Last night I posted a piece on identity politics and the teaching of history. The post engaged with Columbia University history professor Mark Lilla’s critique of identity liberalism. It is not my intention here to revisit what I wrote except to say that Lilla was employing a fairly common understanding of the phrase “identity liberalism,” namely the propensity to celebrate our differences (race, class, gender, sexual identity) in a way that makes them more important than our common identity as Americans.
In his critique of Lilla’s piece at The Junto blog, history professor Jonathan Wilson reminds us that “identity politics” goes well beyond the usual liberal categories of race, class, gender, and secular orientation. Wilson writes:
Lilla’s argument overlooks the fact that Americanness itself is a particular constructed identity—and therefore, that any politics of the national common good is an identity politics. Lilla writes:
We need a post-identity liberalism, and it should draw from the past successes of pre-identity liberalism. Such a liberalism would concentrate on widening its base by appealing to Americans as Americans and emphasizing the issues that affect a vast majority of them. It would speak to the nation as a nation of citizens who are in this together and must help one another. As for narrower issues that are highly charged symbolically and can drive potential allies away, especially those touching on sexuality and religion, such a liberalism would work quietly, sensitively and with a proper sense of scale. [Emphasis added.]
However appropriate that recommendation may be strategically or as a matter of proportion, it is still a recipe for a form of identity politics. It requires asserting that Americans share a common interest simply by virtue of that group membership. It implies members of the nation owe a loyalty to each other that they may not owe to other groups—and which may override other important forms of human affinity and fulfillment.
I am guessing that Lilla would probably agree with Wilson here, although he would probably say that he was using “identity liberalism” in a very particular way in this piece–a way that most people who read it understood.
In response to Wilson’s post (in the comments section of The Junto), blogger and American historian Ann Little wrote:
I’d say the first identity politics party in American history was the Republican/Democratic Republican party. We can at the very latest say that by the time of Andy Jackson and when they began calling themselves Democrats it was clearly a party organized around white supremacy, with proslavery and imperial expansion at its center. So, DUH! Identity politics is just what we used to call politics before all those troublesome women and nonwhite people had the audacity to assume they had a claim to citizenship rights too.
While Lilla used the phrase “identity liberalism” in a very specific way, both Wilson and Little won’t let us forget that politics was one of the original forms of American “identity politics.” I agree.
In February 2016 I wrote an op-ed piece published at Fox News about why the founding fathers–George Washington especially–did not like political parties. The context for the piece was the Senate’s refusal to follow the Constitution and vote on Barack Obama’s appointment of Merrick Garland to replace the late Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court.
Is it fair to say that Washington saw political parties as a form of identity politics? Yes.
After I quoted from Washington’s 1796 farewell address, here is part of what I wrote:
Washington worried that political factions—such as today’s Republican and Democratic parties—weakened American’s commitment to the common good. Political partisanship, he believed, promoted the worst forms of selfishness. It undermined the “we” in “We the People.”
I thought about all of this again as I watched CNN’s Michael Smerconish grill RNC communication’s director Sean Spicer about Donald Trump’s response to the CIA announcement that Russian hackers tried to influence the 2016 election. Watch it here:
At the 2:45 mark in the video Smerconish wonders why Americans of all parties are not upset with the fact that Putin and Russia has influenced a presidential election. If Smerconish is correct, and I tend to think that he is, then “identity politics” (or, as Little puts it, just good old fashioned political partisanship) has now gotten in the way of the national security interests of all Americans, regardless of political party.
Yes, the Cold War is over. The Soviet Union has been gone for over 25 years. But if Putin represents some kind of revival of the Russian threat (as Mitt Romney correctly implied during his 2012 presidential run) then it looks are response to this threat will not follow the Cold War model of unified resistance. Whatever collective outrage we have had in the past about Russians trying to influence American life seems to have now been subordinated to party politics.
And it’s not just the end of the Cold War that has caused this decline of national unity in the last two or three decades. I think it’s time re-read (and perhaps blog about) Daniel Rodgers’s Age of Fracture.
Finally, I have been wondering what Putin thinks of all of this. Perhaps something along the lines of the final scene in one of my favorite Twilight Zone episodes: “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street.” As the martians look down and watch the once good people of Maple Street destroy themselves, one of them says (at 27:45 the mark in the video below): “They pick the most dangerous enemy they can find, and it’s themselves. All we need to do is just sit back and watch…We’ll just sit back and watch and let them destroy themselves.”