When Ross Douthat writes about race, he does so in a self-consciously “gingerly” manner, which means, for the most part, that he doesn’t have anything to say. It also means that he’s unwilling to point a finger in one direction unless he is simultaneously pointing a different finger in the other direction.
So, for one example, it’s not sufficient to point out that the Republican Party’s answer to black poverty is to impotently advocate for two-parent families, you must also allege that the Democrats have no idea how to raise wages in this country. If he means that the Democrats in Washington have no idea how to overcome persistent Republican obstruction and filibusters, he might have a bit of a point, but the Democrats just got the minimum wage raised in Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska, and South Dakota. Those are some “severely conservative” states, by the way.
The Republicans have blocked President Obama’s proposed hike in the federal minimum wage, and every other idea he’s put forth to improve America’s economic lot, but that doesn’t mean that the Democrats have stood still, nor does it mean that the left has no idea how to help people get out of poverty. The November/December issue of the Washington Monthly was almost entirely dedicated to these issues, and it was a collaborative effort with John Podesta, who happens to be a top guru to both President Obama and Hillary Clinton.
This effort at moral equivalence on Douthat’s part is repugnant, but what’s even worse is the following:
(The left doesn’t know how to get wages rising again; the right doesn’t know how to shore up the two-parent family, etc.) Which has left both parties increasingly dependent on identity-politics appeals, with the left mobilizing along lines of race, ethnicity and gender and the right mobilizing around white-Christian-heartland cultural anxieties.
For a while the media has assumed that this kind of identity-based politics inevitably favors the left, because 21st-century America is getting less white every day.
But that’s too simplistic, in part because the definitions of “white” and “minority” are historically elastic. If a “white party” seems sufficiently clueless and reactionary, it will lose ground to a multicultural coalition. But as African-Americans know from bitter experience, “whiteness” has sustained itself by the inclusion of immigrants as well as by the exclusion and oppression of blacks. That history suggests that a “multicultural party” may always be at risk of being redefined as a grievance-based “party of minorities” that many minorities would prefer to leave behind.
What’s the equivalence here?
On the right, the idea is to mobilize “around white-Christian-heartland cultural anxieties.” Those types of anxieties will exist whether or not they are stoked, encouraged, pandered to, or not. But to deliberately set out to take political advantage of those anxieties is to, with clear foresight, intentionally increase people’s anxiety in order to make them more race-conscious, more resentful, more tribal, more selfish, more well-armed, and less prepared for the future.
On the left, the idea is allegedly to mobilize “along lines of race, ethnicity and gender.” But, there is really nothing foundational on the left to its appeal to one race or one gender other than a commitment to protecting the rights that minorities and woman have already won. The last really big civil rights bill passed in 1968, a year before this forty-five year old writer was born. Abortion rights were legalized in 1973, when I was in nursery school. And, yet, we are still forced to fight for the right to vote and for reproductive choice. We didn’t decide that the answer to black poverty was to lecture people about sexual abstinence.
So, when certain races, ethnicities, and women are under attack, we rally to their defense, but that is a reaction, not an agenda. Getting people health care was an agenda. Making college affordable is an agenda. Winning people a living wage is an agenda.
Try as you might, you won’t find the left trying to get anyone to hate white people or Christians or the “heartland.” We aren’t trying to make people afraid of these groups; we’re only trying to protect them from what these groups are trying to do them politically. A politician who wants health care for people in the inner city isn’t trying to rob Peter to pay Paul, but a politician who votes for a Personhood Amendment is trying to take away contraceptives from women. These are not equivalent things.
Which leads us to Douthat’s conclusion:
The key point here, though, is that whichever coalition is ascendant in this scenario, a politics divided primarily by identity is likely to be more poisonous than one in which both parties are offering more-color-blind appeals.
Unfortunately, identity is also the most primal, reliable form of political division. And Ferguson has provided a case study in exactly how powerfully it works.
Ah, yes. Ferguson.
One side thinks that it shouldn’t be legal to gun down teenagers in a hail of bullets unless your life is in imminent danger. The other side is like, whatever, the kid had it coming.
Which side is poisonous?
If the right would stop treating every social program as the societal equivalent of a car-jacking, would stop stripping voting rights from the underclass, would stop reflexively defending killer cops and vigilantes, and would stop treating the first black president and his family with relentless disrespect, we might have a less racially-tinged response from the left.
But the right has made a decision. Their decision is to mobilize “around white-Christian-heartland cultural anxieties.”
The left has not mobilized around “black-inner city cultural anxieties.” And it won’t.
That’s why the problem of race in this country is not perpetuated or exacerbated by the left. To the degree that the left is at fault on racial issues, its because they don’t do enough. But the main reason they don’t do enough is because the backlash is so strong. Look what happens the second anyone tries to get serious about prison reform for example.
Hell, we can’t even close Gitmo, let alone talk seriously about emptying our prisons of non-violent drug offenders.
So, let’s get real, Douthat. Progressives are working toward the color-blind society you profess to want. But we have no choice but to fight a constant rearguard action against the heartland anxieties that your party feeds like a dying furnace.