Don’t ditch diversity because progressives failed

It is vital to see protest votes under economic pressure but not to the extent that ignores other motivating forces.

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The problem isn't neglecting economic policy by prioritising diversity. The problem is neglecting economic policy, writes Shabi [Getty Images]

You would think a resurgent far right in the United States and across Europe would be enough to worry about. But in the weeks since Donald Trump – with his race-baiting, misogynistic campaign – was elected as US president, it has become apparent that we should worry about progressives, too.

This, at least, is the impression created by a wave of analysis pronouncing that, much like Britain’s referendum vote to leave the European Union, Trump’s victory comes down to the progressive left hammering on too much about diversity.

It may have started off, as so many things do, with good intentions – as an appraisal of Hillary Clinton’s election strategy. Taking the vote for Trump as a rejection of self-serving political elites, and as a cry of economic despair from swaths of left-behind Americans, some have suggested that, rather than premise a win on female, black and Latino votes, Clinton ought to have tacked left economically so that she was also speaking to those in desperate need of material change.

But things quickly turned to liberals being preoccupied with diversity. Mark Lilla, in a New York Times piece entitled “The End of Liberalism”, claimed that diversity, while fine in principle, was “disastrous as a foundation for democratic politics in our ideological age”.

He wrote that it was wrong to read any racial tones in the economic despair of Trump voters; that liberals talking about a “whitelash” were indulging in moral superiority, rather than actually listening to people.

The idea took hold in post-Brexit Britain, too. Stephen Kinnock, of the UK’s Labour Party, said that his party should “stop obsessing” about diversity so that it could get the support of white working-class voters.

Guardian commentators lamented how “diversity can distract us from economic inequality” and that right-wing populism was the fault of “identity liberalism”, which had written off that historically vulnerable, discriminated against and most disadvantaged of identities, white men.

The core of the problem

Let’s start by setting aside – in case we’re called self-indulgent again – the fear with which such sentiments are greeted by those fighting hard for equal rights regardless of race, religion, gender or sexuality, or the shock at how swiftly such values are dropped by progressives assumed to be on side in this battle.

To state the obvious, the problem isn’t neglecting economic policy by prioritising diversity, the problem is neglecting economic policy, full stop.

A decades-long consensus across left and right to pursue ravaging neoliberal economic policies has hobbled entire communities and created deplorable wealth inequality in Britain just as in the United States. Centrists ignored these consequences because of a commitment to economic policy, not because they were distracted by attention-grabbing minorities.

Setting up minorities to compete for attention with the working class is in itself divisive and destructive. People are not only one thing, or one reaction; while no one group can be listened to over another.


And how much of a diversion were these bothersome diversity causes, anyway? American women are still paid 20 percent less than men just as in the UK and face all kinds of discrimination; minorities are far more likely to be poor, unemployed and socially excluded.

Is the suggestion that, in addition to being a distracting bauble, the struggle for equality can in any way be defined as over?

This economic theory of everything falls apart when you consider that – shock! – economically disadvantaged minorities did not vote for either Brexit, or Trump. In both elections, race was more of a deciding factor than income level.

Exposing the operational assumption

So, yes, it is vital to register the protest vote of people buckling under economic pressure – especially when those pressures are being preyed upon by the far right – but not to the extent that it makes you deaf to other motivating forces.

It all serves to expose the operational assumption underlying such views: that class consciousness trumps everything; that economic inequality is a fundamental injustice with political force, in a way that other inequalities are not. It’s to assert that the system is most damagingly rigged by class – as though all inequality would disappear if we fixed economic inequality. It’s to imply that ethno-nationalist sentiment gets a free pass when packaged in economic suffering: fundamentally a patronising view, suggesting as it does that social progress may have moved too fast for some people to cope.

And it is also to refuse to engage with where racism comes from: to see it as baked into a country such as Britain, which has, for centuries, relied upon racism and subjugation for material gain and which cannot suddenly and effortlessly stop such prejudices operating on every level just because its colonial era is in the past.

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Setting up minorities to compete for attention with the working class is in itself divisive and destructive. People are not only one thing, or one reaction; while no one group can be listened to over another.

But what is particularly toxic about this hierarchy of grievances is that it plays into one of the defining frames of the far right: that society is a zero-sum game, that for one group to win, another group has to lose.

Reiterating this dynamic within progressive debate, instead of rejecting the framework and asserting a better one, concedes essential political terrain, making it far easier for the populist right to take root in soil that you have essentially just tilled for them.

Nobody should pick a side in what is so obviously a false competition. Nobody should be falling into a trap set by people who seek to divide us. Stepping over the trap, rather than stepping over your principles of social equality as well as fairer economics, is the only way to make sure that we all don’t fall together.

Rachel Shabi is a journalist and author of Not the Enemy: Israel’s Jews from Arab Lands.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.