Why Identity Politics Are Not All-American

New citizens at a naturalization ceremony in 2006. (Reuters photo: Lucy Nicholson)
Unlike today’s grievance-mongers, “pressure groups” of earlier eras shared goals and a sense of national identity.

Mark Lilla’s post-election analysis, “The End of Identity Liberalism,” has launched a flotilla of articles about identity politics. Unlike the soon-forgotten skirmishes over whether a Broadway musical star should lecture a vice president–elect when he is in the audience, or whether Donald Trump should have left the press in the dark when he slipped out to eat dinner with his family at a swanky private club, this is a turning-point battle.

Or it would be if the combatants understood what they were arguing about. Since Lilla’s article appeared in the New York Times, ignorant musings about the meaning of identity politics have been littering the Internet.

An article titled “The Democrats and the Seesaw of Identity Politics” by New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik is a case in point. Gopnik’s thesis, a common one these days, is that identity politics is nothing new to American life. He cites a fascinating memo written in 1947 by Clark Clifford to Harry Truman in preparation for what proved to be a narrow victory over Thomas Dewey. Clifford warned Truman that the power of the political machines that had originally brought the former Kansas City pol to prominence was on the wane. Now, Clifford wrote, a successful candidate has to deal with the rising power of “mass pressure groups,” whom he defined as “The Farmer,” “The Liberals,” “The Negro,” “The Jew,” and “The Catholic.” Clifford also cited (though Gopnik doesn’t note this in his piece) “The Italian,” “Labor,” and the pro-immigration “Alien Group.” “If this is not identity politics,” Gopnik announced upon surveying Clifford’s list, “it is hard to say what it is.”

But Clifford didn’t say “identity politics” for a simple reason: The term did not exist at the time, or indeed, for decades after. By glossing over that fact, Gopnik implies that the difference between “pressure groups” and identity politics is mere semantics. Not at all. Though there were early signs of it in the 1970s, identity politics took hold of the national imagination only in the late 1980’s and ’90s, when it became the heart of a fundamental shift in mainstream social and political thinking in the U.S.

Gopnik’s error arises out of an indisputable truth: The United States has always been a nation made up of diverse ethnic and racial groups. American have long thought of themselves as hyphenated beings: Italian-Americans, Jewish-Americans, and so forth. It’s also the case that in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, ethnic groups struggled for power to run cities and, more important, to hand out patronage jobs to family, neighbors, friends, and other countrymen. They published broadsides and lobbied politicians in order to pursue concerns particular to their group, whether better sanitation in their neighborhood or more attention to a crisis in the homeland.

Political leaders traded votes for promises to these pressure groups, but the special pleading and glad-handing coexisted with a widespread acceptance of a shared national identity. No one questioned that immigrants had to become part of that identity. In his 1908 play, forthrightly titled “The Melting Pot,” the playwright Israel Zangwill described America as a place “where all the races of Europe were melting and reforming,” the hero of the play, a Russian-Jewish immigrant, enthuses. “Into the Crucible with you all. God is making the American!” Notice that in Zangwill’s telling the outsider immigrant doesn’t shed his ethnicity to become a WASP. As Arthur Schlesinger put it in his 1991 book The Disuniting of America, the immigrant “enrich[es] and reshape[s] the common culture in the very act of entering into it.”

The process could be heavy-handed or worse. In the schools, teachers punished students for speaking their native language. Without permission, teachers changed students’ foreign-sounding names and criticized their unfamiliar habits. In this atmosphere, children understandably became ashamed of their parents. But they also learned to identify as Americans. Until the mid 20th century, American children had to pledge allegiance to the flag every morning. Children also learned — or at least were supposed to learn — about the Revolutionary War, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. In other words, they studied the making of the country and the system to which they were pledging and that many of them eventually would have to defend in deadly wars.

On the surface, identity politics may be kinder to school kids, but it creates a fragmented and insidious idea of social and political life. While the pressure group was defined by shared interests and goals, the identity group is aligned by a far deeper and involuntary subjective essence — hence that crucial word “identity.” Identity is located in an individual’s minority racial, ethnic, or sexual essence and is “founded on a shared experience of injustice,” as the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy puts it. Intricately connected to the mid-20th-century quest for “authenticity” — searching for a true self locked away in a jail of social strictures — the identity warrior views politics not just as a route to economic and social security and to overall national well-being but as a means of group affirmation in answer to longstanding oppression.

If you told a Jew or Italian or Irishman in 1890 or 1930 or even 1960 that they were members of a single identity group called white male, you would have been laughed out of Brooklyn.

Now, it goes without saying that the founding principles taught in schools have too often been honored in the breach. American history has enough examples of injustice to spawn a wealth of identity groups. But identity groups wanted to do far more than bring attention to, and correct, past wrongs; they wanted to instill allegiance to the identity group. Quick to spy what they believed were attacks on their authentic culture, they remain at best indifferent to a vision of a shared American identity. By the 1990s, the melting pot looked suspiciously to them like a form of colonialism. Their unifying ideal was something more along the lines of Jesse Jackson’s rainbow coalition, not a national community but a temporary political alliance of diverse disadvantaged races and groups identified by their sexual preferences.

Those alliances do have one source of solidarity: a common enemy known as “the white male.” The white male wielded the power that deprived the disadvantaged groups of voice and recognition. Now, he is purportedly targeting identity politics, which its supporters firmly believe is the only path to a fair society. “[I]n the vast, vast main,” Hadley Freeman observed in the Guardian this week, “the identity politics sceptics are white men whose articles are filled with quotes from other white men” — whose color and sex automatically (and ironically) negate their opinions.

Like others in her camp, Freeman hews to the mythical conceit that “white men” were, and are, a coherent group simply because of their skin color. She either forgets, or more likely never knew, that the Irish, to name just one forgotten subcategory of white men, were for a long time the most despised ethnic group in American history; in northern cities in the 19th century, they were perhaps even more reviled than blacks. One of the deepest divisions in American history was between Catholics and Protestants; both of the aggrieved sides were mostly pale-skinned. If you told a Jew or Italian or Irishman in 1890 or 1930 or even 1960 that they were members of a single identity group called white male, you would have been laughed out of Brooklyn.

#related#Irish, Italian, Jew, black, Chinese, Norwegian, Puerto Rican: America has always presented abundant opportunities for tribal hostility. The existential challenge for this country has been to unite a diverse population with no shared history or customs or language into a cohesive and loyal whole. Identity politics discounts this fragility and takes for granted the peaceful coexistence in a multiethnic, multiracial democracy.

Now that a disaffected group of white men are claiming identity politics for themselves, will that change?


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