The Intellectual Roots of Today’s Identity Politics

Protesters carry American and Mexican flags at an immigration-reform march in Los Angeles, Calif., in 2013. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)
A new book explores the ideological wellsprings of ethnic and racial identitarianism.

When I recently asked Mike Gonzalez in an interview what new constituency leftist supporters of identity politics would start pandering to next, he pressed me “not to let the imagination run wild, lest we give them ideas.”

His quip spoke to that movement’s drive to socially engineer a fractured map of ever-smaller subnational communities, but one could have mistaken Gonzalez’s humorous cynicism for genuine prudence. His plea “not to let the imagination run wild,” if heeded by the movement’s Marxist forebears, would have meant a world of difference to today’s America. For if one thing has fueled identity politics, it is a wild imagination. Gonzalez’s The Plot to Change America: How Identity Politics Is Dividing the Land of the Free is the best account yet of the deep ideological wells from which identity politics springs. The story begins in 1928, when Mussolini’s regime sentenced a young Antonio Gramsci, then the leader of the Communist Party in Italy, to 20 years in prison, hoping to “stop his mind from ever working again,” in the prosecutor’s own words. Imprisonment instead afforded him a quiet retreat to refashion Marxism for the future, birthing a brand of it that endures at the core of American society to this day in the form of identity politics.

Gramsci concocted his ideological chef d’oeuvre, his Prison Notebooks, out of frustration. European Marxists had looked forward to the armageddon of 1918, hoping the capitalist-nationalist cocktail that had fueled World War I would give way to socialist uprisings across the continent. And yet a whole decade after Russia pulled out of the war, the Bolsheviks still lacked imitators west of the Urals. The ability of bourgeois democracy to perpetuate itself through democratic means could only be explained, in Gramsci’s view, by the enduring sway of religion, tradition, family, and nation among the working class. Replacing economics with culture as the locus of oppression was Gramsci’s profound twist to Marxist thought, which had until then identified the power imbalances derived from capital ownership as the ultimate engine of historical change. For Gramsci, workers had compounded their own oppression by espousing the mores of their capitalist overlords.

Gramsci once derided American culture as “a mere recycling of European trends,” but he didn’t live to see his own writings reach across the Atlantic after 1945. Reprocessing the raw matter of his cultural Marxism to fit American society was the work of the so-called Frankfurt School, whose leading thinkers spent considerable time in New York as refugees from a Nazified Europe in the 1930s, with Max Horkheimer moving the School’s Institute for Social Research from Frankfurt to New York in 1935. In One Dimensional Man, Herbert Marcuse — the School’s intellectual chief — impugned America’s mass consumerism, enabled by the economic bliss of the post-war years and Hollywood’s penetration of the American household, as the “dominant culture.” The deluded notion of the American dream allowed the country’s elite to rule unchallenged, he concluded.

Already in the 1930s, the American worker was striving for individualistic aims amid a sea of cultural diversity that was simply unimaginable in Europe. Marcuse wrote of making a new revolutionary vanguard out of the “substratum of outcasts and outsiders, the exploited and prevented of other races and other cultures.” His singular contribution was to adapt Gramscian thought to the American experiment through the invention of identity politics. Having shifted the Marxist focus from economics to culture and shifted the locus of victimhood from the culturally mainstream worker to the minorities struggling on the edges of society, all the movement lacked was an organizing principle — one that was shortly enunciated in Communist student activist Rudi Dutschke’s call for a “long march through the institutions.” If the elite relied on cultural oppression instead of bread-and-butter economics to remain in power, the roadmap to overturning its dominance needed to be equally surreptitious. Marcuse, Dutschke, and their heirs set out to topple the “hegemonic narratives” that kept America’s minorities subdued. Their strategy was to co-opt the cultural repositories where elite influence resided: academia, the media, the arts. No place of high culture could be left unturned in this new playbook.

