Monday, March 19, 2018

The kerfuffle over Louis Farrakhan's ties to prominent figures in the Women's March organization and the Democratic party has numerous people--particularly Jews--wondering why so many leftists have trouble distancing themselves from a notorious anti-Semite (not to mention racist, anti-feminist, homophobe and religious extremist).  Of course, they're asking the wrong question--the more fundamental question is why so many leftists are so friendly with Farrakhan in the first place.

After all, the views he espouses--that women should remain at home, subservient to their husbands; that homosexuality is a sin; that racial segregation is good and desirable--have earned the Nation of Islam the Southern Poverty Law Center's designation as a hate group.  It's hard to imagine another organization with such far-right-wing views being on such good terms with prominent leaders of the American left.

A popular answer (or excuse, depending on one's perspective) is political pragmatism (or cynicism, depending on one's perspective).  Former Obama aide Valerie Jarrett, for instance, argued that politicians must sometimes meet with those they disagree with--like Farrakhan--in the interest of "trying to get things done".  But while this argument might justify occasional furtive negotiations over proposed alliances of convenience on specific issues of mutual interest, it hardly explains the Democratic Party politicians' frequent friendly powwows with Farrakhan--let alone the Women's March leaders' gushing, fangirlish encomia to him.

Then again, the Nation of Islam isn't the only extremist form of Islam with that American leftists seem to find politically congenial despite its apparently diametrically opposed views on virtually every major partisan issue.  Radical Islamist organizations such as CAIR, MPAC and even the Muslim Brotherhood also have had friendly relations with the Democratic Party, especially the Obama administration.  Again, these organizations' views seem antithetical to the professed positions of the Democratic Party figures who are hobnobbing with them.  What, then, explains the friendliness?

Under the "ideological" model of democratic politics, in which political parties and factions are united by shared principles and beliefs, this sort of alliance makes no sense at all.  But if one views ideologies as nothing more than contrived pretexts for mutually beneficial coalitions among tribal factions, then it's completely understandable.  Certainly Farrakhan, a charismatic leader of a cult-like organization that exercises strong control of its members, is an attractive partner for any party, given his ability to deliver a captive voting bloc to any party willing to lend him the respect and prestige that he craves.  And the Democratic Party in particular, with its collection of race-, gender- and ethnicity-focused constituencies, is at this point practically built on the model of transacting perks for votes with identity-political movement leaders who can deliver those votes. In fact, it's a natural extension of the party's tradition of urban "machine" politics that has dominated several US cities for over a century.

Most people would consider this kind of identity politics highly corrosive to democratic accountability, since voters judging politicians based purely on racial or ethnic loyalty are likely to be more tolerant of incompetence, corruption or otherwise disastrous governance than voters whose affinities are based on a more clear-eyed understanding of self-interest.  (Consider, for example, the racial loyalty that animates the core supporters of the current US president...)  Fortunately, identity politics, like most other kinds, follows a cyclical trend, and we can hope that its current resurgence will eventually peak and subside, as it did in the case of African-American militancy following the wave of the 1960s-1980s.

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