Editor’s Note: The following piece originally appeared in City Journal. It is reprinted here with permission.
Last June, despite being outspent by nearly $10 million, Republican Karen Handel won Georgia’s sixth congressional district in a special election to fill the vacancy left when Tom Price became secretary of Health and Human Services (a position from which he has since resigned). Democratic supporters of Jon Ossoff believed that the election would serve as a referendum on Donald Trump’s presidency; instead, it proved to be a verdict on their own party. After Handel’s relatively easy win, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway tweeted, “Laughing my #Ossoff.”
Normal politics — liberal politics, classically understood — involves speech, argument, and persuasion, followed by voting on ideas or proposals that can be overturned in the next election cycle. Normal politics presumes that we can rise far enough above our small-group attributes — our race, class, gender, ethnicity, religion — and that we can arrive at a political arrangement that works well enough for us to live together as part of a larger polity until the next election, when we commence the process again. But for the Democrats, absolute certainty has prevailed over normal politics — and the certainty, at bottom, rests on a single idea: identity politics.
Identity politics rejects the model of traditional give-and-take politics, presupposing instead that the most important thing about us is that we are white, black, male, female, straight, gay, and so on. Within the identity-politics world, we do not need to give reasons — identity is its own reason and justification. Because identity politics supposes that we are our identities, it does not consist in the speech, argument, and persuasion of normal politics but instead, in the calculation of resource redistribution based on identity — what in Democratic parlance is called “social justice.” The irony of identity politics is that it does not see itself as political; it supposes that we live in a post-political age, that social justice can be managed by the state, and that those who oppose identity politics are the ones “being political.” What speech does attend this post-political age consists in shaming those who do not accept the idea of identity politics — as on our college campuses. In the 1960s, college students across the country fought so that repressed ideas would receive a fair hearing. These days, college students fight to repress all ideas except one: identity politics.
When identity politics provides the lens through which one sees the world, changing the perspective is regarded as self-blinding. The suggestion that this outlook might be harming the Democratic party is thus denounced as racist, as insensitive to gender issues, and as inattentive to the purported needs of various identity groups. Identity politics can’t self-correct; it can only double-down. Here is the strangeness of our current moment. Untreated, diseases don’t heal; they metastasize.
One key problem with identity politics is that it is blind to the nature of class in America. Since the beginning, the United States has had the poor, the rich, and everyone between. But those occupying each stratum in America are not classes in the way other countries have understood class, that is, in terms of patronage and reciprocal obligations (noblesse oblige), however poorly honored or disregarded, which have been authorized by law and by mores. In his great unfinished work, The Old Regime and the French Revolution (1851), Alexis de Tocqueville noted that one cause of the hatred of the hereditary aristocracy at the outset of the French Revolution was that the state had for some time stripped French society of the reciprocal obligations that characterized aristocratic patronage. When those obligations disappeared, the hereditary aristocracy had social standing but no relevance. It was against this irrelevant privilege that a revolution in the name of the Universal Rights of Man erupted.
Money largely supplanted the older view of class, as Tocqueville (and then Marx) noted. Nowadays, money is increasingly becoming the single measure of standing in society nearly everywhere, though the older understanding of wealth and its obligations endures in some measure — but not in America, where class based on patronage is essentially unknown. We don’t have “class” in America; we have stratifications based on money. It is in this sense that Americans use the term “class.”
When people are stratified by money and not patronage, something new emerges: middle-class anxiety. In a patronage system, you have some assurance that you will not fall too far. You may have a host of fears, but you will not have class anxiety. When patronage disappears, though, this assurance disappears with it. In the early 1830s, Tocqueville had already foreseen the emergence of this new middle-class anxiety and described it in Democracy in America. Because nearly everyone in America would taste enough of the goods of life to know what it meant to enjoy them, but almost no one would be secure enough not to fear losing them, anxiety would be the great disease of the democratic age. This prescient observation also explains why Tocqueville thought that there would be far more mental disorder in America than in Europe.
