The Corner

What’s Wrong with the ‘Whitelash’ Thesis

Liberal professor of political philosophy Mark Lilla is all for the gains on behalf of diversity rightly understood over the last generation. And we conservatives agree there really has been progress on this front, and our country in some key respects is more just than it used to be. Our rigorous “selective nostalgia” — attentive as it is to the ways things are getting better and worse — celebrates the ways things have gotten better for African Americans, women, gays, Latinos, and others.

One of the most memorable days of my life, in fact, was driving through midtown Atlanta the weekend after the same-sex-marriage decision and seeing the gay flag waving next to the American flag everywhere. One downside, of course, was that some religiously observant Americans thought that the working out of the implications of that decision would result in their marginalization as Americans, that our country’s flag would no longer be theirs. I realize the latter need not happen (although there has been more than one step in that direction), but, if it did, it would be at the expense of the inclusive ideal of American citizenship that’s genuinely conservative.

We conservatives can also see the relational costs that come when pushing the case for the autonomous construction of one’s own identity too far. These are neither the best of times nor the worst of times for American marriages and families. One reason Trump won, after all, is that family life has become dysfunctional for so many Americans who simply don’t have the resources to live their values. Meanwhile, marriages have become more stable and child-centered for the top 20 percent of Americans. That’s one set of facts among many that remind us that so many Americans in this election voted not their race or gender or whatever but their clashing interests as persons working to live with relational dignity in a dynamic economy that has both winners and losers.

Still, Lilla explains, liberals and conservatives can unite against the self-indulgent media experts and nutty professors who complacently affirm the “whitelash” explanation of the recent election.

Here are some takeaways, which come less from Lilla than from me:

‐Elitist moral superiority based on self-proclaimed sensitivity to diversity produces a condescending indifference to the real concerns of struggling, admirable, real people not in the elitist identity-politics bubble.

‐That bubble generates the elitist fantasy that inexorable demographic change will overwhelm the average-white-guy faction soon enough. The inconvenient truth is that Americans don’t automatically vote their “identity,” after all. And, for anyone with eyes to see, that the Republican faction will not always be as white as is now, or the Democrats as dependent on the nonwhite vote. Identity politics is one lullaby that’s produces the dogmatic slumber of too many of our progressive Democrats. (Another is “history” having sides. A third is globalization.)

‐Identity politics began with the KKK. If you reduce your opponents to closet Klan members, it’s no wonder you’re hugely scared when you lose to them.

‐Let’s get back to the liberalism of shared citizenship. Trump was right to say “a country is a country,” but his nationalism, obviously, is too tribal and, so far, far too white.

‐Let’s admit that our coming apart is caused mainly by our “cognitive” elite seceding into its bubbled gated communities. The trouble with having a meritocracy based on productivity is that people too readily think they deserve what they have, and so they’re weak on connecting their privileges to responsibilities.

‐And when our elite thinks of white, straight males as having unearned privileges, it’s hard to see how that thought makes sense to the former steelworkers of Steubenville. Those guys know who the privileged really are.  Many of them supported their privileged African-American president, because he persuaded them he had their backs. This time, probably mistakenly but certainly understandably, they were persuaded by Trump.

‐Let’s take care of sensitive relational issues locally. We need, as Yuval Levin says, to rediscover the virtues of subsidiarity. The liberal means we share are for preserving the relational places in which persons find real significance, and we cherish the fact that our country is graced by all kinds of morally, intellectually, and religiously diverse relational spaces that can only be deformed if politicized.

‐Some experts are now talking up Democrats and libertarians united against the authoritarian Trumpians. That makes sense on issues such as criminal-justice reform and immigration. And many conservatives will join that coalition too, if only to a point.  There is a mean between Jeff Sessions and Gary Johnson, after all.

‐On campus: It should be the liberals, conservatives, and libertarians against the authoritarians, against those who want to suppress free speech and “viewpoint diversity” in the service of creating a really, really safe space for people who have the same opinions on the right side of history. I think it’s here that Lilla talks a great game. Let’s see if he actually does anything.

‐And prattling about and enforcing the proliferation of self-chosen pronouns, for example, has the effect of further insulating the identitarian bubble from the real relational responsibilities of ordinary people defined by birth, work, faith, citizenship, and death. It’s one example among many of how distant campus life is from the real world, including real engagement with the moral and political opinions of ordinary Americans. 

‐Well, if this or that campus chooses to go down the obsessively identitarian route, let the freedom at the foundation of genuine institutional diversity reign. But some campuses might choose to get by in a pretty binary way with just two sets of singular pronouns. The liberals as much as the conservatives and libertarians should want the federal government to have nothing to do with those invariably varying institutional choices. The same with our increasingly intrusive accrediting associations. Not all of our campuses are going to be all that liberal or open-minded, but let’s not pretend otherwise. And let’s tell the truth about which ones have the real intellectual and moral diversity.

Peter Augustine LawlerPeter Augustine Lawler is Dana Professor of Government at Berry College. He is executive editor of the acclaimed scholarly quarterly Perspectives on Political Science and served on President George ...