Why Identity Politics Kills Democracy
“False consciousness” is an important concept in Marxist theory. In short, it describes the misguided condition of the masses after capitalist ideology has persuaded them to act in ways contrary to their best interests. Of course, there is rich irony here, in that Marxism is a purportedly egalitarian movement, but baked into the idea of false consciousness is the belief that a group of enlightened elites are better equipped to determine the interests of the common man than he is.
The increasingly explicit Marxian impulses of the American left are evident in the way they’ve responded to the white working class’s defection to President Trump in 2016. They insist upon the old canard that economically disadvantaged Americans are voting against their interests by casting their lots with Republicans. But rather than expose this claim as false, commentators on the right simply assert the opposite: that those voters are advancing their interests by voting Republican. Thus we see a consensus on the right and the left that the individual voter should, in fact, determine her political choices based on which candidate is most likely to advance her own interests.
But the consensus is wrong: a healthy democracy demands that voters resist voting out of personal advancement. Your vote should be determined by what is best for the nation, not what is best for you.
People in democracies have always voted out of personal interest. What’s new today is the assumption that this is the correct way to engage the democratic process. Multiculturalist ideology and identity politics have corrupted the way we understand participatory democracy. Indeed, they’ve contributed to a general misperception of the meaning of politics itself.
The word politics is derived from the Greek word polis, which means “city.” In philosophy, it was often used as shorthand for the people of the society in question—those citizens who were enfranchised to participate in democratic life. That sense of the term is preserved in the English word polity. Politics properly understood is a branch of ethics—one in which people pursue what is good for the collective, what is best for the polis as a whole.
The United States was the first modern nation to attempt the ancient experiment of democracy on a large scale. Even when only white male property owners could vote, the number of Americans who constituted the polis was larger than that of any previous democratic society. The enfranchisement of all citizens, regardless of class, race, or sex, stands out as one of America’s greatest achievements. Today, there are almost 150 million registered voters: a number that would leave the architects of the Athenian democracy positively dumbfounded. Yet it remains an open question as to whether democratic republicanism is even a practicable choice for a nation the size of the United States.
The American democracy was undertaken as an extension of the Enlightenment. In the foreword to my forthcoming book, Metanoia: Rhetoric, Authenticity, and the Transformation of the Self, Pat Gehrke explains that the philosophical aim of the Enlightenment was paradoxical—it sought to “democratize sovereignty.” In the monarchies that had dominated Europe, it was a right of only royalty to lives the lives they wanted to live and be the people they wanted to be. The ideals of the American founding reflected the mission to universalize those rights. This was (and remains) a laudable goal—but in the context of an aggressive doctrine of multiculturalism, the sovereignty of the self can hinder the functionality of democracy.
The basics of the contemporary problem were outlined by Plato in The Republic. In the dialogue, Socrates and his companions attempt a description of the ideal society. As they consider the efficacy of democratic governance, they discuss the qualities of democratic citizens and the culture of democracy. Acknowledging that freedom and liberty are fundamental features of democratic life, Socrates suggests that the citizen of such a society “will arrange his own life in whatever manner pleases him.” Ultimately, Socrates is skeptical about the prospects of such a society: a proliferation of values, he suggests, will ensure that there are as many “constitutions” as there are people in the polis. In other words, democratic freedom allows citizens their own conception of the good, and thus undermines politics at large: we can’t effectively seek the good of the collective if the collective has no shared notion of the good. This problem should sound familiar to Americans in 2019.
During a 2007 visit to Columbia University, the Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told a student who asked about the execution of gays in Iran that there are no homosexuals there. Our resolute dedication to multicultural values ensured that many Americans misunderstood the remark. Ahmadinejad is not so naïve as to believe that no one is having gay sex in Iran. Rather he was calling attention to the biases inherent in the question: Iran is not a society that operates under a multicultural doctrine. For that reason, there is no option to “be” gay—that identity cannot be openly inhabited in Iran. There may be people in same-sex relationships. There may even be gay sex. But there are no gay people. Iranian culture doesn’t acknowledge such a category.
