It’s a sign of how divided we are as a country that we cannot even agree on the nature of our divisions. This disagreement over the source of our disagreements is not merely partisan, but cuts through the Democratic and Republican parties, as the raucous primaries of the last presidential election made clear. It ultimately springs from a deeper ideological contest over which public philosophy should rule the American mind.
Five political worldviews are currently vying for supremacy in the public square: identity politics, progressive class-based redistributionism, libertarian anti-statism, reform conservatism, and Trumpist populism. Despite some tensions, the first two co-exist in the Democratic Party. The other three are jostling for control of the Republican Party.
Trumpist populism, though not without its blind spots, has a more incisive diagnosis of the defining political conflict of our age and of the central threats confronting the country than any of the other competing worldviews. Trump’s improbable rise to the Presidency is as much a testimony to the intellectual shortcomings of the Republican and Democratic parties, as it is to his own political acumen. Whatever one may think of Donald Trump’s eccentricities, tweets and personality, there is much to learn both from his analysis of American politics and the courage he has displayed in challenging the reigning ways of thinking in both parties.
While Trump and his fiery brand of populism grab all the headlines, the most powerful ideology in America remains identity politics. It permeates our culture and fuels our national obsession with diversity, understood as the proportional representation in all realms of life of the various “communities” that have gained recognition: African-Americans, women, Hispanics, LGBTQs, Asians, and, if the Census Bureau has its way, MENAs — Middle Easterners and North Africans. Conspicuously absent from the list, of course, are whites, Christians, and men — three of the most numerous groups in America.
Via the doctrines of affirmative action and disparate impact, identity politics has reshaped our laws and our legal system. It has weakened our commitment to meritocracy and equal treatment under the law as a result of its single-minded focus on equalizing group outcomes.
It has replaced post-modernism and watered-down Marxism as the unofficial creed of our institutions of higher learning. And it has taught all Americans that prejudice in all its forms — including merely in speech — is the one unforgivable sin.
The fundamental division in America, according to the identitarians, is between the oppressed and their oppressors. They view the country as a rich mosaic of victimized groups that have been and continue to be exploited, stigmatized, and marginalized in countless overt and subtle ways. American history is reconceived as a forward march of social progress. In the beginning, only rich, privileged, Christian, straight white males were free. Over the centuries, their privilege has gradually eroded, and America has become more inclusive as more groups have received more rights. Presumably, one day, all will be free and equal. Paradoxically, the division of America into various balkanized identity groups and the relentless fostering of grievances is somehow supposed to pave the way for a non-oppressive society in which all harmoniously co-exist.
The seemingly benign rhetoric of inclusion and diversity conceals a deeply illiberal current of thought. The elites who enforce identity politics categorically forbid uttering any statement that they deem bigoted in any way. Native Americans may not object to the name Washington Redskins, but the bien pensants take offense on their behalf. They are the ones who decide what counts as racism — or any one of its corollary sins.
Of the five competing worldviews, identity politics is the only one that has the power to police the public square to punish those who violate its sacred creed of political correctness. You can safely call Trump and his followers fascists or denounce Bernie Sanders’s entire economic platform any which way you want, but you will likely pay a heavy price if you deviate from the accepted script when talking about favored identity groups. From Brendan Eich to Curt Schilling, many prominent people — and an even greater number of ordinary ones (like James Damore) — have lost their jobs and seen their names besmirched for espousing views deemed to be bigoted.
Every society has its pieties. Some forbid atheism. Others punish adultery. We prohibit bigotry. And we use both public opinion and the law to punish those who trespass against it (almost all states have hate-crimes statutes that punish more harshly offenses allegedly motivated by prejudice).
Under the reign of identity politics, one is in effect limited to two types of statements when speaking of protected identity groups: denunciations of their victimization at the hands of an unjust society and praise for their accomplishments, whether real or fake. Those who venture beyond this safe space do so at their peril.
Identity politics not only permeates our public life, it is the reigning ideology and public face of the Democratic Party, having displaced the older class-based redistributionism of FDR and LBJ. On the whole, the Democratic Party today is more committed to championing the grievances, real or perceived, of so-called marginalized communities than to defending the interests of the working class (and, oftentimes, to actually advancing the interests of either).
In fact, Democratic leaders have a hard time sympathizing with the majority of Americans who do not belong to a recognized identity group and reside in what is dismissively called “flyover country.” Hillary Clinton’s comment about the irredeemable “basket of deplorables” merely voiced a widespread sentiment among elite liberals.
In the world of identity politics, it turns out that not all identities are created equal: one identity — the one that could be applied to the majority of Americans — is forced to bear the nation’s sins. In the academy, where leftist ideas are developed before being released into the national bloodstream, identity politics is slowly morphing into a neo-segregationist, anti-white ideology (that is also anti-Christian, anti-male, and of course, anti-American). In the past year, there have been efforts on college campuses to exclude white students from certain dorms (the University of Connecticut), dining spaces (American University), safe spaces (Claremont McKenna College), and the campus as a whole for a “white people free day” (Evergreen State College).
Welcome to Identity Politics 2.0, where non-minorities are no longer benignly ignored, but actively reviled, and where the rights of the marginalized are secured at the expense of the rights of privileged. Under this regime, privileged identities (like male or white) are only recognized in order to be excoriated. Identity Politics has thus become somewhat of a misnomer. What we are dealing with today is an ideology that views the traditionally disadvantaged and the oppressed as deserving of more resources and respect than the traditionally advantaged. This ideology is fundamentally backward-looking: the more a particular group has been dishonored and oppressed in the past, the higher its moral status today. Males without college degrees may be faring rather poorly in contemporary America, but because males were supposedly not victimized in the past, they receive little sympathy.
