The Left in Identity Crisis: Getting our Story Straight

After the election, mainstream Democratic Party leaders, progressive thinkers and writers, and organizers of the movement left entered a fierce debate, centered on the question of whether the American left needs to abandon “identity politics”

One side says that in recent years the left has gone too far in focusing on the social interests of people of color, queer people, etc. while ignoring economic issues, which left blue-collar white voters feeling alienated.  They point out the Trump backlash was particularly strong among working-class whites in the Rust Belt who have suffered serious economic pain and feel like the left has abandoned and forgotten about them.  They say we’ve lost sight of standing for universal values and grown comfortable with a kind of corporate multiculturalism that fails to challenge Wall Street’s influence.  They say the solution is returning to a message focused on economic inequality, a Bernie Sanders style populism that can appeal to a broader audience outside the diverse coastal urban bubbles.

Another side says that Trump won because of his blatant appeals to racial resentment among white voters, not any economic message he had that better appealed to the working-class.  They say that we shouldn’t rush to defend and feel sympathy for a rising white supremacist movement because of “economic anxiety” of whites who are still better off economically than people of color.  They argue we need to fight racism directly rather than ignoring it and hoping better economic conditions will make people not racist.

There’s truth within both arguments.  We do need to finally toss out the shambling zombie of neoliberalism and make the left fight hard for working people again.  We also cannot excuse or compromise an inch to white supremacy and misogyny.  But in the end it’s a pointless question of whether we should abandon “identity politics”.  All politics is identity politics.  Politics aimed at better representing the interests of the rural white working-class is in fact the definition of identity politics.

The bigger issue is that right now we have two stories, two rising narratives about what the core problems in our society are, who is causing them, who our movement is, and what alternative vision we stand for.

Both stories are kind of weirdly coexisting.  Different messages are resonating with different bases, building strong but divergent movements. We need a synthesis of these two stories, or the right’s more unified story will be more compelling to the American public than our divided one.

 

The Zucotti Story and the Ferguson Story.

The Zucotti Story says our political and economic systems have become rigged, increasingly tilting in favor of the powerful and wealthy, leading to mass economic suffering and environmental destruction while big corporations and the richest 1% profit.  We need to take back our democracy and return it to the hands of the people by getting big money out of politics, reigning in Wall Street, and directly fighting economic inequality.  We the 99% can only beat the richest 1% and their lobbyists and Super PACs if we stand up now and start a political revolution using our people power as the majority.

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The Zucotti Story explodes onto the scene with the 2011 Occupy Wall Street encampments at Zucotti Park in New York, runs through the 2014 People’s Climate March and erupts again in the 2016 Bernie Sanders campaign.  It was the protests against Keystone XL, the hate of Monsanto, the move to amend the constitution to overturn Citizens United.  It resonates most strongly among young white progressives, and has become a central narrative in movements fighting economic inequality, climate change, money in politics, the corporate food system, and student tuition/debt.  It has some intellectual roots in the anti-globalization and anti-corporate protests that emerged in the late 90’s.  Its greatest public storytellers include people like Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Robert Reich, Bill McKibben, etc.  It has a willingness to engage in electoral politics, because its theory of change sees the solution as using the people’s democratic majority power.  However, it is highly critical of the way modern democracy is influenced by corporate money and is deeply suspicious of being co-opted and used by untrustworthy political actors.

The Ferguson Story says that we are slowly unraveling the legacies of white supremacy and patriarchy that have continued to curl around the roots of all of our institutions since our country’s origins of colonialism, genocide, and slavery.  These deeply-rooted forms of oppression continue to live on because those with privilege are willing and able to ignore them.  We need to reveal structural oppression in order to dismantle it, like exposing how our criminal justice system carries on the legacy of slavery by continuing to imprison and execute black people at a mass scale.  People of color, women and queer people can only achieve real liberation, can only truly dismantle these systems of oppression by showing this country itself in the mirror and forcing it to reconcile with its injustices.

