Amy Chua is right. Identity politics has taken an exclusionary turn.
It’s a problem.
Law professor Amy Chua’s new book, Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations, was recently released to a controversial reception. Previously known for talking about Asian Tiger Moms, this time she has chosen a completely different focus: tribalism in politics. In the book, she describes how the American Left has gone from a tradition of advocating for group-blindness and inclusion for all to a divisive and exclusionary identity politics, where group consciousness is everything and group-blindness has become a sin. A Black Lives Matter protest where white people were asked to march at the back was one of the more outrageous examples given, along with numerous examples illustrating an increasing obsession over cultural appropriation, that now extends to food and clothing. Chua also links the rise of identity politics to the election of Donald Trump. To be fair, the book did not only focus on identity politics in America, but this part of the book undoubtedly generated the most controversy.
Some sections of the left immediately became defensive and almost reactionary. Some tried to discredit the book, by claiming that the kind of extremism Chua described only occurred in places like college campuses, and is therefore irrelevant to mainstream American politics. Others observed that she was taking the bait of right-wing media pundits, when our main task should be to stop these pundits from whipping up support for Trump by magnifying unrepresentative events like the ones discussed in the book. Still others have criticized the book for somewhat linking recent left-wing identity politics with white nationalism in America, when the latter has had a very long history without any help from the left. While these criticisms could be true to an extent, it really looks like some people really want to bury the discussion about the increasingly divisive and irrational nature of identity politics.
But that’s just putting the lid on a festering problem
I have to say that much of what Chua said in the book is in line with my own personal experience with left-leaning progressive circles and movements, especially over the past few years. In fact, Chua has found many self-identified liberals and progressives who have embraced her message. Even a casual scroll through the comments over at the Guardian, certainly not where you would expect to find too many conservatives, shows many sympathetic voices. Some liberals have just had enough of a movement that clearly does not believe in true equality for all. Others are concerned that the drama is feeding the far-right and is perhaps helping Donald Trump. Meanwhile, those on the economic left are concerned about the future of working class solidarity, impossible in a fundamentally divided society. If it’s all just happening on college campuses, how come so many people feel the frustration?
People, we clearly have a problem on our hands, and being in denial won’t help. If you think that ignoring this development and focussing on mainstream progressive achievements is the way to defend the reputation of the broad left, it isn’t working. The people behind the divisive drama certainly do want to be heard, and they are being heard loud and clear by the MAGA and Breitbart crowd, who in turn use their antics to discredit all progressives and liberals. And if you think that we can simply brush this development aside hoping that it will go away, it won’t. I will explain why.
In the book, Chua makes her case that divisive identity politics occur because human beings are naturally tribal. This is of course true to an extent. But I cannot agree that this adequately explains what is going on in Western identity politics at the moment. Rather, I propose an additional factor: the kind of divisive identity politics we are seeing is based on a political ideology, an ideology that is perhaps not yet well understood by the majority of liberals and progressives.
Many liberals, while being frustrated that the ongoing drama is feeding Trump supporters and the far-right alike and making things worse, still believe that those behind the drama are all well-intentioned in the same way as themselves, that they just got too angry for rational debate or too impatient for a process of change that often feels too slow. That we all ultimately want the same things in the end. However, this view is mistaken, in that those behind the divisive drama do not even believe in the same things as mainstream liberals and progressives. In conventional American politics, we are conditioned to see politics as a spectrum, from “extremely liberal” to “extremely conservative.” However, this spectrum presupposes that there are only two main worldviews, which recent events have thoroughly discredited. To put it simply, the ideology behind the recent divisive identity politics cannot be placed anywhere on the aforementioned spectrum.
(Please pardon my lack of solid references for the analysis I provide. Much of it comes from anecdotal sources, including many conversations over the years with people involved in various progressive movements, people which of course I cannot name. My intention is to discuss a certain tendency in progressive politics as of late, and hopefully start a conversation from there. I don’t expect you to believe all of what I say right away, but we do need a conversation.)
Yes, it’s all ideological. And it’s not anything like American liberalism.
