Addicted to Base

Guest blogger Hamer reflects on the "national gnashing of teeth" that took place last week over a fo

The national gnashing of teeth that took place last week over a fourteen stone eight year old was as predictable as it was entertaining. Not that I find the boy’s circumstances funny; merely the reactions to them.

Amid the thinly veiled snobbery that’s always given an airing on occasions like this – well, those working class people are a bit think aren’t they?

Lord knows that healthy eating isn’t exactly rocket science – was a fascinating dichotomy. When debates about “responsibility” are under way in the national media there are certain groups within society that think that such terms apply to the likes of the eight year old kid and his mother, but not to them. We’re middle class, you know; our penne is ethically sourced and we keep our front porches clean. We don’t have responsibilities.

Well, actually, you do. As I approach my nine hundredth year of working as a bag-carrier to a Member of Parliament it never ceases to amaze me the casually contemptuous attitude that many people hold - not only politicians but representative democracy as a whole.

You only need to look at the letters page of the Daily Mail or the trendy lefty frothings on Comment is Free to read a depressingly familiar mirror-image of what a large number of MPs receive in their post bags everyday. “We never see you around here,” they write to say to their unfortunate Member, who probably hasn’t seen his or her family all weekend because they've been holding surgery after surgery. “I’ve voted for the [insert] Party all my life, but you have betrayed us over [insert issue]. Either you sort it out or you lose my vote”.

This, often, is the sole contribution that many people have with the political system: the exercising of their “rights”. The constant demands become rather wearing at times, especially when the only recommendation MPs read of themselves is the lazy-politicians-snouts-in-the-trough-what-have-they-done-for-me-lately analysis so beloved of people who see the state as a kind of sweet shop to which they are entitled to unlimited credit.

There’s rarely any sense that democracy is a reciprocal relationship where they have a duty to act as citizens rather than consumers, to hold their elected representatives to account. Not in the lazy way of the Question Time audience (and occasionally celebrity panel members) that dismisses all politicians as “liars” or, more recently “numpties”. It gets an approving round of applause, but it’s a hollow, meaningless response to a supposed deeper hunger amongst the electorate: the desire to be engaged.

As various middle-class nutritionists and self-appointed experts were so keen to tell us last week, healthy satisfaction is consequent upon a little work and preparation. A healthy democracy is just the same; it requires getting involved with your local community, taking an active part in the local school through the PTA, trying to understand the issues and conflicting views and pressures on the various actors, be they politicians, parents, residents, or teachers. Occasionally it means recognising that your individual good might not be the same as the common good, and that when politicians don’t do precisely as you want – which is pretty impossible when each constituency contains up to 72,000 voters all with a different idea as to what the best solution is – it’s democracy, not betrayal.

That’s not to say that politicians get it right all the time but when that happens, screaming at them harpy-like and then disengaging completely in a sulk is not the answer. The free market theory of democracy holds that we get the politicians we deserve and, as many loftily informed the unfortunate eight-year old’s parents, the battle to ensure that our system works well is what we grown ups like to call “personal responsibility”.

The popular model of society shouldn’t be “them” and “us”, and in an era when politicians are more desperate than ever before to actually get involved in communities and affect social change, to accuse them of perpetrating this perceived separateness speaks of the kind of laziness that blames McDonalds for our bulging waistlines. Yes, it is easy, damned tasty, and ultimately empty calories but you have a choice to eat it or not. And if you do, screaming at the manager of your local fast food chain that it’s not your fault you’re a lardy git is only going to generate limited sympathy.

So we should all stop cramming our faces with burgers and quick-fixes, whilst blaming somebody else for our obesity, whether that obesity is physical or metaphorical. Viewing the service politicians provide as a “right” whilst failing to engage in the “responsibility” of being an active citizen and participant in the state does not make for good democracy and blaming your lazy so-called disillusionment on somebody else smacks of the kind of lack of responsibility we were all so keen to mock in the mother of the unfortunate eight year old boy. Lord knows, it’s not exactly rocket science.

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Stop saying identity politics caused Trump

It's a wildly unsophisticated analysis that ignores the fact that all politics is inflected by identity.

Look, I don't mean to be funny, but is there something in the water supply? When Mark Lilla wrote his jeremiad against "identity liberalism" in the New York Times, it was comprehensively picked over and rebutted. But this zombie take has risen again. In the last 24 hours, all these tweets have drifted across my timeline:

And then this (now deleted, I think, probably because I was mean about it on Twitter).

And finally, for the hat-trick . . .

Isn't it beautiful to see a Blairite, a Liberal Leaver and a Corbynite come together like this? Maybe there is a future for cross-spectrum, consensual politics in this country.

These are all versions of a criticism which has swilled around since Bernie Sanders entered the US presidential race, and ran on a platform of economic populism. They have been turbocharged by Sanders' criticisms since the result, where he blamed Clinton's loss on her attempt to carve up the electorate into narrow groups. And they are now repeated ad nauseam by anyone wanting to sound profound: what if, like, Black Lives Matter are the real racists, yeah? Because they talk about race all the time.

This glib analysis has the logical endpoint that if only people didn't point out racism or sexism or homophobia, those things would be less of a problem. Talking about them is counterproductive, because it puts people's backs up (for a given definition of "people"). She who smelt it, dealt it.

