How the Left Ceded the Moral High Ground

For those who self-identify as liberals, things were simpler in the 1960s and 70s. The left had an easy claim to the moral high ground then, embracing the Civil Rights movement against racist segregationists, fueling a feminist agenda against transparently sexist cultural formations, advocating freedom from conventional constraints, and deploying Gandhi’s principles of non-violence against the war-makers in Vietnam.

Now the moral high ground seems up for grabs. Liberals are more vulnerable, rightly or wrongly, to charges of prejudicial, restrictive, and divisive policies. Where did things go wrong, and is it just an image problem or something more substantive?

If I had to pinpoint one thing to study under this lens, I’d go with the rise of “identity politics” to a kind of critical mass in the 1980s. The intention may be admirable. We can say that all men and women are equal by law, but that elides the fact that social and human rights problems are often demographically defined. If we want to work toward a “more perfect union,” individual rights and grievances are an insufficient analytic. Demographic identity needs a voice, especially for underdog groups whose members share to a large extent material conditions and obstacles.

In practice, this quickly escalated into a kind of demographic determinism, where whites cannot and should not try to envision the black perspective (a magnification of the kind of withering critique the white William Styron took for writing Confessions of Nat Turner from a black man’s perspective), where men have no business trying to envision the female perspective, the same with Latinos, etc. Authors and public intellectuals became treated as a priori “politically situated,” able to access the world and express themselves only via the demographic experience of their own race, gender, and ethnicity. At this point, the damage is done. Demographic identity, which morphed into the “identity politics” of 1980s liberal academic departments, works fine as a supplement to our shared human identity, but when it becomes a replacement for our shared human identity, you have become a divider, not a unifier.  You have ceded the moral high ground, and you can rest assured that many in the public domain stand ready to seize upon this and use it against the liberal agenda more broadly.

Liberals today could learn from 18th-century thinkers like Mary Wollstonecraft, who appealed equally to men and women with arguments based on a rational standard that knows no gender, or Olaudah Equiano, whose slave autobiography made it clear that racial identity was real and valuable but that our shared humanness (our ability to stand in each other’s shoes) would always be the key to progress in race relations. Or the 19th-century Frederick Douglass, who emphasized over and over that oppression dehumanized the oppressor as well as the oppressed, that we are all in this together with our humanity at stake. These great figures were all unifiers because our shared humanity was at the root of their visions. That’s why I pinpoint “identity politics” as the ghost in the liberal fall from the moral high ground, because – of all the factors we might look at – I believe this is the one that most rattles the link between a liberal vision and the concept of our shared humanness.

Is this, then, an image or substance problem? I think a bit of both. It is an image problem in one sense. When it comes to immigration or economic inequality or gay rights or women’s reproductive rights or access to health care or diplomacy versus belligerence abroad, etc., etc., the core liberal vision still stands today at a higher moral ground than the conservative one (especially if one uses Democratic and Republican parties as representatives of those two ideologies).

In another sense, the problem is substantive. Post-1960s liberals were not only better situated than their conservative counterparts (morally speaking) on those core economic and structural issues, but their vision held the moral high ground on two notable levels. Their short-term vision was all about breaking free of conventional chains on expression, lifestyle, and modes of social organization.  And they had a long-term vision much like Olaudah Equiano’s, where demographic identities could be celebrated but without clouding the shared humanness that undergirds the other layers of identity.

Current liberals (at least enough of them to make a dent) seem to have lost that vision. They place too much short-term emphasis on speech codes and on restricting expressions of anything deemed “offensive.” And their long-term vision suffers from divisive strategies that often sound more scolding than celebratory. “White privilege” and “male privilege” is a case in point. I certainly agree that there are racial and gender inequities that persist and need to be addressed, but these terms perpetuate the oppressor/oppressed dyad, another upcycle of “us versus them” thinking. They send the message, intentionally or not, that “your hard work didn’t count, your efforts to treat people fairly didn’t count, it was all privilege and you should be a little ashamed of it.” This is at best a tactically and morally awkward extension of Elizabeth Warren’s more solid town hall point about how no one builds a business alone – tactically awkward because likely to alienate more potential allies than it gains; morally awkward because Warren’s point rests upon the unifying premise that we are all in this together, whereas the argument based on demographic “privilege” seems to rest upon a premise of conflicting interests and binary leverage. (Beware of anything that sets the “men vs. women” trap. As a great American said, “Those who are against women’s rights would like nothing better than to drive a wedge between women and progressive men.”) The “privilege” argument in its current form is not in the long run a unifying vision. It falls short of Wollstonecraft and Equiano and Douglass. It cedes the moral high ground held by them and held, I believe, by 60s/70s liberals as well.

If the left (or a sizable subset thereof) has ceded the moral high ground, this doesn’t mean they’ve yielded that ground to conservatives/Republicans. Issue for issue, the latter are even further from the moral high ground. Rather, when liberals relinquished the moral high ground, they left a vacuum.  We need a morally rejuvenated liberal party, or even better, a new grass roots, non-partisan movement, one that flushes out a little of the us-versus-them acrimony and upcycles some of the celebratory 1960s vision but without moving backwards from here. I’m not sure how to do that, but I’m open to suggestion.

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6 thoughts on “How the Left Ceded the Moral High Ground

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