The Ferguson Story emerges out of the critical race and gender theory building for decades among left student activists and social justice organizers, particularly within queer, feminist, and racial justice circles, which only recently has become mainstreamed off college campuses and nonprofit offices and into popular culture and social media.  Its most prominent face is the Black Lives Matter movement that exploded into public view in Ferguson, Missouri, but it also runs through the Dreamer/immigrants’ rights movement, the modern feminist movement including the raging battles around sexual consent and reproductive justice, and the queer and transgender rights movements.  Although it has roots in the counterculture of the 1960’s, it is wary of the failings of that era’s movements.  It avoids individual charismatic leaders (seeing organizations collapse after the assassinations of leaders like MLK and Malcolm X).  It is opposed to colorblind universalism, because it holds that without acknowledging the legacies of historical oppression that leave behind huge power imbalances today, we will never achieve justice.  It sees the path to victory as less tied to electoral politics or short-term incremental policy victories and more possible through social and cultural change, often engaging prominent figures to use their pop culture megaphone to command public attention, from Beyonce to Colin Kaepernick to Jesse Williams, and challenges individuals to build consciousness of white supremacy and patriarchy at a person-to-person level.  From police killings to immigrant deportations to sexual assaults, it raises the stories of people whose suffering would be otherwise ignored to make the invisible visible, exposing the bleeding edge of oppressive systems.

I could fit nearly every post scrolling across my feed from my lefty activist friends into one of these two stories.

But the Ferguson Story and the Zucotti Story are on a collision course.  They have different heroes and different villains.  They even run through time in different directions.

If the key to dismantling systemic oppression really is to make it impossible for the privileged to ignore their own privilege and others’ oppression, then how can we simultaneously declare that we are all in the same 99 Percent?  If the Wall Street financial elite really are the holders of power in this system, causing horrific destruction by putting corporate profits over people and the planet, how can we truly disrupt this system with cultural change that doesn’t directly challenge their power?  These aren’t easy questions to reconcile.

In my opinion, the Zucotti Story identifies a better villain.  The financial and corporate elite is a more politically strategic opponent than millions of privileged straight white males.  But it’s also a truer villain in reality.  Who really drives systemic inequalities and oppressions, who really profits from this system?  Sure, the white guy on a factory assembly line in Michigan may be better off than a Latina woman cleaning hotel rooms in Nevada.  But if someone’s getting truly rich off this system, it’s definitely not the factory worker.  And whoever holds the real power to build and maintain that system isn’t him either.  The racism and sexism he grew up around makes it easy for corporate billionaires to convince him that the Latina housekeeper doesn’t deserve higher wages for her work and shouldn’t have access to healthcare or food or housing or education assistance for her family.  And tragically, that same garbage they’ve convinced him of also keeps his own wife working for $2.13 an hour at the diner and keeps his own kids from getting scholarship grants to go to college.  But he’s at worst a storm trooper in this story, not Darth Vader, and certainly not the Emperor.

On the other hand, I think the Ferguson Story lays out a better narrative arc.  The problem with “take back our democracy” is the same as “Make America Great Again”.  It begs the question: back to what?  For the millions of people of color, women and queer people in America, there was no golden age that we would ever want to return to.  Most tellers of the Zucotti story, from Robert Reich to Bernie Sanders, remember the New Deal era as that better time, making small print footnotes and caveats that there was unfortunately too much discrimination back then.  But the hard truth is that the broadly egalitarian prosperity of that time for white people was actually built on the backs of people of color, like the government massively subsidizing the creation of the suburbs and helping white families buy homes there, which was inextricably linked to redlining and white flight devastating urban communities of color.  Our story should not weave a mythical past because it keeps us from confronting the harsh realities of that past and understanding the much harder task of building a better future through deeper systemic change.

Perhaps the hardest question is who are the heroes of our story?  Are we the coalition of the oppressed or are we the 99%?  The 99% concept, while seemingly unifying at a surface level, is troubling.  If we are unable to distinguish between the challenges facing a black formerly incarcerated unemployed father in Atlanta and a young white tech worker in San Francisco, this will inevitably lead to huge failures in addressing injustices in our society.  Instead there is greater truth, but also something more deeply powerful, in seeing our heroes as a motley crew of underdog misfit rebels.  In the oppression frame, we can acknowledge our differences, but embrace each other.

