As our new post-progressive world dawns, I find myself wondering: which way does one go now to decry the evils of identity politics—left or right? Things sure have gotten confusing as of late.
A year ago, this would have been a no-brainer. For years, the left has been a safe space for discussions of diversity, multiculturalism, intersectionality, and other fun buzz words designed to elevate human difference into a kind of political-moral science. In liberal circles, identity has been the name of the game. The Academy is saturated in it. Democrats have won two key elections by pitting their identity groups against the oppressive patriarchy.
Over on the right, we long maintained disdain for this approach. Identity politics, we claimed, was divisive and socially destructive. It brought out the worst in people. We were the champions of freedom and opportunity, recommending “colorblindness” as the healthiest and most inclusive social ethos. Our politics was ostensibly grounded in foundational political and moral principles that we viewed as the underpinnings of a just and prosperous nation.
Trump Won The Election—Welcome To The New Reality
Things change. Mark Lilla made waves this weekend with his New York Times critique of identity liberalism. He’s just one of many liberals to open fire on identitarian politics over the past two weeks.
Lilla’s piece is good for some chuckles if you’ve spent any time around conservatives. He suggests that identity politics may have been a needlessly polarizing political strategy. (Really?) Democrats perhaps should have realized their approach could backfire when people outside the approved coalition decided that they too would like a certified “identity”. (Tell me more!)
It would be delicious to watch—except that meanwhile, back at the ranch, Republicans have found that winning actually feels pretty nice, regardless of how you get there. They’ve learned something else, too. Sometimes identity politics works. After running a campaign rife with racial politics, class politics, and a turbulent gender dynamic, Donald Trump emerged victorious, proving that the Democrats can indeed be beaten at their own game.
This Is No Longer Bill Buckley’s Republican Party
This is certain to accelerate changes already emerging on the right. Needless to say, this is no longer Bill Buckley’s Republican Party. Trump has brought a whole host of marginalized elements to the foreground. In some corners, it’s becoming normal to fret over the impending crisis as whites move towards minority status. Trump’s nomination of Steve Bannon as his chief strategist sent liberals into a frenzy of apoplectic rage, which is really quite fitting. Bannon is the perfect liberal anti-hero: a master of right-wing identity politics.
Liberals are going through identity withdrawal symptoms, just as conservatives warm to the drug. What are the rules now? The landscape is still developing. But we can already sketch the general contours, and ask some probing questions.
How Identity Politics Shaped American Progressivism
Identity politics has heretofore functioned as a counterweight to a bland progressive cosmopolitanism that was meant to keep pluralism alive. Liberals have always harbored hostility towards conventional morals and traditional family structures, which they see primarily as shackles. Casting these aside, they’ve promoted personal autonomy and expressive individualism as exciting alternatives. In theory, these foster a delightfully diverse nation in which people of all races, creeds, genders, and sexualities can live together in a culturally dynamic harmony.
That’s the vision. In practice we run into some problems. Autonomy and individualism sound glamorous in principle, but in practice many find these gifts more burdensome than liberating. Deprived of traditional sources of structure, meaning, and community, people flounder to find footholds in a fast-paced and confusing world. Instead of feeling free, they’re lonely and alienated—and that’s before they fall prey to the thousand shiny distractions our hedonistic culture flashes before their eyes.
Enter “identity.” By exploring the nuances of race, gender, and sexuality, liberals offered at least some people an opportunity to feel settled within a meaningful, supportive community. In feminism, ethnic pride, or the LGBT movement, many found the basic materials they needed to construct a stable sense of self. These movements provided some refuge from the yawning chasm of modern alienation.
Identity Politics Have Always Been Alienating
Admittedly, it wasn’t a perfect system. Some of us always viewed race and gender as pitifully thin substrates on which to build whole new subcultures and traditions. How can “being Asian together” or “rejoicing in our shared X-chromosomes” possibly substitute for the rich, ancient traditions that liberals were rejecting? To keep it going, their imaginations had to work overtime, constructing whole new disciplines out of dust (Race theory! Gender theory! Queer theory!), finding oppression and exploitation under every stone.
Then there was the other obvious problem: Not everyone was offered an approved identity. If you’re a white cis-man, you can either accept a self-flagellating “ally” role, or you can reject the whole arrangement and look for a counter-culture. The former might not be too bad if you have a lot of other things going for you (wealth, intelligence, high-status profession), but if you don’t, it’s a pretty miserable arrangement.
Identity politics and a non-judgmental cosmopolitanism were meant to balance each other, offering opportunities to everyone, while using “identity” to manage unpleasant side effects. This strategy never worked particularly well, and lately the creaking has become almost deafening. Even so, it won the Democrats two key elections. It bolstered a cultural and moral hegemony that has extended across most elite sectors of American life. Its collapse is going to have serious ramifications for American life.
Welcome To The New Identity Politics
Trumpism is still relatively new—and was explicitly counter-cultural until literally two weeks ago. That being the case, it’s hard to make confident predictions about where things will go. This much seems clear, though: the new nationalists’ stance towards cosmopolitanism is fundamentally hostile.
Let’s give the nationalists the benefit of the doubt, and assume they will be more successful than their predecessors in sheltering people from modern alienation by giving them “places to stand.” Will that come at the cost of even more deeply entrenched social division, along with a continued decline in public institutions and public trust? One hopes not, obviously. But at first glance, it’s difficult to see how Trumpism can match even the thin and often-hypocritical pretense of inclusion proffered by liberal progressivism.
Anti-elitism has always been a huge component of Trumpism, along with an overt rejection of globalism. Trump’s own rhetoric (as well as his associates’) is filled with references to the evils of free trade, geopolitical involvement, and unchecked immigration. Trump secured his victory by reaching out to “neglected” identity groups: bolstering their group pride and stoking their grievances. He doesn’t plan to balance that with anything universalist. Nationalism is the new game in town. To date, that nationalism has primarily been rooted in a nostalgic vision of an aging, mostly-white voting base.
That could be a problem insofar as we still have an enormously diverse and dynamic society. Can nationalism serve as the glue that holds us together?
Could We Foster A New Nationalist Identity?
Some people clearly believe it can. My nationalist friends have told me repeatedly this season that I should stop talking about “conservatism” because American values are the key to rejuvenating our society. They see patriotism as a promising foundation for solidarity, because it is both idiosyncratic (Americans already have our own unique history and traditions), and shared by all of our citizens.
It’s a happy thought. How realistic is it, though, in a nation deeply polarized by widely divergent visions of the good? In the best of circumstances, historically rooted traditions must to work hard to avoid becoming ossified or blindly nostalgic. These are far from the best of circumstances.
The Trumpites must grow up quickly if they are to transcend the more tribal elements of the last year’s campaign, and make themselves into a governing force that all Americans can respect. Liberalism was often deeply hypocritical in its claim to value inclusion and tolerance: Barack Obama’s promise to be “a uniter” is laughable in retrospect. Still, as nationalists step into our key governing roles, we have to ask: will they even make a pretense of valuing inclusion and the democratic process? If they do, will their core base reject them? If they don’t, what kind of future does the GOP really have?
Perhaps we could eventually achieve a fruitful fusion of the new nationalism and older strains of conservative thought. But if we can’t, may we confront a future of endlessly warring identity groups, squabbling over resources and social space?
Interesting times may lie ahead for our nation.