The Morning Jolt

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America Was Meant to Overcome Identity Politics

Kerron Stewart, 10, sits with demonstrators on the steps of the Louisiana State Capitol building in Baton Rouge, La., July 10, 2016. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

Making the click-through worthwhile: Why identity politics, so in style across the political spectrum right now, are what the American experiment was meant to overcome; a key question for Democrats in the aftermath of John McCain’s passing; and Facebook faces an internal rebellion.

“What Are You?”

Despite our Founding creed, throughout our history, America has had a pretty inconsistent record at overcoming our identity-politics divisions.

The New York Times recently reviewed a new book by Kwame Anthony Appiah titled “The Lies That Bind.” The author is a London-born Ghanian of interracial parents educated at Cambridge University, who has taught all around the Ivy Leagues and is now teaching at NYU and writing the Ethicist column for the Times. Appiah begins his book by saying that he is constantly asked, “What are you?” and the review says he explores “why people feel a need to pin identities down — to essentialize — and how to escape the pinning.”

No doubt we’ve all had some experience where someone learned some aspect of ourselves and jumped to some conclusions that were unfair or unsupported. (“Oh, you’re from the South? I’ll talk slower, ha-ha-ha.”) Or for those whose ethnic background isn’t, er, “as plain as the nose on your face,” the inevitable sporadic interaction:

“Where are you from?”

“New Brunswick.”

“No, I mean, what country?”

“America.”

“No, I mean, where did your parents come from?”

Americans — led in large part by their media, and well beyond their political media — are constantly sorting, categorizing, and ranking their fellow citizens. They’re led away from the mentality that everybody in every group might have some value, something they bring to the greatness of the country.

Identity politics in the American context almost inevitably carries an undercurrent of “we, in this group, are the good Americans; those, in that group, are the bad Americans.” Whether we like to admit it or not, that’s a near-dominant theme in our modern politics and our arguments on social media.

Xenophobes conclude that the immigrants are the bad ones, and some don’t make much distinction between the legal or illegal. Occupy Wall Street and its successor groups contended that the richest 1 percent are, ipso facto, greedy, selfish, and deserving of punishment.  Activists who have never held a gun conclude that NRA members are enablers of mass murder. Black Lives Matter activists certainly look at police officers with, at best, great skepticism and suspicion; and indisputably some white Americans look at that movement as being pro-violence and pro-criminal. Some argue that the “Make America Great Again” hat is morally equivalent to the Klan hood. Young, self-professed “incels” seethe with jealousy and rage against women; outspoken feminists insist “yes, all men” are oppressive threats to women and should be treated as such; political analysts on the left gleefully assure themselves that the Republican-base voters are “dying off.” Some conservatives  boast that they hate Hollywood, choosing to either forget or ignore the Gary Sinises and Patricia Heatons of the world. The alt-right hates . . .  well, everybody.

It’s not always explicitly political; sometimes its cultural, such as the sneering at those who live in rural America, and those living in the cities as dysfunctional decadent hellholes, and the dismissal of the suburbs as boring bourgeois. (It’s fine to not like any of those places, but we drift into dangerous territory when it curdles into contempt for any human being associated with those places.)

The point of the American experiment, fueled in large part by Europeans fleeing a continent full of rigid class roles, limited opportunities, political and religious repression, was to create a country where you could be whatever you wanted to be, and your group identity didn’t matter. You didn’t have to be born a nobleman, it didn’t matter if your faith wasn’t the same as the majority’s, and we didn’t have a king who could toss you in a dungeon if you criticized him. (Okay, Woodrow Wilson and the Sedition Act came close.) Yes, the Founding Fathers fell well short of equal opportunity for all, but this was still a radical concept for its time, and we’ve gradually — admittedly, far too slowly — expanded legal equality and greater opportunity for all citizens.

Identity politics almost inevitably leaves its practitioners tied in knots, like the Democratic National Committee recently voting that that all of its committees will be divided evenly between men and women . . . but also officially recognizing that gender is non-binary and declaring that individuals can identify their gender as they wish and gender non-binary members will count as neither male nor female. Theoretically, a committee of men and others who were born men but who identify as women would be divided evenly in the DNC’s eyes. I think their ideal would be to have the committees one-third men, one-third women, and one third identifying as neither.

And in one of the great but predictable ironies, heated discussions of identity politics probably make the political environment tougher for women and minorities.

For what it’s worth, University of Denver political scientist Seth Masket did an experiment and found that discussions of identity politics make Democratic primary voters “less comfortable with the idea of Democrats nominating someone other than a white male in 2020” — with the most notable shift being a slight drop in support for Elizabeth Warren. No doubt, this is some lingering aftershock of the 2016 results — Democrats believe that excessive focus on identity politics ended up hurting Hillary, and are wary of repeating the same mistakes against Trump in his reelection battle.

Why Are There No Celebrated ‘Mavericks’ Among Democratic Lawmakers?

Michael Graham with the point that is important, but few political observers outside of the Right are willing to admit: Democrats loved John McCain, but none of them want to be him —  that is, none are even remotely interested in building their careers on defying party orthodoxy the way he did — or they know that defying party orthodoxy too frequently will end their careers.

Yes, there are a handful of Democrats in red states who occasionally vote with Republicans — Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota come to mind. But they’re not “mavericks” bucking their party’s ideology. They’re just Democrats in Trump Country trying to figure out how Democratic they can be and still get re-elected.

McCain represented ruby-red Arizona, land of Barry Goldwater, so he rarely had anything to fear from the voters back home.

“The media can’t stop admiring the many times Sen. McCain took to the floor of the Senate to criticize Republican positions on issues like immigration or campaign finance reform.  OK, fine. So where is the Democrat who’s done the same?” Graham asks.

The closest we could find would probably be Joe Lieberman, who publicly ripped into Bill Clinton during the Lewinsky scandal (although he opposed impeachment) and he supported the Iraq War when almost every other Senate Democrat who had voted for the war had abandoned their past positions. And he represented Connecticut — a reliably Democratic state that nearly didn’t reelect him in 2006. But Lieberman retired after the 2012 elections, and he had no real successor as the Republicans’ favorite Democrat.

Speaking of relentless groupthink . . .

Facebook’s Internal Rebellion

A good sign . . . but now the question is how these frustrated Facebook employees are treated in response:

The post went up quietly on Facebook’s internal message board last week. Titled “We Have a Problem with Political Diversity,” it quickly took off inside the social network.

“We are a political monoculture that’s intolerant of different views,” Brian Amerige, a senior Facebook engineer, wrote in the post, which was obtained by The New York Times. “We claim to welcome all perspectives, but are quick to attack — often in mobs —  anyone who presents a view that appears to be in opposition to left-leaning ideology.”

Since the post went up, more than 100 Facebook employees have joined Mr. Amerige to form an online group called FB’ers for Political Diversity, according to two people who viewed the group’s page and who were not authorized to speak publicly. The aim of the initiative, according to Mr. Amerige’s memo, is to create a space for ideological diversity within the company.

The Times reports, “The new group has upset other Facebook employees, who said its online posts were offensive to minorities.” Is it that any non-Left view is, ipso facto, deemed offensive to minorities?

ADDENDA: What? An NPR review of Department of Education data found that more than two-thirds of these reported school-related shootings “never happened”!? Bad government statistics fuel hysteria on one side and conspiracy theories on the other.

Thanks to Jay Nordlinger for the kind words about my family. Whoever invented the kids’ fountain in the street of Richard Mayr-Gasse is a genius.

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