How Identity Politics Revives Slaveholders’ Argument For Group Rights

How Identity Politics Revives Slaveholders’ Argument For Group Rights

Identity politics will drive us straight back into the tyranny and subjugation our Founders and subsequent generations fought so hard to escape.
Katharine Gorka
By

For something as seemingly mundane as a government report on civics, the “1776 Commission Report” has been a surprisingly hot topic.

The report was posted to the White House website on a Monday around 5:30 p.m. ET. It was one of the last actions of the Trump administration. Less than 48 hours later, in one of the very first acts of the Biden administration, it was taken down. Fortunately, a handful of organizations posted it on their own websites so it lives on.

The report set out to make the case for the importance of teaching civics and honest history in our self-governing republic, and it does a great job of that. It also does a very good job of summarizing the tensions in the Constitution over slavery — concluding, rightly, that while the Constitution was far from perfect on the issue, it provided the foundation for the abolition movement. This is particularly important given that we are in the midst of a national conversation on the legacy of slavery and the vestiges of racism.

But the report’s most consequential contribution, which has been somewhat overlooked amidst all the hullabaloo, is the line it draws from the 19th-century defenders of slavery to 20th-century Progressivism, to Communism and fascism, and ultimately to 21st-century identity politics.

What these seemingly diverse movements have in common, even while spanning nearly two centuries, is that they all assail the notion of individual rights, which are at the heart of the American Founding, and argue instead for group rights. Not only is this commonality instructive in understanding the enemy we face today, but it also makes clear the persecution, suffering, even mass murder that inevitably occur when the rights of the individual are subordinated to the interests of the group.

The bedrock of the Declaration of Independence, from which all of its other propositions flow, is the principle that all men are created equal and that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights. This was the foundation on which the movement for abolition stood, as both Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King, Jr. affirmed.

It was this principle that pro-slavery southerners had to undermine if they were to preserve their wealth and their way of life. As historian C. Bradley Thompson points out in his 2019 book, “America’s Revolutionary Mind”: “[P]roslavery thinkers came to realize that the greatest intellectual obstacle to promoting slavery in the United States was the Declaration of Independence and its psychic hold on the minds of ordinary Americans.” They found their solution in Germany.

As Thompson has explained, Southern intellectuals found the argument they were looking for in the thinking of the German philosopher George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Hegel argued that truth is not fixed but changes with time. This allowed the Southern slaveholders to reject the Founders’ notion of “Nature and Nature’s God” as the standard of justice laid out in the Declaration of Independence and to argue instead that “Rights … were derived not from nature but from history, tradition, and ‘the conventions of society.’”

According to Thompson, “At the philosophic heart of the Southerners’ rejection of the Declaration was their rejection of ‘nature’ for ‘history’ as the standard of justice and right. Proslavery writers repudiated the Enlightenment proposition that there are absolute moral truths grounded in an unchanging nature that transcend time and place.”

“The 1776 Report” demonstrates that this same rejection of individual rights and immutable laws by the defenders of slavery in the first half of the 19th century was modernized and carried into the 20th century by Progressives. Seeking to address the social tensions wrought by rapid industrialization and confident in the power of scientific knowledge, they believed that with enough social engineering, society could be perfected:

They rejected the self-evident truth of the Declaration that all men are created equal and are endowed equally, either by nature or by God, with unchanging rights. As one prominent Progressive historian wrote in 1922, ‘To ask whether the natural rights philosophy of the Declaration of Independence is true or false, is essentially a meaningless question.’ Instead, Progressives believed there were only group rights that are constantly redefined and change with the times…Based on this false understanding of rights, the Progressives designed a new system of government. Instead of securing fundamental rights grounded in nature, government—operating under a new theory of the ‘living’ Constitution—should constantly evolve to secure evolving rights.

In stark contrast to the limited government advocated by the Founders, this perfect world would require an ever-growing administrative state with increasingly unaccountable power over the lives of individual Americans: “[G]overnment would be run more and more by credentialed managers, who would direct society through rules and regulations that mold to the currents of the time.”

Not only was such a vision of government embraced by American Progressives such as President Woodrow Wilson, but by fascists and Communists, who justified the killing of tens of millions in the name of the greater collective good. While Progressivism in the United States never exacted the horrors seen in Nazi Germany or the Communist Soviet Union, it did rationalize all kinds of other injustices. As historian Wilfred McClay writes:

An interest in uplifting society could easily turn into a desire to remold or purify it; hence many Progressives came to support immigration restriction and racial segregation as a means to that end. A surprising number of Progressives even saw considerable merit in the theory and practice of eugenics, as a form of scientific human engineering that would over time eliminate ‘undesirable’ or ‘unfit’ elements from society. This could even turn into support for such noxious practices as selective infanticide, the sterilization of the ‘defective,’ population control, and the like, all in the name of social improvement.

In bringing this story up to the present, “The 1776 Report” lauds the achievements of the civil rights movement in ending legal discrimination and moving us ever closer to the ideal imagined by the Founders. But it also points out that under the sway of Marxist ideologues, such as Antonio Gramsci, Herbert Marcuse, Max Horkheimer, and Erich Fromm, the civil rights movement abandoned the principles of “nondiscrimination and equal opportunity in favor of ‘group rights’ not unlike those advanced by Calhoun and his followers.”

The end result is a form of reverse discrimination, indeed what may be more accurately termed revenge discrimination:

Today, far from a regime of equal natural rights for equal citizens, enforced by the equal application of the law, we have moved toward a system of explicit group privilege that, in the name of ‘social justice,’ demands equal results and explicitly sorts citizens into ‘protected classes’ based on race and demographic categories.

The idea of disenfranchising entire classes of people in the name of social improvement is alive and well today in the identity politics that have swept our country.

Why is this lineage of the rejection of individual rights in favor of group rights as elucidated in “The 1776 Report” so important? Because to defeat an enemy you must know that enemy. You must be absolutely clear about what they believe in and whether those beliefs are merely another voice in a rich conversation about human flourishing, or whether they aspire to shut down the conversation all together.

“Cancel culture” may seem like a somewhat benign term, but in light of where the abandonment of individual rights has taken us in the past, the potential for where cancel culture can ultimately go should alarm every American. The irony of “Coexist”—that ubiquitous finger-wagging bumper sticker—is that they cannot coexist. The irony of “Unity” is that they want unity under one, pure set of beliefs. Cancel culture seeks to cancel whole swaths of our American culture.

The Founders were by all accounts a brilliant group of thinkers, and in no small part because they bore within them the accumulated wisdom of millennia. They understood why previous efforts at self-rule had failed, they knew that injustice and tyranny would inevitably follow without the consent of the governed, without clearly enumerated rights based on the equality of every individual, without strict limitations on government, and without the rule of law based on immutable truths.

The dirty little secret of group rights is that the elites get to decide who is in which group, and who is granted which rights. The world imagined by the purveyors of identity politics would drive us straight back into the tyranny and subjugation our Founders and subsequent generations of immigrants fought so hard to escape.

The authors of the “1776 Report” ask, “Will we choose the truths of the Declaration? Or will we fall prey to the false theories that have led too many nations to tyranny?” The task now is to educate our fellow Americans that while their embrace of identity politics and groups such as Black Lives Matter may be well-intentioned, ultimately it will undermine the equality and justice they claim to seek.

Katharine C. Gorka is the director of The Heritage Foundation’s Center for Civil Society and the American Dialogue.

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