The Lebanese Canary in the Identity Coal Mine
One year ago, a massive explosion rocked the port of Beirut, Lebanon. It killed over 200, injured about 7,500, and caused $15 billion in property damage. Negligence and the improper storage of ammonium nitrate were blamed for the explosion.
To the casual observer, the calamity at the port is an egregious case of mismanagement, a lack of enforcement, and prolific corruption.
In reality, the port blast was a symptom of a deeper and more serious malady: the prominence of identity politics in Lebanese society. Lebanese society is built upon identity politics, reflected in a government and constitution with explicit diversity mandates. The obsession with identity politics has crippled Lebanon since its inception, with the explosion that destroyed the port just the latest in a long list of tragedies its citizens have experienced.
Lebanon’s dysfunction should serve as a cautionary tale for the United States. American politics are increasingly defined by identity and the quest for diversity. For example, in December 2020 none other than President-elect Joe Biden promised that he would deliver “the single most diverse Cabinet based on race, color, based on gender, that’s ever existed in the United States of America.”
The obsession with identity is found at all levels of government. One notable instance is the controversy surrounding the vacancy of Kamala Harris’s Senate seat in California. Representative Karen Bass stated: “Certainly, there will be a void if she [Kamala Harris] is not replaced with an African-American woman.” The Latino Community Foundation took the same tact: “Our [Latino] voice remains missing from the highest levels of our government… It is up to states like California to do their part to ensure that we are building more diverse and inclusive institutions reflective of our society.”
The statements of President Biden, Rep. Bass, and the Latino Community Foundation represent a growing belief that politicians and the U.S. government must be a mirror image of American society. It presumes that a government which “accurately reflects” the various racial, ethnic, gender, and sexual identities of its constituents will govern more effectively and produce greater stability. According to President Biden, “Building a diverse team will lead to better outcomes and more effective solutions to address the urgent crises facing our nation.”
Lebanon shows us that a fixation on identity politics and diversity leads to dysfunction and policy paralysis. On paper, Lebanon should be a success. It has an educated population, and a venerable history as a center for trade, banking, and financial services.
In reality, Lebanon is a dystopian state and society. It is enduring one of the worst economic crises in the world since 1850. The Lebanese lira lost 90 percent of its value since September 2019. Lebanon’s debt-to-GDP ratio was 152 percent in 2019, the third highest ratio in the world. Electricity, medicine, and gasoline are in short supply.
And that is just the last two years.
Lebanon experienced two civil wars. Two foreign armies occupied Lebanese territory. A non-Lebanese organization—the PLO—waged a campaign of “resistance” from Lebanon for 24 years. Hezbollah, a Lebanese political party and militia, started a 33-day war with Israel and entered the war in Syria in violation of government policy. A state budget did not pass for 12 years.
The practice of identity politics and the promotion of diversity has produced endemic disorder and division. The identity and diversity dynamics of Lebanon breed a culture where politics is about the maintenance of power, not policy. They breed a culture where each religious community believes its interests supersede the interests of the nation; where identity and nepotism supersede merit and competence.
How could a noble idea—creating an environment that celebrates identity and diversity in its politics and government—produce so much calamity?
The mixing of identity and politics tears at the fabric of a society. It weakens national identity, putting respective communal identities in competition with each other, state institutions, and the nation. Ultimately, all communities must be appeased by being given a “piece of the pie” or “a seat at the table” for the government to be considered “legitimate.”
The problems with such a system are seen in the organization of Lebanon’s government. Lebanon officially recognizes a total of 18 Christian and Muslim communities. Each community is represented in the parliament. The allocation of parliamentary seats is dictated by the population of each community. Furthermore, the parliament is divided 50/50 between Christians and Muslims. Specific government positions are also reserved for the members of certain communities. For example, the presidency is reserved for the Maronite Catholic community.
Some will argue that Lebanon cannot be compared to the United States. Lebanon emphasizes a religious identity while the U.S. is secular and maintains a separation of church and state. Lebanon is a parliamentary system while the U.S. maintains a presidential system.
The reality is that the United States has more in common with Lebanon than people realize. Religious identity in Lebanon is not an indication of religiosity. In fact, Lebanon is not a particularly religious country. In the Lebanese context, religion functions more as a cultural and socio-economic marker, akin to race and ethnicity in the United States.
A striking parallel between Lebanon and the United States is the emphasis on themes of historical oppression and victimization. The institutionalization of religious identities in Lebanon is a reminder of past persecutions and supposed to be a protection against future ones. An argument frequently made in Lebanese politics is that if the confessional system were dismantled, Lebanon’s religious communities will be oppressed by the Sunni Muslim majority as occurs elsewhere in the Middle East.
Themes of oppression and victimization are fundamental to identity politics in the U.S. The racial, ethnic, and gender identities being promoted are reminders of historical oppression and supposed to prevent its perpetuation. San Francisco Mayor London Breed made this clear, regarding the failure to appoint a female African American to the vacant Harris senate seat. “When you think about the history of this country and the challenges that exist for African Americans, especially African American women in the Senate, definitely this is a real blow to the African American community, to African American women, to women in general,” she said.
Identity and diversity politics are employed regardless of the political system to leverage outcomes. Senator Tammy Duckworth’s statement regarding the Biden cabinet is one example: “I am a ‘no’ vote, on the floor, on all non-diversity nominees… I will vote for racial minorities and LGBTQ but anybody else, I’m not voting for.” Senator Mazie Hirono said: “This is not about pitting one diversity group against another. So I’m happy to vote for a Hispanic, a Black person, an LGBTQ person, an AAPI person. I’d just like to see more diversity representation.”
The Duckworth-Hirono tactic succeeded. Biden’s promise to create the most diverse cabinet was not diverse enough. Biden’s press secretary admitted concessions: “The President has made it clear that his Administration will reflect the diversity of the country. That has always been, and remains our goal. The White House will add a senior level Asian American Pacific Islander liaison, who will ensure the community’s voice is further represented and heard.”
What will their demands be for the next cabinet? Will Hirono expect the representation of a specific AAPI community? Will their “reasonable request” come at the price of another community? Or competence?
American politics is slowly emulating Lebanese politics. As the polarization of our politics continues, a focus on identity and diversity will deepen government paralysis and exacerbate divisions, not ameliorate them. As the U.S. proceeds further down the mineshaft of identity politics and diversity in government, hopefully they will recognize Lebanon as the canary in the coal mine before it is too late.
Eric Bordenkircher, Ph.D., is a research fellow at UCLA’s Center for Middle East Development. His twitter handle is @UCLA_Eagle. The views represented in this piece are his own and do not necessarily represent the position of UCLA or the Center for Middle East Development.