The Origins of the Recent DEI-Infused Liberal Politics Stuff

Over the last month or so, various journalists have run stories about the problems liberal organizations have had with internal strife related to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) type demands from younger staffers. Thomas Edsall has a run down of all the action here.

These articles generate two kinds of reactions in the discourse. The first is to claim that the reported-on strife isn’t really happening or is highly exaggerated. The second is to claim that it is happening and it is very good.

From where I sit in the politburo ecosystem, which gives me some direct and a lot of indirect information about what’s going on, it seems like the things reported in these articles are indeed happening. But I am not really interested in litigating that question here.

What I find more interesting is the question of how exactly this all came to be. All of the reporting basically suggests that something changed in the last 5 to 10 years, but then fails to provide much of an explanation as to what was behind that change.

I wish I could do a lot of intensive archival research into this question, but I can’t. So instead, in the spirit of half-assed blogging, I thought I would lay out some thoughts I have based on my own experiences over the years.

The first time I really saw this kind of DEI-infused politics was in the mid-2000s on Tumblr. I was in my late teens and early 20s, still in high school and then in college. People older than me do not seem to have any notion of Tumblr, but it was a pretty big deal among many politically-engaged youth. So big in fact that, around this time, I remember talking to people about what I coined the “Tumblr-WGS dialectic,” which was an engine of political ideology generation that was driven by an interplay between Tumblr political posting and Women and Gender Studies departments.

Tumblr has gone through a lot of transformations since then and most of the old content seems to have been nuked. So you’ll just have to trust me when I saw this stuff percolating on there at least 5 to 10 years before it made it mainstream.

I must admit that, at the time, I mostly wrote this stuff off as just internet bullshit. Some of its excesses were funny to observe and some of it was legitimately interesting, but mostly it was internet bullshit that seemed too silly and too niche to actually go anywhere.

But, as many people argue, the kids are the future, and so it seems that in fact some of the Tumblr-derived politics did get stamped onto some minds and spread out into the real world and even multiplied well beyond the number of people who were actually reading and writing it on Tumblr.

Some minor inroads were made in getting this kind of politics into the mainstream, but the big break came when Hillary Clinton bizarrely decided to adopt it in 2015 in an effort to present herself as more left-wing than Bernie Sanders. I don’t know how exactly Clinton made that decision, but I would put big money on it being suggested by some of her younger staffers rather than something she came to on her own.

Clinton’s adoption of this stuff not only introduced it to the mainstream in a way it hadn’t been before but also helped deeply embed it in liberal institutions by getting her older, establishment supporters to adopt it and take it seriously in ways they never had before.

This was quite annoying at the time as it resulted in lifelong centrist shitheads writing a bunch of ridiculous Tumblresque screeds accusing young Bernie supporters of every sort of bigotry there is and of failing to adequately center this and that oppression or whatever. But in the longer run it actually seemed to make these older, more established, more powerful figures in the liberal orbit more vulnerable to the DEI-infused internal strife that they now don’t know how to dispose of. They are the Bernie Bros now.

I don’t know what will come of all of this going forward, but for the time being, it is all quite funny, especially if you are personally insulated from it.