The Primal Scream of Identity Politics
Just when it seemed as if the election of Donald Trump had rendered his supporters incoherent with triumphalism and his detractors incoherent with rage—thereby dumbing-down political conversation for a long time to come—something different and more interesting happened. A genuine debate has sprung up among liberals and progressives about the subject of the hour: identity politics.
Jump-started by a short manifesto called The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics by Columbia University professor Mark Lilla, it’s a conversation worth following for reasons beyond partisanship. As in his New York Times essay published 10 days after Trump’s electoral victory, Lilla’s purpose in this broadside is two-fold: to excoriate identity politics, sometimes called “identity liberalism,” and to convince his “fellow liberals that their current way of looking at the country, speaking to it, teaching the young, and engaging in practical politics has been misguided and counterproductive.”
The discussion now underway on the left illuminates a fault line that has yet to be sufficiently mapped or explained. The deeper question raised is not the instrumental concern of Lilla and others—how liberalism can retool itself in order to win more elections. Rather, it’s the elemental one: How has the question of “identity” come to be emotional and political ground zero for so many in America, and elsewhere in the Western world?
As the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy explains in its entry on identity politics, “wherever they line up in the debates, thinkers agree that the notion of identity has become indispensable to contemporary political discourse.” In The Once and Future Liberal, Lilla offers one kind of answer to why that’s so. “[T]hirty years of economic growth and technological advance that followed the Second World War,” he argues, combined with new geographic, institutional, and erotic mobility and led to a “hyperindividualistic bourgeois society, materially and in our cultural dogmas.”
Flush with prosperity and unprecedented new freedoms, we moderns, Lilla believes, went on to atomize ourselves: “Personal choice. Individual rights. Self-definition. We speak these words as if a wedding vow.” By the 1980s, such hyperindividualism coalesced into what he calls the “Reagan Dispensation,” which prized self-reliance and small government over the collective—thus marking a radical break from the preceding “Roosevelt Dispensation” emphasizing more communal attachments, including duty and solidarity.
By embracing the politics of identity, Lilla says, liberals and progressives have unwittingly contaminated their politics with a “Reaganism for lefties,” resulting in the toxic consequences visible today: shutdowns of free speech on campuses, out-of-touch urban and globalized elites, and a political order deformed into a “victimhood Olympics.”
In effect, his is a supply-side answer to the “why” question: Identity politics became the order of the day because it could. What’s lacking from this analysis—as from other critiques, right as well as left—is what might be called the demand-side answer: Why have so many people found in identity politics the very center of their political being?
After all: That identitarianism is now the heart and soul of politics for many is a visceral truth—as raw as the footage of violent political clashes making headlines with a frequency that would have shocked most citizens only a decade ago. What’s singular about such politics is exactly its profound and immediate emotivism, its frightening volatility, its instantaneous ignition into unreasoned violence. Lilla acknowledges this reality obliquely in describing “a kind of moral panic about racial, gender and sexual identity”—all true, as far as it goes. But the problem is that it doesn’t go nearly far enough.
When a mob of young men attack a 74-year-old man and a middle-aged woman, as happened at Middlebury College in March in the case of Charles Murray and Allison Stanger, something deeper is afoot than American individualism run amok. When debate after campus debate is preemptively shut down due to social media threats of violence, reasoned talk of a “Reagan Dispensation” doesn’t begin to capture the menace there. Berkeley spent $600,000 on “security” for a visit by the conservative author and pundit Ben Shapiro. Non-progressive speakers who have nothing to do with racism or supremacism are regularly harassed, threatened, disinvited, and shouted down on campuses across the country. To ascribe these transgressions to identitarian narcissism alone is to miss what’s truly novel about them. And most chilling.
What’s unfolding on campuses today isn’t merely the “pseudo-politics of self-regard” of Lilla’s description. It’s all panic, all the time. Even “assaults on free speech” doesn’t capture the gravity of the new menace, though of course they are that, too. Dangerous collective hysteria is more like it.