The words of Chua lamenting how American Left views on issues of identity and equality have strayed far from those of Martin Luther King and Barack Obama in recent years do sound familiar. In fact, such sentiment has become a refrain among those liberals who have been more awake to the problem. However, putting it this way frames the problem as a misguided development in a movement still otherwise committed to the values of King and Obama. Rather, to put it bluntly, sections of the American Left have been hijacked by an alien ideology that shares almost nothing in common with historical American liberalism:
- An ideology that believes the only way to change is to tear apart our existing social fabric, because there cannot be real change in liberal reform, no matter what.
- An ideology that believes there is no point in rational debate and changing people’s minds, because the playing field will always favor the privileged, no matter what.
- An ideology that believes it’s always going to be an us-vs.-them world, at least until some kind of revolution, and the only way to progress is for the oppressed to win and the formerly privileged to lose. In this worldview, to achieve social change, the “oppressed” would have to develop a consciousness of being oppressed, and fight for victory over their “oppressors.” Such an ideology would have to constantly create conflict so as to make its case for how useless reformist politics is, and to arouse the fighting spirit of its adherents.
Therefore, it needs to make the most of every perceived injustice, no matter how insignificant: the value is in the fight, not the issue itself. Hence the pointless culture wars over inauthentic Asian food, or over Beyonce in an Indian dress. This kind of thinking has probably been lurking in the shadows of the extreme left for at least several decades. With rising frustration in society and the ease of spreading ideas via the internet and social media, it now has a substantial audience and support base.
The idea that it would be better for the oppressed to rise up as a group and fight their “oppressors” as a group, without consideration for individual guilt or lack thereof, is actually not a new idea. It probably originated in the Marxist idea of class struggle, where the working class would develop class consciousness, and come together to struggle against the propertied class, to bring about a revolution and establish a “dictatorship of the proletariat.” While Marx only intended for his idea to apply to economic classes, this idea has since taken on a life of its own, as ideas often do. After all, economic classes aren’t the only fracture lines in society where this model could be applied.
This is why, in late identity politics, it has all been about “group consciousness” and group claims, as Chua described in her book. The similarity of some of the language used in identity politics movements with traditional Marxist language hints at the historical origin of their model of social change. Of course, this is a very un-American model of change, in that it violates the equality of every individual and the right of every individual to pursue life, liberty and happiness. But radicals, in the true sense of the word, have never quite agreed with America’s founding fathers, anyway. This probably explains why some identity politics movements do not see any irony in asking whites to march at the back, for example.
In fact, the values held by America’s founders have never had a monopoly on progressive thinking. Internationally, intellectuals supporting progress have always been divided into “liberal” and “radical” camps. In America and similar countries, most progressives have been liberals, because they have been optimistic in the ability of liberal reform to achieve change, under a system dedicated to democracy and liberty, as established by the founding fathers. Even so-called radicals in American history were most often actually liberals with views considered extreme for their time, who still measured progress by achieving the vision of the founding fathers. Hence, why liberal and progressive are often synonymous in American usage.
However, radicals, in the true sense of the word, have always hated liberals and their methods, and preferred to use other, more dramatic, means of change. And this kind of radicalism is, unfortunately, fueling the identity politics dramas in America and other Western countries as of late.
True liberals, we must take a stand.
While some progressives appear to refrain from attacking divisive identity politics, perhaps believing in broad-based leftist unity or thinking that speaking out would feed the MAGA crowd even more, this would be a misguided response. In the face of divisive identity politics, true liberals who believe in the way of the founding fathers, Lincoln, King and Obama alike must take a strong stance against it. This is because, first and foremost, the ideology behind radical identity politics is simply incompatible with the values of liberalism, including the equality and autonomy of individuals, the right of every individual to pursue life and liberty for themselves, and democratic governance via peaceful processes.
Furthermore, radical identity politics violates the morality implied in liberalism. Every time radical identity politics is practiced, it is effectively spitting into the face of liberal ideals. Furthermore, failing to take a strong stance against radical identity politics would allow right-wing commentators to use the actions of radicals to discredit mainstream liberals and progressives. I mean, they will probably try to do so in any case, but where liberals have already taken a strong stance against radical identity politics, any attempt to link the two would not get very far.
TaraElla is a singer-songwriter, independent journalist and author, who is passionate about liberty and equality. She is the author of the Moral Libertarian Horizon books, which focus on developing a moral case for liberal politics in the 21st century.