The Perils of Universalism

The Perils of Universalism

The authoritarian offensive has primarily taken the form of attacks on racialized others. We must fight back accordingly.

Faith leaders join a counterprotest against the alt-right, Berkeley, California, August 27 (Thomas Hawk / Flickr)

Authoritarian efforts to diminish and degrade democratic citizenship are a central dimension of the crisis of democracy sweeping the globe. Such efforts include both the abrogation of particular rights of citizenship and the denial of citizenship itself to entire classes of people. Yet few on the left are approaching the current crisis in that way. Attention has been paid to attacks on particular rights of citizenship, such as voter suppression in the United States. But there is a failure to grapple with the broad dimensions and underlying logic of the offensive against democratic citizenship. Given the centrality of citizenship to the rule of the people, this failure ill prepares us to defend democracy.

This offensive is not limited to attacks on citizenship in a general, undifferentiated way; it takes particular aim at the rights of “racialized” others. In the United States, these attacks target not only groups historically subjected to racial oppression, such as African Americans, but others who fall outside a narrowly circumscribed notion of what it is considered “American”—immigrants and refugees, ethnic groups such as Latinos, and those adhering to minority religious faiths such as Muslims. The machinery of racial oppression is now increasingly applied to all of these groups, citizens and non-citizens alike, with respect to the rights they are entitled to in this country.

The signature moments of Trump’s 2016 election campaign explicitly appealed to white racial fears and resentments, from his calls for a “wall” on the Mexican border to his attacks on the legitimacy of the first African-American president. Voter studies have shown that these appeals had a real impact: feelings of racial prejudice and antagonism toward immigrants and Muslims were among the strongest predictors of who would cast their ballots for Trump.

In office, Trump has continued to trade in this racial politics. Its more prominent manifestations include: the appointment of white supremacists to federal office; the “travel ban” on Muslims from specific countries; the Pence-Kobach Commission to promote voter suppression of people of color; massive surges in immigration-related arrests; the move to end DACA protections for Dreamers and the shocking failure of the U.S. government to provide its brown and black citizens in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands with basic necessities in the devastating wake of Hurricane Maria. Attacks on the citizenship rights of racialized others and on their very ability to become citizens—on their “right to have rights,” to use Hannah Arendt’s formulation from The Origins of Totalitarianism—is a bright white warp that runs throughout the entire fabric of Trumpian politics.

Of course, every liberal and leftist condemns Trump’s ugly racism and authoritarian politics. But when it comes to diagnosing what led to his rise and how to counter it, there are significant divisions. These differences are rooted in divergent understandings of the connections between the current crisis of democracy, citizenship, and the politics of race and class. Of particular salience are recent criticisms of “identity politics,” a term used by critics as shorthand for political organizing on the left around issues of race, gender, and sexual identity. Against these critics, I argue that the defense of democracy will only be successful if opposition to the attacks on the citizenship rights of racialized others is central to its politics.

The debate over “identity politics”

The most prominent liberal critic of identity politics has been Mark Lilla, author of a widely read post-election New York Times op-ed that he expanded into a book manifesto, The Once and Future Liberal (2017). Lilla’s argument is centered on a claim that pervades this genre of criticism: identity politics divides, rather than unites, a progressive majority. According to this line of reasoning, a focus on the supposedly “particular” grievances of race, gender, and sexual identity has turned the left away from “universal” political and economic issues, such as jobs and healthcare, which are the key to political victory.

According to Lilla, it was the Clinton campaign’s embrace of a message of diversity and inclusion, which he sees as highlighting differences among Americans, and not the Trump campaign’s efforts to turn the “economic disadvantage” of the white poor and working class “into racial rage,” that led to Trump’s 2016 victory. The overt bigotry of Trumpism is understood to be reactionary in the fullest meaning of that term—not just in its backward-looking politics, but also in its origins, which are read as a reaction to political organizing on the left against racism, sexism, and homophobia. For Lilla, identity politics was the midwife of Trumpism.

