The American Ethos vs Identity Politics: Eyeball to Eyeball
Lets start at the beginning. Human beings are tribal. Throughout history, groups, kingdoms, and countries were defined by their homogeneity of race, religion, and creed.
The United States of America, however, is an anti-tribal experiment, dependent upon theories of Natural Law, propounding that a common American Ethos — holding that a representative government formed through consent of the people can secure the inalienable rights of equal citizens — can unite individuals and groups of otherwise disparate composition. Unlike previous progressive movements, today’s Identity Politics Left reject, explicitly or implicitly, these fundamental American principles. How did we get here and what’s the way forward?
Old School Leftist Social Progressivism — At Least It’s An Ethos
The current Identity Politics Left is the offspring of the Socially Progressive Left of the 1950s, 60s and 70s. These decades saw the Left galvanized and provided with clear purpose of action by the Civil Rights movement — a pro-American struggle to achieve equal rights for all citizens. These struggles, and victories, occurred concurrently with the rise of Deconstructionism and it’s process-bending cousin, Critical Legal Studies (CLS).
There’s nothing inherently wrong with Deconstructionism (its no accident that Jacques Derrida’s “Of Grammatology” was published in 1967, during the height of the Civil Rights era) from an academic or philosophical perspective. Language is, of course, somewhat malleable — at least on the fringes, and prudent thinkers, as appropriate, should look past simplification and binary oppositions in language, morality and beyond.
CLS deconstructed our legal system — from the Constitution through principles of stare decisis — as not reflecting justice as it manifests itself in a legal system, but rather as reflecting injustice embedded into a system solely for the purpose of maintaining an existing power structure. To the CLS adherent, the legal process was therefore less of a route to justice than it was an obstacle to be overcome.
While I am skeptical of Deconstructionist thought manifested in real world application and distrustful of CLS as a judicial doctrine, at least in its Civil Rights era form, both were part of a larger goal of realizing the Ethos envisaged by America’s founders. Indeed, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. explicitly tied the Civil Rights movement to the American Ethos in his 1963 Letter from a Birmingham Jail:
“We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands … when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters they were in reality standing up for what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judeo-Christian heritage, thereby bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.”
After-Effects: Post Civil Rights-Era Difficulties
A persistent problem facing the Socially Progressive Left is that they must always have a battle to fight to remain relevant. Success is a Pyrrhic victory, because a world that has realized social justice has no need for the Socially Progressive Left. This results in sort of a victimization Ponzi-scheme whereby (a) there always has to be a next battle and/or (b) the original battle can never be fully won. The result is that after each victory, the Socially Progressive Left has to scramble to find the next thing (each successive cause incrementally less morally certain than the last) while simultaneously finding ways to somehow extend the victimization of the earlier groups (each successive victimization slightly more specious than the last). (In an elucidating moment, in 2015 Ezra Klein actually complained that “the rapid acceptance of gay marriage has robbed [the Left] of the next civil rights fight.” Incredible stuff.)
So with the Civil Rights battles largely won decades prior, and with the women’s movement having achieved victories rendering it largely without purpose, the Socially Progressive Left of the 21st century has sought out group after group desperately seeking another Selma Moment while doing its best to revive 1960s racial tensions and 1970s gender struggles. In each case, the white-straight-Christian-male serves as universal villain due to practicalities (there is no cohesion without a common enemy), “tradition” (those attempting to recreate the 1960s have committed an association fallacy), anti-elitism (white-straight-Christian-males continue to hold significant power, however defined), and simple tribal animus.
And the result is that the Socially Progressive Left of the 20th century has birthed a wayward 21st century offspring called the Identity Politics Left: an allied menagerie of self-labeled marginalized groups who equate social justice with the subversion of the white-straight-Christian-male power structure, and believe that achieving social justice does not require adhering to processes put in place by white-straight-Christian-male oppressors.
Unfortunately for the Identity Politics Left, many of the recent new or recycled causes haven’t immediately resonated in the way that the 1950s-60s-and 70s Civil Rights causes did. To bridge the gaps, the Identity Politics Left now relies upon more extreme versions of Deconstructionism and CLS — Deconstruction and anti-process on steroids, if you will. No longer are progressives merely engaging in complexification of words and reexamination of norms, rather what we are seeing now is a purposeful manipulation of language (see, eg. White Supremacy, Privilege, Rape Culture, CisGender, Fascism, the “-justice” suffix etc) and inversion of relationships (Police as Criminals, Men as Women, Traitors as Heroes, Hijab as Feminist Accoutrement etc) that is downright Orwellian in nature. As an extra bonus, we also get the fascinating theater of National Anthem protests, Democratic Congresswomen dressing up as suffragettes when the mood suits and so many 1960s-nostalgia-themed marches on Washington that shin splints may slow down “the Resistance” before anything related to the Trump administration does. Taken together, optically this spectacle looks less like a de novo movement and more like a middle school production of Hair that somehow was unleashed in large numbers across the country. If it weren’t paired with a somewhat chilling collectivism that aggressively shouts down opposing thought and dialogue (“overcompensation in the form of fanaticism” according to Jung), it would be quite amusing.
Further, because the causes don’t resonate, they lack the popularity to be solved via representative legislation. And so therefore, with echoes of CLS, any means that achieve the desired ends are utilized: the Identity Politics Left supports Executive Orders on bathrooms, rejects them on immigration; supports deviation from stare decisis on 2nd amendment rights, rejects it on abortion rights; supports local nullification on deportation, rejects it on gay marriage. The norm of instituting change through legislation is just another obstacle to be overcome in achieving desired results (by the way, it should surprise no one that former President Obama was an adherent of CLS as a law school professor).
Who’s the Fascist? Identity Politics and White Nationalism Are Just Two Sides of the Same Coin
The sad reality is that when ‘social justice’ is functionally defined as “battling against white-straight-Christian-male oppressors,” (as opposed to “achieving the equality of humans envisaged by America’s founders”) we are no longer talking about ‘social justice’ at all — rather we are talking about a power battle among tribes. There is no broader philosophy or elevated discussion to be had — it is cavemen fighting for dominance (with tweets rather than clubs, for now).
A great irony is that Identity Politics and White Nationalism are twin ideologies. Both reject the notion that the American Ethos can unite across demographics. Both believe that everything, at its essence, is a tribal struggle for power and dominance. And therefore they are both fundamentally anti-American: the United States is destined for balkanization under whichever were to prevail. White racism has always been un-American and a source of national cognitive dissonance from the moment our foundational documents were signed. But the shift of the Socially Progressive Left from a pro-American 20th century Civil Rights movement to a 21st century anti-American Identity Politics quasi-nihilism is of course a more recent phenomenon and one that must be seen clearly for what it is.
Lets Wrap It All Up
I mentioned above that Civil Rights struggles for minorities and women have largely been won. I believe that to be true, although I understand that some would disagree regarding the degree. And that’s okay. In any event, I am not suggesting that the American Ethos has been fully realized or that there are not systemic or behavioral issues still to be tackled, nor do I suggest that progressivism has no place in 21st century American society. Rather, it is my suggestion that Americans (1) recommit themselves to the ideals of the American Ethos, (2) think critically in order to accurately diagnose remaining shortcomings and obstacles in fully realizing that Ethos and (3) seek to overcome such shortcomings and obstacles in a manner that does not demonize other groups of Americans or otherwise undermine the very Ethos we seek to embody.