April 27, 2006
The Death of Multiculturalism
By DAVID BROOKS
In 1994 multiculturalism was at its high-water mark, and Richard Bernstein wrote "Dictatorship of Virtue," describing its excesses: the campus speech codes, the forced sensitivity training, the purging of dead white males from curriculums, the people who had their careers ruined by dubious charges of racism, sexism and ethnocentrism.
Then two years later, the liberal writer Michael Tomasky published "Left for Dead," which argued that the progressive movement was being ruined by multicultural identity politics. Democrats have lost the ability to talk to Americans collectively, Tomasky wrote, and seem to be a collection of aggrieved out-groups: feminists, blacks, gays and so on.
At the time, Bernstein and Tomasky were lonely voices on the left, and the multiculturalists struck back. For example, Martin Duberman slammed Tomasky's book in The Nation, and defended multiculturalism:
"The radical redefinitions of gender and sexuality that are under discussion in feminist and queer circles contain a potentially transformative challenge to all 'regimes of the normal.' The work of theorists like Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Jeffrey Weeks, Marjorie Garber and Judith Butler represents a deliberate systemic affront to fixed modes of being and patterns of power. They offer brilliant (if not incontrovertible) postulates about such universal matters as the historicity and fluidity of sexual desire, the performative nature of gender, and the multiplicity of impulses, narratives and loyalties that lie within us all."
Duberman insisted that postmodern multicultural theorizing would transform politics, but today his gaseous review reads as if it came from a different era, like an embarrassing glimpse of leisure suits in an old home movie.
That's because over the past few years, multiculturalism has faded away. A different sort of liberalism is taking over the Democratic Party.
Multiculturalism is in decline for a number of reasons. First, the identity groups have ossified. The feminist organizations were hypocritical during the Clinton impeachment scandal, and both fevered and weak during the Roberts and Alito hearings. Meanwhile, the civil rights groups have become stale and uninteresting.
Second, the Democrats have come to understand that they need to pay less attention to minorities and more to the white working class if they ever want to become the majority party again. Third, the intellectual energy on the left is now with the economists. People who write about inequality are more vibrant than people who write about discrimination.
Fourth and most important, 9/11 happened. The attacks aroused feelings of national solidarity, or a longing for national solidarity, that discredited the multiculturalists' tribalism.
Tomasky is now back with an essay in The American Prospect in which he argues that it is time Democrats cohered around a big idea — not diversity, and not individual rights, but the idea of the common good. The Democrats' central themes, Tomasky advises, should be that we're all in this together; we are all part of a larger national project; we all need to make some shared sacrifices and look beyond our narrow self-interest. Tomasky is hoping for a candidate who will ignore the demands of the single-issue groups and argue that all Americans have a stake in reducing economic fragmentation and social division.
Coincidentally, two other liberal writers, John Halpin and Ruy Teixeira, have just finished a long study that comes out in exactly the same place. Surveying mountains of polling data, they conclude that the Democrats' chief problem is that people don't think they stand for anything. Halpin and Teixeira argue that the message voters respond to best is the notion of shared sacrifice for the common good. After years of individualism from right and left, they observe, people are ready for an appeal to citizenship.
Naturally, this approach has weaknesses. Unlike in 1964, most Americans no longer trust government to be the altruistic champion of the common good, even if they wish it could. And while writers and voters talk about the common good, politicians are wired to think about their team. Harry Reid and Chuck Schumer will never ask their people to make sacrifices, but until they do, the higher talk of common good will sound like bilge.
Nonetheless, the decline of multiculturalism and the rebirth of liberal American nationalism is a significant event. Democrats are purging the last vestiges of the New Left and returning to the older civic liberalism of the 1950's and early 1960's.
Goodbye, Jesse Jackson. Goodbye, Gloria Steinem. Hello, Harry Truman.
Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company
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