As Donald Trump’s new presidency surges across our politics, creating chaos and uncertainty, there is one element in his victory where most Australian politicians remain in ideological denial — the revolt against identity politics.
Trump, in effect, was given permission to win the election by the US progressive class despite his narcissism, his coarseness and his smashing of the orthodox bounds of political and policy behaviour.
In retrospect, the 2016 US election story is a grand joke — enough voters in Middle America decided to tolerate Trump’s juvenile viciousness because they felt the narcissism of prevailing closed-minded progressive ideology was no longer to be tolerated. In the end, the alternative was worse than Trump. Is this too difficult an idea to grasp?
During the Obama era the US underwent a cultural revolution. Fuelled by social activists on race, sex and gender issues and the decisive swing by younger people to social liberalism as a way of life, the Democratic Party embraced identity politics as a brand. It mirrored the values transformation that swept through many American institutions: the academy, media, arts, entertainment and much of the high income earning elite. But revolutions are only guaranteed to bring counter-revolutions in their wake.
Barack Obama won two presidential elections enshrining identity and minority politics at the heart of his campaign. But Obama is a unique historical figure. What works for him doesn’t work for other Democrats — witness Hillary Clinton. In 2016 minority politics failed to deliver. Its momentum has been checked, with American progressives sunk in an angry valley of rage.
Last year Clinton, after a long and often tortuous journey, embraced not a call to all, but a collection of separate identity groups, a pervasive agenda of political correctness and pledges to end discrimination for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. This testified to the US Supreme Court decision in favour of same-sex marriage, the injustices visited on African Americans, the voting power of minorities and their decisive capture of the soul of the Democratic Party. The problem for the Democrats is now obvious: managing the Obama legacy without the magic of Obama.
This election, beyond its madness, was about a clash of moral vision. Trump stood for three visions: economic protection against free trade, nationalism against internationalism, and cultural tradition against social liberalism. In Australia there has been immense coverage of Trump’s victory combined with denial of its full meaning. It is a historic failure of progressivism.
In his defining New York Times article of November 18, “The End of Identity Liberalism”, US professor of humanities Mark Lilla said the liberal orthodoxy that society should “celebrate” its differences was splendid as moral pedagogy “but disastrous as a foundation for democratic politics in an ideological age”.
Lilla said: “In recent years American liberalism has slipped into a kind of moral panic about racial, gender and sexual identity that has distorted liberalism’s message and prevented it from becoming a unifying force capable of governing. One of the many lessons of the recent presidential campaign and its repugnant outcome is that the age of identity liberalism must be brought to an end.”
Lilla, no fan of Trump, said Clinton’s “strategic mistake” was slipping into “the rhetoric of diversity, calling out explicitly to African-American, Latino, LGBT and women at every stop”. It became a bigger problem when, having decided to play group politics, she ignored the biggest group: white voters without college degrees. They punted for Trump and who can blame them?
After the result Lilla said American voters were “disaffected with the liberal message”. He said: “Democrats have simply lost the country. They have lost the capacity to speak to the vast middle of America, an America that is, in large part, white, very religious and not highly educated.” He said identity liberalism was about self-expression, not persuasion, and claimed that “it’s narcissistic, it’s isolating, it looks within”.
The superficial lesson of the US election is that identity politics failed at the ballot box. That’s important. But what’s even more important — for the US and Australia — is that identity politics is bad in its essence, bad for nations, bad for societies and bad for peoples. Identity politics is a far bigger issue in the US than Australia but that does not gainsay this reality.
It goes to the flaw in progressive politics — its blindness to consequences of its policies. This is relevant in Australia given the Labor Party is fully pledged to identity politics as a tactic while for the Greens it is core ideology. The pent-up backlash, however, will come in this country probably sooner rather than later.
Trump, personally liberal in many ways, rode the tide of conservative moral revolt. It was wider and deeper than liberals expected because the rising progressive ethos touches virtually every aspect of US life. Progressives misjudged partly because they felt Trump condemned himself as a bigot, sexist and anti-Muslim extremist.
