, material security and comfort, and human dignity by virtue of being human and for no other reason.”

    There are four ideas here, and two are unachievable by any system of government, however well-disposed it were to the governed (security, comfort (of the body or as ‘consolation’?)

    The remaining two would not lead to ‘equality’ but might lead to constant conflict or slavery and murder. Before we can talk about effects we need definitions.

    I suggest:

    1) you have not defined ‘human’

    2) a ‘right’ is, by definition, an unequal distribution of property in a physical object or action created by man-made law. Where everyone had ‘equal rights’, the concept of ‘rights’ would be unnecessary. it is precisely where such property is *in dispute* that a ‘right’ is needed.

    3) that ‘dignity’ is the sense that a: I have high intrinsic value and that b) this is contrasted with things of lower or no value (cp. the phrase “beneath my dignity”). What one treats as ‘of value’ depends on what one thinks one is. ‘Dignity’ permits the slave-owner to mistreat slaves or kill them as he is of value and they are not. He is ‘human’ and they are not (Or, if he accepts they are ‘human’, that he is dignified and entitled to ‘rights’ and respect and worthy of freedom and they are not).

    What either of these definitions show is that what the notion human = equal to any other person must depend on cannot be ‘rights’ or ‘dignity’. In other words one must find an unassailable basis for human equality in the nature of things. What is the nature of things? I feel there is only one possible answer.

  24. Immigration policy would seem to be the obvious place where identity politics conflict with economic populism.

    If you are a poor white, or, hell, a poor American of any kind, its a tough sell to say “we are going to import a huge number of other poor people to compete with you for the small amount of jobs still available to you”, but closing the door to those immigrants pretty clearly says to their relatives here that they are second fiddle to the needs of others.

    1. Under liberal policy? Perhaps. Under true internationalism, as in my kind of socialism? I don’t think so. But that’s a larger discussion.

      1. Also, international socialism as in the kind i think you support is a dead letter in the US. If the D’s adopted that kind of platform, they could look forward to a kind of popular support that makes the Libertarian party look strong. My opinion, anyway.

  25. I meant as a practical policy matter. Describe a immigration policy that doesnt pit race against class. I dont think it can be done, and, more importantly, i think immigration more than any other issue, was the critical one this election.

    1. Sure it can be. It’s called open borders and broad worker solidarity. Again, this is simply the logic of international socialism, which is bigger than we can hash out here.

      1. But again, if you are a low-skill working white how is open borders anything but bad for you? Large numbers of other low skill workers competing with you would obviously drive the price of labor down and reduce the opportunity to find a job in the first place. How is open borders in any way economic populism (unless i just dont understand what you mean by populism)?

        1. Under a system of international socialism, it is in fact very good for you. But again – this is not a point I’m interested in debating in this space right now.

          1. Thats fine, but i would say respectfully that i have at least answered this question:

            “What is the actual substantive conflict here? What policy are we meant to think hangs in the balance? What specific, material dimension of a political platform is this fight over? Answer this for me: what do the two camps who are supposedly fighting this fight disagree about in terms of what we should actually be trying to do?”

            Maybe you disagree that immigration policy is an unresolvable race/class conflict, but i dont see how you can disagree that it is an actual substantive conflict.

        2. In the real world low skilled Americans are already competing with immigrants. They are here and working off the books.

          There is a gulf between what immigration reform is SAID to do and what it WILL do. It is much more about documenting existing undocumented immigrants than about increasing the numbers of immigrants.

          But the whole immigration debate we are having is now only very tenuously tied to the real world. (Example: They aren’t swimming the Rio Grande and hopping a fence. They are arriving by airport and overstaying a visa. But USA voted for “The Wall.”)

          1. Sure, ok maybe, but that actually makes the policy question even worse. If you are a low skilled American, then the populist policy would be to deport the undocumented immigrants competing with you off the books. The race policy is to provide them a path to citizenship. How do you reconcile the two?

          2. I think you are correct race and class are very difficultly intertwined in the real world on the specific issue of immigration.

            Although these conflicts were less apparent when Ronald Reagan gave amnesty to undocumented.

            We might get passed all the racial animus if the WWC were in a better place economically today. But in the years since Reagan the WWC have slid down the economic ladder from earning living wages to living in poverty. So it is easier for a demagogue to excite them.

        3. “if you are a low-skill working white how is open borders anything but bad for you?”

          A key part of open-borders advocacy is the assumption that workers’-rights laws would be enforced for noncitizen workers, which is not currently the case.

          …and is the reason noncitizen workers are cheaper. When you hear all those stories about Mexicans working so much harder than Americans? It’s because illegal immigrants can’t file wage-hour lawsuits, can’t file class actions about bathrooms not meeting OSHA regulations, can’t complain to the California LWDA about not being provided with at least two half-hour breaks during a shift. They work hard because if they don’t the boss calls the INS.

          1. That would help to be sure, but you would still be competing against a larger pool of workers. And it does nothing for contract work. You charge someone $20 to mow their lawn? A immigrant can charge $15 and none of the OSHA regs apply to either of you.

          2. Contractors have a lot more freedom in what they do. An employer who attempts to do things like dictate work schedules and procedures is violating basic contract law. That many do anyway–and get away with it–is more a factor of how few people understand their rights as contractors than any inherent lack of protections for contract employees.

  26. I love this. LOVE IT. I don’t have one single solitary answer for any of our problems and so that really bothers me, hence my sudden crash course in philosophy that is turning into quite the complicated endeavor. If you have answers to things, that could be a nice post too. I’ve only read a couple posts so I’ll keep reading. Big fan.

  27. Thank you for this! I hope people will read it with an open mind so we don’t have to go through (and lose) this battle again in 4 years.

  28. To chime in with the other fans, wow Freddie. Great piece and so admirably clear eyed. Your words help me better articulate my own conflicted position on this. In class the other day at Purdue, and in light of recent white supremacy posters placed around campus this week, a student asked me point blank what I think. She didn’t ask me to “teach the controversy,” but where I weighed in. And I admit in that moment I couldn’t quite consolidate the fact that many folks that I know and work with do seem to put a strong emphasis on identity politics, and the fact that I logically and affectively don’t understand how one can preach tolerance but not tolerate those who preach intolerance.

    I stumbled a bit trying to answer this student but managed to say something, and we moved forward with other class activities. My point in telling this story is to recall my conflict so I can make this point: I agree with everything you said, yes. At the same time however, and in light of what’s been going on here at Purdue (http://www.jconline.com/story/news/college/2016/12/01/daniels-purdues-opposition-racismcouldnt-more-clear/94730030/): identity politics does have something going for it in that it works as a rallying cry of sorts (that hopefully can be harnessed to effect policy). On campus for example, the flurry of organizing (big meeting, student senate stuff, large planned protest for next Monday) that was spawned from the shock of the posters on Wednesday morning pushed the administration into issuing two more strongly worded statements from Mitch Daniels and the Dean of the graduate school. Perhaps this all proves your point about folks being more concerned with some of the ephemeral qualities of being (identity, language, emotions, email) rather than its materials. But I am also impressed with folks who throw their bodies into the gears of the machine, so to speak. Are those emails really important in the grand scheme of policy? Most definitely not, but they are a concession, and the activism that prompted them might also be a “dry run” for something more substantial. Counter-productive seeming as some of these discussions are, they do give pause to some folks, and they also help build coalitions. It’s be great if we could all live in the land of pure logic (and honey) where we only focused on material solutions, but damn, I still live Indiana.

    But again. Thanks Freddie. You are seriously one of my favorite living writers.

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