Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

The Curse Of Identity Politics

Charlottesville puts left and right at a fateful crossroads

Charlottesville is the kind of America that identity politics is calling into being. It’s time for straight talk about that.

On the Right, the story is fairly straightforward. Neo-Nazis, white nationalists, and their ilk have to be condemned in no uncertain terms, and marginalized. The president’s coy rhetoric, dancing around these people for fear of alienating them, has to end. (I don’t expect it to end, but others on the Right need to speak up to condemn him.)

It is not enough for conservative politicians and thought leaders to condemn these incidents. In their rhetoric, they need to start criticizing the principles of identity politics, across the board. They should emphasize what unites us as Americans. And this: pastors and other leaders within the church have to start teaching clearly and directly on this front. More than that, they have to recognize that racial tribalism is a strong god — a false one, but a strong one. The mild, therapeutic God that they preach, teach, and proclaim is weak in the face of it. Don’t misunderstand: I’m not talking about the actual God of the Bible. I’m talking about the way our priests, pastors, religious teachers, and families present Him to their flocks — especially their young men.

There’s a great book coming out in November — oh, how I wish it were available now! — called God Is Not Nice, by the Catholic theologian and college professor Ulrich Lehner. It’s a shocking title, but it’s meant to be: Lehner wants to wake up the church. It’s a broadside against Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, and the way every institution in our culture — including many churches and families — think of God (“as some kind of divine therapist … a psychiatrist who treats each of his patients the same way, a friend whom we can call in times of need”).

“Why change your life for such a God?” Lehner asks. “He makes no demands.”

Lehner writes that “we all need the vaccine of knowing the true transforming and mysterious character of God: the God who shows up in burning bushes, speaks through donkeys, drives demons into pigs, throws Saul to the ground, and appears to St. Francis. It’s only this God who has the power to challenged us, change us, and make our lives dangerous. He sweeps us into a great adventure that will make us into different people.”

Christians: if you don’t want to lose your sons to the false god of white nationalism, then you had better introduce them (and yourselves) to the God of the Bible, who is rather different from the God of the comfortable American middle class.

It is widely acknowledged among conservative Christians today that the white church in the South failed terribly in the civil rights era. The failure was not primarily because they stood for white supremacy (though some did). The failure was mostly because the churches did not preach against white supremacy, preferring instead to stay neutral, and cultivate an ethos that was suited to supporting the Southern white middle class at prayer.

Today, I am aware of young white men who attend comfortable middle-class churches, but who identify as white nationalists. I doubt very much their parents or their pastors know. But it’s happening. These aren’t young men who have been downtrodden by society; that would at least give some sort of social and economic rationale for their race radicalism. These are relatively privileged young men. Why do they find no anchor in the church? Why is the god of racial nationalism more appealing to them than the God of the Bible?

Finally, we on the Right have to start speaking out without fear against identity politics — and calling out people on the Left, especially those within institutions, for practicing it. The alt-right has correctly identified a hypocritical double standard in American culture. It’s one that allows liberals and their favored minority groups to practice toxic identity politics — on campus, in the media, in corporate America, on the streets — while denying the possibility to whites and males. By speaking out against left-wing identity politics, and by explaining, over and over, why identity politics are wrong and destructive, conservatives strengthen their position in chastising white nationalists on the Right.

But none of this will matter at all as long as the Left refuses to oppose identity politics in its own ranks. As I keep saying here, you cannot have an identity politics of the Left without calling up the same thing on the Right. Left-liberals who want conservatives to stigmatize and denounce white nationalism, but conservatives who do so will be sneered at by white nationalists as dupes and fools who advocate disarmament in the face of racist, sexist forces of the Left.

When the Left indulges in rhetoric that demonizes whites — especially white males — it summons the demons of white nationalism.

When the Left punishes white males who violate its own delicate speech taboos, while tolerating the same kind of rhetoric on its own side, it summons the demons of white nationalism.

When the Left obsesses over ethnic, sexual, and religious minorities, but ignores the plight of poor and working-class whites, it summons the demons of white nationalism.

