I came across this article in The New Yorker by Adam Gopnik after reading about it in the always entertaining and politically unpredictable blog of Ann Althouse. I've enjoyed Gopnik's travel writing, including Paris To The Moon, but have always found his forays into political thought naive and unsophisticated.
In The Democrats and the Seesaw Politics of Identity, Gopnik treats identity politics as a well-worn political tactic by both parties, which Democrats just got a little wrong on this go round, rejecting the thesis put forward by progressive author Mark Lilla in a recent New York Times piece, The End of Identity Liberalism, that identity politics was a dead-end political strategy for Democrats.
In her post, Althouse noted that Gopnik's approach, perhaps unwittingly, absolves the Trump campaign against charges of racism. That's true, but not surprising, in an election that turned on voters who had twice supported Barack Obama failing to vote for Hillary Clinton. My focus is elsewhere. While Gopnik gets things wrong in almost every sentence, it is his overall thesis that is worth exploring to understand his fundamental misunderstanding.
Gopnik makes much of the point that electoral politics has often focused on identity politics, based on ethnicity, race and religion and thus there is nothing different about what today's Democrats are doing, except to the extent there are now some new identity groups on the scene. He is correct that this has been a common element in campaigns for generations.
But where he goes wrong is confusing a political vote-getting tactic with a view of how the world, or more specifically America, should work. There is a difference between appeals in an election designed to draw in members of varying groups (including running members of those groups as candidates) and a vision of America in which society should be divided up based upon group identity and whether those groups are identified as victims or oppressors. It is the difference between the "melting pot" and today's progressive view of immutable differences that can, and should, define how individuals think and act in every aspect of their lives.
To understand why we need to go back in history to discuss how the Progressive movement has developed since its origins in the late 19th century. Many Progressives are unaware of that history and many anti-Progressives misunderstand it. While Progressive thought at its core has always been about centralizing government decision making and guiding it via a well-educated technocratic elite, until the late 1960s and early 1970s, it was strongly nationalist and assimilationist (for a penetrating critique of this era of Progressive thought read Forgotten Americans: Elihu Root).
What changed was the overlay of identity politics applied through the frame of victim/oppressor used to determine favored and disfavored identities. Added was a bizarre admixture of post-modernist, deconstructionist view of society in which words and language is seen as only a ruse to disguise the underlying repressive power structures that dominate Western society (for a funny and appalling tour of that world read Fools, Frauds and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left by the philosopher Roger Scruton or the THC post, Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty). Taken together you are left with a world in which ideas no longer matter, only your identity which determines whether you a part of, or subject to, the power structure. Springing from this Progressives create the "black armband" history of the United States (see, for instance, the unfortunately popular history work of Howard Zinn), in which the establishment of America was a tragedy only redeemable by following the Progressive program and allowing them more control of society to make it work in the "right" way. In the political realm there is no better practitioner of using this mix than President Obama with his talk of the "arc of history" and the rhetorical trick he employs to keep the focus on America's ills. For an additional understanding of how this can play out in American politics read What Would Otter Do?
The implications of identity politics are poisonous in the long run for our society as they pit every group in society against each other in a Darwinian struggle for survival. What many of us supported over the years as a quest for fair and equal treatment turned out for Progressives to only be a tactic once they came to dominate the heights of American culture; what they are interested in today is payback in a zero-sum society.
Mark Lilla's thoughtful piece seems unlikely to spark a much-needed rethink of identity politics by the Democratic Party. The two leading candidates for Chair of the Democratic National Committee are Keith Ellison, the very radical former acolyte of Minister Farrakhan and Thomas Perez whose political rise has been based on exploiting identity politics. Since Trump's election most Democratic political figures have double-downed on the usual litany of identity claims amidst their hysterical overreaction to the November results. To understand how unhinged Progressives have become about identity politics, read the response of Columbia University Law School Professor Katherine Frank in which she likens Lilla to American Nazi David Duke:
In the new political climate we now inhabit, Duke and Lilla were contributing to the same ideological project, the former cloaked in a KKK hood, the latter in an academic gown. Both men are underwriting the whitening of American nationalism, and the re-centering of white lives as lives that matter most in the U.S. Duke is happy to own the white supremacy of his statements, while Lilla’s op-ed does the more nefarious background work of making white supremacy respectable. Again.The pursuit of identity politics is unfortunate for this country. Those who read this blog know I disagree with the basic tenets of Progressive thought, but I would welcome a return to the pre-1970 brand of Progressivism because it poses much less of a threat to the survival of our civil society than the current identity infused brand.
** For more on Secretary Clinton specifically, read Why Hillary?