Liberal Activism Limited by Narrow Scope

CJ Blair, Columnist

As soon as I arrived at Oberlin my first year, I knew I had entered somewhere special. I was drawn to this school largely because of its activist culture and willingness to challenge the status quo. After three years, though, I’ve realized that while Oberlin students are earnest social activists, we still fall victim to hypocritical tendencies that keep us from extending our campaigns beyond campus. This liberal trend has been observed across the country, and has been the subject of recent media scrutiny. By no means should liberal activists give up their campaigns, but if we reframe our rhetoric to become more inclusive, we will be better prepared to promote change in spite of the challenges that will come with an emerging Donald Trump presidency.

After last month’s election, people looked for reasons why Democrats faced such major losses across the country. A frequently-proposed hypothesis is that the left’s practice of “identity politics” alienated many voters. This is a hard term to pin down, but after much reading, I’ve concluded that it is the acknowledgment that a person’s identity can impact how they live their life. Gender and sexuality, Black Lives Matter and feminist campaigns are typically included in this definition, and many of these campaigns bring activists across demographics to fight for the rights of one group. All of these movements are at the forefront of discussion on the left. Additionally, the notion of “intersectionality” has revealed these societal ills by showing how combined political, social and economic factors can further disenfranchise many groups of Americans.

However, there’s a limit to how effective this activism can be, and it’s not just due to opposition from the right. While the frameworks of identity politics and intersectionality could be applied to all Americans, liberal activists tend to apply them only to certain identity sets. In many ways, this is understandable. For example, Black Lives Matter has brought national attention to the police brutality faced by African Americans. When compared to this type of violence, it can be easy for activists to overlook the plight of the working and middle-class white people. But ignoring their plight is what led to many of these blue collar workers to end up voting for Donald Trump.  

But the decision to turn a blind eye is where liberal activism falters. If nothing else, Oberlin has taught me to challenge broad categorizations that fail to account for nuance. Now, though, I suspect we’re encouraged to question everything but the things that complicate the focus of our activism. Of course not every activist can tackle multiple campaigns, but a whole, it’s essential that liberals consider the issues facing working class whites if they want to see positive change during the Trump administration.

Recent critiques, like Mark Lilla’s widely circulated op-ed “The End of Identity Liberalism,” suggest that identity politics prevent liberals from considering all Americans in their campaigns for justice (The New York Times, Nov. 18, 2016). Other, more scathing critiques from the likes of Fox News and National Review suggest that identity politics is merely a liberal trend to induce argument over semantic issues. Between these two extremes, however, I believe there is legitimate criticism of the left’s difficulty extending its activism to a wider audience. Though people of color face poverty at significantly higher rates than white people, census data shows that there are still more white people in poverty than any other race. White people may not face racial discrimination, but poor whites in the rural South face issues like opioid addiction, domestic violence and subpar education that, while not wholly unique to their demographic, are rarely addressed by liberal activists.

I don’t say all this out of self-importance, as I’m fortunately not affected by the issues I describe for white southerners. No one should delegitimize the bigotry inflicted on racial minorities by white people, but come Jan. 20, when Republicans will likely control all branches of government, it will be essential for the left to reframe their campaigns to look for common ground with the right. While the focus of two given campaigns may be different, by no means are they mutually exclusive.

There are broad issues that could unite people across demographics to fight for justice. For example, the environmental justice movement began after the city dumped toxic waste in a predominantly Black neighborhood of Warren County, NC. A similar effect can be seen in coal companies that built thriving southern towns in the early 20th century but later abandoned them, which created a vacuum of jobs and industry that still plagues this region. Americans across many identities have been impacted by corporate and political greed, and these issues could be the key to reaching concessions between the left and right in the next four years.

Trump’s presidency will present a significant challenge to activism in our divided country. Identity politics are crucial to freeing minority groups from injustice, and will be more important now than ever to ensure these Americans aren’t further oppressed. However, if these efforts are going to succeed, finding support among conservatives will be essential. In such a polarized political climate, it’s easy to assume this can’t be done. Yet a closer look may reveal that two different campaigns are fighting consequences of the same larger issue. In a time of division, it’s essential that we find the connections between us, and remember that the people we consider opponents to our cause could easily be facing the same injustice. If that’s not a call to action, I don’t know what is.