No Plans to Abandon Our Freedom Dreams

By Linda Burnham
7 February 2017

The first two weeks of the Trump presidency ought to be engraved in our
memories as if in granite. Politics is a blood sport and the far right
takes no prisoners – except, apparently, those it intends to torture.
The Republican Party has demonstrated for a very, very long time now
that it has no use for a single one of the niceties of bi-partisanship.
Yet most Democratic politicians dib and dab around as though living in a
different political era altogether, though I’m not sure which one.

We are witness to three simultaneous crises: a crisis of the working
class, which is fractured by race, by region, by citizenship status and,
increasingly, by religious belief, and which lacks political cohesion or
organizational representation. A crisis of the ruling class, which was
bullied and backed into a corner by a megalomaniacal kleptocrat who
stole their candy and who has no respect for the core institutions of
class rule or for the stories his class brothers and sisters tell each
other about the delights of the prevailing world order. A crisis of the
state, in which far-right ideologues, autocrats and theocrats, having
captured the governing apparatus, are rapidly concentrating power in the
executive while bureaucrats scramble toward either dissent and defiance
or appeasement and accommodation.

Historians, economists and political scientists will delve deep to
examine the currents that brought us to this three-pronged crisis.
Strategists of every political and ideological stripe are under intense
pressure to map a way forward. These notes, focused on what might appear
to be a side issue, perhaps could be subtitled, “Not the Way Forward.”

A highly consequential debate about the future direction of the
Democratic Party rages among academics, pundits and politicians. This
debate is most active among liberals, but it ranges both rightward and
leftward as well. For two months now liberals have been ruminating on
the role of “identity politics” in November’s defeat of Hillary Clinton.
Essentially the debate turns on whether the Democratic Party and
Clinton, in their embrace of racial, religious and sexual minorities,
forsook working class whites, who in turn responded to their abandonment
by casting their votes for Trump. According to this point of view, the
journey back from the devastation of 2016 requires that the party take
an indefinite break from identity politics to concentrate on winning
back economically squeezed white workers. There’s a leftish version of
this line – an economic fundamentalism that posits that pocket book
issues trump all others. And a classic liberal version that, seemingly
reasonably, demands the subordination of the part to the whole, the
interests of particular groups to the national interest. Both boil down
to the same thing: it’s time to subordinate the rights claims of various
“interest groups” to an economic agenda that prioritizes the distress of
white workers. Only this adjustment will create the conditions for
Democrats to make gains in congressional and statewide races and retake
the White House in 2020. (Or, in the leftish version, only this
adjustment will set the foundation for building a successful workers’

Where the Democratic Party lands on this issue matters enormously. The
degree of traction this post-election analysis gains will, at minimum,
impact the direction of the flow of attention and resources of the
party, liberal think tanks and liberal philanthropy, as well as the
focus of progressive organizations. It will likely determine how the
Democratic Party positions itself relative to 2018 and 2020, and whether
that positioning has the intended effect of creating a sufficiently
broad electoral coalition to roll back Trumpism. With the tenor and
thrust of liberal and left politics hanging in the balance, it is worth
taking a moment to examine what might be problematic about analyses that
lay 2016’s rout of the Democratic Party at the feet of “identity

It’s never a good idea to enter willingly into a frame your opponent has
constructed to entrap you. The last I heard, “identity politics” was the
terminology of the right, deployed to disparage and dismiss social
justice movements that seek to expand the democratic rights of
marginalized and excluded groups. Implicit in the term is the notion of
placing the concerns of the part over the common good – of selfishly
advancing narrow, particularistic agendas rather than the broader
national interest.

The terminology of “identity politics” is part of a whole vocabulary
including “thought police,” “politically correct,” and “liberal elites,”
whose main intention is to undermine the legitimacy of liberal and left
politics. In my experience, advocates and organizers for racial justice
don’t think of themselves as purveyors of “identity politics.” Nor do
immigrant rights organizers, advocates for LGBTQ rights or women’s
rights activists. Rather, in fighting for the expansion of democracy for
particular groups they rev the motor for the renewal and expansion of
democracy for the whole. And they know from experience that purportedly
universalistic solutions often work to make already embedded
inequalities even more rigid.

Uncritically adopting the “identity politics” language of the right is
the equivalent of dropping our guard and waltzing onto their terrain.
Master’s tools, master’s house anyone? We need to recognize a toxic
frame when we see one and refuse to be a party to its proliferation.

