William Falk, editor-in-chief of The Week, recently warned Democrats that economic populism (e.g. socialized medicine and Bernie Sanders’ government jobs program) is not the path back to power that they assume (and behave as if) it is. He argues, compellingly, that Trump’s victory was rooted in cultural, not economic anxiety, and that the bit of wisdom shared by James Carville when he helped get Bill Clinton elected, “it’s the economy, stupid,” “may no longer apply.”

I think he’s got it half right on the economic front. I expect that a strong economy will motivate Republican voters to come out on Election day. As one long-time friend commented when he indicated his plan to vote for Hillary Clinton, “things are good for me right now, I don’t want them to change.” His situation didn’t mirror that of many who did poorly under the Obama-era malaise, but his thinking does. People who see their situation as having improved under the current regime will be more likely to vote to keep it. But, I don’t anticipate that economic messaging will draw many disaffected voters back to the Dem fold.

It’s always up to the party out of power to explain why things will improve if it is given the reins, and the Democrats’ message, at least the policy part of it, does seem to focus on matters economic (their merit or lack thereof notwithstanding). But, as Falk notes, matters economic may not be what it takes to woo those who came out for the Republicans last time around over to the Dems’ voting column. A social media observer is likely to see some traffic that pertains to the economy, “spike the football” proclamations of success being most likely from Trump’s supporters, and “the rich are fleecing us” declarations from his detractors. But, he’s likely to see much more that qualifies as social or cultural anxiety, from both sides of the Trump divide. The truly seething stuff has to do with immigrants, or religious beliefs, or Black Lives Matter, or Blue Lives Matter, or radical Islamic terrorism, or public restrooms, or Western values vs multiculturalism, etc.

Falk, somewhat inflammatorily, singled out “white Christians, especially men,” as feeling “they were becoming a scorned, increasingly powerless minority in a country that was once theirs.” He’s not wrong in observing that being a white Christian male, today, puts an individual at the bottom of the grievance hierarchy, but I think he’s infusing a presumption of bigotry into that demographic with the suggestion that they previously embraced their status as superior to that of others. Yes, bigotry exists today, but is it as culturally pervasive as the Left suggests? If anything, the Left’s protestations have made matters worse, and the culture and identity wars have driven us to this fractious, zero-sum, yield-no-ground combativeness that’s encapsulated in the title of this essay. It’s not difficult to conclude that Trump’s ascendancy is the result of identity politics run amok.

When what you are is more important than who you are, and when what you are means that you’re presumed guilty or wrong or not permitted to have certain opinions and beliefs, the truth about yourself notwithstanding, you’re likely to rage against a perceived injustice. And, you’re likely to dig in on your cultural positions, even if there’s reason and logic that might contradict those positions. When challenged, you’re tempted to argue tu quoque, or “you started it,” or “clean your own house before attacking mine.” That will elicit a similar but escalated response, which will prompt you to dig in even harder. Like Edgar Allan Poe’s pendulum, each swing brings our culture closer and closer to a fatal rending.

This is the great damage done by identity politics. “You are who you hate” is a product of identity politics, not an antecedent. Identity politics has emerged as a supposed solution to bias and bigotry in society, but it has harmed, not helped. You don’t cure bigotry by declaring it inherent to skin color, or gender, or orientation, or ethnicity, or any of countless other demographic markers. You cure it by treating people as individuals rather than faceless group members.

Falk’s update of the Carville principle to “it’s the culture war, stupid,” is accurate. As a prescription for the Democrats’ return to power, however, it falls short. It suggests neither culpability nor solution. Carville’s observation is easily understood to mean “the party that makes a better economy will reap rewards,” but what forward-looking strategy do we glean from understanding that the political divide today is driven by the cultural war? Yes, a non-Democrat can easily say “stop waging it,” but the Party’s identity itself is deeply intertwined with the perpetual waging of that war. Can the Dems walk back the culture war, and ease the anxieties of the “white Christians, especially men?” Or, do they simply write off the part of that demographic that didn’t buy into the subordinate role thrust upon it? Moreso, what expectation of lasting success might the Dems have if they continue waging the culture war and increasingly stratified identity politics? Already, they’re eating their own in many ways, and that’s more likely to continue than stop.

Peter Venetoklis

About Peter Venetoklis

I am twice-retired, a former rocket engineer and a former small business owner. At the very least, it makes for interesting party conversation. I'm also a life-long libertarian, I engage in an expanse of entertainments, and I squabble for sport.

Nowadays, I spend a good bit of my time arguing politics and editing this website.


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