Now, I have strong criticisms of what I would call Pure Identity Politics, unmoored from economics or structural concerns. I have trouble with the idea of Caitlyn Jenner as an "LGBT icon", given her longstanding opposition to gay marriage and her support for an administration whose vice-president appears to think you can electrocute the gay out of people. I celebrate female leaders even if I don't agree with their politics, because there shouldn't be an additional Goodness Test which women have to pass to be deemed worthy of the same opportunities as men. But I don't think feminism's job is done when there are simply a few more female CEOs or political leaders, particularly if (as is now the case) those women are more likely than their male peers to be childless. Role models only get you so far. Structures are important too.

I also think there are fair criticisms to be made of the Clinton campaign, which was brave - or foolish, depending on your taste - to associate her so explicitly with progressive causes. Stephen Bush and I have talked on the podcast about how hard Barack Obama worked to reassure White America that he wasn't threatening, earning himself the ire of the likes of Cornel West. Hillary Clinton was less mindful of the feelings of both White America and Male America, running an advert explicitly addressed to African-Americans, and using (as James Morris pointed out to me on Twitter) the slogan "I'm With Her". 

Watching back old Barack Obama clips (look, everyone needs a hobby), it's notable how many times he stressed the "united" in "united states of America". It felt as though he was trying to usher in a post-racial age by the sheer force of his rhetoric. 

As Obama told Ta-Nehisi Coates during his last days in office, he thought deeply about how to appeal to all races: 

"How do I pull all these different strains together: Kenya and Hawaii and Kansas, and white and black and Asian—how does that fit? And through action, through work, I suddenly see myself as part of the bigger process for, yes, delivering justice for the [African American community] and specifically the South Side community, the low-income people—justice on behalf of the African American community. But also thereby promoting my ideas of justice and equality and empathy that my mother taught me were universal. So I’m in a position to understand those essential parts of me not as separate and apart from any particular community but connected to every community."

Clinton's mistake was perhaps that she thought this caution was no longer needed.

So there are criticisms of "identity politics" that I accept, even as I wearily feel that - like "neoliberalism" - it has become a bogeyman, a dumpster for anything that people don't like but don't care to articulate more fully.

But there are caveats, and very good reasons why anyone pretending to a sophisticated analysis of politics shouldn't say that "identity politics caused Trump".

The first is that if you have an identity that any way marks you out from the norm, you can't change that. Hillary Clinton couldn't not be the first woman candidate from a major party running for the US presidency. She either had to embrace it, or downplay it. Donald Trump faced no such decision. 

The second is that, actually, Clinton didn't run an explicitly identity-focused campaign on the ground, at least not in terms of her being a woman. Through the prism of the press, and because of the rubbernecker's dream that is misogyny on social media, her gender inevitably loomed large. But as Rebecca Solnit wrote in the LRB:

"The Vox journalist David Roberts did a word-frequency analysis on Clinton’s campaign speeches and concluded that she mostly talked about workers, jobs, education and the economy, exactly the things she was berated for neglecting. She mentioned jobs almost 600 times, racism, women’s rights and abortion a few dozen times each. But she was assumed to be talking about her gender all the time, though it was everyone else who couldn’t shut up about it."

My final problem with the "identity politics caused Trump" argument is that it assumes that explicit appeals to whiteness and masculinity are not identity politics. That calling Mexicans "rapists" and promising to build a wall to keep them out is not identity politics. That promising to "make America great again" at the expense of the Chinese or other trading partners is not identity politics. That selling a candidate as an unreconstructed alpha male is not identity politics. When you put it that way, I do accept that identity politics caused Trump. But I'm guessing that's not what people mean when they criticise identity politics. 

Let's be clear: America is a country built on identity politics. The "all men" who were created equal notably excluded a huge number of Americans. Jim Crow laws were nothing if not identity politics. The electoral college was instituted to benefit southern slave-owners. This year's voting restrictions disproportionately affected populations which lean Democrat. There is no way to fight this without prompting a backlash: that's what happens when you demand that the privileged give up some of their perks. 

I don't know what the "identity politics caused Trump" guys want gay rights campaigners, anti-racism activists or feminists to do. Those on the left, like Richard Burgon, seem to want a "no war but the class war" approach, which would be all very well if race and gender didn't intersect with economics (the majority of unpaid care falls squarely on women; in the US, black households have far fewer assets than white ones.)

Those on the right, like Daniel Hannan, seem to just want people banging on about racism and homophobia to shut up because he, personally, finds it boring. Perhaps they don't know any old English poetry with which to delight their followers instead. (Actually, I think Hannan might have hit on an important psychological factor in some of these critiques: when conversations centre on anti-racism, feminism and other identity movements, white men don't benefit from their usual unearned assumption of expertise in the subject at hand. No wonder they find discussion of them boring.)

Both of these criticisms end up in the same place. Pipe down, ladies. By complaining, you're only making it worse. Hush now, Black Lives Matter: white people find your message alienating. We'll sort out police racism... well, eventually. Probably. Just hold tight and see how it goes. Look, gay people, could you be a trifle... less gay? It's distracting.

I'm here all day for a discussion about the best tactics for progressive campaigners to use. I'm sympathetic to the argument that furious tweets, and even marches, have limited effect compared with other types of resistance.

But I can't stand by while a candidate wins on an identity-based platform, in a political system shaped by identity, and it's apparently the fault of the other side for talking too much about identity.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.