Writing after she gave a 2015 lecture at Oberlin on feminism that was mocked and jeered and protested, including by people whose mouths were covered in duct tape, Christina Hoff Sommers observed that “some of those students need the services of a professional deprogrammer. What I saw was very cult-like.” “The inmates ran the asylum,” Charles Murray reported of the attack at Middlebury, adding that he had “never encountered anything close to this. . . . and the ferocity.” Ben Shapiro, who has been heckled all over the country, has pronounced his protesters “delusional.”
The trend toward preemptive silencing is, moreover, escalating. As Stanley Kurtz has documented in National Review, there were as many anti-speech incidents on U.S. campuses in the first six weeks of the fall 2017 semester as in the entire spring semester, including the “disruption of a lecture at Reed College, the shout-down of former FBI Director James Comey at Howard University, the disruption of an immigration debate at the University of Pittsburgh, the shout-down of a spokesman for the ACLU at William and Mary, and the attempted shout-down of the President of Virginia Tech.”
This aggressive irrationalism goes missing from The Once and Future Liberal, as it does from most other accounts by liberals of identity politics. It is true, as Lilla observes, that today’s culture of victimization encourages people to “descend into the rabbit hole of self.” But the question remains: What gravitational force pulls them toward that hole in the first place?
In a widely discussed essay in the Atlantic in 2015, “The Coddling of the American Mind,” Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff offered another answer of sorts. “Something strange is happening at American colleges and universities,” they reported, and “some recent campus actions border on the surreal.” The authors dubbed the phenomenon “vindictive protectiveness”—a runaway effort to protect students from psychological harm, including by punishing putative transgressors.
Alarmed by this development for several reasons—not least because they fear that it teaches students to think “pathologically”—the authors pointed to empirical measures of campus devolution. Most arresting, they noted,
rates of mental illness in young adults have been rising, both on campus and off, in recent decades. Some portion of the increase is surely due to better diagnosis and greater willingness to seek help, but most experts seem to agree that some portion of the trend is real. Nearly all of the campus mental-health directors surveyed in 2013 by the American College Counseling Association reported that the number of students with severe psychological problems was rising at their schools [emphasis added].
The authors also mentioned “The rate of emotional distress reported by students themselves is also high, and rising.”
Such a generation-wide descent into psychiatric trouble calls for explanation. Haidt and Lukianoff, to their credit, were uncertain about the why question, writing, “It’s difficult to know exactly why vindictive protectiveness has burst forth so powerfully in the past few years.” They zeroed in on several possible contributors: the surge in crime in the 1960s and ’70s that made parents more protective of their children; the “zero tolerance” policies in schools after the Columbine shootings; increased political polarization; and the rise of social media.
No doubt social media are an inescapable part of what ails us. The question is no longer whether Google is making us stupid, as Nicholas Carr put it in 2008. It’s instead whether Facebook and Snapchat and Instagram are driving many to mutually assured social destruction. Yet for all that public life is being configured and disfigured by connectivity, even social media and the Internet do not answer the why question about identity frenzy. They beg it, for two reasons: first, because identity politics predates the Internet; and second, because the self-absorption and insecurity amplified by nonstop introspection online just summon the point of causality all over again. Why can’t Narcissus stop looking at himself? The frantic, habitual electronic construction of one’s self or selves underscores that identity is all the rage—often literally—especially, though not only, among people in their teens, 20s, and 30s.
Other writers suggest a third explanation of sorts for the fury behind identity politics: white racism.
In a piece titled “America’s First White President,” published on December 10, 2016, Salon executive editor Andrew O’Hehir delivered an example of this line of thought. “Trump,” he wrote, “is the first president defined by whiteness, the first whose glaring and overwhelming whiteness is a salient issue that lies at the core of his appeal.” The “presidential candidate’s race played a central role in his campaign, and is one of the key factors that got him elected.” The 2016 result, in O’Hehir’s telling, amounts to retribution of some kind for America’s having, twice, elected a black president (“the election of Barack Obama inflicted a psychic wound that demanded immediate payback, at almost any cost”).
