In case you have not seen it, The New Republic is running a fascinating discussion about the legacy of Barack Obama. The participants in the discussion include historian Annette Gordon-Reed and Nell Painter and journalist/writers John Judis, Sarah Jaffee, and Andrew Sullivan. The piece also includes insights from Bill McKibbon, Rafia Zakaria, Nikhil Pal Singh, Kim Phillips-Fein, Elizabeth Bruenig, and Thomas Frank.
Here is an interest exchange on identity politics:
SULLIVAN: I want to bring up something about quote-unquote “identity politics.” Because there was an area of extraordinary success Obama had in the advancement of civil rights. Namely, the achievement of marriage equality and openly gay people in the military, which no one believed could happen. And the lesson of that to me was exactly what Sarah said earlier: that yes, we didn’t wait for him, we did it ourselves. But we did it by eschewing identity politics, by saying we have got to stress what we have in common with heterosexual people, by embracing our responsibilities rather than finding constant excuses for failure, by persuading a large number of people in the middle and taking their concerns seriously, instead of screaming “racist” and all this other claptrap we hear from the left.
There is a great lesson in that—which is that if the left thinks that it didn’t stress identity politics enough, they are gravely mistaken. The only progress that will come on these issues is by getting rid of that poison and concentrating on what we have in common as citizens, irrespective of our race and our gender and our sexual orientation.
NEW REPUBLIC: I know other people in the room will disagree with a lot of what you just said, Andrew. But in a way, you captured the core of Obama’s own take on race. He has been very clear and very conscious that his larger goal was essentially a civic one: to try and get people to see themselves in each other. Was that the right approach? Or did it limit what he could achieve, by appealing to our commonality rather than more forcefully confronting the policies and prejudices that divide us?
GORDON-REED: That’s always been the philosophy of people who have been arguing for black rights. That’s what we’ve been doing: We’re people. All men are created equal. We’ve used the Declaration of Independence, we’ve used all those kinds of things. I don’t know who this “left” is that Andrew’s talking about. Black people have always been trying to assert our equal humanity. That’s what we’ve led with. Obama’s approach is not that different than what other people are doing.
JAFFE: Keep in mind that the Tea Party came first. It wasn’t Black Lives Matter. The Tea Party was ready to be angry at Obama on day one, explicitly because he was a black president. It’s just chronologically backwards to say that thousands and thousands of Americans who finally got fed up with racial injustice and took part in protest movements were somehow responsible for polarizing the conversation or rejecting common ground.
PAINTER: We’ve been talking about what Obama might have done or what Obama didn’t do or what Obama should have done. But when we’re talking about a lot of American politics, it goes on at the state and local level. That’s where we need to focus as progressives. Maybe the Democratic Party didn’t do enough on that front. But American citizens have certainly shirked their responsibility to be involved in our public life.
One quick thought about Gordon-Reed’s statement that blacks have always appealed to a common civic life in their efforts at arguing for Civil Rights. I wonder if this is actually the case. I can think of several well-respected historians who have argued that African-American public engagement changed considerably in the late 1960s. If I read scholars like David Chappell, David Burner (who I took a course with in graduate school) or Elizabeth Lasch-Quinn (or even her father Christopher Lasch, especially in The True and Only Heaven) correctly, there was a move away from an appeal to civic culture and towards identity politics and Black nationalism. I think Sullivan is correct in another part of the interview when he says that Obama represents an older Civil Rights tradition more associated with King in the 1950s and early 1960s. This approach appealed more to universal, civic ideals than particular identities. I think we see Obama’s approach on this front very clearly in his speech commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Selma and even in his speech in the wake of the Charleston shootings.
Read the entire conversation here. In the end, most of the participants, especially the historians, suggest that it is far too early to talk about Obama’s legacy.