Last winter, when the Republican presidential primary was in full swing, I had a late-night dinner with a campus minister who was working with students at an Ivy League school. Describing the college climate, he said, “Everything’s about race now. Two years ago it was sexuality, then came the Obergefell decision, and they decided they won. Now it’s race. The four-hour conversations students used to have about heteronormativity, now they have them about white supremacy.”
I thought of that conversation when I read Columbia University professor Mark Lilla’s long and anguished post-election essay in the New York Times, calling on his fellow liberals to abandon the extremist identity politics of the academic progressive movement. “American liberalism,” he said, “has slipped into a kind of moral panic about racial, gender and sexual identity that has distorted liberalism’s message and prevented it from becoming a unifying force capable of governing.”
Indeed it has. For his trouble, one of Lilla’s own colleagues compared him to David Duke and accused him of “making white supremacy respectable again.” Other leftists have compared Trump voters to lynch mobs, and the other day a Slate writer declared that 2016 was the year when white liberals could finally see “our unjust, racist, sexist country for what it is.”
Remember the patriotic explosion at the Democratic National Convention? Remember the defiant declarations that America was already great? That was before. That was when the Left thought it had won. Now the new Left is back to being the old Left, and to the old Left, America was never great.
It’s hard to overemphasize the importance of academic leftism to Democratic discourse. Academic leftism seeps into progressive corporations, it dominates leftist writing, and it inevitably merges with pop culture. What starts on campus moves to television, to music, to books, and to law with astonishing speed.
And academic leftism has become extraordinarily poisonous and extraordinarily ignorant. As Lilla put it in an interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education, it has lost its sense of proportion. “Our campuses are not Aleppo,” he says, and there is a reason why “people use the word ‘academic’ not to mean scholarly, but to mean totally detached from reality.”
But don’t tell that to radical students and their radical teachers. At every turn professors and administrators are whispering in the ears of black and brown students, telling them, “Your country hates you. Your country has always hated you.” At every turn it whispers in the ears of its LGBT students, “Your nation hates you. Christians hate you.” It tells white students, “You’re despicable, and you’ll remain despicable unless you ally with us, unless you join our crusade.”
It’s impossible to converse with this form of leftism. Denials of racism are proof of racism. Even your “unconscious” self is guilty of bigotry. Disagreement is oppression.
There will always be radicals among us, but they don’t have to be so powerful. They don’t have to carry so much cultural and intellectual weight within the much larger and more moderate mainstream liberal public, and to that public I have a simple New Year’s plea.
Learn more. Understand that while we all live in our bubbles, your bubble’s walls are stronger and thicker than most. Do you realize that your urban strongholds are often less politically diverse than an Evangelical church? White Evangelicals gave 81 percent of their vote to Donald Trump. Fully 86 percent of Manhattan residents voted for Hillary Clinton. Conservatives who send their kids to public school, listen to pop music, or go to the movies imbibe liberal values and ideas. When do you ever hear conservatives speak?
New York University social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has found that while moderates and conservatives could better understand how the “typical liberal” thinks, liberals struggled to accurately explain conservative values. And those who identified themselves as “very liberal” struggled most of all. This is dangerous. It yields misunderstandings at best and hatred at worse. It damages the social fabric of a nation.
Only if you live in the bubble do you believe that “racism” or “sexism” is a sufficient explanation for Donald Trump’s victory. Only if you eat and sleep identity politics do you think that the best answer to Trump is more racial mobilization and a greater sense of outrage. Can you call Trump something worse than fascist? Can you call his supporters something worse than racist?
During my own time living in liberal enclaves in Cambridge, Ithaca, Manhattan, and Philadelphia, I marveled at my peers’ educated ignorance. They read voraciously yet seemed to know so little about their own nation. Their history was as selective as they believed mine to be. Their knowledge was narrow. And within that narrow frame of reference, their choices and beliefs were entirely logical and eminently reasonable.
They needed to change their frame of reference. That’s the hope. Not for harmony, not for unity, but instead for something far more modest — a little bit of knowledge. After all, we know more about you than you know about us, and if there is one thing I know about my liberal friends, they don’t like to be the least educated people in the room.
— David French is a staff writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and an attorney.