The landmark election of Donald Trump has both exposed and heightened the divisions on the political left. In particular, the latent fault-lines of differences over the politics of race, gender, and class are now becoming much more active.

Major divisions on the left

The biggest fault-line running through the left at the moment is between "class politics" and "identity politics". The identity politics side can be characterised as being focused on the individual identities of people - gender, ethnicity, sexuality, and so forth. It's an agenda that's particularly concerned with giving voice to marginalised groups and ensuring that those in powerful positions are more representative of society at large - e.g. getting women into politics, the professions, or business. And it often focuses on a cultural approach to do so, i.e. changing our behaviour, our language, and appreciating diversity etc.

In contrast, the class politics side of the left is more focused on those facing economic inequality, those exploited by capitalism, the poor, and improving everyone's material wellbeing - regardless of personal demographic - through state intervention, market regulation, the welfare state, and collective struggle. Therefore, the issues involved are more about improving the fundamentals such as housing, education, health, employment rights and wages, and so forth.

For the most amusing and hard-hitting example of the class politics argument against identity politics and the liberal political class - you can watch British satirist Tom Walker's outraged journalist "Jonathan Pie", who explains why Trump has won, and blames the liberal "identitarians" for the state of the left - see: President Trump: How & Why.

This has been a divide on the left for decades, but really came to a head after the global financial crisis tore asunder the old consensus politics in which neoliberalism and identity politics became the established ruling ideas of the elites. The metropolitan political classes everywhere have suddenly faced a backlash, seen in movements such as the Brexit vote, and now the Trump vote, all of which has challenged our old understanding of politics.


The class-identity division is not always a clear-cut one. So class-focused leftists can still promote gender, sexuality and race issues, while those pushing identity politics can still be concerned about economic issues. The difference with the two approaches is more about what is prioritised and emphasised - class and economics or identity and culture.

And if you're looking for an example of where the more class-based leftists incorporate the fight for gender inequality, see the news that unions have won their fight to be able to file pay equity claims - see Nicholas Jones' Govt pay equity decision hailed as 'historic' step towards gender equality.

Some of the divisions over identity and class are explained today in John Moore's blog post about the New Zealand left, Identity politics vs class politics: An anti-Establishment class analysis. He provocatively argues that although many social liberal political movements might appear to be concerned with marginalised groups, in practice they normally end up supporting the rise of elites that come from subjugated groups.

Economics versus culture

There is ongoing debate about whether the current anti-Establishment wave is based on economics or culture. But increasingly it's clear that it's based on both - with a large part of the public in western countries like the US, UK and New Zealand being sorely affected by their economic position after the global financial crisis, but also being repelled by the liberal, cultural elite response on the left.

Heather du Plessis-Allan discusses this, and wonders how much the media and cultural elites are responsible for ignoring the masses: "If this is a revolution - although that word still feels too strong - it's as much a social revolt as an economic one. Sure, this is a push back against globalisation, which makes some people very wealthy, and some people very poor. Yet, it's also a push back against political correctness. For years we've ignored the talkback callers who, one after another, complained of PC gone mad. We've written them off as rednecks who will eventually catch up with 2016. We told ourselves they'll eventually get used to the rules of correctness we've imposed on them" - see: We created Donald Trump.
In a more recent column, du Plessis-Allan also ponders the increased toxicity in politics as a result of the echo chambers we are often able to live in nowadays, where we only get to see - online especially - the views of those we tend to agree with. The result is the growth of a moral outrage culture, in which everything is declared "disgusting" - see: Always right in echo chamber.

This means, according to du Plessis-Allan, liberals can't understand the mass public, and so forth: "And in the echo chamber, you won't meet the kinds of people you find disgusting. You won't discover that even so-called disgusting homophobes and racists have kids who love them and grannies they look after. In the long term, if we don't talk to the people on the other side of the Facebook algorithm, we'll keep shouting people down, putting them through hell then moving on to our next target. We'll end up as divided as the US, surprised by and refusing to accept the election outcome. We have a tough time ahead of us in politics in New Zealand. Soon, we'll need to have grown up conversations about questions like how many immigrants we want. We need to drop the fighting talk for that."

