The women’s marches were a phenomenal success and an important cultural moment. Most everybody came back uplifted and empowered. Many said they felt hopeful for the first time since Election Day. But these marches can never be an effective opposition to Donald Trump.
In the first place, this movement focuses on the wrong issues. Of course, many marchers came with broad anti-Trump agendas, but they were marching under the conventional structure in which the central issues were clear. As The Washington Post reported, they were “reproductive rights, equal pay, affordable health care, action on climate change.”
These are all important matters, and they tend to be voting issues for many upper-middle-class voters in university towns and coastal cities. But this is 2017. Ethnic populism is rising around the world. The crucial problems today concern the way technology and globalization are decimating jobs and tearing the social fabric; the way migration is redefining nation-states; the way the post-World War II order is increasingly being rejected as a means to keep the peace.
All the big things that were once taken for granted are now under assault: globalization, capitalism, adherence to the Constitution, the U.S.-led global order. If you’re not engaging these issues first, you’re not going to be in the main arena of national life.
Second, there was too big a gap between Saturday’s marches and the Democratic and Republican parties.
Sometimes social change happens through grass-roots movements – the civil rights movement. But most of the time change happens through political parties: The New Deal, the Great Society, the Reagan Revolution. Change happens when people run for office, amass coalitions of interest groups, engage in the messy practice of politics.
Without the discipline of party politics, social movements devolve into mere feeling, especially in our age of expressive individualism. People march and feel good and think they have accomplished something. They have a social experience with a lot of people and fool themselves into thinking they are members of a coherent and demanding community. Such movements descend to the language of mass therapy. It’s significant that as marching and movements have risen, the actual power of the parties has collapsed. Marching is a seductive substitute for action in an anti-political era, and leaves the field open for a rogue like Trump.
Finally, identity politics is too small for this moment. On Friday, Trump offered a version of unabashed populist nationalism. On Saturday, the anti-Trump forces could have offered a red, white and blue alternative patriotism, a modern, forward-looking patriotism based on pluralism, dynamism, growth, racial and gender equality and global engagement.
Instead, the marches offered the pink hats, an anti-Trump movement built, oddly, around Planned Parenthood, and lots of signs with a slang word for a woman’s genitals. The definition of America is up for grabs. Our fundamental institutions have been exposed as shockingly hollow. But the marches couldn’t escape the language and tropes of identity politics.
Soon after the Trump victory, professor Mark Lilla of Columbia wrote a piece on how identity politics was dooming progressive chances. Times readers loved that piece and it vaulted to the top of the most-read charts.
But now progressives seem intent on doubling down on exactly what has doomed them so often. Lilla pointed out that identity politics isolates progressives from the wider country: “The fixation on diversity in our schools and in the press has produced a generation of liberals and progressives narcissistically unaware of conditions outside their self-defined groups, and indifferent to the task of reaching out to Americans in every walk of life.”
Sure enough, if you live in blue America, the marches carpeted your Facebook feed. But The Times’ Julie Bosman was in Niles, Michigan, where many women had never heard of the marches, and if they had, I suspect, they would not have felt at home at one.
Identity-based political movements always seem to descend into internal rivalries about who is most oppressed and who should get pride of place. Sure enough, the controversy before and after the march was over the various roles of white feminists, women of color, anti-abortion feminists and various other out-groups.
The biggest problem with identity politics is that its categories don’t explain what is going on now. Trump carried a majority of white women. He won the votes of a shocking number of Hispanics.
The central challenge today is not how to celebrate difference. The central threat is not the patriarchy. The central challenge is to rebind a functioning polity and to modernize a binding American idea.
I loathed Trump’s inaugural: It offered a zero-sum, ethnically pure, backward-looking brutalistic nationalism. But it was a coherent vision, and he is rallying a true and fervent love of our home. If the anti-Trump forces are to have a chance, they have to offer a better nationalism, with diversity cohering around a central mission, building a nation that balances the dynamism of capitalism with biblical morality.
The march didn’t come close. Hint: The musical “Hamilton” is a lot closer.
New York Times