Yet it is possible to imagine that, as the next Clinton presidential campaign gets under way, p.c. culture may not dissolve so easily. The internet has shrunk the distance between p.c. culture and mainstream liberal politics, and the two are now hopelessly entangled. During the 2008 primary contest between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, the modern politics of grievance had already begun to play out, as each side’s supporters patrolled the other for any comment that might indicate gender or racial bias. It dissipated in the general election, but that was partly because Obama’s supporters worried about whether America really was ready to accept its first president who was not a white male. Clinton enters the 2016 race in a much stronger position than any other candidate, and her supporters may find it irresistible to amplify p.c. culture’s habit of interrogating the hidden gender biases in every word and gesture against their side.
Or maybe not. The p.c. style of politics has one serious, possibly fatal drawback: It is exhausting. Claims of victimhood that are useful within the left-wing subculture may alienate much of America. The movement’s dour puritanism can move people to outrage, but it may prove ill suited to the hopeful mood required of mass politics. Nor does it bode well for the movement’s longevity that many of its allies are worn out. “It seems to me now that the public face of social liberalism has ceased to seem positive, joyful, human, and freeing,” confessed the progressive writer Freddie deBoer. “There are so many ways to step on a land mine now, so many terms that have become forbidden, so many attitudes that will get you cast out if you even appear to hold them. I’m far from alone in feeling that it’s typically not worth it to engage, given the risks.” Goldberg wrote recently about people “who feel emotionally savaged by their involvement in [online feminism] — not because of sexist trolls, but because of the slashing righteousness of other feminists.” Former Feministing editor Samhita Mukhopadhyay told her, “Everyone is so scared to speak right now.”
That the new political correctness has bludgeoned even many of its own supporters into despondent silence is a triumph, but one of limited use. Politics in a democracy is still based on getting people to agree with you, not making them afraid to disagree. The historical record of political movements that sought to expand freedom for the oppressed by eliminating it for their enemies is dismal. The historical record of American liberalism, which has extended social freedoms to blacks, Jews, gays, and women, is glorious. And that glory rests in its confidence in the ultimate power of reason, not coercion, to triumph.