In “After the Women’s March,” (January 24, 2017) David Brooks unfairly attacks the massive protests around the country that occurred on January 22 as “identity politics” that will only hurt the cause of progressive politics. The left, he says, needs to focus on the costs of globalization, the rise of ethnic populism, and the failures of the post-WWII world order.
He concludes his piece by offering the musical Hamilton as an example of what a more useful politics might look like. As Brooks writes, the march didn’t come close to offering a vision that can “rebind” the polity. “The musical ‘Hamilton’ is a lot closer.”
His praise of Hamilton reflects that musical’s popularity among both liberals and conservatives. In the process of working on a book on the musical, I have found that Hamilton offers a vision of American history that incorporates beliefs of both the left and the right. It tells a traditional story of the nation’s founding, one that emphasizes the nation’s positive virtues and the brilliance of the Founding Fathers. But by focusing on a founder who opposed slavery, by telling his and the nations’ story through contemporary Afro-Latin musical forms, and by casting black and Latino actors in the roles of the founders, Hamilton broadens the traditional American narrative to center the experiences of people of color who have been marginalized in America’s civic myths. The genius of Hamilton lies in its ability to offer both those who have long owned the narrative and those who have been excluded from it a place in America’s foundational story. It is a vision of America that has proved unifying to many Americas, with the notable exception of those on the alt-Right who insist, as Richard Spencer claimed at a Trump election victory gathering, that America is “a white country designed for ourselves and our posterity… and it belongs to us.”
But Brooks is wrong to pit Hamilton against the Women’s March. Hamilton celebrates a vision of America where all can belong, where people on the ground can shape the future, and where politics can achieve meaningful change. That’s exactly what I saw on the streets of Washington, DC.
Like “Hamilton,” the Women’s March aimed to unite rather than divide. People of all races, religion, and genders were there. Men held signs declaring themselves feminists. Other signs affirmed the importance of racial justice and criticized the dangerous demonization of Muslims. Protestors cheered and cried as 6-year old immigration rights activists Sophie Cruz challenged us to fight with “love, faith, and courage” so immigrant families like hers would not be destroyed. Marchers challenged Trump’s political strategy of seeking to divide Americans on the basis of race and gender.
Conservatives have long tried to discredit political strategies that pay particular attention to issues of race or gender as “identity politics.” Like Brooks, they claim that such politics divide rather than unite us. But such a stance requires that we pretend that “white” is not a race; that “male” is not a gender; and that the experiences of white men are universal. The Tea Party was no less a form of politics that grew out of a particular identity than the Women’s March, but since the identity was white and Christian, few have labeled it “identity politics.” The Women’s March may have had “Women” in the title, and women who attended may have worn pink hats to protest Donald Trump’s crude degrading remarks about their gender, but the clear message of the march was that this nation belongs to everyone, no matter their color or country of origin.
Like Hamilton, the women’s march offered a positive agenda related to the issues of the day and argued for the importance of democratic government. Protestors insisted that we must protect the planet; stand up to efforts to challenge the very notion of truth or facts; demand equality for women, immigrants, and people of color; and view health care and reproductive care as basic human rights. There were many people holding signs that urged protecting the Constitution and upholding First Amendment rights. And many, in fact, held signs quoting Hamilton: “Immigrants, we get the job done!” “History has its eyes on you,” and “Rise Up!” were just a few of the Hamilton-inspired signs I saw.
And like Hamilton, marchers celebrated the possibility of making change through politics. The Women’s March was not, as Brooks argues, a “seductive substitute for action in an anti-political era.” Anyone who attended any of the many protests around the country knows that this event has galvanized political action. Marchers in Washington, DC recognized that the fight must continue, both within and outside the electoral process. Many of us have begun calling and mailing our elected representatives every day to try to influence electoral politics. Others are starting “Indivisible” groups modeled on the successful political organizing of the Tea Party, to try to resist the Trump agenda.
Just as Hamilton offers a positive and unifying version of our past, the Women’s March offers a powerful and unifying vision for our future.