Thinking Harder about Political Correctness

Donald Trump and the rest of the Republican presidential pack have had a field day disparaging political correctness as an affliction of liberals that is resented by regular Americans. Some liberal commentators have suggested that political correctness has become a serious albatross for Democrats.

Columnist Thomas Edsall, in a piece for the New York Times online, cited polls showing that large numbers of Americans, Democrats as well as Republicans, agreed that "political correctness" was a big problem.

But what exactly is political correctness? The term was first used by lefties to make fun of themselves. I've been hearing it used ironically since the 1970s. As in: "This may not be politically correct, but may I buy you a drink?"

This use of "politically correct" initially reflected the New Left and the feminist movement of that era mocking the efforts by the Communist Party to insist on rigid conventions of speech, along the lines of George Orwell's Thought Police in his novel 1984.

Then the right got hold of the phrase and used it to claim that left-wingers were the new conformists, enforcing speech codes and embracing extreme identity politics. Allan Bloom's 1987 book, The Closing of the American Mind, attacked liberal college professors for imposing "politically correct" ways of thinking on impressionable undergraduates. The term then became a staple of rightwing rhetoric against liberals.

The interesting question is why Donald Trump's resurrection of the term in the 2016 campaign resonates with so many people.

Trump, let's recall, has taken insulting rhetoric to a new low, and "politically correct" has become his all-purpose way of dismissing his critics. For Trump, politically incorrect masquerades as a badge of candor. He may sound like gutter politics, but he's actually a courageous truth-teller.

Still, it's significant that his message hits home with his audience. One reason is that working class and middle class white men have been taking it on the chin for about three decades. Many have had a bellyful of women, blacks, gays, lesbians, transgender people, Muslims, et al, telling them what language they are permitted to use.

Some of the campus causes, where privileged kids argue about trigger warnings and micro-aggressions, epitomize everything that non-college educated white guys hate about liberals.

But let's dig a little deeper. Some of the downward mobility of white men (expect for the elite) is long overdue. Until the civil rights movement and the women's movement started contesting the privileges of white men, white guys had relatively fewer competitors for good jobs, and enjoyed the perquisites of stay-at-home wives. The gains in rights and aspirations of women and blacks were a loss in the relative social status and economic well-being of men.

Well, some men, that is -- because the same era during which women and blacks made relative gains was a period when working class wages, salaries, and job security went straight to hell. It might have been a lot easier for white men to accept long deferred claims by women and blacks for inclusion, had this not been a period when the very rich were taking an ever-larger share of the pie at the expense of working people generally.

Notice the irony of Trump benefitting from the politics of resentment. Billionaires like Trump make off with too much of the nation's income and wealth, at the expense of ordinary working stiffs. And then Trump puts on his politician's hat and cashes in on the resentment.

And here's where it gets really tricky. Some of the ultra-P.C. stuff is silly and makes it easier for the right to lampoon liberals. At Oberlin, a college of which I'm a proud alumnus, the students have lately been protesting something called "cultural appropriation."

That turns out to mean the campus food service contractor offering ethnically-themed meals and doing a lousy job of preparing such dishes as General Tso's Chicken and presenting pulled pork masquerading as Vietnamese bahn mi. Surely students have better things to argue about.

When I was an undergraduate there, we also protested the food -- not because it was culturally insensitive but because it was just plain disgusting. The ethnically indeterminate chipped beef was an equal opportunity offender.

The broader challenge here is that many of the causes that Trump and company put down as P.C. are legitimate and overdue. How long will it take before cops who brutalize black citizens are brought to justice? Do we really want to evict 12 million law abiding immigrants, many of whom were brought here as kids? But when the local working class is getting clobbered economically, it's easier to play off the races against each other.

The more extreme versions of identity politics do play into the hands of the right. There is not much that liberals can do about that.

It has always taken radicalism that initially seems outlandish to build a more inclusive society before that inclusion becomes mainstream. I'm old enough to remember a time when Help Wanted-Male, and Help Wanted-Female classified ads, seemed merely normal and gay marriage seemed preposterous. Today's broad acceptance of rights for women, blacks, gays and lesbians, people with disabilities, first required impolite insurgent movements. Some backlash was inevitable.

Yet if we want the charge of P.C. to fade, it would be good for Democrats to speak more about the economic aspirations of all Americans, and to propose more robust solutions for the downward mobility that has been affecting all but the elite -- and to remind struggling voters that a billionaire bully is not likely to be their champion.


Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect and professor at Brandeis University's Heller School. His latest book is Debtors' Prison: The Politics of Austerity Versus Possibility.

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