One of the ugliest features on the landscape of American politics today is the increasing influence of so-called identity politics. Yet most of the discussion of this topic merely alludes to or misses a central point: identity politics is not politics.
When we think of politics, we tend to think along the lines of Max Weber: “Politics is the art of compromise.” Or we tend to think along the lines of Carl von Clausewitz’s definition of war as “the continuation of policy with additional means.” But these concepts are largely foreign to identity politics, or what might be better termed identitarianism.
Mark Lilla, author of The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics, partially grasps the point in discussing the legacy of the New Left:
“The real story is that the 1960s generation passed on to students a particular conception of what politics is, based on its idiosyncratic historical experience.
The experience of that era taught the New Left two lessons. The first was that movement politics was the only mode of engagement that changes things (which once was true but no longer is). The second was that political activity must have some authentic meaning for the self, making compromise seem a self-betrayal (which renders ordinary politics impossible).”
That final parenthetical (missing from an earlier, similar Lilla op-ed) is the real key to understanding identitarianism and its implications. After all, if identitarians are limited to viewing any disagreement as an expression of white supremacy, the patriarchy, and so forth, how much compromise can there be?
Moreover, the rise of identitarianism is destroying movement politics, even as it assumes the appearance of movement politics, not unlike an Invasion of the Body Snatchers. As Lilla acknowledges, “With the rise of identity consciousness, engagement in issue-based movements began to diminish somewhat and the conviction got rooted that the movements most meaningful to the self are, unsurprisingly, about the self.”
Why does identity politics ultimately displace movement politics? As Anis Shivani suggests, identitarianism is a world view that runs contrary to an “Enlightenment perspective of universal human rights irrespective of one’s biological identity.” The most successful social movements in American history built upon this universalist foundation; identitarianism rejects this foundation.
An uncompromising obsession with identity leads to the conclusion that the American experiment is irredeemably corrupt. The results are predictably illiberal and no more visible than on the university campuses with which Lilla is primarily concerned.
For example, if your world view does not allow for compromise and those who disagree with you are simply evil (or the dupes of evil), what need is there for freedom of speech or debate? Why should universities or the outside world tolerate ideas that are hateful, or simply uncomfortable? And if certain ideas cannot be debated at universities, why would they be tolerated off-campus?
Moreover, as debate and compromise have no place in the identitarian toolbox, it is no surprise that identitarians begin to perceive no difference between speech and violence. This is implicit wherever identitarians choose to replace politics with a culture “war.” If war is politics with additional means but debate and compromise are excluded, what remains is coercion and violence.
As I am fond of noting, Adam Gopnik once observed in The New Yorker:
“It is not merely that an assault on an ideology is different from a threat made to a person; it is that it is the opposite of a threat made to a person. The whole end of liberal civilization is to substitute the criticism of ideas for assaults on people.”
Gopnik was describing the Islamist reaction to and attacks on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. But what is radical Islamism if not an extreme, uncompromising form of identitarianism?
Conversely, as Michael Lind argues:
“[I]dentitarians are reviving the preliberal, premodern religious approach to society, conceived of as a congregation of the virtuous and like-minded. Either you are a true believer or you are a heretic. There can be no compromise with wicked people, and the chief measure of wickedness is not action *** but expressing disapproved attitudes and refusing to use ritualized politically-correct language.”
People instinctively understand this, which is why, for example Andrew Sullivan’s column asking “Is Intersectionality a Religion?” went viral. In Sullivan’s case, intersectionality attempts to supply the rituals and supporting dogma for a particular form of fundamentalism.
In short, what we call identity politics has far more in common with religion than politics, and its consequences resemble the intolerance and inquisitions of fundamentalism when allowed to run amok.
The criticisms I have linked in this column are criticisms of left-wing identitarians made by people politically left of center. This was intentional and primarily for two reasons.
First, while identitarianism is chiefly criticized from the Right, it is important to recognize the potential for bipartisan efforts to curb the pernicious effects of so-called identity politics.
Second, if left-wing identitarianism is being criticized from the Left, the Right must be willing to face nascent identitarianism within the ranks. Shivani, conservative theorists of How You Got Trump, and any number of political scientists have noted that the race-consciousness of left-wing identity politics has been met with a reaction of right-wing, white identity politics.
(Lind mistakenly believes that Republican litmus tests on issues like abortion are the Right’s real problem, overlooking that abortion is a de facto litmus test for both parties, but only became one after our Supreme Court effectively removed the question from the sphere of debate and compromise. Also, his essay predates the tragic street fighting between white nationalists and the antifa in Charlottesville, an event which might have caused him to rethink his premise.)
If left unaddressed, these forms of identity politics will wind up in the same dead end of illiberalism and violence. Such is the “logic” of identitarianism. And if the Right cannot commit to the introspection of people like Lilla and Shivani, the odds of building coalitions to avoid that dead end will be greatly diminished.
[Note: This may be my final posting until after Christmas. If so, enjoy the season!]
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