In an essay published in September, “The First White President,” bestselling author Ta-Nehisi Coates issued a related indictment in the Atlantic. Drawn from a new collection called We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy, Coates’s piece asserted that: “To Trump, whiteness is neither notional nor symbolic but is the very core of his power”; Trump “is a white man who would not be president were it not for this fact”; and Trump is “the first president whose entire political existence hinges on the fact of a black president.” The essay also included an attack on a number of high-profile writers, Mark Lilla among them, as unreliable commentators on identity politics—on the grounds that “those charged with analyzing [Trump] cannot name his essential nature, because they too are implicated in it.”
As these analyses and associated commentary show, the idea that contemporary politics is rooted fundamentally in white racism endures. Once again, though, as an explanation for the prevalence and emotional staying power of identity politics at large, white racism doesn’t suffice—for the simple reason that so many other members in the identitarian coalition claim other motivations, other oppressors, and other grievances.
For starters, identity politics isn’t just a left-wing thing. As Washingtonian magazine noted of a pro-Trump rally on the National Mall in September, “There were Hispanics for Trump, Grandmas for Trump, Gays for Trump.” A member of the last explained, “Identity politics is very popular, and very important.” Some on the “alt-right” regard themselves as identitarians, too.
Then there are, perhaps most notable of all, the identitarians of sexual politics, whose influence on law and culture has been especially prodigious during the past quarter-century. In addition to the epiphenomenal manifestations of the obsession over sexual and gender identity—Facebook’s 71 genders, media focus on intersex and transgendered people, the “bathroom wars,” and the rest—there are areas into which sexual identitarianism has sunk lasting roots.
At least eight countries—including India, Germany, and Australia—now allow for identification as something other than male or female, and a growing number of states and other authorities leave gender identity in official forms to personal say-so. Marriage, adoption, commercial surrogacy, and other areas of family law have been reconfigured around the world. In fact, viewing the whole of “identity politics” through the single lens of public efficacy, one would have to say that sexual identitarians have both exercised and obtained more power than any other single group.
The legalization of same-sex marriage, as observers both for and against the 2015 Obergefell decision came to agree, owed most to one factor: empathy for the moral claim that attraction to one’s own sex is like pigmentation or DNA, immutable and immune to change. Yet a split cultural second later, exactly the opposite case has come to be made for the intersex, transgendered, and other sexual minorities: that identity is fluid, indeterminate, perhaps even recalcitrant, rather than born that way.
In this head-on collision of purported creation stories about sexual and gender identity that cannot possibly both be true, we see once more that the question Who am I? is the most fraught of our time. It has become like a second skin: something that can’t be sloughed off, or even scratched, without excruciating pain to the subject—reason and logic and the rest of persuasion-as-usual be damned.
White racism, past and present, explains many terrible things. So do other evils, including the kind just revealed in the Harvey Weinstein scandal. But neither racism nor sexual predation nor related injustices can explain the primordial emotionalism and fierce irrationality that have come to be part and parcel of identitarianism for all.
Writing in New York magazine in September, Andrew Sullivan delivered an insight in the direction of the why question. American politics, he wrote, has become a war between “two tribes”: “Over the past couple of decades in America, the enduring, complicated divides of ideology, geography, party, class, religion, and race have mutated into something deeper, simpler to map, and therefore much more ominous.”
Yet what, exactly, has caused so many Americans to want to join one of these tribes in the first place? Sullivan advanced a list of many “accelerants” from the past few decades: the failed nomination of Judge Robert Bork to the Supreme Court, mass illegal Latino immigration, Newt Gingrich’s GOP revolution, talk radio, Fox News, MSNBC, partisan gerrymandering, the absence of compulsory military service, multiculturalism, declining Christianity, the rural brain drain, and more.
No doubt, taken together, these disparate events explain something about the political trajectory now behind us. But does one really become part of a horde, defined in opposition to other hordes, over relatively quotidian prompts like these? Doesn’t the very word “tribal” suggest that something more primal may be in the mix too?
Of course it does.
Just as “tribe” is antecedent to the state, something else is antecedent to the tribe—something missing from all the high-profile talk, pro and con, about how American and other Western societies have become mired in identitarianism.
