Notes on Identity Politics and the American Heritage
IDENTITY POLITICS *IS* POLITICS
A common complaint of conservatives- and, recently, Bernie Sanders-supporting liberals- is the notion that the cultural left in America, and the West more broadly, practices “identity politics” to the detriment of national unity and focusing on real issues. I’ve been guilty of this as well, as my American unity piece at Glimpse From the Globe a few years back reveals. Even now I am no fan of the identity politics idea, and generally agree with Jason Willick that minority-group identity politics stokes white identity politics, and with Mark Lilla that some form of cultural and socioeconomic unity program is absolutely crucial.
But my personal preferences aside, I’m also realizing something else that really should be obvious to anyone who listens to people’s “why’s.” And that is that “identity politics” is basically at the root of politics. It’s at the root of how we define ourselves, our worldviews, and our values, and thus what ends we pursue politically and socially. It’s much broader than just a question of race- religion, class, culture, ideology, profession, and so many other group identifications can have identity politics of their own as well, but race is just a powerful one in contemporary American politics for various historical reasons.
We like our communities, or at the very least affiliate with and identify with them. We construct our values based on what is handed down to us and what we experience, and how our rational minds interact with such diverse bundles of experience and evidence. Because of the multiplicity of modes of human life, humanity is diverse enough that there will always be different aspirations, values, loyalties, identities- and that’s not intrinsically a good or a bad thing. It just exists, shapes how we think about everything including politics, and like everything else human, must be taken account of when we work in politics.
This doesn’t mean that objective truth doesn’t exist, or that we are incapable of thinking for ourselves beyond our identity-politics-influenced minds, or that we can’t empathize with others with different experiences-far from it. It just depicts the usual realities we inhabit. But we should all acknowledge that the construction of identity and identity’s influence on values and ties has been, and remains, one of maybe four or five driving forces in human political life, the others including political economy, political institutions, the desire for security or power, passion and attachments, and others. 20th Century postmodern thinkers did a lot of harm, but their emphasis on social construction and psychology has been a useful addition to the field of political studies.
It’s just a basic question of anthropology and epistemology, I would guess- it is probably theoretically possible to transcend identity issues by crafting broader, more wide-encompassing identities, or maybe being a nihilist. Those who wish it away are like those who would wish politics away- they’re pissing in the wind, complaining about the human condition and human nature to no avail. Those who overemphasize identity politics, meanwhile, are like those who reduce every action to geography or economics or institutions- they’re intellectual simpletons who can follow a straight line and nothing else. (They probably have some money on the matter as well.) No, identity politics is just a normal, typical element of human political life that can be alternately harmful or hurtful. It’s not so much a question of wishing it away, but figuring out how best to contain and possibly use it. The multiracial identity politics left and the white identity politics right have made their choices. Temperamental conservatives, accepting human nature, ought to make other choices.
EMPIRES OF THE MIND IN AMERICA
So we’ve established that this psychological principle of identity construction is just kind of how human beings operate, how they provide or find meaning to themselves and their communities. It follows that there have been ebbings and flowings of these “empires of the mind” just as there have been ebbings and flowings of the empires and city-states and churches and nation-states of human beings; generally, these correspond with self-conceived factions or interest groups of all sorts, including institutions, religious groups, ethnic groups, classes, polities, and others, and there can be infinite permutations of a single individual person’s membership in multiple tiers of these “empires of the mind” at once. Complicated situation, of course, but then, humans are complicated beings.
In America, the veneer of a “national community” has always been something of a veneer; in very few cases has it gone politically deep enough to move the nation, and it has always masked far deeper contradictions and diversity. Since before the Founding, the various Anglo colonists of the Eastern Seaboard had to learn to live with each other, and over time developed institutions that could tolerate what was in effect a multicultural civilization with only the broadest unity. (John Jay was wrong, wrong, wrong when he talked about cultural unity among Americans in Federalist #2. His “one united people” professing the same language, gods, customs, and government, only did so in a very technical degree; read Albion’s Seed, by David Hackett Fischer.) Because the Articles of Confederation and eventually the Constitution were pockmarked with sufficient compromises and inconsistencies so as to secure the loyalty of Puritans, Cavaliers, Quakers, and Scots-Irish, who had many different conceptions of “liberty” and “order,” the institutions of the United States became sufficiently flexible to accommodate a variety of political cultures underneath a broad and general Anglo, republican national culture. I am effectively arguing that, had America been only Puritan Massachusetts or only Scots-Irish Appalachia, it would have developed institutions that could not support the kind of cultural diversity that it has supported in the last two and a half centuries.
All these founding groups were Anglo. But most of America is not Anglo in 2017- something like only 10%, I believe, of Americans trace their ancestry to England. The majority of white Americans hail from elsewhere in Europe, while there are of course burgeoning minority populations descended from African slaves and Latino, Asian, and other immigrants. Nonetheless, as Fischer argues, these other groups have all generally assimilated into the original Albion’s Seed groups to one degree or another.
Generally, America has always assimilated “non-white” immigrants, and over time they- the Irish in the 19th Century, the Italians and Poles and Jews in the 20th Century, and Latinos and Asians today- have over time mixed with the native “white” American population in culture, intermarriage, and political participation to the point that, a few generations in, they’re basically considered white people. This is currently happening with East Asians, Latinos, Middle Easterners, South Asians, and other minority groups (heck look at ME- I’m half-White, half-Asian, all-American, and racially confused) and has been for decades, and will only continue moving forward.