But the problem with the oppressed as the heroes is that our country has always refused to accept the existence of economic class oppression.  That’s the missing piece that keeps our two stories from converging.  

From Rust Belt guys laid off from disappearing jobs in the factories and mines to Millenials at shit jobs in retail and food service struggling with exploding debt and housing costs, white Americans rarely see themselves as part of an oppressed working class.

Throughout the history of this country, the existence of whiteness has been deliberately constructed, while the existence of class has been utterly denied.  The white working-class has been told over and over for centuries that they’re not the poor, they’re the default people, the average, real Americans, the noble middle-class.  They’re not down there along with the wretched of the earth, the dark huddled masses.

This is why many white folks need to hear a story about the 99% in order to fight for economic justice.  If we’re all in the 99%, no one has to admit we’re broke, we’re just not as rich as those Wall Street guys.

The United States has historically lacked the consciousness about class issues seen in most other countries because our country’s most dominant narrative, our core defining ethos, is being the land of opportunity, away from Old Europe, the exceptional place where everyone can make it.  The American Dream.  It’s the story we’re told over and over again in so many ways, even though time and time again it’s been proven statistically untrue.

This is the big lie that creates a huge barrier to a synthesis between the Zucotti Story and the Ferguson Story.  The biggest lies are always the hardest to expose.  In the end, the left will probably never win in this country unless we can get past this deep mental block that prevents millions of people from seeing how our economic system is screwing them.

As John Steinbeck once said, Americans don’t see themselves as poor, they see themselves as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.  In America, where supposedly anyone can make it if they’re smart and work hard, being broke means you must be lazy and stupid.  If you’re poor and white, there is no consciousness of your oppression to shield you from the shame of being poor in America.  Acknowledging your social class is in fact deeply painful, to see your place at the bottom of your own nation’s social myth.  You may go through all sorts of mental gymnastics to assert your status as higher than some other group of people, which makes you vulnerable to demagogues who cast the blame on scapegoats.  This is how old plantation owners convinced the vast majority of whites who didn’t own slaves that they should support maintaining the slavery system because it kept poor white people one rung higher on the ladder than poor black people.

Shame is a powerful, paralyzing emotion.  It makes us avoid and hide.  In politics just as in our personal lives, if we can’t move past shame we can never move forward.

When people of color, women, queer people, talk about their status in society they often feel some internalized shame, but they are also able to express pride, a sense of resilience and rebelliousness built into a collective history.  Working-class white people in America don’t feel that same way when they talk about class.  You see it a little bit in the “redneck” pride in country music, blue collar comedy, etc.  But it’s often more expressing rural white cultural pride than pride in being working-class itself.

Even people in the labor movement in this country are afraid to talk about class.  Half the time they can’t even say the words “working class”, and say unions represent the voice of the “middle class” instead.  This is a legacy of Cold War Era McCarthyism and red-baiting, where in order to survive, organized labor had to avoid anything that might slap the dangerous communist label on them.

But the Cold War is over.  And we need to start talking about class with white people.  If we don’t, all working-class white people hear from the left is that they had this great privileged life and somehow ended up on the bottom anyway.  That’s the kind of thing that makes people go “Hey fuck you man, you don’t know anything about me or how hard I’ve had it, nobody cares or tries to help out people like me, I had to do everything on my own, unlike those people getting affirmative action and living off welfare and cheating the immigration system.”  Talking about race without talking about class actually creates a huge mental block keeping working-class white people from acknowledging racism.

The left doesn’t need to stop talking about identity politics.  The left needs to understand that class is one of the most important parts of people’s identity.

As far as we still have to go, we’ve made undeniable social progress on race and gender in just the last 10 years.  But where is our progress on class?  Our movements have failed to deliver meaningful change for working-class white people.  We have buried them.  And in 2016 they refused to be buried.

To fail to talk about class is to avoid a problem because it seems too hard and too scary.  It is to try to ignore the estranged old friend who we stopped talking to after a bitter argument, because we feel ashamed and don’t know how to restart the conversation.