In laying out the particulars of today’s “tribes,” Sullivan wrote of “unconditional pride, in our neighborhood and community; in our ethnic and social identities and their rituals; among our fellow enthusiasts. There are hip-hop and country-music tribes; bros; nerds; Wasps; Dead Heads and Packers fans; Facebook groups. . . . And then, most critically, there is the Uber-tribe that constitutes the nation-state, a megatribe that unites a country around shared national rituals, symbols, music, history, mythology, and events.” And here we reach a turning point, not just in this essay but also in the widening argument, because that list omits what the majority of humanity would call the most important “tribe” of all.
It’s not that “America Wasn’t Built for Humans,” as the title of Sullivan’s piece has it. It’s rather that America, like other civilizations, was built for humans who learned community not from roving bands of unrelated nomads, but from those around them—beginning in the small civilization of the family.
In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote of how democratic governance shapes familial relations, rendering fathers and sons more equal and closer and less hierarchical than they are in its aristocratic counterparts. If it’s obvious that a form of government can shape the family, isn’t it even more obvious that the first polity to which future citizens belong—the family—will shape the kind of citizens they become?
Our macro-politics have gone tribal because our micro-politics are no longer familial. This, above all, is what’s happened during the five decades in which identity politics went from being unheard of to ubiquitous.
To quote from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy once more, “although ‘identity politics’ can draw on intellectual precursors from Mary Wollstonecraft to Frantz Fanon, writing that actually uses this specific phrase, with all its contemporary baggage, is limited almost exclusively to the last thirty years.” Its founding document is “The Combahee River Collective Statement,” a 1977 declaration that grew out of several years of meetings among black feminists in Massachusetts.
The key assertion of this manifesto, which prefigured the politics to come, is “This focusing on our own oppression is embodied in the concept of identity politics. We believe that the most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly out of our own identity, as opposed to working to end somebody else’s oppression.”
And who is the “somebody else” to whom the document refers? Men. “Contemporary Black feminism,” the Combahee River Collective explained, “is the outgrowth of countless generations of personal sacrifice, militancy, and work by our mothers and sisters [emphasis added].” When men are mentioned in the Combahee statement, it is largely as adversaries with “habitually sexist ways of interacting with and oppressing Black women.” The writers mourn that male reaction to feminism “has been notoriously negative.” Most evocative of all is the note of dejection: “We realize that the only people who care enough about us to work consistently for our liberation are us.”
The founding document of identity politics, in other words, reflects reality as many African American women would have found it in the 1970s—one in which they were the canaries in the coal mine of the sexual revolution. It’s a world in which men are ever less trusted, relations between the sexes are chronically estranged, and marriage is thin on the ground. African American women were—and still are—disproportionately affected by aspects of the sexual revolution like abortion, out-of-wedlock births, and fatherless homes. Isn’t it suggestive that the earliest collective articulation of identity politics came from the community that was first to suffer from the accelerated fraying of family ties, a harbinger of what came next for all?
Identity politics cannot be understood apart from the preceding and concomitant social fact of family implosion. The year before the Combahee document’s publication—1976—was a watershed of a sort. The out-of-wedlock birth rate for black Americans tipped over the 50-percent mark (the 1965 Moynihan Report worried over a rate half as high). This rate has kept climbing and exceeded 70 percent in 2016. At the same time, other measures indicating the splintering of the nuclear and extended family expanded too. By 2012, Millennial women—who were then under the age of 30—exhibited for the first time the out-of-wedlock birth rate of black women in 1976: i.e., more than 50 percent. Millennials, of course, are the demographic backbone of identity politics.
And the out-of-wedlock birth rate is just one measure of the unprecedented disruption of the family over the last half-century-plus. Consider, just in passing, the impact of abortion. In 2008, the Guttmacher Institute reported that 61 percent of women terminating pregnancies were already mothers of at least one child. Many children—and many grown children—have been deprived of potential siblings via pregnancy termination.
Abortion, like single motherhood, is only one engine of a phenomenon that has come to characterize more and more American lives during the past half-century: what might be called the “family, interrupted.” Many post-sexual revolutionary people now pass through life vaguely aware of family members who could have been but aren’t—whether via parental disruption in childhood or the long string of exes now typical in Western mating or abortion or childlessness by choice or other romantic and sexual habits that did not exist en masse until after the 1960s.
