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The Women’s March and the Wars of the Tribes

Identity politics is leading everyone—even progressives—into a world of perpetual conflict.
January 24, 2019
The Women’s March and the Wars of the Tribes
(Hannah Yoest / Shutterstock)

The third annual Women’s March was held last weekend, and you may be forgiven if you didn’t notice. The event that emerged after the 2016 election as a central focus for the #Resistance against President Trump is collapsing. Estimates for this year’s crowd size vary but look to be somewhere between 10 percent and 20 percent of the 2017 turnout—not a decline of 10 percent, but somewhere in the neighborhood of one-tenth the original turnout.

Reports about the event tended to focus on the agonizing of the march’s rank-and-file supporters over whether or not to attend. Some of this was quite poignant. In one participant’s plea, “The experience I had two years ago was indescribable. I wanted to feel that way again.” There’s a lesson there, of course, about the perils of engaging in political activism based on how it makes you feel.

What happened? Some part of this is the natural life cycle of a movement that began at peak intensity in the trauma of an unexpected election loss, but which fades as those emotions of shock fade. Yet the collapse of the Women’s March seems to be driven primarily by the controversy surrounding the march’s leadership and the way it has alienated much of the movement’s rank-and-file. This is a phenomenon that is broader than the anti-Semitism of a few of the march’s co-chairs, and it carries a lesson about the politics of group identity.

From the beginning, the rank-and-file of the Women’s March—those who originally suggested the idea and its early organizers—were educated, middle-class white women. This is an obvious reflection of the overall population of the country and also of the demographic profile of those who have the time and money to devote to taking a day off and traveling for a partisan political protest. If you’re wondering why I’m so interested in the racial composition of a political movement, well, I’m not. But it turns out that the left is intensely interested. And they increasingly seem to see “white women” as a problem.

I’ve been following the left’s growing campaign to vilify white women for a while now. It’s become so routine that feminists can’t even launch PR stunts (for instance, “Januhairy”—a month in which women are urged not to shave their legs) without getting woker-than-thou denunciations about white women’s “privilege” and “colonialism.”

Applying this to a movement begun by white women and dependent on them to fill out its ranks turns out to be self-liquidating. Hence the decision last month to cancel the local version of the Women’s March in Humboldt County, California, because “up to this point, the participants have been overwhelmingly white.” (Humboldt County itself is 84 percent white.) In their statement defending the decision, the local march’s organizers referred readers to more screeds against white women, such as this one, which basically complained that the idea of the Women’s March is insufficiently centered around racial politics.

The irony is that it was the Women’s March’s desperate search for figureheads from racial minorities that led it, as Tablet recently reported, to be taken over by a group of far-left Louis Farrakhan fangirls:

When [Vanessa] Wruble relayed her concern that the nascent women’s movement had to substantively include women of color, [Michael] Skolnik told her he had just the women for her to meet: Carmen Perez and Tamika Mallory. These were recommendations Skolnik could vouch for personally. In effect, he was connecting Wruble to the leadership committee of his own nonprofit—a group called The Gathering for Justice, where he and Mallory sat on the board of directors, and Perez served as the executive director.

Within a few months, most of the original march organizers, including Wruble, had been pushed out, and Skolnik’s people—Perez, Mallory, and later Linda Sarsour—became both the public faces of the movement and the “co-chairs” who controlled the official organization. The fourth co-chair (and last remaining original organizer), Mari Lynn Foulger, now appears in the press primarily to run interference for the other co-chairs.

As we have since discovered, several of these organizers—Linda Sarsour and most prominently Tamika Mallory—have been associated with and expressed admiration for Farrakhan, who is notable for stoking anti-Semitic conspiracies. That association, as it has come to light, has been steadily destroying the Women’s March.

The Washington State organization for the Women’s March recently disbanded in protest, while other local chapters have disassociated themselves from the national organization. Last year, the march’s official “partners” were a Who’s Who of left-of-center organizations. Since then, the partners have been bolting, including the Southern Poverty Law Center, which lists Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam as a “hate group,” and the Democratic National Committee.

None of this happened by accident.

Tribalism was embedded in the Women’s March from the beginning. Tablet reports the recollections of the organizers about its early meetings:

“There was a particular conversation around how white women had centered themselves—and also around the dynamics of racial justice and why it was essential that racial justice be a part of the women’s rights conversation,” remembered Bland. . . . “Carmen and I were very clear at that [first] meeting that we would not take on roles as workers or staff, but that we had to be in a leadership position in order for us to engage in the march,” Mallory told Tablet, in an interview last week, adding that they had been particularly sensitive to the fact that they had been invited to the meeting by white women, and wanted to be sure they weren’t about to enter into an unfair arrangement.

How strange that a movement which began in racial resentment and suspicion should eventually succumb to racial resentment and suspicion.

The collapse of the Women’s March is the culmination of a trend I’ve been noticing since Trump’s election: On the left, the issue of race is now overwhelming everything else. They are reacting to Trump’s appeals to tribalism and resentment by intensifying their own appeals to those very same things. And they believe in this tribalism so deeply that, as we see in the case of the Humboldt County Women’s March, they would literally rather not hold an event if it doesn’t put racial politics first.

But this racial politics doesn’t, and can’t, lead to peace and civic harmony and genuine understanding. Philosophically, the racial and gender politics of the left is a return to the naked tribalism of group identity, in which your status is determined by the “intersection” of your identification within various victim groups. But do you know what happens when we return to tribalism? The tribes fight.

Seen in this light, the meltdown of the Women’s March isn’t really a diversion from the feminist agenda. It’s a preview of the future that leftist tribalism is offering everyone—even the the left itself: blacks and Muslims venting their resentment at Jews, transgender activists fighting with radical feminists, and pretty much everybody hating white women. It’s like the introduction to that old Tom Lehrer song: the Women’s March is just an updated, feminist version of National Brotherhood Week.

One of the things some of us have been puzzling over is: What is the endgame for today’s racial politics? What is the ideal society this view sees itself as working toward? And I’m afraid the answer is: constant tribal conflict.

It shouldn’t need to be said—but it probably does—that the only way to win this game is not to play, and to to reject the premise of tribalist identity politics in the first place.

Robert Tracinski

Robert Tracinski is editor of Symposium, a journal of liberalism, and writes additional commentary at The Tracinski Letter.