Culture, minorities, institutions — such was the new revolutionary trifecta. And yet identity politics would perhaps never have seen the light of day but for a set of discrete factors in the 1960s that gave the movement its current form. First, the “long, hot summer of ’67,” with its 159 race riots across America, laid bare the widespread resentment among blacks at the perceived gulf between the Civil Rights Act’s breakthroughs on paper and the destitution many of them experienced in the inner cities. The liberal elite that had come around to Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society feared the spread of racial strife to Latinos and Asians, a sentiment the Ford Foundation capitalized on to bankroll advocacy organizations meant to voice the interests of these groups. Urban unrest among blacks was the triggering factor, but the template employed by the Ford Foundation to deal with it was soon used to instill a culture of victimhood among Latinos and Asians too.

The identitarian gospel had to be preached inwards first, ironically. Identity politics has been a top-to-bottom movement from the get-go, with its activist leaders lacking any real anchoring in the groups they claim to represent. Gonzalez provides a wealth of data showing that at the time large majorities of both Latinos and Asians expressed no sense of being unfairly discriminated against, perhaps because neither group felt like cohering around any monolithic sense of identity in the first place. To this day, this “astroturf model” of organizing keeps empowering cadres of Marxist-inspired radicals who lack buy-in among the very communities they claim to speak for.

Gonzalez’s tracing of today’s identity politics to yesteryear’s cultural Marxism — the long road from Gramsci’s prison cell to America’s shores by way of the Frankfurt School — makes for fascinating intellectual history. Yet pointing to the movement’s Marxist undertones may carry the whiff of a red herring for those who lack the historical grounding Gonzalez provides. But, Gonzalez argues, if not for its stealth inspiration in Marxist ideology, then identity politics ought to be rejected for the full-frontal assault on the Constitution it represents. Making this argument is not without risks, for it may in turn redirect the bile of social-justice warriors from modern capitalism to the Founding — if they haven’t already made that turn of their own accord. Indeed, there’s plenty of evidence that the Founding is increasingly a target: The publication of Gonzalez’s book comes barely two months after Nikole-Hannah Jones was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for her commentary introducing the New York Times1619 Project, a historically fallacious collection of essays that overplays the role of slavery in America’s Founding. If there ever was a sign that Rutsche’s “long march through the institutions” has successfully swept academia and journalism, the 1619 Project is it, and the threat this transformation poses to American constitutional principles is the core warning in Gonzalez’s book. That warning also points to a better chance at defeating the movement than decrying “Marxism by other means.”

Though written at a time when there was little to prefigure the country’s future ethnic diversity but the widespread practice of slavery that its authors refused to forfeit, the Constitution holds the secret sauce to making the diverse society that America has since become cohere around shared principles: E pluribus unum. This balancing of unity and diversity, as Gonzalez and I discussed, is a juste-milieu between the utopian multiculturalism of the U.K., which demands little of the subnational communities living in its midst, and the hyper-secular, hyper-integrationist French model, which sees the failure to eschew one’s immigrant background or religion as a rejection of Frenchness. Identity politics is everywhere rampant, and in an eerie historical irony, it is now being exported from the U.S. back to the continent whose intellectuals birthed it, with all of Europe’s distinct models of cultural integration coping with the movement in the same conciliatory way. Yet if identity politics were to destroy America’s unique constitutional heritage, it would be a far more destructive victory than could ever be the case in Europe, where the idea of unity out of diversity is less embedded in the cultural fabric. The movement’s emphasis on historical wrongs and ethnic identity over inclusive American citizenship stands in the way of the national unity the Founders envisioned.

Although identity politics may claim kinship with the civil-rights movement, it has hypertrophied into a rebuke of Dr. King’s legacy, the man whose dream was of a future America that would judge his grandchildren by the content of their character, not box them into immutable categories imbued with victimhood, condemning them to a group determinism that nullifies individual attainment. Furthermore, extending the notion of “compensatory justice” to include those who are not the descendants of slaves minimizes the unique multi-generational suffering of African Americans. This is not to mention — as Gonzalez enlighteningly does — that many of the ethnic groups claiming identitarian mantles are in fact members of immigrant communities that were allowed to come enjoy the blessings of liberty and equality under the law by the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, and thus have not lived under segregation nor formal discrimination of any sort.

Whether identity politics is best described as a reincarnation of socialist dogmas, as an assault on America’s founding principles, or as an affront to Dr. King’s legacy is perhaps best left to historians. Readers of Gonzalez’s book will come away better equipped to make any of these cases. If they fear waking up to an America where “out of many, none,” they should.


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