Many of us now live in patterns of serial monogamy, for instance, in which one partner is followed by another. When children occur, this means a consistently shifting set of family members to whom one is sometimes biologically related and sometimes not: stepfathers, half-siblings, “uncles,” and “cousins.” As couples form and un-form, finding new partners and shedding old ones, these relations morph with them. The result for many people is the addition and subtraction of “family” members on a scale that was unimaginable until reliable contraception for women—the FDA approved the first oral contraceptive in 1960—and the legalizing of abortion. Together they made the de-institutionalization of traditional marriage and family possible.
P.D. Eastman’s famous children’s book Are You My Mother? was published in 1960. In it, a baby bird goes from one creature to another trying to find one like him, finally to be re-united in a happy maternal ending. Imagine playing something like that game today.
Is That Your Stepsister? Maybe yes—if your mother is still married to that person’s biological father. If instead this parental unit has split up and her father has moved with his daughter to a new state and acquired a new stepmother and new stepsiblings, likely no.
Is That Your Uncle? This too depends entirely on what other adults in the picture have decided to do. If your so-called “uncle” was your mother’s boyfriend several boyfriends ago and she hasn’t seen him in years, then you and he are probably not “related” anymore—or anyway, would be unlikely to describe yourselves as such. On the other hand, if that “uncle” is your biological father’s biological brother, then likely the bond still holds—even if your biological mother and father never married.
Is That Your Niece? If she’s your sister’s biological or adopted child, you’d probably say yes. But if instead she’s your sister’s new live-in boyfriend’s child from a previous liaison, you’d hesitate. By similar logic, say, the adult children of a man who takes a trophy wife their age are unlikely to refer to her as “Mom.”
And round and round the game of musical identity chairs goes.
The result of all these shifting and swirling selves is that many people no longer know what almost all of humanity once knew, including in the great swath of history that was otherwise nastier, more brutish, and shorter than ours: a reliable circle of faces, many biologically related to oneself, present during early and adolescent life. That continuity helped to make possible the plank-by-plank construction of identity as son or daughter, cousin or grandfather, mother or aunt, and the rest of what’s called, tellingly, the family tree.
For many people, for all kinds of reasons, the roots of that tree no longer hold. Whether you miss Ozzie and Harriet or are instead Modern Family’s biggest fan—as the previous president claimed to be—is immaterial. The relative stability of yesterday’s familial identity could not help but answer the question at the heart of today’s politics—Who am I?—in a way that many of us can’t answer it anymore.
And, of course, these tributaries poled by isolated pilots are pulled into powerful currents of politics. It is in this sense that identity politics does indeed explain something of Donald Trump’s election—not so much because he is “our first white president,” but because he’s obviously a placeholder for something else. The faction of the country that includes the “resistance” treats him more like an abusive stepfather than an elected head of state. Then there is his base, whose loyalty in the face of one transgression after another has been remarked upon for many months. For at least some of those people, Trump is—as the alt-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos put it—“Daddy.”
As a final proof that the roots of identity politics owe much to what used to be called modern nurture—or the lack of it—consider one more phenomenon baffling to non-identitarians that becomes clearer on applying this proposed familial lens: the otherwise-inexplicable frenzy over “cultural appropriation.”
The emblematic eruption came at Yale in 2015, when the university’s intercultural affairs committee preemptively asked students to avoid certain Halloween costumes that might offend. Faculty member Erika Christakis offered a mild demurral, suggesting in an email the logical consequences of such a policy—that it might bar blonde toddlers, say, from dressing up as Asian characters from a popular Disney film. Her dissent sparked a protest letter signed by hundreds; an ugly public confrontation between menacing students and Christakis’s husband, sociologist Nicholas Christakis; a social media campaign against both of them; and, ultimately, her departure from Yale.