The PM talks to Jamie Mackay about Trump’s victory, lame ducks, dead ducks, a drop in OCR and a spike in the NZ dollar.

Tim Watkin agrees that the anti-Establishment trend is explainable by this conflict between changing economics and culture: "this is where the political class - and I use that term loosely and only because none better comes to mind - must shoulder its share of the blame. It clearly has been unable to convince enough people of the benefits of inclusion, diversity, globalisation and more. All the things that Trump voters would dismiss as "political correctness". More to the point, those leaders have not delivered to those people the benefits that were meant to come from the social and economic revolution of recent decades. Barack Obama is the latest president to have failed badly on that front" - see: When hate Trumps love - America's search for a DeLorean.

So how did we not see the Trump upset coming? Why did the media and political commentators not foresee how possible the victory was? According to University of Auckland postgraduate politics student, Daniel Hirst, here in New Zealand the media and political sphere are too disconnected from non-liberal views: "Not much New Zealand media attention was paid to the actual problems of American society: the lost jobs in the rust belt; the heroin epidemic; and the unsustainable deficit. However, these things do not matter to a New Zealand political class that is drowning in identity politics. They didn't believe they needed to consider Trump's economic plans: our media just assumed he is an idiot with no decent policies" - see: The New Zealand media's Trump myopia.

Hirst adds that: "It won't be long before the political elites in Wellington start blaming the result on sexism and racism. But anyone living in Wellington knows which groups use identity politics to promote their own interests. If we were honest, we would recognise that the real concern of these social justice warriors is the promotion of their own wellbeing."

This is all a big problem for the left, according to Danyl Mclauchlan, who says "I've felt that there's been 'something' wrong with the left for a long time now: that beneath all the sanctimony and self-righteousness and sneering and eye-rolling contempt lies a moral and intellectual vacuum; and that none of our dazzlingly brilliant, super-erudite, super confident intellectuals really know what the f*ck they're talking about" - see: Notes on Trump's victory.


Mclauchlan explains that ironically, Trump won because he was able to subvert and emphasise the politics of identity in a very different way to liberals, and that this will further disorientate liberals on the left: "In the end it was Trump who weaponised identity politics more effectively than Clinton. There will be a spectacular tantrum on the left about this. 'How could racism and sexism win? And why are white people and men so stupid?' Okay, sure: Trump is a racist and a sexist, and so are many of his prominent supporters, but pointing that out explains nothing. Millions of white Americans who voted for Obama switched to Trump instead of voting for the white Democratic candidate. Republican women voted Trump. So did white independent women voters. So did half of college-educated women. There was no gender backlash. 'Women' don't vote the way progressives think they should."

In the end, could all this renewed evaluation of identity politics lead to the left finally dropping it? Rodney Hide thinks and hopes so: "Trump's win should also kill off identity politics. That's a good thing. That's the idea that you should vote according to your sex or race. People voted for who they wanted: not the candidate dictated by the group into which experts had them pigeonholed. That's incredibly empowering. People also proved not to be the delicate flowers we are led to believe. The media gleefully reported the many groups that Trump had supposedly offended and alienated. That proved not to be so. Every talking head was shocked and offended. The people not so much. We can now all speak a little more freely and more plainly, less worried about which delicate flower might take offence. That's a very good thing" - see: Revelling in Trump's victory.

President-elect Donald Trump speaks during a rally in New York. Photo / AP
President-elect Donald Trump speaks during a rally in New York. Photo / AP

Incidentally, Hide's current successor in politics, Act leader David Seymour, has also recently taken aim at identity politics, questioning its apparent anti-intellectualism and false assumptions about political representation - see: Shoot-the-messenger Marvelly trapped in identity politics.

