October 27, 2017


The Primal Scream of Identity Politics : Conservatives have missed something major about identity politics: its authenticity. But liberals have missed something bigger: that it is a legacy of the sexual revolution. (MARY EBERSTADT, 10/27/17, Weekly Standard)

Flush with prosperity and unprecedented new freedoms, we moderns, Lilla believes, went on to atomize ourselves: "Personal choice. Individual rights. Self-definition. We speak these words as if a wedding vow." By the 1980s, such hyperindividualism coalesced into what he calls the "Reagan Dispensation," which prized self-reliance and small government over the collective--thus marking a radical break from the preceding "Roosevelt Dispensation" emphasizing more communal attachments, including duty and solidarity.

By embracing the politics of identity, Lilla says, liberals and progressives have unwittingly contaminated their politics with a "Reaganism for lefties," resulting in the toxic consequences visible today: shutdowns of free speech on campuses, out-of-touch urban and globalized elites, and a political order deformed into a "victimhood Olympics."

In effect, his is a supply-side answer to the "why" question: Identity politics became the order of the day because it could. What's lacking from this analysis--as from other critiques, right as well as left--is what might be called the demand-side answer: Why have so many people found in identity politics the very center of their political being?

After all: That identitarianism is now the heart and soul of politics for many is a visceral truth--as raw as the footage of violent political clashes making headlines with a frequency that would have shocked most citizens only a decade ago. What's singular about such politics is exactly its profound and immediate emotivism, its frightening volatility, its instantaneous ignition into unreasoned violence. Lilla acknowledges this reality obliquely in describing "a kind of moral panic about racial, gender and sexual identity"--all true, as far as it goes. But the problem is that it doesn't go nearly far enough. [...]

Writing in New York magazine in September, Andrew Sullivan delivered an insight in the direction of the why question. American politics, he wrote, has become a war between "two tribes": "Over the past couple of decades in America, the enduring, complicated divides of ideology, geography, party, class, religion, and race have mutated into something deeper, simpler to map, and therefore much more ominous."

Yet what, exactly, has caused so many Americans to want to join one of these tribes in the first place? Sullivan advanced a list of many "accelerants" from the past few decades: the failed nomination of Judge Robert Bork to the Supreme Court, mass illegal Latino immigration, Newt Gingrich's GOP revolution, talk radio, Fox News, MSNBC, partisan gerrymandering, the absence of compulsory military service, multiculturalism, declining Christianity, the rural brain drain, and more.

No doubt, taken together, these disparate events explain something about the political trajectory now behind us. But does one really become part of a horde, defined in opposition to other hordes, over relatively quotidian prompts like these? Doesn't the very word "tribal" suggest that something more primal may be in the mix too?

Of course it does.

Just as "tribe" is antecedent to the state, something else is antecedent to the tribe--something missing from all the high-profile talk, pro and con, about how American and other Western societies have become mired in identitarianism.

In laying out the particulars of today's "tribes," Sullivan wrote of "unconditional pride, in our neighborhood and community; in our ethnic and social identities and their rituals; among our fellow enthusiasts. There are hip-hop and country-music tribes; bros; nerds; Wasps; Dead Heads and Packers fans; Facebook groups. . . . And then, most critically, there is the Uber-tribe that constitutes the nation-state, a megatribe that unites a country around shared national rituals, symbols, music, history, mythology, and events." And here we reach a turning point, not just in this essay but also in the widening argument, because that list omits what the majority of humanity would call the most important "tribe" of all.

It's not that "America Wasn't Built for Humans," as the title of Sullivan's piece has it. It's rather that America, like other civilizations, was built for humans who learned community not from roving bands of unrelated nomads, but from those around them--beginning in the small civilization of the family.

In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote of how democratic governance shapes familial relations, rendering fathers and sons more equal and closer and less hierarchical than they are in its aristocratic counterparts. If it's obvious that a form of government can shape the family, isn't it even more obvious that the first polity to which future citizens belong--the family--will shape the kind of citizens they become?

Our macro-politics have gone tribal because our micro-politics are no longer familial. This, above all, is what's happened during the five decades in which identity politics went from being unheard of to ubiquitous.

It seems entirely plausible that the great divide between the 60% and the 20% to either wing is simply who's happy at home.

As Eric Hoffer put it : "A man is likely to mind his own business when it is worth minding. When it is not, he takes his  mind off his own meaningless affairs by minding other people's business."

Submerging yourself in an identity is just another way of avoiding the reality of your self.

Posted by at October 27, 2017 5:51 AM