THE DEATH OF MULTICULTURALISM. Ensconced in TimesSelect's fortress, David Brooks weighs in today on Mike's essay. Brooks sees Tomasky's call for supplanting rights-based liberalism with a new(-old) common good liberalism as reflective of a sea change among Democrats and activists -- "over the past few years," he writes, "multiculturalism has faded away" as a pillar of the Democratic Party and American liberalism. I think there's some real truth to that -- indeed, one criticism I would make of Mike's piece is precisely that the sort of identity politics he's calling on Democrats to jettison already seems a good deal less salient and significant than it was, say, fifteen years ago. An interesting question is why that happened. There was real debate about this stuff in the eighties and nineties -- books by Mike, Arthur Schlesinger, Todd Gitlin, and Jim Sleeper all came out around the same time and offered similar criticisms of the rights-based identity politics cul de sac the left had marched into. There was a parallel -- if much more highfalutin and abstract -- debate between philosophical liberals and communitarians that was often portrayed as relevant to the intra-left political dispute. Then the debate just sort of � died out. And though the anti-multiculturalists seem to have won, it's not really clear if the dispute was actually resolved in a way that people can draw lessons from.
Brooks attributes the decline of the identity politics model for liberalism to the ossification of the identity group outfits themselves, Democrats' understanding that they need to reengage white working-class support, and lasting sentiments of national solidarity provoked by 9-11. I'd attribute something a bit different and more prosaic to 9-11 -- it radically elevated foreign policy and security concerns in American politics and rendered a lot of the domestic issues that had roiled post-Cold War debates less salient. Along similar lines, one thing that seems central to the decline of identity politics is the declining relevancy of issues that were specifically (if often only subtextually) about African Americans and white sentiments concerning them. It's easy for younguns such as myself to overlook how much larger law and order, urban policy, crime control, and "underclass" debates loomed in American politics in the eighties and early nineties. Objective conditions changed that as much as anything else -- the crime decline that began in the mid-nineties was massive and has largely sustained itself, for example. Moreover, popular notions about the conditions of American cities finally turned around and grew more positive. And welfare reform, whatever its policy merits, defanged and, to a real extent, deracialized the right's rhetorical and political approach to poverty issues.