And today, Karl du Fresne takes issue with how the media has responded to Trump's victory, but also how the left in New Zealand is dealing with the aftermath: "Trumpophobes need to get over it. They need to move beyond anger and denial to acceptance. A week after Trump's election, I read a pained lament by a Left-wing New Zealand commentator. What struck me was how pointless and irrelevant it suddenly seemed. The world had moved on and left the writer stranded on an island of her own outrage. She was shouting 'Help!', but the passing ship had already vanished over the horizon" - see: US media's elitist disdain harming only themselves.

Liberals fight back

A need for an identity politics based approach will not die easily. For many on the left, the rise of Brexit, Trump and the general public revolt against elites shows the need to double down on making the world more enlightened about issues relating to key concerns about gender, sexuality and race.

And unsurprisingly, there have been many on the left who are deeply disappointed by Hillary Clinton's failure to become the first woman president of the US, compounded by the fact that it was Trump who beat her. Some feminists have wanted to be able to conduct their analysis and lick their wounds without men participating online. This is explained by Michele A'Court in her very interesting blog post on the Spinoff: What happens when you tell men to shush on Facebook.

A'Court explains that on her Facebook page discussion about the election result, she could "see women being squeezed out of the chat. They stopped commenting - apart from one stoic FB friend who kept posting amusing memes. Other than that small highlight, it was dispiriting. Men shouting, women falling silent, and wandering away." Her response was to ask men to stop "mansplaining", which drew a debate about censorship and sexism.

Anti - Trump protests at Aotea Square Auckland. Photo / Doug Sherring
Anti - Trump protests at Aotea Square Auckland. Photo / Doug Sherring

There have of course been plenty of men commenting on their despair about Trump's victory, and why the result required a further call to arms. Jack Tame explained: "I will not accept any person's celebration of Trump's victory and the rejection of the establishment status quo, while ignoring the relevance of race" - see: Trump's victory legitimises bigotry. He lamented that "Trump's victory legitimises bigotry. We will know in January what policy Trump prioritises as President. He denies climate change. He opposes gay marriage. Abortion rights could be limited. But I don't fear Trump's presidency so much as I lament what it represents. For me, it represents a rejection of America's single greatest quality: diversity. For that I'm very sad."

Some on the left have suggested that there is a need to pull back on the cries of outrage against the reactionary values of the "deplorables", but not all are convinced. Wellington blogger David Cormack expresses his commitment to continue: "I will not be told not to call out racism and misogyny when I see it. I will not be told not to call people bigots if they are displaying bigotry. I will not be told to put on kid f*cking gloves about racism, misogyny and bigotry, because that is not who I am. I am going to try and speak out against these whenever I can. Because if I don't then I am fulfilling one of the three qualifiers above and I am damn well not going to let that happen to me. I am not that person. I make mistakes and get things wrong. But I am not a bigot. I am not a racist. I am not a misogynist and I am going to spend the rest of my life trying to stop those forces for evil" - see: When is a door not a door? When it's ajar.

The Spinoff website has featured some of the most interesting liberal anti-Trump debates. For example, Hayden Donnell interviewed "Tayyaba Khan about being a Muslim in the age of Trump" - see: Is Donald Trump infecting New Zealand with his awfulness? A Kiwi Muslim's verdict. In this she explains her fears that New Zealand could become just as bad: "I think what Trump has done is raise the confidence of some people to say what they think. New Zealand has been a very peaceful country. We're very politically correct. But that doesn't mean that we don't hold some of those views that Trump is projecting out into the world. He's just 'brave' enough to say it and he's inspiring others to do the same."

And amazingly, the class vs liberal debate has even shifted into lifestyle matters such as cycling, with debates about whether cycle lanes are middle class or not - see Kurt Taogaga's On cycle lanes, ethnicity and class.

Finally, for those not so enamoured by identity politics and the elite, and who are interested in changing the status quo, I've put together a manifesto with ten pledges for how a new radical politics might create change. Published in the Herald on Sunday, it's essentially an argument for why New Zealanders should embrace this increasing public revolt against the Establishment - see: Will Trump effect be felt Downunder too?