But let’s set aside the questions of language and framing for a moment.
Because there is, in fact, an expression of identity politics core to
the evolution of our nation and critical to how we understand the
current juncture. White identity and nation building have been bound
together as though co-terminus since way before the founding fathers and
the drafting of our framing documents. The rest of us have had to fight
our way into the body politic. Or, in the case of Indian nations, make
the best of a spectacularly unequal and uneasy standoff. The conceptual
contrast between white Christians and red savages underwrote relentless
territorial expansion and genocide. Between white Christians and Black
savages, the enslavement of Africans and the appropriation of their
bodies, their labor, their progeny. Between brown savages and white
Christians, the taking of the Southwest. Between the yellow peril and
white patriotic Americans, various exclusions, internments, property
appropriations and ghettoizations. And the colonial interventions in
Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines were rationalized by way of the
contrast between people who were brown, backward and incapable of
self-governance versus white Americans who were enlightened and masterly
nation builders.

One could go on, but who really wants to track back through the
catastrophes and follies of U.S. national formation perpetrated, in
substantial part, the name of whiteness? This is not about projecting
the racial sensibilities of today back onto social and political
environments that operated on completely different sets of assumptions.
It is about reckoning with the degree to which the nation-building
project has been, at the same time, a white identity formation project.
This fusion of white identity and American identity, the bedrock of
white nationalism, has such a long history that it has been internalized
and naturalized. Only since the Civil Rights movement has it began to be
somewhat disrupted. Until we collectively “get” this, some will continue
to deny or be confused by the white rights subtext of “Make America
Great Again,” and surprised at how powerfully it resonated. The shaping
of white identity, premised on exclusion, is a central thread in the
national narrative, bound up with capitalist development in general and
manifested, in one way or another, to one degree or another, in every
political, social and cultural institution.

Which brings us to an essential difference between white identity and
the identities of groups forged in the experience of exclusion and
subjugation. There is a reason that “Black Power!” and “Brown Power!”
reverberate on completely different frequencies than “White Power!” And
that “White Lives Matter,” or “Blue Lives Matter,” or even “All Lives
Matter” are misguided rejoinders to “Black Lives Matter.” An assertion
of existential urgency by the marginalized and scorned cannot simply be
inverted without carrying the connotation of both a rebuke to demands
for justice and inclusion and a reassertion of the primacy of white

Obama’s presidency was bracketed by two especially noxious racist
tropes: the “birther” lies that first surfaced during the 2007-08
campaign and the vile “ape in heels” slur cast at the first lady in the
waning days of Obama’s second term. Trump’s birther charge is a
reinforcement of white identity by way of asserting that the Black
president is not and never will be a “real American.” The “ape in heels”
insult is, obviously, a resurrection of the never-far-from-the-surface
characterization of Blacks as sub-human, primitive, uncivilized. These
may seem like extremes of a coarse, atavistic racism – a good distance
from current concerns about implicit bias and micro aggressions. And no
morally grounded person with an interest in reinforcing our sense of
shared humanity wants to spend much time contemplating such racist
poison. But the point here is that the extremes of anti-Black racism
still find a hearing among a substantial segment of white Americans, and
that a master at reinforcing the exclusivity of the claim of whites to
the national identity now prowls the Oval Office. He of multiple Eastern
European wives knows full well that the son of a Slovenian will never be
subject to challenges as to his national identity in the way the son of
a Kenyan was.

This take on white identity is blunt and broad. It doesn’t take into
account class, gender, regional variation or the infinite expressions of
identity at the level of the individual. Nevertheless, Trump’s victory
is virtually incomprehensible without a reading on the dynamics of white
identity and national formation. The liberal inquiry into the role of
“identity politics” in Clinton’s loss is pointed in a direction
diametrically opposite to where it might find some answers.