When the Left institutionalizes demonization of white males in college classes, in political movements, in the media and elsewhere, it summons the demons of white nationalism.

When the Left attributes moral status, and moral goodness, to persons based on their race, their sex, their sexual orientation, or any such thing, it summons up the demons of white nationalism.

When the Left refuses to condemn the violent antifa protesters, and treats their behavior as no big deal, it summons the demons of white nationalism.

When the Left refuses to stand firm against aggressive manifestations of illiberalism — like we have seen over the past several years on certain college campuses — it summons the demons of white nationalism.

When the Left encourages within its ranks identification as a victim, and stirs up political passions based on perception that one is a victim of other groups in society, it summons the demons of white nationalism.

And on and on. The problem is not pointing out perceived injustices and inequities that afflict people of particular groups. This is a normal part of politics. The problem is in teaching people to identify passionately and wholly with their own tribe, to think of themselves and others in their tribe as innocent victims of the Enemy, and to conflate the interest of their tribe with the common good. In his new book The Once And Future Liberal, the liberal scholar Mark Lilla argues that identity politics is a dead end. In this passage, he talks about how corrupting identity politics is to college students. In this passage, he invites his reader to consider a young, politics-minded student entering a liberal college environment today:

She is at the age when the quest for meaning begins and in a place where her curiosity could be directed outward toward the larger world she will have to find a place in. Instead, she finds that she is being encouraged to plumb mainly herself, which seems an easier exercise. (Little does she know. …) She will first be taught that understanding herself depends on exploring the different aspects of her identity, something she now discovers she has. An identity which, she also learns, has already been largely shaped for her by various social and political forces. This is an important lesson, from which she is likely to draw the conclusion that the aim of education is not to progressively become a self through engagement with the wider world. Rather, one engages with the world and particularly politics for the limited aim of understanding and affirming what one already is.

And so she begins. She takes classes where she reads histories of the movements related to whatever she decides her identity is, and reads authors who share that identity. (Given that this is also an age of sexual exploration, gender studies will hold a particular attraction.) In these courses she also discovers a surprising and heartening fact: that although she may come from a comfortable, middle-class background, her identity confers on her the status of one of history’s victims. This discovery may then inspire her to join a campus groups that engages in movement work. The line between self-analysis and political action is now fully blurred. Her political interest will be real but circumscribed by the confines of her self-definition. Issues that penetrate those confines now take on looming importance and her position on them quickly becomes non-negotiable; those issues that don’t touch on her identity are not even perceived. Nor are the people affected by them.

Notice the last two lines in that passage. It explains why those on the Left most committed to identity politics make themselves blind to those outside their circles. They have little to no idea how others perceive them. The kind of identity politics dramas that work on college campuses or other highly liberal polities are not only ineffective in more moderate to conservative polities, they are positively harmful. Again: you cannot hold that identity politics is fine for non-white, LGBT, non-Christian people, but forbidden to those outside the circle of the Sacred Victims, without unavoidably providing a justification to all others in the polity to organize and advocate along the same lines.

And there’s this:


Wrong, wrong, wrong. This is where ordinary liberals go off the rails. This attitude justifies violence as long as it’s being committed by people whose cause they agree with, against people whose cause they hate. It is exactly at this point — construing left-wing hate as a virtue — that conservatives are tempted to stop caring what kind of violence the fascists visit on leftists. People on the Right who don’t sympathize with the those thugs get so sick of this double standard by the media and other left-wing institutions that they may cease giving a damn what kind of damage the extremists do.

Few people on the Left want to hear any of this, because the ethos of the Left is so heavily characterized by identity politics, and the sense of righteousness on which it feeds. But they had better recognize that there are a lot of white males in this country, and it benefits no one to push them toward radicalization around race consciousness. Thirty-one percent of the US population is white and male. The percentage of whites relative to non-whites is declining, and demographers expect the US to become a majority-minority country in the 2040s. If America is going to manage this transition into greater pluralism without a rise in racial hatred and violence, people on both the Left and the Right have to abandon identity politics, and stigmatize it.

