To resist Trump, the left needs leadership that renews 'common good'

If Donald Trump does even half the things he promised to do, the only appropriate moral and political stance is one of resistance. If he puts the "bully" back into "bully pulpit," and it is naïve to think he won't, if he uses language that is divisive and proposes policies that cause harm, resistance is the only response. Yet, the left seems as determined to shoot potential allies as they are to train their rhetorical and political fire on Trump.

In an article in The Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf writes about the wounds the opposition to Donald Trump seems determined to inflict upon itself. He relates the story of a white woman who cancelled her planned attendance at the Women's March to protest Trump after reading a Facebook post by a black activist that chided white participants, saying, "You don't just get to join because now you're scared, too. I was born scared." Friedersdorf correctly asks why the black woman would make a potential ally feel unwelcome and why the white woman would be led to cancel her participation because of a Facebook post. The left, alas, has a lot of growing up to do.

Friedersdorf's last phrase in his article should be the watchword of the left: He calls on the left to begin "breaking ingrained culture war habits that are no longer rational." I would only quibble with the adverb: Were those culture war habits once rational? I fear that the left took the Christian right's bait — the phrase "culture war" gained prominence when Patrick Buchanan used it in his 1992 address to the Republican National Convention  — aided and abetted by academics who were busy filling posts in departments of women's studies and black studies and LGBT studies, academics who did important work but often mistook the part for the whole, and with a vested interest in distinguishing their group from the pack.

An identity is not an idea. It is not a rationale. Identity is too restrictive to be the basis of a political majority, built as it is on the proposition that A is like A, which means A is not like B. I direct the readership, as I have previously, to Leon Wieseltier's brilliant takedown of identity politics published way back in 1994. "Identity is an insulation; a doctrine of aversion; an exaltation of impassability," Weiseltier wrote. "The bad news (and for democrats, the good news) is that the insulation is never adequate. The borders are permeable, and strange gods slip across." Turns out, the inadequacy of the insulation should be good news for uppercase Democrats, too, if any of them would dare to step away from the identity canard.

In the event, Friedersdorf does not come out and say that what the opposition to Trump needs is leadership, but he identifies one of the characteristics such leadership will demand. He notes that Meryl Streep delivered her jeremiad against Trump before a roomful of liberals, but Mark Lilla penned an attack on identity politics and published it in The New York Times. Then, he quotes Rod Dreher appropriately: "Meryl Streep is not a brave liberal. … Mark Lilla is a brave liberal." Friedersdorf adds: "Only Lilla risked the ire of his own tribe, and that does require admirable traits."

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Admirable, yes, but politically necessary too. What the opposition to Trump needs is a black leader willing to have a Sister Souljah moment with black activists and an environmental leader willing to have a Sister Souljah moment with environmental activists and, perhaps most of all, a female leader willing to have a Sister Souljah moment with pro-choice women's groups. Democrats will not win back the House or the Senate or the White House so long as black activists boo when someone rightly insists that "all lives matter." And, Democrats won't win Ohio, let alone West Virginia, if they ascribe bad motives to former coal miners who mourn the loss of their livelihoods and do not feel very "privileged" at all. And, Democrats won't win moderate rural voters who like to go to church on Sunday when they feature a convention speaker who talks breezily about how wonderful her abortion was.

Leadership within the constituencies of the left would be welcome, but I doubt it will be forthcoming. They have staff to pay and donors to placate. But, will there be political leaders, leaders responsible for forging a coalition that is more than the sum of its parts? There needs to emerge someone on the left willing to say, for example, that there will be no backsliding on the gains in LGBT rights, but support for LGBT rights does not exhaust the political and moral claims of the left. The left needs a political leader who understands three key concepts. First, government is often the only social force strong enough to resist the moneyed interest. Second, the history of progressivism is using the power of government to identify and meet those important social goods that the moneyed interest neglects or frustrates. And third, the good of society requires a vibrant civil society, free from too much government intervention, able to establish the kind of personal relationships and networks that a government can never accomplish. The left needs political leadership that can put new life into the currently tired phrase "the common good."

There is a lesson here for the leaders of the church as well. Could not many of them begin "breaking ingrained culture war habits"? The leaders of the church need to play a kind of prophetic role in our highly divisive culture, bringing people together, building bridges, working with capital and labor, with Democrats and Republicans, reminding us all, again and again, that before we are liberals or conservatives, we are all children of God.

It is a fraught time. Conservatives have been the object of a hostile takeover by an authoritarian dilettante. Liberals just seem lost. The old rules of politics no longer apply. To borrow from Yeats' vision, the center did not hold. Broken, that center must be stitched back together and, in American history, it is usually the left that does the stitching. But, who will emerge as the voice of the left?

[Michael Sean Winters is NCR Washington columnist and a visiting fellow at Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]


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