July 13 marks the 30th anniversary of one of the most important and, sadly, most forgotten political speeches in recent history. On this day in 1992, Barbara Jordan, pioneering feminist and liberal icon, ascended to the podium of the Democratic National Convention to deliver a keynote address in which she denounced political correctness as contrary to the ways of America.
Halfway through her 30-minute speech, Jordan issued a plea for national unity, saying, “We are one, we Americans.” This oneness entailed that “we reject any intruder who seeks to divide us on the basis of race and color.” In words that would not meet approval from today’s progressive left, she added, “We honor cultural identity. We always have; we always will. But separatism is not allowed. Separatism is not the American way.” She continued, “We must not allow ideas like political correctness to divide us and cause us to reverse hard-won achievements in human rights and civil rights.” The crowd, including Steny Hoyer, currently the octogenarian House majority leader and visible in the video, applauded.
Jordan received some criticism from the left for her remarks. Jewell Jackson McCabe of the National Coalition of 100 Black Women accused Jordan of “carrying the water of the strategists that want to bring us back to the right of center in the (Democratic) party.” Despite the grumbles, though, Jordan had accomplished her goal, and that of Bill Clinton, the Democratic presidential nominee. One month earlier, Clinton had criticized the rapper and activist Sister Souljah for incendiary comments against white people. Clinton’s comment created the “Sister Souljah moment,” which is when a politician criticizes an extreme position on one’s own side to gain credibility in the center. Clinton had specifically made pursing racial harmony a goal of his campaign, and Jordan was consciously contributing to his effort.
Jordan knew that her voice was needed. Before the speech, Jordan previewed that she would be speaking about change, saying, “I will be talking about some of the changes necessary for the Democratic Party to win again and to be entrusted by the voting public to govern again.” Jordan recognized that the Democratic Party had moved too far left and that it needed a reset if it were to win again. Her speech helped set a new tone in 1992, and Clinton won back the White House after three consecutive Democratic defeats.
Jordan’s speech is worth looking at once again as left and right grapple with issues of “cancel culture,” and as Americans of all political stripes face social media opprobrium and worse for stating their opinions. Our current cultural moment is, in many ways, reminiscent of the late 1980s and early ’90s, when political correctness dominated college campuses. In that period, radical students demanded that professors be punished for teaching concepts that they deemed unacceptable, while trying to impose new speech constructions—such as the word “wymyn” instead of “women”—on everyone else.
Then, as now, there was pushback against these anti-free-speech tendencies. Generating opposition to PC excesses was perhaps easier at the time as the value of free speech was more universally recognized on both sides of the aisle. As Jordan’s speech demonstrated, the anti-PC drive gained such wide purchase that a progressive heroine like Jordan felt comfortable making the case against political correctness at a liberal gathering like the DNC. But Jordan’s critique from the left was only one of four elements of the fight against political correctness at the time.
The first component was the right’s identification and critique of the phenomenon. University of Chicago professor Allan Bloom decried a drop of standards on campuses in his bestseller, “The Closing of the American Mind.” Roger Kimball’s “Tenured Radicals” argued that the radical students of the 1960s had become the tenured professors who enabled the PC phenomenon of the 1980s. And a young Dinesh D’Souza reported in his book “Illiberal Education” on the censoriousness of PC proponents at some of the most prestigious U.S. colleges. These books galvanized the right against political correctness, but they also, importantly, raised awareness about the threat of censorship beyond the narrow confines of conservative debate and discussion.
The initial critics of political correctness on the right were joined by other important writers, including the journalist Jonathan Rauch, who wrote “Kindly Inquisitors,” and The New York Times’ Richard Bernstein, who penned “The Dictatorship of Virtue.” Both men came from the left and gave mainstream validation to the critique of political correctness, showing that censorship was not just a problem to conservatives.
Another important aspect of the anti-PC campaign came from laughing at it. Bill Maher launched his show “Politically Incorrect” in 1993 to validate his (and the public’s) disapproval of the PC phenomenon. A 1994 movie—largely forgotten today—called “PCU” that starred David Spade and Jeremy Piven also made fun of the new campus ideologues, including “womynists” who insisted on calling a first-year student a “freshperson.”
Today, of course, cancel culture has migrated beyond the universities and is a problem on social media, in corporations, even in American sports. As Andrew Sullivan put it, “We are all on campus now.” It’s clearly more widespread today than PC culture was at its peak, but the lesson of Jordan in the early 1990s is that there is a way to counter these dangerous and divisive forces.
Indeed, the defenses of free speech today are coming from some of the same places that they did in the 1990s. Conservatives are certainly highlighting the excesses of cancel culture. Opposition to these trends appears to be one of the few things that unites the fractious conservative movement these days. Comedians have also weighed in, with Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock staying away from campuses because of the intolerant atmospheres there. Ricky Gervais has noted that being pro-free speech has unfairly tagged him as some kind of conservative. But one additional necessary element in this effort would be widespread denunciations of anti-free-speech tendencies from prominent Democratic politicians.
Jordan issued her denunciation of political correctness because advocates for free speech created an atmosphere in which a liberal icon thought it necessary to join the chorus. That same atmosphere led her listeners to respond to her remarks with kudos and applause. Back then it was a coalition of free speech advocates, which included conservatives, journalists, comedians and liberals, that pushed back against the forces of political correctness. Harnessing a coalition of such honest and courageous people again could potentially work to squelch speech codes, cancel culture and divisiveness.
To succeed in this effort, we need a new Jordan to emerge on the left. On this 30th anniversary of Jordan’s speech, and faced with threats to free speech on both sides of the aisle, politicians of all parties should speak out on the importance of free speech in political discourse. Although we have significant political differences, suppression of speech and cancellation of those who say things we disagree with is wrong, fundamentally un-American and inarguably destructive of democracy. Barbara Jordan understood this, and to her credit she fought back. We should be thankful that she did so.