This political identity of the white working-class, the largest in the country, will ultimately need to find a place to belong, either among the left or the right.  If we cannot create a place for them to belong in our movement, they will continue to be turned into our enemy’s greatest weapon against us.  If we don’t lay out a genuinely transformative progressive economic agenda they will become the political base for white nationalism.

And if the movement left fails to open up the conversation about class, the establishment liberals will make their play to win the next election—they will try to win over upper-class white voters by diving deeper into neoliberalism, showing economically conservative but socially liberal voters that if they’re embarrassed by Trump’s crude antics, they can find a home for their politics in the Democratic Party.

To beat the two-headed monster of hate and greed, we can’t turn our backs to one to fight another.  

And we will need a compelling, powerful, unifying story to defeat the one we’re up against.

The Make America Great Again story spread like wildfire and was ultimately the most successful message in 2016 because it aligned so easily atop the old right narrative, but changed a few key details to adapt to the new viral era, the new altered political state.

The Old Right story, the Atlas Shrugged story, said that liberal elites who really just want more big government power and ultimately socialism/communism are conspiring through an ever-growing web of government taxes and programs and regulations to take wealth away from hardworking, mainly white, “makers” like small business owners, and give it to lazy, mainly black and brown, “takers” like welfare recipients, eroding our hardworking American values and lulling people into a cultural trap of dependence, growing ever weaker and more sheeplike.  The heroes who can stop them are the business elite who forsake their supposed “social obligations” to others to reveal the truth of how much the world needs them as successful individuals.


The New Right story, the Make America Great Again story,
says that liberal elites who want big globalist governments are conspiring to advance an ever-growing web of politically correct multiculturalism that erodes our tough American values, keeping us from confronting our enemies and standing up for the physical safety and economic security of (white) “real Americans” who are under threat from Mexican illegal immigrants and Chinese factory slaves, Muslim terrorists and Black rioters, who we can’t even call our enemies because we’ve been so brainwashed by the liberal media.  The heroes who can stop them are the Regular Joe’s who have the courage to cut the PC crap and say what’s really happening and stand up for ourselves as a country.

Both stories have roughly the same villains, the liberal elite with their dangerous ideas and the ignorant dark masses who follow them.  They have roughly the same narrative arcs, of things falling apart over time as they break down our culture into weakness, ultimately leading to the fall of America.  They have the same solution, of telling the hard truth that no one wants to hear.  The New Right mainly just switched the heroes from the successful business-class elite to the struggling plain-spoken regular working guy.  Trump’s narrative resonated less with the traditional gatekeepers like elected officials, media commentators, donors etc. who candidates once needed to win.  But it resonated more with the actual base of ordinary people who virally spread his message at the grassroots level and on social media.

The right-wing narrative just gave itself a little tune up for a viral era and immediately found massive success.  Meanwhile, the left wing has lacked any kind of cohesive narrative for decades.  That left story is finally beginning to emerge into the public consciousness, but in two distinct parts that are struggling to be reconciled with one another.

Divided, they are defeating us, by caricaturing us as Social Justice Warriors and Bernie Bros, minorities obsessed with meaningless microaggressions, and privileged white guys who only care about free college and weed, and making us resent each other.

But there is one place where I think we’re beginning to see a synthesis of our two stories.  It’s the Standing Rock Story.  Over the past few months, we’ve seen followers of both the Zucotti Story and the Ferguson Story turn their eyes to North Dakota, to perhaps the most deeply oppressed people since the beginning of this country, indigenous people who are courageously fighting the most powerful wealthy corporate interests, the oil industry and their Wall Street financiers, and somehow seem to be winning.

This is the first story I’ve seen that has really moved people in both of our left camps.  It’s the story that says that reckless corporations driven by Wall Street greed are putting their profits before the lives of people and the planet we all depend on.  And that it will be the places like Standing Rock and Flint that are hit first and worst, as the corporate machine takes away our humanity.  It will be the people who have been neglected by America, the people whose lives and humanity have been valued the least.  It will be these places that first see their water, air and soil poisoned, or their people struggling to survive without jobs or economic opportunities, or their democratic voice and human rights crushed for the sake of profit.  But in the end, we have a shared fate, and people from all walks of life will need to join that struggle in powerful stunning acts of solidarity to defend our common humanity.

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