Sunday, May 12, 2019

Pete Buttigieg on the problem with “identity politics”

"Buttigieg calls out Democrats for playing 'identity politics'" is the headline at NBC News.

Could this be Pete Buttigieg's Sister Souljah moment?

Here's the video of Mayor Buttigieg's speech to the Human Rights Campaign yesterday. I've cued this up to start just after 19 minutes in:

Here's some of what Buttigieg said. I know most of this doesn't seem unusual for a progressive Democrat. But precisely because he's mainly putting this in progressive terms, the parts where he deviates from the hard-left line have the potential to be that much more inflammatory (notice the boldface):

I'd like to comment on one of the buzz words of our time: so-called identity politics. No one knows quite what to make of it today. . . . It is true that each of us can see in our own identity all of the reasons we're misunderstood and then say, "You don't understand me because you haven't walked in my shoes" — something that is true, but it doesn't get us very far. Because we could also see in our differences the beginning of a new form of American solidarity, by recognizing that the one thing we do have in common may be the challenge of belonging in a society that sees us for what makes us all different. I'm not talking about pretending that there are equivalencies between the different patterns of exclusion in this country. . . .

We have a crisis of belonging in this country. When you do not belong, that doesn't just put you in a bad mood, it puts you in a different country. When black women are dying from maternal complications at triple the rate of white women it means for the purposes of public health they are living in a different country. It means that for a dreamer brought to this land at the age of two months old and putting herself through college without a path to citizenship and the only place she knows then even though she's as American as the rest of, us she finds her life playing out on paper in a different country. . . . When an auto worker 12 years into their career is no longer sure how to provide for their family, they're not part of the country we think of ourselves as all living in together. . . .

And these divisive lines of thinking have even entered into the consciousness of my own party, like when we’re told we have to choose between supporting an auto worker and a trans woman of color, without stopping to think about the fact that sometimes the auto worker is a trans woman of color, and she definitely needs all the security she can get. The wall I worry about the most is not the president’s fantasy wall on the Mexican border that’s not going to get built anyway. What I worry about are the very real walls being put up between us as we get divided and carved up — walls going up within the working class, within communities, even within families. . . .

I am not just like you. No two of us are like! But each of us has a story that can either separate us or connect us to those around us. Yes, I am gay and I am the son of an immigrant and an Army brat. And I'm a husband, and I am a musician, and I'm an Episcopalian, and I'm a Democrat. But above all, I am running as an American. I am here to build bridges and to tear down walls. And with your help, we can tear down those walls between fellow Americans.
When he says "these divisive lines of thinking have even entered into the consciousness of my own party" and talks about the limited usefulness of saying "you haven't walked in my shoes," he's gently but unmistakably pushing back against a strain of thought on the left that former President Obama criticized last year:
Democracy demands [that] we're able . . . to get inside the reality of people who are different than us so we can understand their point of view. Maybe we can change their minds, but maybe they'll change ours. And you can't do this if you just out of hand disregard what your opponent has to say from the start. And you can't do it if you insist that those who aren't like you, because they're white or because they're male, that somehow there's no way that they can understand what I'm feeling — that somehow they lack standing to speak on certain matters.
Walter Olson has a column analyzing what Buttigieg said (the headline writer calls it "Mayor Pete's Sister Souljah Moment," which was published after I used that phrase in this post, but it's a common political term and a point that was just waiting to be made, so I'm not concerned with who said it first):
On one level, his comments critical of identity politics turned out to be pretty mild. Barack Obama has said most of the same things in slightly different words. It’s not as if Andrew Sullivan, Christina Hoff Sommers, or Claire Lehmann were ghostwriting his lines.

And what Buttigieg did say was interspersed with themes and language gratifying to social justice enthusiasts. He endorsed the sweeping Equality Act, which would federalize Main Street public-accommodations disputes while whittling down religious exemptions. He mentioned Stonewall and Harvey Milk. He even acknowledged his own “privilege.” (Though he left ambiguous the extent to which this referred to his white male-ness as distinct from, say, the fortunate path traced by his education and career.)

And yet the South Bend mayor immediately began taking flak for his HRC remarks from some social justice advocates, not a few of whom had already been caustic critics of his candidacy. They could detect from his choice of words that he is not 100 percent on board with their prescribed line—maybe not even 80 percent—and worse still, he is not afraid to say so.

One of his lines drawing fire is on the “my truth, your truth” notion. . . . Or as it might be put more aggressively: “we [members of a marginalized identity] are the only authorities on our experience.”

His response? That’s “true as far as it goes but it doesn’t get us very far.” To you or I, that might read like a platitude. To many on the identitarian left, it comes off as dire wrongthink: after some point that is not “very far” down the road, he intends to steer us all onto some other discourse in which identity is not a trump card. This doesn’t deny our subjective truth as marginalized individuals, exactly, but it does tend to dethrone it as The Truth of all truths.

Another example: Buttigieg’s comments were critical of what he forthrightly calls “white identity politics.” Again, a truism from one perspective, and forcefully stated too. But to some on his left, this will be seen as an attempt at false equivalence. Raising the idea that white and minority identity politics can resemble each other is deeply problematic to the identitarian left. . . .

Again and again in his speech, minor choices of wording that outsiders might not notice served as small—but real—signals of defiance to social justice scorekeepers. I disagree with much that Mayor Pete says here and elsewhere. But I’m glad that he seems to think for himself.

It will be interesting to see whether other Democratic contenders take issue with the mayor’s identity politics remarks. Or if, alternatively, Buttigieg has opened up space toward the center makes it possible for others to follow.