Identity Politics Undermined the Left in the Sixties and Will Do So Now

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John Judis:

"There was another key reason for the collapse of the ’60s left, one which may bedevil today’s progressive activists. To win a political majority, contemporary young leftists — who are primarily college educated and work, live and study in high-tech metro areas and college towns — will need to win significant support for their politics from the rest of the working class, many of whom have not graduated from college, live in small or midsize towns, and work in or around manufacturing and mining. The left of the ’60s faced a similar challenge and fell woefully short. It’s worth looking at why.

There were always new-left radicals who tried to build bridges. But by the late ’60s, when Hayden was urging outreach to what was then an overwhelmingly white working class, many revolutionaries had abandoned any attempt to create a popular American majority and instead cast their lot with an imagined world revolution, led by China, Cuba or even, in the case of one Berkeley group, North Korea. They saw America (which they spelled “Amerikkka”) as the enemy and blacks and Latinos as being, along with Vietnamese, victims of U.S. colonialism. They saw white workers as beneficiaries of “white skin privilege” with a “stake in imperialism.” If they were white, they saw themselves as a fifth column within the mother country, fighting on the side of minorities at home and America’s enemies abroad.

These leftists believed they were putting into place a sophisticated neo-Marxist politics — they talked about the proletariat and the cultural revolution and quoted from Chairman Mao’s “Little Red Book” — but their activity most clearly resembled that of 17th-century American Protestant sects who imagined themselves as congregations of visible saints in a sinful world. In fact, the new left’s rebellion increasingly took a religious rather than a political form. It consisted of establishing one’s moral credibility and superiority in the face of evil. That religious fervor provided, perhaps, a meaning for the lives of activists, but it was, as social critic Paul Goodman wrote in “The New Reformation,” “a poor basis for politics, including revolutionary politics.”

What also doomed the new left was that, beginning with the decision in 1967 by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee to expel its white members, the movement began to splinter into identity groups; indeed, this was the beginning of what has come to be known as “identity politics.” Black nationalist and later Latino, Native American and feminist groups pursued their own demands with some success, but the larger movement lost a sense of cooperation and coherence.

Much of what these separate groups fought for was entirely justifiable and contributed to racial and sexual equality. Yet some of their stances pressed their causes to the extreme: radical feminists casting doubt on the moral legitimacy of the family; black nationalists advocating armed struggle and calling for African American communities to be subject to the United Nations rather than the U.S. government. These positions put them at odds with much of America. And, alongside the activities of revolutionary groups like the Weather Underground, they fed the backlash that led to Nixon’s landslide in 1972 and Reagan’s victory in 1980.

Today’s left has not embraced the separatism or the revolutionary fantasies of the last days of the ’60s left, but, as someone who was there, I find disturbing echoes in the present. I’ll list three. First, many on the left — and many more-moderate liberals as well — attribute Trump’s victory in 2016 and white working-class reluctance to support Democrats entirely or primarily to “white supremacy” or “white privilege.” They dismiss flyover Americans who voted for Trump as irredeemable — even though there is evidence that many supporters of Barack Obama backed Trump in 2016, and that many Trump voters cast ballots for Democrats in 2018. It is an echo of the ’60s left’s Manichaean view of Americans.

As a result, today’s left has become fond of a political strategy that discounts the importance altogether of winning over the white working class. Such a strategy assumes Democrats can gain majorities simply by winning over people of color (a term that groups people of wildly varying backgrounds, incomes and worldviews), single women and the young. One recent article in the left-wing Nation declared: “Since the 1980s, Democratic candidates have proven that they can win elections while losing whites without a college degree by a significant margin.” It’s a questionable strategy for Democrats — in a presidential election, it could cede many of the Midwestern swing states to a Republican — but it is even more questionable as a strategy for the left, which has historically been committed to achieving equality by building a movement of the bottom and middle of society against the very wealthy and powerful at the top.

Second, the left is again dividing into identity groups, each of which feels justified in elevating its concerns above others. In Philadelphia this summer at Netroots Nation — a gathering of left and liberal groups — Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) told aspiring officeholders, “We don’t need any more brown faces that don’t want to be a brown voice. We don’t need black faces that don’t want to be a black voice. We don’t need Muslims that don’t want to be a Muslim voice. We don’t need queers that don’t want to be a queer voice. If you’re worried about being marginalized and stereotyped, please don’t even show up because we need you to represent that voice.”

While activists focused on identity politics have, like their predecessors from the ’60s, made perfectly reasonable demands — for instance, an end to police brutality, or equal wages for men and women — they have also made extreme demands that display an indifference to building a political majority. Some have backed reparations for slavery — an idea rejected by broad majorities of the electorate, most of whom are descended from immigrants who came to America after the Civil War. Other groups have demanded “open borders,” defying a majority of Americans who think the country should be able to decide who to admit as citizens and who will be able to enjoy the rights and benefits of being an American.

Third, many of these demands and strategies are accompanied by a quasi-religious adherence to special language and gestures that echo the experience of the ’60s. Again, at the level of morality, these aspects of the left may be persuasive, but at the level of political-majority-building, they are problematic. For instance, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez lists “LGBTQIA+ Rights” among her priorities, but how many Americans outside the bluest Zip codes know what “LBGTQIA+” stands for? According to a recent poll, 98 percent of Latinos are uncomfortable with the left-wing term “Latinx.” At the Democratic Socialists of America convention I attended over the summer in Atlanta, delegates identified themselves on their name tags, and when they spoke, by their preferred pronoun (“he,” “she” or “they”) and signaled their approval by twirling their hands. Someone who used the colloquial “guys” to refer to the audience was sternly rebuked. There were charges of “ableism” and of “triggering” due to loud talking. These kinds of moral stances are fine for a church congregation, but not for a political organization that wants to win a majority of voters. The reality is that 80 percent or more of Americans who wandered into such a gathering would think they were on another planet.

And the trouble spots I’ve identified here are only being exacerbated by the importance of social media to contemporary politics. During the ’60s, the left’s cultural insularity was reinforced by its geography. Today, the insularity of the left is magnified by the Internet, which tends to draw us toward people who think alike while screening out unfriendly opinions.

As some of the stances of today’s left have seeped into Democratic presidential politics, it’s become clear that there could be real electoral consequences to these missteps. Warren and Sanders have both promised to offer free Medicare for undocumented immigrants — something that even Canada does not provide — and to decriminalize border crossings. Warren promised a 9-year-old transgender boy that he could have veto rights over her appointment of a secretary of education. Sanders has promised voting rights for imprisoned felons. As sophisticated politicians, Warren and Sanders must know that if they win the nomination, these kind of stands will make it difficult for them to gain votes outside of heavily blue metro areas — and therefore difficult to put together an electoral college majority." (