A political party seeking power in an America haunted by middle-class anxiety must be attentive to it. The party must, in fact, be devoted to ameliorating it.
A political party seeking power in an America haunted by middle-class anxiety must be attentive to it. The party must, in fact, be devoted to ameliorating it. The Democratic party has not provided this service for some time. Instead, Democrats have favored everyone but the middle class, granting privileges, for example, to the wealthy in the form of crony capitalism, in which large companies often benefit from trade agreements and regulations at the expense of smaller competitors, which cannot absorb the compliance burdens; and by guaranteeing government assistance to the poor not only in the form of generous benefits but also through identity-politics rhetoric and what I’ll call “debt points.”
Identity pertains not simply to the kind of person that we are. People have been sorted (and self-sorted) into kinds throughout history. Identity is different. First, it carries a determination about guilt or innocence that nothing can appreciably alter. Its guilt is guilt without atonement; its innocence is innocence without fault. No redemption is possible, but only a schema of never-ending debts and payments. Second, this schema is made possible because identity politics is, tacitly or expressly, a relationship — something quite different from sorting (and self-sorting) by kinds. In the identity-politics world, the further your distance from the epicenter of guilt, the more debt points you receive. What is the epicenter of guilt? Being a white male heterosexual. (Throw in “Christian,” and the already-unpayable debt mounts still higher.) The debt points are not real currency, but they offer something that mere money cannot: a sense of moral superiority. “Join us,” says the Democratic party, “and though your actual wounds cannot be healed, or even eased, by our policies and programs, they can be covered with the cloak of righteousness.” This is the stuff of religion, not normal politics.
Thus, the strange drama of the 2016 presidential campaign: a progressive white woman candidate who promises to double-down on identity politics and who calls those who would chart another course “deplorables.” The righteous white woman gives; nonwhite people and other injured groups, made pure by entering the revival tent of identity politics, receive. Anyone not in on this debt-point dispensation and reception is the wrong kind of white person — Donald Trump and those who voted for him, for instance. They are to be regarded not as mere political opponents but as defendants awaiting the judgment of a religious tribunal.
During the 2016 campaign, no group brayed louder about identity politics than the Baby Boomers. College radicals of the 1960s, on the forward cusp of the Baby Boomer generation, made a fortune on their homes and in the stock market because the larger demographic group that followed them drove up the price of each asset when it bought in. Unable to imagine themselves as anything other than radical but embarrassed that on the metric of class, they are now among the oppressors rather than the oppressed, the boomers embrace identity politics as the fig leaf that obscures their upper-middle-class comfort. The cultural and economic bubble within which they live renders them oblivious to the anxiety that surrounds them. The voting map of the 2016 election, with its vast expanse of Trump-supporting counties, suggests how pervasive this anxiety is.
Once, the Democrats were the party of the middle class, attentive to how it might be lifted up — or at least, kept from falling. But during the 2016 election, the Democrats offered the middle class nothing — Americans counted only insofar as they belonged to this or that identity group. And when the Democrats lost, they blamed white members of the middle class who voted for Trump and who had had enough of identity politics. Among Democrats, only the defeated Bernie Sanders stayed focused on the middle-class crisis, refusing the bait of identity politics.
As for the poor, a half-century of federal payouts, introduced with Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society, has not eased their burden. These government programs proved so unsuccessful, in fact, that Democrats have needed to create new narratives to explain their failure: Perhaps the real reason for poverty in America, they came to conclude, has nothing to do with money, which politics can presumably fix, but with fault and guilt. The poor are poor because of their identity, the Democrats now say: they are innocent, finding themselves in adverse circumstances because of the irredeemable fault and guilt of others. The Democrats will champion the faultless and guiltless, calling out white privilege, male privilege, heterosexual privilege. With the new economy of identity-politics debt points, conjoined with massive federal spending, the Democrats position themselves as the vanguard of the innocent.
Americans are not citizens, engaged in fulfilling a national covenant, in this corrupted worldview, but righteous or irredeemably damned bearers of identity.