The genius of Trump’s “make America great again” slogan was that it resonated at multiple levels — with people who saw their jobs and incomes were being eroded along with something even bigger: they felt the values of their America were being stolen, that they were losing their country.
Lilla joins that other brilliant American academic, Jonathan Haidt, professor of ethical leadership at New York University and author of The Righteous Mind, whose speeches over the past year are a tour de force in documenting and exposing the crisis in the US university system caused by identity politics.
These speeches are reinforced by Haidt’s 2015 Atlantic magazine article, “The Coddling of the American Mind”, co-authored with constitutional lawyer Greg Lukianoff, that reveals the destructiveness of identity politics.
The key lies in its cultivation of victimhood and the creation of laws, rules and processes to allow victims to pursue and punish the people who have offended them. This vests victims with a superior moral standing, even social status, with the assumption such processes represent superior public policy and prove the compassion of institutions that embrace these norms.
The argument “I’m offended” is the ultimate card. Once these norms are accepted, it is unbeatable. This thinking is spreading rapidly into Australian institutions and is embraced by authorities who don’t understand the consequences of what they are doing.
Any Australian politician will gain currency by standing for the victim, winning moral acclaim and usually votes. The great examples are rejecting the same-sex plebiscite because it would offend and hurt gays and lesbians, the insistence under section 18C that people have a right to be offended because of racial comments, and the right of LGBTI students to have the school norms redesigned on gender grounds for self-protection. The principle in each case is the same: the norms of the majority must surrender to the demands of the victimised minority.
Once the victim culture prevails, then notions of morality and decency are redefined. As its scope widens any established idea is vulnerable: that male-female gender norms should be respected, that Australia Day should be kept as January 26 or that the British civilisation heritage should be fundamental to the school curriculum.
While Haidt’s analysis is university-based, it is valuable because US universities are the most advanced outreach of identity politics. He argues this transformation weakens the integrity of institutions and damages the precise people it is supposed to protect.
“What has been happening since the 1990s is there’s been a change — the most sacred thing at university is the victim,” Haidt says. “There are six groups of victims traditionally since the 1990s so mostly whenever there are big political blow-ups and controversies they tend to be around race issues, gender issues, or LGBT issues. Those are the big three. There are three other groups that tend to be sacred but there seems to be less controversy around Latinos, Native Americans and the disabled. The last two years have been extraordinary because there’s been a revolution in just two years with a seventh group, now Muslims, in the sacred category. You know you’re in the presence of sacredness when any little thing, any affront or insult, elicits a huge reaction.”
Haidt describes how the process works at American universities: “The transition to a victimhood culture is one characterised by concern with status and sensitivity.” The self-declared victim looks to the new norms for satisfaction. “They bring it to the attention of the authorities,” Haidt says. “If something happens, you don’t deal with it yourself. You report it. You get the president of the university, the dean, some older person, some bureaucratic authority, to bring them in. To punish the person who did this. In such a culture you don’t emphasise your strengths, rather the aggrieved emphasise the repression and their social marginalisation. The only way to gain status is not just to be a victim but to stand up for other victims.”
This is an accurate description of the ethos and operating rules of the Australian Human Rights Commission.
What are the consequences? Haidt says: “Professors are increasingly afraid of students. Everybody’s on the Left but they’re increasingly being hauled up for some charge of racism or sexism. Professors all over the country are pulling videos, pulling material. Undergrads are being exposed to far less provocative material in 2016 than they were even in 2014. Just in the last two years professors all over the country are changing their teaching.”
The origins of this cultural sickness are deep and pervasive. Lilla says: “The fixation on diversity in our schools and in the press has produced a generation of liberals and progressives narcissistically unaware of conditions outside their self-defined groups and indifferent to the task of reaching out to Americans in every walk of life.
“At a very young age our children are being encouraged to talk about their individual identities, even before they have them. By the time they reach college many assume that diversity discourse exhausts political discourse and have shockingly little to say about such perennial questions as class, war, the economy and the common good.