The back and forth among pundits over whether Trump voters should be
tagged as racist has been especially frustrating. Allegedly, some voters
claim that they chose Trump despite his racism and misogyny, not because
of it. Or there’s the view that all these voters couldn’t possibly be
racist, because, back in 2008 and 2012, Obama won many of the same
overwhelmingly white counties that Hillary lost in 2016. Individuals
certainly contain within them contradictory impulses and sentiments
(door knockers and phone bankers for Obama had plenty of stories about
white voters who proclaimed, “I think I’m voting for the nigger,”) and
we may never be able to divine the impulses, prejudices and
rationalizations that lie deep in the heart of hearts of Trump voters.
But a majority of white voters cast their ballots for a man who is
furiously and floridly racist, and they are apparently thrilled that he
won. Black Americans standing on the planet today are here due to the
vigilance of forebears, close in and long gone, who were keenly attuned
to the lethal consequences of white fury. While there’s surely room for
debate about the misuse or overuse of the language of “privilege,” it
does seem a signal marker of white privilege to doubt or minimize the
racial animosity of Trump’s base.

The conflation of white identity and national identity ripples out into
the further conflation of white interests with national interests. In
the current debate about “identity politics,” this takes the form of
maligning Black politics, feminist politics, LGBTQ politics, etc., as
fragmentary and divisive while, evidently, a politic built on the
economic woes of white workers would be unitary and representative of
national interests. There are so many things wrong with this view that
it is hard to know where to begin – not least the howling hypocrisy of
the sudden attention to the plight of white workers whose precarious
economic status has been decades in the making. But to note just two
issues, we have here a problematic conception of U.S. national interests
and a problematic conception of the U.S. working class.

Apart from soaring campaign rhetoric and outright propaganda, there is
no idealized national interest. Every expression of U.S. national
interest is actually the expression of the more or less stable, more or
less contradictory, more or less politically coherent interests of
different classes, economic sectors, geographies, demographic groups,
etc., as projected onto domestic and international politics. The two
political parties do their best to contain and manage these divergent
interests and to present, each of them, a version of the “national
interest” most effective at keeping their amalgamated electoral
coalitions aligned. In other words, the content of what’s understood by
the term “national interest” is not abstract, unitary and ideal but
rather highly politicized and reflective of the relative strength of
contending political actors. All interests are particularistic and
fragmentary. There is no reason to countenance the view that any one of
the constituent elements is more representative of a unitary national
interest than any other. That is to be fought out in the arena of
politics, and is determined not only by demographic weight, but by the
capacity to craft a vision and political agenda capable of unifying and
stabilizing a coalition that is sufficiently powerful to project its
worldview and political priorities as the “national interest.”

As to the conception of the U.S. working class, the belated focus on the
abandoned white worker traffics in a worn out motif that posits a white
guy in a hard had on a construction site or a factory floor as a
stand-in for the working class while declining to recognize that Black,
Latino, Asian, female and LGBTQ workers have been battered by the same
economic and social trends, that white male workers started at a higher
baseline, and that there’s a racial and gender differential in the forms
of and responses to the economic assault and battery.  (Unfortunately,
the long history of actively segregationist all-male unions is part of
the backdrop to the conflation of “worker” with “white male worker.” The
building trades unions’ recent warm embrace of Trump is not helping us
out in this regard.)

Alarm bells have been rung, repeatedly, about rampant opioid abuse,
rising suicide rates and detachment from the labor market in white
working class communities. It is beyond question that political
responses to these crises, by either party, have been inadequate,
verging on criminally negligent, and that these communities deserve the
compassion, social and medical services, and jobs programs that could
begin to turn these trends around. And yet…. I remember the 1980s, the
cruel terminology ¬– “crack babies” and crack whores” – that accompanied
that epidemic, and the unyielding resistance to naming the extended
episode of drug dependency and addiction that tore through families and
poor communities as a problem of the class. No, it was the “culture of
poverty” and failures of character. Meaning poor Black people were
simply inclined to do dope. So too the current wave of Chicago shootings
is not read as revelatory of bottomless layers of desperation on the
part of young working class men who are stripped, practically from
birth, of access to living lives that nurture their human potential, is
not seen as a problem of class formation in the U.S., but is rather
interpreted as inexplicable Black pathology (maybe it’s something in
their genes….?) and wielded politically to reinforce both class and
race division. So yes, empathy and understanding for stricken white
working class communities, along with a better understanding of how the
extension of empathy and understanding, like everything else in our
society, is deeply racialized.