Other liberals and leftists have made similar critiques. Democratic strategist Stanley Greenberg argued in the American Prospect that the fatal flaw of the Clinton campaign message was “explicitly privileging race and gender over class.” In Jacobin, the critique of identity politics has been given a Marxian gloss by writers such as Shuja Haider and Connor Kilpatrick. Declaring that the neo-Nazi Richard Spencer incorporated the discourse of left identity politics into his “white nationalism,” Haider concludes that anti-racist identity politics are “curiously compatible” with the white-supremacist politics of the far right. Setting out to redeem the “progressive” nature of the “still really white” American working class, Kilpatrick offers this remarkable summary judgment on the hardships faced by working people of color: “when racism can be blamed, capitalism can be exonerated.”

It is important to deconstruct the elements of this indictment. While it was by no means the only factor in the 2016 vote, the Clinton campaign’s failure to develop a compelling message on economic issues was critical to the election’s outcome. That failure had its roots in the Democratic Party’s decades-long acquiescence to economic policies of austerity, privatization, deregulation, and corporate-dominated “free trade,” and in its indifference to the decline of unions that resulted from those policies. The Democratic Party’s policies and message must change if it is to win future elections. So far, so good.

But why posit a binary opposition between a politics that addresses class and a politics that addresses race, gender, and sexual identity, as the critics of identity politics do? Why contend that engagement in one necessarily precludes engagement in the other, in a political zero-sum game?


From slavery to the New Deal: The making of American citizenship

The answer to this question lies in the ways in which critics of identity politics conceive of their alternatives, as “universal” rather than “particular” in their nature. Lilla believes that democratic politics are rooted in a universal citizenship, the “bond linking all members of a political society over time, regardless of their individual characteristics, giving them both rights and duties.” In this model of politics, citizens pursue a “common good” that is also universal in scope. For Lilla, the exemplar of such politics in the American context—and the North Star of his vision of liberalism—is the New Deal, which he references often.

Citizenship is indeed at the core of democratic politics, which is precisely why the attacks on it are of great concern. But the universalism of Lilla’s vision of American citizenship is achieved by stripping it of its rich and contradictory history, deeply steeped in questions of race; in his hands, citizenship becomes an abstraction, without a grounding in the actual flesh-and-blood demos. From its origins in seventeenth-century colonial law establishing the institution of slavery, the idea of race in the United States has been used to distinguish rights-bearing white citizens from disenfranchised black subjects. In its infamous Dred Scott v. Sandford decision, the Supreme Court did not simply affirm the enslavement of Scott and his family; it ruled that neither enslaved nor emancipated African Americans could be American citizens, justifying that dictum on the grounds that they had “no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”

Democratic citizenship in the United States has waxed and waned with the victories and defeats of the freedom struggles of African Americans and other people of color. The Civil War Amendments adopted during the Reconstruction era to establish and protect the rights of newly emancipated African Americans laid down a constitutional foundation for the nation’s greatest advances in citizenship. The Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of “birthright” citizenship, which Trump has sought to deny in his attacks on immigrants of color, was written to overturn the Dred Scott decision and secure the citizenship rights of newly emancipated African Americans. Its due process clause, drafted to protect the liberties of those same African Americans, has provided the legal basis for the Supreme Court’s great twentieth-century expansion of the citizenry’s political freedoms and civil liberties through the application of the Bill of Rights to state and local governments. Its equal protection clause wrote equality into the Constitution for the first time, and became the grounds for prohibiting government-legislated segregation and state-sanctioned discrimination on the basis of race, color, creed, national origin, and sex. The Fifteenth Amendment’s protection of the voting rights of African-American men laid down a constitutional foundation for the most fundamental right of citizenship.

But the advance of American democracy and citizenship rights was radically reversed when a combination of white vigilante violence and federal government capitulation led to the fall of Reconstruction state governments and the establishment of white supremacist rule throughout the South. Voting rights withered away in the face of poll taxes, literacy tests, and grandfather clauses, and African Americans were driven from government. Jim Crow racial segregation was instituted in law and approved by the Supreme Court, denying African Americans access to public spaces and public offices, and depriving them of decent education, healthcare, housing, and employment. An agricultural economy of sharecropping was established, leaving all too many farmworkers—disproportionately African American—in deep debt they could not escape. A reign of racial terror, enforced by lynchings and mob violence with the collusion of state and local governments, denied political freedom to African Americans and established what can only be properly described as a racist dictatorship over them. It was not until the civil rights movement of the 1960s and the civil rights legislation of the Great Society that the authoritarian rule of this Jim Crow regime was finally broken, and democratic citizenship could advance in the South once again.