“In large part this is because of high-school curriculums, which anachronistically project the identity politics of today back on to the past, creating a distorted picture of the major forces and individuals that shaped our country.”
Haidt says that children born after 1980 got a message: “Life is dangerous but adults will do everything in their power to protect you from harm.” He’s right. But he misses the sharper political point. For progressives, identity politics and victimhood are a wedge to delegitimise leaders and institutions that sustain any conservative status quo against the radical social changes they want. This has played out in the politics of both the US and Australia.
Identity politics should be seen in its historical context. It is one manifestation of the chaotic yet momentous embrace of populism on both the Left and Right, fanned by social media, the crisis of traditional values and the debasement of the notion of what is a virtuous person. Emotional self-expression, not piety, is the behaviour that is now rewarded.
Haidt says identity politics is tied to the idea of “emotional reasoning” — or, to be crude, the elevation of emotion over reason. Its essence is: “I feel it, therefore it must be true.” Feelings are permitted to guide reality. Lukianoff and Haidt say: “A claim that someone’s words are ‘offensive’ is not just an expression of one’s own subjective feeling of offendedness. It is, rather, a public charge that the speaker has done something objectively wrong. It is a demand that the speaker be punished by some authority for committing an offence.”
Emotional reasoning is now evidence; it is seen as illegitimate for an authority or a government to inflict mental or emotional damage on people who constitute a historically repressed minority; subjective evidence of the hurt is all that is required to make the case. Let’s be clear: emotions and claims of mental damage have become political weapons to be ruthlessly deployed. This is a core tactic of identity politics.
Bill Shorten grasps this and has used it brilliantly. Shorten and most of his frontbench were explicit in their rejection of the same-sex marriage plebiscite: it had to be rejected because of the emotional damage it would do. Shorten said the “No” campaign would be “an emotional torment for gay teenagers” and raised the possibility of suicide. Many mental health clinicians backed him.
These views must be challenged. How healthy was it for the LGBTI community to present itself to the Australian public as such entrenched victims that they were unable to sustain a national vote on the marriage issue? Are such individuals better off having embraced this position? Are they better prepared for future life when, in an imperfect world, they will face inevitable discrimination from time to time?
Moving to the central contradiction in identity politics — as relevant in Australia as it is in America — Lilla said: “It says, on the one hand, you can never understand me because you are not exactly the kind of person I’ve defined myself to be. And on the other hand, you must recognise me and feel for me.”
Rates of mental illness have been increasing rapidly in both the US and Australia among young people. This is a serious issue but it is being exploited in the cause of ideology. As Haidt says, if young people are taught, encouraged and rewarded “to nurture a kind of hypersensitivity” that does not assist their lives. On the contrary, this new moral culture advocated by the progressives results in “an atrophying of the ability to handle small interpersonal matters on one’s own” while at the same time “it creates a society of constant and intense moral conflict”.
Nobody doubts that hurt and offence are genuine and justified across every minority group. That is a fact. But it is not the issue. The issue is the institutional, political and legal response. Haidt argues that the cult of victimhood in law and process “causes a downward spiral of competitive victimhood” and the generation of a “vortex of grievance”. The further tragedy is that victimhood penetrates both sides of the political conflict: men branded as sexist by feminists claim to be victims of reverse sexism.
Progressives have been setting the cultural agenda in Australia just as they have done in the US: on same-sex marriage, LGBTI rights, gender fluidity programs, social and ideological agendas in schools, the campaign against religious freedom, winning more support for affirmative action, radicalising the proposed indigenous referendum, shifting multiculturalism towards the “diversity” side of the spectrum and deploying anti-discrimination law as an instrument of radical social change.
It is futile to think the counter-revolution will not occur. The only issues are its leadership, its rationality and the extent of its conservative or reactionary populism. If Malcolm Turnbull, as Coalition leader, feels this is not his responsibility then the vacuum will be occupied by others.
As the two-generations-long campaign in the West for individual human rights reaches its logical cultural conclusion in identity politics, the results are an increasingly fragmented society, the decline of a shared historical narrative and a distorted moral order that damages us all.