This new symbiosis has been a catastrophe for both the Democrats and for the poor. What began in the 1960s as an earnest hope that the national government could do great things — like fulfill the age-old longing of men to go to the moon and heal the deep historical wound of slavery — has become malignant. Americans are not citizens, engaged in fulfilling a national covenant, in this corrupted worldview, but righteous or irredeemably damned bearers of identity. They can never be reconciled because of the chasm that separates those who deserve salvation and those who deserve perdition — namely, the deplorables.
If one key problem with identity politics is its blindness to the nature of class in America, the other problem is that it misrepresents the long arc of history, which may not bend in the direction of identity-politics justice after all. After the election, many stunned Democrats started to wonder about this. How, they ask, can the party that represents African–Americans, women, Hispanics, homosexuals, and transsexuals — and other identity groups yet to be named — not prevail? Is history itself not on our side?
To answer this question, we need to return to the 20th century locus for the idea that the arc of history bends toward justice — to Martin Luther King Jr. and, before him, to Reinhold Niebuhr, the mid-century Protestant theologian whom King greatly admired. President Obama cited both men during his terms in office, with a view to declaring where the arc of history tends.
Yet between King and Niebuhr, on the one hand, and the Democratic party of President Obama, on the other, the arc of history has been stripped of awe, of religious mystery, of its power to offer hope and to counsel patience. King and Niebuhr were Christian theologians who spoke to the never fully healed wound of human suffering in history. They grasped, as Democrats at their best do, that the problem of suffering operates on a different plane, in which the central issue is the broken human condition and its sorrowful reverberations in history. Suffering cannot be fully understood, in other words, without reference to human fault and guilt. That is the important insight of the Democratic party — now gone horribly astray.
Identity politics shares with King the insight that fault and guilt must be addressed, but it rips them from their Christian theological context, and instead conceives them in worldly terms alone: as a relationship between the source of fault and guilt (white male heterosexuals) and those (women, gays, Hispanics, Muslims, and so on) whose innocence is measured by their distance from that source. In this framework, there is one original sinner: white male heterosexuals — either alive or haunting us from the grave in the form of the Dead White Men studied in old Western Civilization courses. Everyone else gets to sigh with relief; whatever their guilt may be, at least they are not that.
King knew, of course, that sin has worldly consequences and that groups often sinned against other groups. But he would not have rested there, satisfied with a permanent debt that could never be repaid. God did not place man in the world so that he would dwell forever on his faults, but rather so that he would respond to them with repentance and forgiveness. Within the identity-politics world, there is only the permanence of debt. Within King’s Christian view, the worldly impossibility of paying back debt is superseded by the Christian possibility of repentance and forgiveness. Only through these can debts be canceled and life be renewed; only in this way can the balance sheet be zeroed. That such a rebalancing is possible, for King, was evidence of an awesome religious mystery, which gave hope and counseled patience.
Identity politics is only quasi-Christian. It begins from the observation that there is worldly fault and debt. That, every Christian sees. But identity politics stops there, content that we need go no further than call out fault and debt and use political power — worldly power — to settle the score. I doubt that this quasi-Christian viewpoint, which refuses reconciliation, is a stable one. Without straining our imagination, we can discern that we are either going to return to some variant of King’s Christian account, in which fault and debt are overcome through repentance and forgiveness, or we are going to move to a truly post-Christian world in which we no longer care about fault and debt. In such a world, the terms “oppressor” and “oppressed” will cease to have any meaning, and historical wounds — American slavery in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, European colonialism in the 18th and 19th centuries, German aggression in the first half of the 20th century — will be met with the cruel words: “and we would do it again, for the world is nothing but force and fraud and the will to power.” That is the world that Nietzsche staked out in the late 19th century, in the hope that we would find the courage to move beyond Christian guilt. It is no small irony that today’s political Left, which owes more to Nietzsche than to Marx, has so badly understood him: The fault-and-debt points that identity politics tallies are precisely what Nietzsche wanted post-Christian man to repudiate. Our post-Christian Left, however, wants it both ways: It wishes to destroy Christianity by using the battering ram of (white male heterosexual) fault and debt.
