Social Justice vs. Economic Justice: The False Dichotomy of Identity Politics
I had a revelation recently about the on-going debates between Hillary and Bernie supporters in the wake of the 2016 election.Bernie has given interviews in which he rails against what he calls the “Liberal Elites” — the establishment faction of the Democratic Party — who are focused on identity politics of gender equality, racial equality, LGBTQ rights and fighting for social justice but who are less interested in fighting for economic justice (i.e., taking on Wall Street and the banks, going after the billionaire class, and so on).Indeed, it seems for the Left, the unrecognised obstacle to achieving economic justice is the fight for social justice. To put it simply: many left-leaning Americans cannot fight for free college tuition, healthcare or economic reform before eradicating racism, achieving gender equality and safeguarding LGBT rights, etc. Unfortunately, this kind of thinking will hurt all of us in the long-run as I explain below.
Choices Personified in 2016
This fundamental “choice” between economic versus social justice seems to be a large part of the massive disagreement between Bernie supporters and Hillary supporters. To put it bluntly: many who were “with Her” were more interested in electing the first female POTUS than achieving single payer healthcare, tuition-free college and so on.
Other examples of this dichotomy: Even though middle class blacks lost over 50% of their wealth thanks to the 2008 crash caused by the crooked bankers on Wall Street, the shooting of unarmed black men by racist cops is a more pressing and immediate public emergency; movements to increase wages for working class people are eclipsed by the desperate need to stop the midnight raids and mass deportations of undocumented workers and their families.
Early in Bernie’s campaign, he received a wake-up call on the social justice front when Black Lives Matter challenged him at a rally in Seattle. This confrontation fed into a narrative pushed by the Clinton campaign: namely, that Bernie was an old white guy from Vermont who was simply and woefully out of touch with the issues of race, gender and sexual orientation. With this, the “Bernie is a racist misogynist” meme was born and the dismissal of his supporters as “sexist Bernie Bros.”
In each case, the Bernie Sanders movement was condemned for putting economic justice ahead of social justice.
“We are not Denmark”
In a Primary debate, Hillary Clinton declared that “We are not Denmark”
Another major criticism of Bernie’s “Democratic Socialist” program was based around some version of “it’s just easier” for countries in Europe and Scandinavia to have single payer healthcare, paid family leave, free college, etc. because they are culturally and ethnically “homogenous”. In contrast, these things are difficult, if not impossible, in the U.S. because we are such a culturally and ethnically “diverse” society.
Previously, I rejected these arguments out of hand. After all, “diversity” is something that was supposed to make America better and stronger than other countries. Immigration and multiculturalism are positive forces in American life. I believe in American exceptionalism in this regard.
All this adds up to a clear realisation that diversity itself does not make it more difficult to adopt all the wonderful socialist programs enjoyed in other developed countries, but the crises and injustices arising from diversity are viewed as more urgent and pressing for America’s Left than its political, social and financial resources.
The Two-Party System: Yin and Yang of Identity Politics
Bernie is now actively campaigning to reconcile these two “wings” of the American Left, to unite Liberals and Progressives in a political revolution that rejects the false dichotomy of identity politics as practiced by the elites of the Democratic establishment. This dichotomy is reinforced and complemented by the opposing forces of the Right and the Republican Party because when it comes to bamboozling the American people, it takes two to tango. The GOP is only too willing to make every political and electoral debate about cultural issues — that way no one will realise that they stand for massive economic injustice. The white, blue collar working class of Middle America would never vote for the economic policies of the GOP, but when the GOP and the Democrats join forces to engage solely on the battlefield of cultural and social issues, wedge issues abound, and voters can be all too easily persuaded to vote against their own economic interests. But if you listen closely, in Bernie’s mantra of “we cannot allow them to divide us up,” the “them” refers as much to the corporate Democrats as it does to the GOP.
One example of this yin-yang collaboration between the Liberal Elites and the GOP was when Barack Obama made the Bush Tax Cuts permanent. Bernie Sanders famously filibustered the Bush Tax Cuts extension, yet the Left in general was remarkably silent, complacent in their belief that the nation’s “first African-American President“ by definition had to be a Liberal, and so anything he proposed or supported or agreed to must therefore be good for the Left.
The silence of the Left on this issue — and others — allowed Right-Wing talking points to dominate the public discourse: all throughout the following year, headlined by Bill O’Reilly on FOX News, declaring Obama to be “the most liberal President in US history.” These attacks from the Right did more to galvanise Obama’s support on the Left than anything the President actually did to earn that title.
MLK Gave us the Solution
Bernie often invokes Martin Luther King, and in so doing he is quick to point out that MLK’s last great movement was a “Poor People’s Campaign” — because King realised that without economic justice there can be no social justice. It was on the eve of the planned Poor People’s March on Washington that King was assassinated, and so the Reverend’s call for economic justice is often neglected in the history books, and it certainly seems to have been struck from the lexicon of today’s Democratic Party.
Bernie seeks, in effect, to revive MLK’s dream of economic justice as a means to achieve social justice. And Bernie supporters are in that fight with him, despite the efforts of both the Democratic elites and the Republican Party to make us choose between the two. It is a false choice, and we must reject it.
Why Hillary Lost
Hillary was constantly dismissive of economic issues, as were most of the Establishment Liberal Elites. College educated blacks, the aspirational middle class, lost 60% of their wealth because of the crimes committed on Wall Street in 2008. And yet Hillary dismissed calls for banking reform as “theory.” And as Katie Halper has pointed out in Paste Magazine, Clinton purposefully tried to separate economic justice from social justice.
We need to end the “Culture Wars” that the Democrats and Republicans have forced upon us; we need to change the rules of engagement. Bernie’s goal is to convince everyone on the Left that we can, in essence, walk AND chew gum…that social justice is NOT separate from economic justice. We need to see that the two are naturally and inextricably entwined, and always were.
With that, I urge all my brothers and sisters on the Left to come together and to oppose ALL injustice everywhere. How useful are “equal opportunity” laws if there is no opportunity? What does it serve to have “fairness in lending” laws when you cannot afford a mortgage? How does it help to have “equal pay for equal work” when there is no work? Indeed: how can you break a glass ceiling if you have no strong economic ladder to stand on?