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Politics & Policy

The Folly of White Identity Politics

Jeremy Carl has offered a kind of rebuttal to my column on white identity politics, but I’m not positive we disagree all that much. This is not a topic that’s going away any time soon, so I will stick to just a couple points. Jeremy writes:

Jonah also ignores the question of who is playing offense and who is playing defense in this culture war. If a segment of the GOP has embraced white-identity politics, it is in defensive reaction to the Democrats’ full-throated embrace of anti-white identity politics and GOP politicians’ decision, in response, to assume a fetal position whenever a controversial racial issue is raised.

I don’t think this is right, even if it’s understandable that Jeremy might reach that conclusion. In my column I wrote:

The Trumpian nationalist right wants to stay focused on economics, because to be open about their cultural appeal would be to admit that they have surrendered to the logic of left-wing identity politics.

Imagine for a moment you are a member of the working white poor in the parts of America that J. D. Vance writes about in his best-selling Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. Imagine how ridiculous phrases like “white (male) privilege” sound to you. Imagine you are an evangelical Christian, repeatedly told by elites and authority figures that your faith is the source of un-American injustices — but that to suggest Islamic terrorism might have some relationship to Islam is rank bigotry.

Every year, liberal pundits metaphorically rub their hands in glee at the latest demographic projections forecasting the dissolution of the white majority in the United States. Is it so shocking that some white people might not greet that prospect with the same glee — particularly when they have not seen tangible benefits from the immigration that is the source of all that diversity?

Daily, I receive e-mails and comments from people who describe themselves as nationalists – but who are, in fact, making arguments for white culture as if whites were now an oppressed minority in need of an American government that zealously defends their interests. Right or wrong, many of them believe that Trump will protect white culture from the forces of multiculturalism, and Christianity from spreading secularism.

I suppose I could or should have said explicitly that the retreat into white identity politics is a response to the rise of Left identity politics. But I do think it’s pretty clear that it’s implicit in what I’ve written above. Left-wing identity politics as we know it today is quite old, and identity politics generally is even older (indeed it’s ancient). I have written scores of pieces and a chunk of two books making the case that the Left are oppressors or aggressors in the culture war(s). Traditional American culture is, as a matter of historical fact, a mostly white, European and English culture. Identity politics has simply been one very effective weapon among a whole arsenal the Left has deployed in its war on tradition. We should fight this effort and sympathize with those most aggrieved by it, but we should not let our sympathy push us to adopting the same tactics or thinking as the Left.

And, as Avik Roy notes, Jeremy is entirely right that there is a double standard. Black pride is to be celebrated. Asian pride is to be celebrated. Latino pride is to be celebrated. But white pride is denounced everywhere. African-American or Black studies, for instance, is a discipline intended to build up and exalt black culture. Whiteness studies — a growth industry — is an academic discipline dedicated to tearing down and demonizing “whiteness” – whatever that is.

There are many reasons for this sorry state of affairs, too many to list here. But it’s worth noting that, say, Irish pride or Italian pride have no sinister connotations. This points to the fact that the designation “white” came into existence as the cultural and political opposite of “black” at a time when being black invoked either slavery or Jim Crow. In this context, white isn’t really an ethnicity so much as an ideological construct about racial superiority.

For this, and countless other reasons, celebrating whiteness hits the ear a bit differently. This is one reason why many white nationalist types like to talk about “European” heritage instead of white heritage. But this too leaves out the fact that in many significant respects the purpose of America was to cast off the European identity in favor of an American civilization. This is the whole point of “American exceptionalism.” The white nationalists inundating me with nonsense on Twitter are not American exceptionalists, they’re white exceptionalists.

American civilization is a product of Western civilization, but it is also a necessary improvement on it. This points to the difference between nationalism and patriotism. Nationalism is tribal, concerned with blood and soil. Patriotism is creedal, concerned with shared values and principles. I have never considered the two to be antipodal. In fact, without a little nationalism, patriotism won’t stick.

But one of the wonderful and glorious things about America’s national character is how sympatico it is with our patriotic principles. We can rehearse the indictment against America another day, the fact remains that even after you run through all of the familiar charges, American individualism, which we inherited and improved upon from the British, is a valuable bulwark against nastier forms of nationalism and groupthink. The English are not the beneficiaries of our constitution, but they are a tolerant, freedom-loving and wonderful culture all the same. There’s a reason why fascism never took root there. The one thing most well-intentioned people on the left and the right should be able to agree on is that American culture at its best is about more than simply “white culture” or even “Christian culture.”

This is why the Left’s discrediting of assimilation is so dangerous and saddening.The Left goes around insisting that non-whites shouldn’t be expected to assimilate into “white culture.” Some even say they can’t. And, guess what? The white nationalist agrees! And the irony is that when the white nationalist agrees, the Left screams “racist!” And they’re right. The problem is the Left can’t see how identity politics is, at least in its purer forms, just as racist. I agree entirely with Avik’s arguments about the infeasibility and immorality of the GOP becoming a white nationalist party. Not only is it a bad idea, it won’t even work because it will fail to win over sufficient whites, never mind everyone else. Conservatism must be about explaining to non-conservatives why they should be conservative not why they can’t be. This is politics 101 going back to Aristotle: Persuasion.

It would also be a disaster for conservatism to become associated with white identity politics. American conservatism, unlike traditional European conservatism, is liberty-loving because we are defending the revolutionary ideals of classical liberalism. Classical liberalism holds that the individual is sovereign and that he or she should be judged on his own merits, not according to his tribe, his class or faith. Identity politics is hemlock to this vision.

I’ll say it again, conservatism is about more than classical liberalism, but a conservatism that doesn’t conserve classical liberalism isn’t worth conserving.

One last point: I do not think, nor do I want to suggest, that vast bulk of pro-Trump Republicans are racists or even aware of the white nationalist flames the Trump campaign has ignited. But this is one of the many tragedies of the Trumpian moment: it has awakened and inspired forces that were best left dead, dormant or irrelevant.


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