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.