These notes should in no way be read as an argument against addressing
the concerns and economic anxieties of white workers. It is an argument

(1) addressing those concerns as a component part of a larger story
about the declining fortunes of the class as a whole;

(2) refusing to make concessions to racism, xenophobia, Christian
supremacy, misogyny or heterosexism while addressing those concerns;

(3) being clear that the displacement of white economic anxiety onto
Black people and immigrants is neither warranted nor wise;

(4) being clear that the post-war deal of expanding economic fortunes
for a wide swath of white workers is completely off the table; what is
on the table is the search for new forms of multi-racial, multi-ethnic,
multi-gendered worker organizing that applies itself to the riddle of
how to effectively extract significant concessions from 21st century

(5) understanding that the work of addressing the economic and social
concerns of white workers, and winning them away from thoroughly
reactionary politics, is not principally an issue of crafting the best
messages and communications strategies to produce results in the next
election cycle, but a long-term, no-short-cuts proposition to which a
battalion of people and organizations will need to devote their lives.

Fortunately there are organizations doing the hard, granular,
on-the-ground work in counties and states that are overwhelmingly white
and/or red. They know the importance of place and how history and
culture shape their neighbors’ thinking. They know how many
conversations it takes to get a first-time or infrequent voter to the
polls. They know that race and gender bigotry, while tough to eradicate,
are far from immutable. They have mastered the art of building complex
coalitions in which no constituency feels abandoned and all can move
forward together to win progressive policies. We all need to learn from
these organizations and make sure their lessons are widely shared, their
efforts resourced and replicated, rather than throwing buckets of money
to Democratic Party consultants and operatives whose transactional,
short-term, short-sighted approach to polling and messaging has much to
do with the crisis we’re in today.

A hailstorm of executive orders and a blizzard of bad news blanket the
nation. A man who thrives on stoking chaos and fear has enmeshed all of
us in his need for daily doses of high drama. It is tough to modulate
between stunned passivity and frantic reactivity. In this roiling
environment, it may seem that a debate over “identity politics” is of
relatively little consequence. But it is, in fact, central to how the
Democratic Party and progressives approach 2018 and 2020, and to whether
and how the party regroups to become an effective shield against the
far-right onslaught. It is of enormous importance to a left that must
focus its influence on shaping the political frameworks and strategies
most capable of defeating Trump and Trumpism.

The liberal imagination has become perversely fixated on the alleged
excesses of “identity politics,” forgetting that social movements of the
marginalized are the spark and spur of democracy. The abolitionist
movement and the Civil Rights Movement extended democratic rights to the
formerly enslaved and perpetually reviled, removing a deep moral stain
from the nation. The women’s movement unleashed the potential and talent
of half the country’s population. While the small-minded argue about
bathrooms and pronouns, transgender activists, at great risk to
themselves, have gifted us with a far more capacious understanding of
the evolving spectrum of gender identity and expression. None of these
movements is “done.” Each has advanced not just the interests of a
singular identity group, but also the ambit of freedom for all. Most
assuredly, the generation that stepped forward in the wake of Trayvon
Martin and Mike Brown will not stand down just become some liberals are
having a panic attack.

We are all navigating treacherous terrain, seeking a way forward. At
least some of us know that not a single development over the past period
indicates that the way forward requires that we abandon our freedom
dreams. To the contrary.

* * *
References and issues for further exploration:

Mark Lilla, the piece that started it all:

Katherine Franke, a cogent critique of Lilla:

Thomas Edsall on identity politics and DP messaging:

Damon Young on race & Lilla:

Jonathan Wilson on history and identity politics:

Lovia Gyarkye on enduring importance of identity liberalism:

Salim Muwakkil:

And from anti-Trump conservatives:

David Brooks:

Ross Douthat:

These notes were starting to turn into a junkyard for a whole host of
issues deserving of research, comment and analysis. I invite others to

• The gender split in the Black vote, larger than in any recent
election. Were Black men motivated to give Trump 13% of their votes by a
misguided masculinism? Fear of a female president? Anti-immigrant
sentiment? Something else?

• The thinking, motivations and political formation of white voters in
deep red counties who bucked the trend and voted for HRC.

• The differences in the gender voting gap between racial/ethnic groups.

• An accounting for the allegiance of significant proportions of Asian
and Latino voters to the Republican Party. How is that allegiance being
motivated and organized? What might it take to counter it?

• An accounting of the Democratic Party’s investment in voter
education/voter registration/GOTV efforts in Black communities as
against new voters registered and turn-out figures. Show us the numbers.

• The higher than usual Democratic LGBTQ vote. To what degree a result
of focused organizing and messaging versus spontaneous revulsion?

Linda Burnham is an activist and writer whose work focuses on women’s
rights, racial justice and national politics.