We should be thankful that the openness of liberal democracy ensures that the LGBT community and other cultures can be recognized and respected in America. Any serious thinker knows that having a society that isn’t multicultural is an impossibility—there are always already a multitude of sub-cultures with divergent values, including (perhaps especially) in Iran. Toleration and respect for cultural differences is built into the Enlightenment ideals that informed the Founding. And by that old, classically liberal understanding, multicultural society is undoubtedly a strength of the West.
But that is not the multiculturalism of America today. Over the last 50 years, powerful voices in the culture industry have implemented a hyper-ideological multiculturalism, one where cultural differences aren’t merely respected or tolerated but are an inherent moral good. Understood as the central feature of a just society, the left has ensured that the expression of individual difference is viewed as a performance of virtue. This has incentivized the proliferation of cultural differences and the open critique of the assimilationist model of American life.
Because democracy was not designed for the governance of hundreds of millions of people, it is especially important that we don’t encourage the proliferation of difference. Certainly, we should respect it and tolerate it, but in 2019, mere toleration is tantamount to an attack. That must change if America is to survive the next century. Thirty years ago, E.D. Hirsch warned in Cultural Literacy of the threat that doctrinal multiculturalism posed to the nation: effective communication depends on shared knowledge and values. He paid a heavy price in academia for speaking these heretical truths. But when each person becomes a polis of his own, living by a unique set of values, we can no longer communicate with one another. Depending as it does on effective communication, multiculturalism renders democratic deliberation impossible. We can already see this in conversation with our political opponents when it starts to feel like we are “speaking different languages” or “living in alternate realities.”
One may argue that multicultural identity politics still works to unite particular groups of the body politic, and therefore shared values remain and productive communication is possible. But the new doctrine of intersectionality ensures a fanatical fetishization and atomization of individual difference. It is clear that the multicultural agenda will not stop until whatever group cohesion that remains in American political life is sacrificed on the altar of the self.
In his new book, Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment, Francis Fukuyama suggests the solution is “to define larger and more integrative national identities that take account of the de facto diversity of existing liberal democratic societies.” Fukuyama thus seems to acknowledge a hard truth: there are no politics but identity politics. Group identity is central to the political enterprise. But although politics is inherently identitarian, we must ensure that citizens align themselves with the proper identity category: citizenship. Throughout American history, nationalism—pride in our shared identity as Americans—has done the “integrative” work that Fukuyama describes. And yet most of Fukuyama’s book takes a dim view of nationalism in 2019, comparing it repeatedly to Islamism.
Nationalism is an antidote to multiculturalism, an affirmation that despite our individual differences, we have mutual interests. We are engaged in a collective effort to build and maintain a society. In contrast, identity politics and intersectionality insist upon the singular, ineffable nature of individual experience. In saying “You can’t possibly understand my experience; you can’t possibly comprehend my perspective,” these doctrines deny the possibility of genuine empathy. They constitute an attack on the very idea of community.
Oddly, identity politics and multiculturalism are similar to Randian objectivism—they reinvent the political field as a means of advancing self-interest. Put differently, identity politics is the politics of selfishness. Thus it is a complete inversion of the democratic ideal, which is selflessness, the pursuit of policies that benefit the collective as a whole, even when those policies might disadvantage the individual or an aggrieved minority bloc.
As long as we insist on political selfishness as the driving force of individual political engagement, consensus will be impossible: your interests are necessarily at odds with our interests. Politics, as the art of furthering the collective good as we seek the ideal society, requires a rejection of the self and an active disregard for those who are most like us. This is as true for the African-American lesbian in San Francisco as it is for the white middle-class farmer in Paducah. A politics of whiteness is a scourge. A Hispanic politics is a scourge. An LGBT politics is a scourge. A plutocratic politics is a scourge. A feminist politics is a scourge. Because strictly speaking, none of them are a true politics. A true politics unites individuals under a single identity: citizen. The first demand of authentic democratic life is: get over yourself.
Adam Ellwanger is an associate professor at the University of Houston – Downtown, where he studies rhetoric and argumentation. He can be reached at [email protected].