Where does the New Deal—the “once” of Lilla’s “once and future liberal” and his exemplar of liberal politics—stand in relationship to this historic American dialectic of democratic citizenship and race? In a far more complicated space than his narrative allows. In the North, both African American and white workers experienced meaningful improvements in their economic status and social conditions during the New Deal, as unions grew in size and power and welfare-state protections such as Social Security and unemployment insurance were introduced. Urban centers with strong, labor-led governing coalitions enacted social-democratic policies and programs.

Small but significant victories were won for civil rights, such as the restrictions on racial discrimination in the defense industry secured by A. Philip Randolph through the March on Washington Movement in the early- to mid-1940s. But despite this progress, most northern African Americans lived in poverty in inner-city ghettoes, where they were subjected to widespread discrimination in employment, housing, healthcare, and education.

In the South, the authoritarian rule of the Jim Crow regime continued unabated. Since the New Deal coalition had to rely upon the support of white supremacist Dixiecrats for its congressional majorities, significant compromises were made to many of its signature programs. The Social Security Act and National Labor Relations Act, both passed in 1935, excluded from their protections and benefits farm labor and domestic labor, low-wage occupations that were disproportionately held by African Americans and other people of color and were particularly important to the political economy of the South. Too often, the “common good” of the New Deal left African Americans and other people of color on the outside of what was “common.” Yet in his extensive praise of the New Deal, Lilla’s only acknowledgment of this contradictory reality is a single parenthetical statement that “African Americans were effectively disenfranchised in many programs due to Dixiecrat resistance.” A much more searching and critical appraisal is needed to establish what in the New Deal legacy is of political value to the left today.

The false opposition of the universal and the particular

The structure of Lilla’s argument is shared by critics of identity politics to his left, such as Haider and Kilpatrick. An abstract notion of the universal working “class”—“a subject that refuse(s) to recognize the borders, divisions and hierarchies that are regulated by the logic of identity”—replaces Lilla’s “citizenship” as the alternative to identity politics. Working-class interests, free of the “particular” demands of identity politics, are substituted for his “common good.” The rhetoric of Haider and Kilpatrick may be Marxian, but the logic of their polemics against identity politics is no different than that of the liberal Lilla.

The underlying problem with the universalist critique of identity politics can be most clearly seen in the controversy that has been generated by those who respond to the call “black lives matter” with the slogan “all lives matter.” As a matter of principle, there is no question that all human life matters, and that there is an ethical obligation to respect and protect all lives. But to actualize that principle, to make it not just a moral injunction but a lived reality, we must come to grips with the fact that in the United States today, black lives are in much greater danger than white lives. The use of the abstractly universal slogan “all lives matter” serves to obscure the fact that it is “black lives” that are being lost to violence—especially police violence—in large and disproportionate numbers. We can’t make “all lives matter” without making “black lives matter”: the “universal” can only be true when the “particular” that is embedded within it is true.

So it is with these critiques of identity politics and their demands to subsume the politics of race (and other identities) within abstractly universal conceptions of citizenship and class. These critiques serve to elide an absolutely central element of the current crisis of democracy: that the authoritarian offensive against the rights and powers of citizenship has primarily taken the form of attacks on racialized others. Lilla is instructive in this regard: for all of his interest in citizenship in general, he has very little to say about the efforts to diminish and degrade democratic citizenship we are now witnessing, and nothing to note about how the citizenship rights of racialized others have been targeted in those efforts. The failure of the left to grasp the centrality of these attacks on democratic citizenship to the current crisis of democracy cannot be separated from its failings on matters of race.

The elision of the racial character of the current offensive against democratic citizenship is a conceptual issue, but it has important political consequences. Precisely because democratic citizenship is at the core of democratic politics, it must be strongly defended. If we understand the specifically racial character of the offensive against it, then it follows that this defense must have an explicitly anti-racist dimension. By the same token, if we ignore that racial character, our resistance is severely weakened.

