Like Frankenstein’s Monster, it has escaped the laboratory to wreak havoc.
White privilege, the patriarchy, intersectionality, toxic masculinity, systemic racism, unconscious bias, erasure. These are words used in academia to describe, in most cases, real phenomena. But when they escaped the ivory towers and entered the broader culture and the world of politics they were like a deadly virus. And it’s an epidemic that threatens mostly liberals and Democrats, my people.
What all this language has in common is that it’s negative and accusatory. Put it all together and it’s basically saying that if you’re a straight, white male, you are an awful person. It doesn’t matter what you’ve done, what you’ve said, what you think. Just by virtue of who you are, you are an oppressor. Small wonder that Democrats lose male voters in droves.
Let’s just take one of these phrases and see how it plays in politics. “White privilege” has become as common as air. I don’t dispute the concept behind it. There’s no question that being white in America has come with privileges, or probably more accurately, it has not come with the disadvantages of not being white. So, I understand why it might be a useful term in an academic setting.
But let’s switch now to the world of politics, a world in which parties try to woo voters. A basic tenet of politics is that to start a conversation to persuade voters you don’t lead with an insult; you try to connect with them. However it is intended, white privilege sounds like a challenge. It implies that the listener has gained advantages simply because of their race and so it tends to undercut any pride the person might have in their achievements to date. Moreover, it tends to discount things that people hold dear, like hard work and personal initiative. In fact, if you even so much as mention these things in some circles you will be quickly accused of using dog whistles that only confirm your privilege.
So, the phrase puts people on the defensive to begin with. Now consider how the term sounds to, say, a rural white man with a high school education. He’s seen his earnings slip in comparison to people with college degrees and those who live in cities. His community may well lack high speed Internet service and he’s seen younger people leave. He’s not feeling very privileged.
And he lives in a town that is close to 100% white. So, he’s wondering who exactly he is privileged in relationship to.
So, you can see how this kind of language pushes voters away. It helps account for all that red you see on election night maps. And here’s the irony. Democrats lose elections they don’t have to lose because of this language and the attitudes it reflects. If they would jettison these concepts they would win more elections and so they could actually do more for the cause of justice.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Democrats could just reject the academic language of the hard-left and instead use words that are positive, uniting and touch base with classical liberal values. So, for example, they could talk about “fairness.” It’s a simple word that everyone understands and everyone should be able to support. And it’s a universal concept as opposed to one that points fingers are at any particular group.
We can see how well this works when it comes to same sex marriage. Up until about a decade ago, even liberal Democrats like Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama wouldn’t say they supported it. Here in Wisconsin, an organization was formed to fight a state constitutional amendment to ban same sex marriage. It was (and is) called Fair Wisconsin. That was a great name and great concept. Why should gay people be denied the right to marry? It’s not fair.
Unfortunately, the amendment passed, but it is now moot thanks to a subsequent Supreme Court ruling. The rallying cry of fairness ultimately prevailed. Obama, led by his Vice President Joe Biden, changed his position. Now it would be impossible for any Democrat to win the party’s nomination without being for it.
And it prevailed thanks to a lot of gay people who came out at a time when that was an exceedingly brave thing to do. After awhile, the taboo was broken. Virtually everyone knew someone — a relative, a friend, a coworker — who was openly gay. They were good friends and supportive coworkers. You had things in common. Why should they be discriminated against?
The current movement of wokeness ignores those lessons of success. It actually seeks to divide and accuse. The concept of fairness emphasizes what we have in common and then asks us how we can allow people who are so much like us to not enjoy the same rights we have. But woke ideology wants to divide the world into oppressors and victims and then employ discrimination in the name of reversing historical wrongs. That’s not just a tough sell; it’s an impossible one.
And this leads me to a final depressing observation. I used to think that the trouble was just semantic — that the left was just choosing bad words to describe the same thing that they could just as easily describe with better ones. But I’ve come to realize that the hard-left actually has a very different vision for the world than I do. They see liberal values — like free speech, the rule of law and the rights of the accused — as just barriers to achieving justice. They see middle class values — like hard work and taking personal responsibility — as nothing more than dog whistles for racism.
That, by the way, is why it’s no accident that those two things — classical liberalism and middle class values — are the first two items in my Principles of Moderation. This has become the fault line between the hard-left and left-center moderates. I agree with New York Times columnist Bret Stephens that this may well end up in a fracturing of the Democratic Party, which could usher in a new round of conservatism, if not Trumpist populism.
It’s too late to get this disastrous language back into the test tube. But Democrats would do well to disown it.