In 1986, when I was born, conservatism was at a high watermark, and the ocean just kept on rising. Everything that wasn’t the free market and muscular militarism was abhorrent. The filthiest thing you could call someone was a liberal.
You could identify yourself as one all you liked. You could do it loudly and proudly, insisting that, on the contrary, liberalism was to be celebrated, that liberals had given us the New Deal and post-war prosperity and Civil Rights. It didn’t matter at all. The L-word was the L-word. And the truth was that whenever you said it, you couldn’t help but feel a little unsavory inside.
Now, liberal is passé; to be accused of being one would be as precious as hearing someone from Auckland call someone from Wellington a sheep shagger. Liberals are a funny old species of Democrat, the kind whose faces we remember from an era before digital television, with slightly too much contrast and slightly too little resolution. No, we aren’t liberals anymore. Progressivism, that old stalwart that broke the backs of the cattle barons, is back. And we’re all progressives now.
If memory serves me, that word floated to the surface during Obama’s presidency, but it was really the Clinton campaign that was supposed to nail it down as the leftism du jour. Under her auspices, we were meant to author a harmonious vision of interest politics, one that accepted everyone regardless of their religion, sexual orientation, skin color, or whether they were an individual only by the fiat of corporate law. For coastal types with sinecured lives, it was pure gold. And by Wednesday morning, it was also clear that it had been a complete and utter disaster.
No movement is better exposed than by its failures. Today, at this exact moment, and for all of the post-election slump, New Progressivism is revealing itself to us as a function of its lamentations. And what I see in all of these pleas upon the cross is one word, one very particular word, a word that is the backbone of the contemporary American thinkpiece. That word is ‘I.’
“I can’t believe that this has happened.” “I still want to have faith in the world, but I don’t know if I can.” “I think I’m doing alright.” “I think I’ll be okay.” “I fear for this country.” “I’m just going to pull myself up by my bootstraps and try to get on.”
To read all of these cries in the dark, you’d think that the presidential race had been Trump versus each and every woman and man in America. But that’s what you get when you have a politics of ‘me’ and ‘I.’ We are where personal has led political. And the results, I think we can all agree, are not good.
Think about our contemporary conversation around politics. Think about the sharp censoriousness, the ever more granular self-division, the defensiveness and protectiveness, and above all else, the moralizing–the fierce, the cruel, the ruthless moralizing. “You are wrong because of X, and I determine X because I am Y.” That bit of moral algebra is what we are supposed to associate with right-wing bigotry, and yet it is what all progressive talk has now been reduced to. Who’s to blame? Well, no one in particular, and many people along the way. The short answer is that this is the culmination of a long process by which the language of leftist politics has been replaced by that of identity. That is the shift from liberal to progressive, and it’s crucial that we understand that that transition was neither natural nor by any means beneficial. In fact, I think it’s safe to say that it has led us directly to President Trump.
There is great power in telling someone that they are instrinsically bad. That is a power that self-interested forces have been leveraging for their benefit since time immemorial. It’s the politics of shame, and that is nothing more than a politics of pure power. We shame another person in order to dehumanize them, and on that basis to deny them their rights–which happens to be a tremendous way of safeguarding our own. The only basis for cooperation that shame can establish is one that is predicated on submission.
However much you may feel like saying it, “Fuck white people” is not the clarion call for a just politics. If you aren’t white, I wouldn’t blame you for feeling it. But justice demands more of us than our enemies, however hard a pill that is to swallow. And if you’re white, you have no excuse. It may feel cathartic if you’re particularly comfortable, and you feel guilt at protecting and enjoying that comfort, and you are aware that your self-interest puts you at a rhetorical disadvantage, that it makes you weak. But don’t confuse that impulse with an instinct towards justice. Don’t make the whole left into a vehicle for hiding yourself and the pretty things you love.
Who were the three most successful activists of the 20th-century? The textbook answer is Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Mandela, and I’m inclined to agree. Now how would you stack up the rhetoric of New Progressivism against theirs? Did they attempt to reduce, to subdivide, to treat some facet of themselves like it armored them against level engagement with the world? Or did they look straight in the eyes of some of men and women who hated in a way that few else who have ever walked the earth have, and did they say: not you, but what you do is wrong. And inside of you I know that you know that, because I know that, and we are the same.
Inequality relies on the arbitrary assignment of difference. If someone is the same as you, no reasonable grounds exist for injuring them; injustice becomes hypocrisy. But as long as you are only as much as the identity you adopt, you exist within the bounds of that identity. Your rights must be argued on the basis of the laws you set for yourself. If people stop recognizing that regime, you lose everything, so your life will have to be one long and unending battle to have your will seen and submitted to. Only someone with an insatiable appetite for victory could stomach that.
If you feel that white people are a threat to you, and it’s hard to argue after Tuesday night against that, then what’s the best way to stop them? They seem to think their whiteness is the most important thing about themselves. So maybe you should show them that they aren’t white people at all. Maybe you should show them how fundamentally absurd it is that that label exists, that a group of more than a billion people, mired in a sea of competing interests, are no people at all. Show them that the ones among them who so sedulously promote injustice are the culprits, that their interest in not a common interest at all, and that everyone suffers immeasurably because of it.
If difference is the mechanism by which injustice is brought into being, why would we want to contribute to that mechanism? Remember: you need not be a label. You are a human being. In that there is and will always be an infinite reserve of strength.
Empathy is device by which we imprint the emotional life of others on our own. It is our greatest asset. Once it’s in place, any pain we cause another is pain we experience. To be human, to recognize the humanity of others, is the only basis for establishing empathy. And it is the only sure way to prevent injustice.
Whatever comes into being in the Trump era has to be ready to confront, with compassion, things that are not itself. That means that women must advocate for men, and men for women. That means that black Americans must advocate for white Americans, and white for black. Whatever you are, try to find the person farthest from yourself and give them your heart. In that alliance you’ll find the strength to confront power. Look, you’ll say, you say we’re different, and yet what we demand from you is the same. That’s because what we want is universal: it doesn’t need to be justified or controlled by any one group. It’s right, and what is right is the property of no one and of us all. That’s what liberalism, for all of its failures and ultimate hypocrisy, was based on: the universal right of every person to enjoy what is just and good.
Only as a united front will we be capable of righting the ship of the American nation. It’s all hands on deck for this storm, or else it’s all souls lost to the deep.