Yet this was only the most visible of the costume controversies. The president of the University of Louisville issued a public apology in 2015 after it was revealed that he and a group of staffers had worn sombreros and other Mexican-themed attire at a lunch party. Surveying the Halloween-costume parameters handed down by authorities at Tufts, a writer for the Daily Beast in 2016 noted that “students who heed the above guidelines are presumably restricted from dressing up as samurais, hombres, geishas, belly dancers, Vikings, ninjas, rajas, French maids, Bollywood dancers, Rastafarians, Pocahontas, Aladdin, Zorro, or Thor.” Even lingerie peddlers aren’t immune from the politics of “appropriation.” Victoria’s Secret was outed in the fashion pages last year not because of what its models weren’t wearing, ironically, but because of what they were: accessories that made sartorial reference to Chinese New Year and similar taboos.
Again, to perplexed bystanders who think a bongo drum is just a bongo drum and that tacos can be enjoyed by everyone, the cacophony over cultural “ownership” makes no sense. That’s why appropriation-protesters are typically written off by non-progressives as “snowflakes,” say, or the products of misguided “helicopter parenting”—i.e., spoiled brats. But what if the truth lies somewhere else?
“Mine! Mine! It’s mine!” The manifest panic behind cries of “cultural appropriation” is real—as real as the tantrum of a toddler. It’s as real as the developmental regression seen in the retreat to campus “safe spaces,” those tiny non-treehouses stuffed with candy, coloring books, and Care Bears. In social science, the toddler’s developmental “mine!” is called the “endowment effect”—the notion that humans ascribe extra value to possessions simply because they’re theirs. Some theorists consider it a subset of another human proclivity: loss aversion.
Maybe that cultural scream of “mine!” is issuing from souls who did have something taken from them—only something more elemental than the totemic objects now functioning as figurative blankies for lost and angry former children. As of today, less than 65 percent of American children live with both biological parents, even as other familial boughs have broken via external forces like the opioid crisis, criminality and incarceration, and globalization. Maybe depression and anxiety have been rising steadily among children and teenagers for a reason. Maybe the furor over “appropriation” unveils the true foundation of identity politics, which is pathos.
Did anyone really think things would turn out otherwise—that the massive kinship dislocations of the past 60 years wouldn’t produce increasingly visible, transformative effects not only in individual lives and households, but on politics and culture, too?
After all, it defies common sense to believe that the human surroundings during one’s formative years have no effect on the life to come. There’s also a library of social science, now over half a century in the making, tracing the links between fatherless homes and higher risks of truancy, criminality, psychiatric trouble, and the rest of the ledger suggesting that ripping up primordial ties hasn’t done society any favors. It’s all there, no matter how many of us have deep reasons for wishing otherwise.
One irony is certain. While identity politics has become an object of conversation in the left-leaning circles of Anglo-American and European political thought, deliverance from today’s disfigurations cannot come from the same quarter. The reason is simple. Not only identitarians but also liberals and progressives who are now anti-identitarian or identitarian-skeptical all agree on one big thing: The sexual revolution is off-limits for revision anywhere, anytime. It is their moral bedrock.
No-fault divorce, out-of-wedlock births, paid surrogacy, absolutism about erotic freedom, disdain for traditional moral codes: The very policies and practices that chip away at the family and drive the subsequent flight to identity politics are those that liberals and progressives embrace.
Then there are related family-unfriendly social realities that they also deem benign. Pornography, which once upon a time some feminists objected to, is now the stuff of their full-throated enthusiasm. Prostitution has been re-defined as the more anodyne “sex work.” And, of course, abortion is—in the unnervingly theological modifier applied to it by Hillary Clinton and many others on the left—“sacrosanct.” In the end, asking liberals and progressives to solve the problem of identity politics is like asking the proverbial orphan with chutzpah who murdered his parents.
Yes, conservatives have missed something major about identity politics: its authenticity. But the liberal-progressive side has missed something bigger. Identity politics is not so much politics as a primal scream. It’s the result of what might be called the Great Scattering—the Western world’s unprecedented familial dispersion.
Anyone who’s ever heard a coyote in the desert, separated at night from the pack, knows the sound. Maybe the otherwise-unexplained hysteria of today’s identity politics is just that: the collective human howl of our time, sent up by inescapably communal creatures who can no longer identify their own.
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