There’s a very, very dark side to this assimilation, depending on how you look at it. And that is: there’s a general assumption inherent to assimilation that non-white immigrants are assimilating into something. And that something is purportedly the real America. And that something, the real America, is white, Anglo, Protestant, middle-class, suburban, consumerist, etc. The real American culture, this narrative might seem to imply, would not be “republican idealism” but rather some iteration of White Anglo-Protestantism. To some, this is just a fact of life; to others this is evidence of white supremacy, the fact that WASPs have so dominated American culture in the past as to imprint their own image onto it, and reprint it in their own image.
I understand that point and probably agree technically, but I’m inclined to see WASP Americanism as just another fact of life. (I have not much to gain from that because I am mixed, non-Anglo, and Catholic.) WASP culture- not necessarily being white, Anglo, or Protestant, but generally subscribing to the outlines of WASP culture to include the English language, the English interpretation of the rule of law, Protestant ideas about religious liberty and teleology, and Scottish/English rationalism- certainly, certainly, certainly provides the baseline of what it means to be an American. Is that white supremacy? Again, I can understand the arguments of those who define this as structural racism, but for better or for worse it is the way it is, and it seems petty to complain about it while there are other justice issues that are, like, relevant.
THE END OF IDENTITY POLITICS, OR ITS IMPENDING TRANSFORMATION?
Now, for all intents and purposes, “identity politics” as we understand it now- in the sense of the distinctiveness and power of particular formerly disenfranchised minority groups, from the 1960s onwards, including both immigrants from all over the world, and African-Americans- will quite possibly be weakened by the mid-21st Century, given current demographic trends. Various analysts of immigration and policy, including John Judis and others, have said that Asians, Latinos, and other immigrants now intermarry with Whites at such a degree that their children start identifying as “white” by the third or fourth generation, or at least “white with some heritage.” This same thing happened with the Irish, Italians, Jews, Poles, Germans, and other formerly-apparently non-white immigrants. Over time, the communities blend together, while retaining some lesser distinctiveness. This doesn’t mean Asians and Latinos will disappear into the white populace by any means- it simply means that they will be integrated, at cultural, political, and social levels, enough that La Raza-style advocacy just won’t tug as many hearts as it once did. (That would also mean that more people look like me, and I sincerely apologize for the poor aesthetics of that…)
This suggests that by the 2040s or 2050s, America will only be “majority-minority” in the sense that many of its white-identifying people will be partly descended from Latinos and Asians, being mixed-race offspring. The effect of this could be something like the gradual decline of Irish-Catholic political machines in the cities after the JFK Presidency- the Irish, becoming gradually “whiter,” were no longer as distinct, activated, and potent a political force as they had been in the days of their separation. They still loved their St. Patrick’s Day, but at a political and social level they gradually were becoming just any other Americans who happened to have Irish backgrounds. It takes time, but this is part of the beauty of the American experiment. This doesn’t mean identity politics will stop in entirety- it just means it’ll lose some of the force it has nowadays.
It is a very different case with African-Americans, at least in the sense that “identity politics” will for the foreseeable future be much more relevant to that community. First there’s the ethnic mixing thing- whereas other minority groups, upon intermarrying with white people, tend to identify as “white,” the offspring of black and white parents tend to identify as “black” more often. I don’t have any idea why that is, though I would suspect one reason might be that black-white children “look black” in ways that white-Asian or white-Latino children “look white” in general.
But there’s a far more important and far darker reason for African-Americans’ ongoing identity politics situation, and that is sociological and historical- African-Americans are not like other minority groups, who generally came to these shores as immigrants or imported labor. African-Americans were brought here as slaves before the founding of the country. In a sense, they have more of a claim to being “the real Americans” than any other ethnic minority, because they’re the only ones who’ve been a major demographic and cultural- though not political- force since the colonial era. And they’ve been distinct from WASP culture that whole time as well, somewhat intermingling with it and of course adopting the political and social traditions and attitudes, but yet retaining a cultural distinctiveness.
Unfortunately, they’ve always participated from the bottom of society, forced there by the realities of institutionalized white supremacy. For the greater part of American history, African-Americans have been at the bottom of formal or informal racial caste systems. Slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, and their lingering effects and prejudices have set back that community for centuries, struggling to attain full representation in justice, economics, politics, culture, etc. with the rest of white-or-assimilated America, for reasons entirely out of their control. The fact of formal, then informal, then lingering discrimination against blacks in this country is the social fact that must be the backdrop of any discussion of policies affecting African-Americans as a community.
It’s actually remarkable that throughout this experience and its aftereffects, African-Americans have held the outsized cultural influence they have held over the rest of the country, starting at least as early as the 1920s. That’s a story for someone more culturally informed than me, like my good friend John Wood. But it’s fascinating and testifies to the reality and success of individualism in America, at least, despite the lingering inequality between communities.
Anyhow, those two factors- the fact that African-Americans don’t assimilate into the white population nearly as quickly as other minority groups, and their unique circumstances of discrimination mean that, in all likelihood, the legacies of slavery, Jim Crow, and segregation will be with us Americans as a whole until the American project has been extinguished from the Earth. The “original sin” of slavery really lives up to its name, because there is no true redemption from it available to the country by its own force of will. So America does and always will have a unique relationship with the African-American community, and will in all likelihood forever have to wrestle with the legacies of slavery, Jim Crow, and the like. That shouldn’t stop us from moving forward, but it should always give us pause.
The above notes have argued that identity politics, so construed, is an unescapable facet of the human condition, and in America has always been with us, and will never leave us. This is not an apologia for the notion, nor a concession to the skilled practitioners of identity politics on the political left or the political right. Rather, I hope to illustrate the human terrain we will be working with as we strive for political reconciliations and unity in the future; if you don’t understand that terrain and how it views itself, you probably won’t get anywhere with it.