The political path to democratic citizenship

The political path to uniting Americans into a powerful citizenry that can successfully defend democracy is one that involves the open embrace of our multiracial character, with the explicit recognition that the citizenship rights of racialized others are being targeted and must be defended by all. It is the crafting of a new response to the famous litany of German pastor Martin Niemöller on the rise of Nazism: “first they came for the Muslims, and we said . . . not in our nation and not on our watch: Muslims are our fellow citizens.”

Some critics of identity politics dispute this conclusion as a matter of political strategy, while being careful not to question its moral authority. More than a few have accepted at face value the political analysis Trump political commissar Steve Bannon gave to American Prospect editor Robert Kuttner in an unsolicited interview from the Trump White House last August. “The Democrats,” he said, “the longer they talk about identity politics, I got ’em. I want them to talk about racism every day. If the left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats.” Bannon uttered these words in the wake of the violent white supremacist and neo-Nazi demonstrations in Charlottesville, and after Trump refused to unequivocally condemn them. By all accounts, he urged Trump to adopt that stance: Bannon has long stoked white racial fear and resentment. It is certainly not an emphasis on race and identity in general that Bannon sees as politically deadly: rather, it is a politics of resistance to racism.

Yet there is something to be learned from Bannon’s alternative to identity politics, his “economic nationalism.” The economic and social damage caused by corporate globalization and “free trade” over the last four decades provides fertile ground for the cultivation of a politics that promises to undo it. One powerful source of the unexpected appeal of Bernie Sanders’s 2016 campaign lay in the anti-corporate politics he advocated as a response to globalization.

For Bannon, economic nationalism is the way he seeks to combine his racialized appeal to white, working-class people with a larger conception of American self-interest. If he is successful, the two elements will merge: the economic well-being of the nation will be equated with the needs of white working people, and vice versa.

Rather than docilely accepting Bannon’s judgment that anti-racist politics are a death knell for Democrats, we should be asking ourselves what our plan for establishing an alternative political hegemony is. How do we identify the elements that are central to our values and critical in responding to the crisis of democracy, such as anti-racism, with a broader vision of the national interest and future? That road leads not through a binary opposition between the “universalism” of citizenship and class and the “particularity” of race, gender, and sexual identity, but in the hard work of constructing real political agency out of conceptions of “citizen” and “worker” that are opposed to racism, sexism, and homophobia at their core.

Too often, the American left operates as if a hegemonic political project on this order can be constructed through acts of recognition that employ a politics of symbols and gestures alone. It is tacitly assumed that once the left embraces the idea of a diverse mosaic of American citizenry and speaks in the name of a multiracial working class, the essential labor has been done.

Yet these acts of recognition are the bare beginnings of what needs to be achieved politically. For a diverse citizenry to emerge as a real political subject, the broad left must take up the anti-racist struggles that are necessary for all Americans to partake fully in citizenship—such as fighting against voter suppression and defending immigrants, Muslims, and other targeted groups. And for a multiracial working class to emerge as a real political subject, unions must play a key role by embracing a racial justice agenda as central to their work, and take on issues of racism in the workplace and in the community—from discrimination on the job to the criminal justice system. The civic and class solidarity that is necessary for collective action can only be achieved when anti-racism has been fully incorporated into struggles for democracy and a just economic order. This is not easy or uncomplicated work: the history of anti-racist struggles in American political life alone should disabuse us from such a notion. But it can and has been done; and we can do it now.

The racial contours of the current crisis of American democracy are not unique, but part of a distinct pattern, internationally and in the modern history of authoritarianism. Attacks on the citizenship rights of racialized others have been a prominent feature of right-wing populism across the globe. A political strategy that seeks to sidestep this racial dimension with appeals to abstractly “universal” notions of citizenship and class is no different than responses to the advent of the Jim Crow regime in the South and the rise of fascism in the 1930s which sought to avoid a direct confrontation with the racism and anti-Semitism at their core.

Opposition to an explicitly anti-racist politics from the left is usually defended as unavoidable realpolitik, necessary to achieve the greater good of defeating authoritarianism. But in reality, this approach does more than cede the moral high ground of anti-racism: in a pivotal battle in the struggle against authoritarianism, it surrenders without a fight.


Leo Casey is executive director of the Albert Shanker Institute, a think tank and policy advocacy arm of the American Federation of Teachers. He is on the editorial board of Dissent.

Read Shuja Haider’s response to this essay and Leo Casey’s reply.


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