The traditional left has the biggest beef with identity politics — although they might not have completely figured this out yet.
Complaining about “woke” “social justice” movements centered on racial, gender, and other identities has long been every conservative’s favorite sport. Ben Shapiro does it virtually every day. The heterodox writer James Lindsay has literally drawn up an entire line of flash cards breaking down the various contemporary left-wing meanings for terms like “racism.” President Donald Trump — who once famously retweeted Lindsay — recently signed an executive order banning within the federal workforce the teachings of many forms of critical race theory, which assigns praise or blame to members of a particular race solely because they are of that race.
I lean right myself, in the interest of full disclosure, and recently wrote a critique of a major popular text of critical race theory, Robin DiAngelo’s best-selling “White Fragility.”
However, if anyone truly clashes with modern wokeness, it is the traditional class-focused left. The idea that race, gender, trans vs. “cis” gender status, sexual orientation, and many other things represent unique identities which, one, can only be understood by those possessing them and, two, provide legitimate bases for political activism constitutes the tallest (was that “heightist?”) possible barrier to the creation of a unified and organized working class.
The Occupy movement gets co-opted
I have seen the effects of this fracturing myself. Not always a be-spectacled center-rightist friendly with both the Brooks Brothers, I was active with the 2011 Occupy movement early in graduate school.
Occupy Chicago, possibly the largest gathering of Guy Fawkes-mask wearing radicals outside Manhattan’s Zucotti Park, fell apart largely because of the endless bifurcation of members’ agendas. Whenever a task force of leading members was proposed to discuss some almost-consensus working-class issue like support for an increased minimum wage, the call would immediately come for a women’s task force. Then, what about a Black women’s task force? A Black gay women’s task force?
Very often, 37 quarreling proposals about what to do would eventually be made, and nothing would ever get done. By the end, there actually existed a separate all-Black and minority version of Occupy, called “Occupy the Hood.”
This same sort of thing has derailed more than a few politicians running on a traditional class-based platform. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders consistently struggled to win over Black voters, to such an extent that Politico published several pieces about the problem. Sanders won only 14% of Black South Carolina voters to Hillary Clinton’s 86% in 2016; he performed similarly in 2020, and was largely knocked out of the 2020 primary by African American giant Rep. James Clybourn’s professed support for Joe Biden.
A major reason for this, often said quite explicitly, was Sanders’ focus on economic rather than racial issues. In 2015, a Sanders speech praising the 80th anniversary of Social Security and the success of a hood-to-the-holler range of anti-poverty programs was literally shut down by Black Lives Matter activists who demanded four and a half minutes of silence in honor of the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and claimed to be holding Sanders accountable for failure to support their movement.
When the progressive audience — made up of thousands of people, mostly whites, who had paid to attend the speech — booed, protesters castigated them for racism and accused them of “white supremacist liberalism.”
Woke corporate America
In contrast to the Fidel Castro defender but “racist” Sanders, global mega-corporations which parrot woke talking points get a break from many influential social justice activists.
The National Football League, known for fighter jet fly-overs of games which often resemble gladiatorial combat, recently gained plaudits for partnering with rapper Jay-Z and announcing the (eventual) commitment of millions to social justice causes. League partner Nike went even further, issuing a formal statement of “Our Commitment to the Black Community,” and temporarily changing the company’s famous Just Do It slogan in solidarity with victims of police violence.
Both Nike and German rival Adidas will gladly sell you a sporty “BLM” T-shirt, generally for about $35 to $50. All of this is no doubt harmless and even positive. However, it buys the average citizen no health care — and a cynic might be tempted to wonder just how free the overseas workers sewing together “Equality Now” tank tops actually happen to be.
As the eventual reaction of many Sanders supporters and Occupiers to wokeness indicates, there exists a sizable and growing opening for a candidate willing to mock the extremes of social justice and champion the working class.
The people’s choice:Trump supporters who voted for $15 minimum wage? Yes, it happened in Florida.
In the 2020 election, rather unexpectedly, the candidate to come closest to doing so was often Republican incumbent Donald Trump. For all of Trump’s online antics, he spent much of the race declaring his support for the American manufacturing sector, trotting out the surprisingly detailed Platinum Plan for Black communities, meeting with prominent activists such as Ice Cube, and reminding working-class male voters that he signed a criminal justice reform bill, the First Step Act.
Big Orange was rewarded for this not merely with a near-sweep of lower-education white voters, but also with up to 18% of the Black male vote and more than 30% of the Latino vote. If not for the COVID-19 pandemic, this coalition almost certainly would have made him president again.
Democrats will and should challenge populist GOP candidates for the working-class vote, and certainly have some major issues on their side (what was that health care plan again, Donald?). However, as the economy of the future continues to grow and alternatives to the mainstream media become more widely available, winning it will require championing those themes that unite a huge and critical chunk of our society, rather than those that divide it.
Wilfred Reilly is an associate professor of political science at Kentucky State University and author of the books “Hate Crime Hoax: How the Left is Selling a Fake Race War” and “Taboo: 10 Facts You Can’t Talk About.” Follow him on Twitter: @wil_da_beast630