We had better find some other way to bind Americans together, and to conceive of a common good, or what happened in Charlottesville is a picture of our nation’s future. Given how both parties, and the strongest forces in American culture, have formed the moral imagination of all Americans around the individual Self and its desires, I have my doubts as to whether or not we can pull it off. But if we don’t try, the alternative is Charlottesville, and beyond that, Yugoslavia as it broke apart.

If you think the responsibility for preventing that future is exclusively on the Left or exclusively on the Right, you’re lying to yourself, and not without consequence.

UPDATE: Philadelphia’s Catholic Archbishop, Charles Chaput, gets it right in his public statement:

Racism is a poison of the soul. It’s the ugly, original sin of our country, an illness that has never fully healed. Blending it with the Nazi salute, the relic of a regime that murdered millions, compounds the obscenity. Thus the wave of public anger about white nationalist events in Charlottesville this weekend is well warranted. We especially need to pray for those injured in the violence.

But we need more than pious public statements. If our anger today is just another mental virus displaced tomorrow by the next distraction or outrage we find in the media, nothing will change. Charlottesville matters. It’s a snapshot of our public unraveling into real hatreds brutally expressed; a collapse of restraint and mutual respect now taking place across the country. We need to keep the images of Charlottesville alive in our memories. If we want a different kind of country in the future, we need to start today with a conversion in our own hearts, and an insistence on the same in others. That may sound simple. But the history of our nation and its tortured attitudes toward race proves exactly the opposite.

UPDATE.2: Great comment from reader Brendan:

I agree with the diagnosis of the problem, but I do not think that identity politics are going away, for several reasons.

The first, and most important/intractable, is that the left’s intellectual leadership is “all in” on identity politics. They see it as a moral imperative to achieving justice, and that abandoning it would lead to perpetuating injustice. You and I disagree with them, but they hold their views with a religious-like fervor, and these views constitute, in many cases, a core part of their self-esteem and self-conception as virtuous people. They will not abandon this — instead, in the wake of things like C’Ville and Portland, they will double down, and double down again.

Second, as you rightly say, because of my first point, ID politics on the right is going to bloom. It’s just getting started, and the doubling down that is certain to come from the left will stoke that growth even further. It is a dysfunctional feedback loop, to be certain, but I do not think it can be stopped, because the academic/cultural “pump” that drives it will refuse to turn itself off.

Third, for people on the political right who are not Christians (more on us [Christians] below), the idea of railing against identity politics will increasingly seem to be folly. The reason is that, as you say, it is *powerful*. The last several federal elections have been won (and lost) on identity politics and “who can get out their (identity) base” better. This is real and raw power. And that is the greatest intoxicant known to man. Secular conservatives will be split between the “principled” ones who reject this, and the “pragmatic” (i.e., “want to win”) ones who accept it, for a time. In the medium term, the folks who want to win will prevail (the raison d’etre of any political movement, after all, is to win) and they will increasingly embrace this, because it will be obvious that it is the only way to consistently challenge the left in federal elections, especially as we keep on importing left wing voters that continue to grow the left’s identitarian base.

For Christians the issue is easy, I think. Identity politics are evil and divisive and do not reflect the will of God, whether you are white, black, straight, gay or what have you. It is evil. But this requires a perspective that is aloof from “winning”, which I think is the appropriate perspective for Christians to have politically, anyway. We will know that our principled stand is right, morally, but we will also know that it dooms us to totalitarian identity politics of the left which will likely seek to utterly eliminate us at some stage. This is the difficulty of the Christian walk, I think, in this time, and one of the reasons why we need to have something like the BenOp, because in order to embrace this path of principled defeat, and even perhaps annihilation, we will need to be strong in an interior sense, personally, as individuals — much stronger than most of us are today.

I appreciate you saying this, Brendan. Like you, I am quite pessimistic that identity politics will go away. I was going to save that for another post. I think if we are going to avoid some terrible kind of conflagration in the next decade or two, we need to come together to do the things that I’m talking about in this post. But I don’t think that’s going to happen. I hope I’m wrong.