We should shudder to think what the world will look like if our post-Christian Left is successful, for it will be a world in which those who have been the object of its derision fully agree to Nietzsche’s terms, throw off Christian guilt altogether, and chant “blood and soil,” as white-nationalist demonstrators did recently in Charlottesville. Christianity has battled pagan movements, of the sort that Nazism is, since before the Roman Empire fell. When it loses, fault and guilt are replaced by pagan vitalism, the cruelty of which knows no bounds.
But return to the question: In what direction does the arc of history bend? For King, America is a covenantal community, whose mission can be fulfilled only when blacks and whites work together to heal the wound of slavery. For King, that was the direction toward which the long arc of history bent. In the identity-politics world, however, the wound of slavery is not simply a malignancy to be healed. It is a template to be used to identify and catalog an infinitely proliferating array of wounds and grievances, tallied — indeed, fomented — by the Democratic party, with a view to gathering power and votes. There is no watchful yet merciful God, who calls us to repent and to forgive; there is only ever-expanding grievance, over which righteous, largely white, progressives preside. Identity politics depends on the wound of slavery to provide its initial coherence — but it does not stop there. Instead, it ceaselessly seeks to expand its mandate.
That is why the community most harmed by identity politics is the African–American community. Because identity politics combines all nonwhite, heterosexual males, the African–American wound is seen as just one wound among many, different in degree but not in kind from any other wound that a nonwhite heterosexual male might claim. Yet that is not true. The African–American wound is different in kind, not in degree. Sustained legalized slavery in America, over more than two centuries, sets African–Americans apart from all others who are now here in our country. African–Americans are not one “identity” among others. My father’s family, one example among millions in America today, came from Lebanon in the 1890s. His immigrant family was not treated particularly well, nor was he. (He nevertheless lied about his age, joined the Marines after graduating high school, and served in the Pacific theater during World War II.) Toleration and acceptance are hard-won and do not happen in a generation. In the identity-politics world, my father’s immigrant family would have been granted the fault-and-guilt debt points to which his immigrant identity entitled him. To which every immigrant family with a long history in America should say, “Nonsense.” And to other immigrants today, who, by Democratic party logic, are granted fault-and-guilt debt points, those same now-assimilated immigrants should say: “Stand in line; it will take you and your family several generations to adjust. It won’t be easy, but it’s an amazing country if you work hard for your family, for yourself, your community, and your nation.” Every immigrant group that has entered America for the last 300 years can offer some variant of that lesson.
The African–American wound, by contrast, still festers. If fault and debt were only a worldly matter, as identity politics stipulates, then the never-ending fault and debt of white America would require that it eternally repay the African–American community with money transfers orchestrated by Washington — overseen by the Democratic party, needless to say. But trillions of dollars have been spent, while the African–American wound remains unhealed. Does this not prove that fault and debt cannot be resolved on the worldly field where politics plays out? If the wound reaches beyond the world to divine things, to repentance and forgiveness, then it is not through politics but rather through our houses of worship that it will be healed. Political action can supplement the work of these societal institutions, but it cannot be a substitute for them, as it increasingly has been over the past half-century.
However unlikely, one can imagine a Democratic party addressing the middle-class anxiety symptomatic of U.S. democracy while also working to heal the particular wound of slavery. King’s vision of spiritual reconciliation ultimately served both ends because he saw a future for blacks in which they enjoyed the fruits of American prosperity, which invariably would put them in the anxiety-ridden middle class. It may be that the only way that the Democratic party can rise, Lazarus-like, from its deathbed is if African–Americans call out identity politics as the disaster that it has been — for them and for the country. If the party cannot find a cure for its confusion, it will expire in the paroxysm that identity politics produces.
— Joshua Mitchell is professor of political theory at Georgetown University and the author of Tocqueville in Arabia: Dilemmas in the Democratic Age.