For the time being, this radicalized version of identity politics is mostly confined to the academy and elite liberal circles. It hasn’t made great inroads in the mainstream Left or the Democratic Party. It is, however, on the march and the sentiment underlying it does increasingly find expression. Who, after all, but uneducated whites in flyover country are we supposed to think of when Hillary Clinton lambastes the deplorables? An ungenerous interpreter of these words might even accuse the Left of what it accuses the Right of doing: using dog-whistle terms to covertly voice nasty prejudices.
Despite the dominance of identity politics, the Democrats’ older progressive ideology of class-based redistributionism is not dead in the party. During his presidency, Barack Obama rarely missed an opportunity to play the race, gender, and sexual orientation cards, but he also fretted about the 1 percent and called rising inequality “the defining challenge of our time.” In the most recent election, Bernie Sanders mounted a formidable insurgency against the uninspiring and ill-defined Hillary Clinton campaign by attacking billionaires and vowing “to protect the working families of this country.”
Sandersism is the newest incarnation of redistributionism. And though it failed to capture the Democratic Party, it did reshape its platform and amass a colossal following. Sandersism posits that the fundamental division in America is not along the lines of race, sex, sexual orientation, or any of the other preferred categories of identity politics, but rather class in the traditional sense of the term — how much you make and how wealthy you are. Like John Edwards before him, Bernie Sanders sees two Americas: the America of the wealthy, and the America of those who live paycheck to paycheck.
The villains in Sanders’s speeches are the rich, the billionaires, the 1 percenters, and their centers of power on Wall Street. The good guys are the poor, the middle-class and the American people more generally — including all the working-class whites who reside in the hinterland. Not surprisingly, Sanders called wealth and income inequality “the great moral issue of our time,” “the great economic issue of our time,” and “the great political issue of our time.” According to him, the wealthy not only earn too much, they also refuse to pay their “fair share” of taxes, thereby depriving the government of the funds necessary to provide for the needs of the people, from free health care to free college (that the top 1 percent of earners already pay 40 percent of all federal income taxes apparently does not factor into the Sandersian equation).
Contrary to all the hype, Sandersism is not socialism. It does not aim to nationalize industry and has no five-year plans. Rather, its brand of democratic socialism is really just a continuation of traditional progressivism: it aims to further regulate the economy — Wall Street in particular — and to enact European-style middle-class entitlements. The U.S. already provides generous benefits to the elderly (about 40% of the federal budget) and the non-elderly poor (about 20% of the federal budget). Sandersism wants to fill the gap and expand the welfare state to cover the non-elderly and the non-poor.
However misguided its policy prescriptions may be, Sandersism at least has the virtue of showing concern for the well-being of all Americans — including those who the identitarians ignore, if not revile. It is most convincing when urging Democrats to “go beyond identity politics,” as Sanders said after the election. “I come from the white working class,” he also tweeted, “and I am deeply humiliated that the Democratic Party cannot talk to the people where I came from.”
Sandersism is least convincing when hurling vitriol at the wealthy. This Marxist rhetoric of class warfare does not sit well with Americans who, by and large, do not resent the rich (unless they became wealthy in a dishonest way). It also rests on the mistaken assumptions that the fortunes of the wealthy somehow keep the rest of the country down, and that what Americans most need are more transfer programs from Washington.
On most days, class-based redistributionism and identity politics co-exist within the Democratic Party. The run-of-the-mill Democratic stump speech will cater to the grievances of the various identity groups that compose the rainbow coalition, but also include promises of various middle-class entitlements and a higher minimum wage. The two ideologies see the country differently, but both are redistributionist: Sandersism wants to distribute money more evenly between the classes, identity politics wants to distribute power and honor more evenly between the identity groups. Politics, for both, is about advancing the interests of those deemed to be least-advantaged — whether they be the lower and middle classes (according to Sanders), or women and minorities (according to the identitarians). Victimology is at the root of all leftist politics.
When it comes to governing, both ideologies are also rather distrustful of the people — their democratic professions of faith notwithstanding. Because the people don’t always know what’s good for them — what is the matter with Kansas? — and are prejudiced in more ways than a Chicano Studies Professor can count, they and the rubes they elect to Congress shouldn’t have too much of a say in how the country is governed. Best if the experts in the agencies, the justices on the Supreme Court, and the authorities at the United Nations set the course for the country.
Given the anti-democratic implications of these views, the party does not publicly affirm them and continues to present itself as the party of the people, by the people, and for the people. In reality, it has redefined democracy to mean rule by elites to give the American people what they would vote for if they were enlightened enough to know what is good for them.
Both identity politics and class-based redistributionism have also fully imbibed the credos of environmentalism. When it comes to climate change and “environmental justice,” there is no dissent on the Left. Hillary Clinton, Black Lives Matter, Bernie Sanders, and the Human Rights Campaign all sing from the same hymnal. Environmentalism has also spread beyond the confines of the Left and penetrated mainstream American life. As Tocqueville predicted, America, like all democracies, would tend toward pantheism.
While this strange combination of identity politics, class-based redistributionism, technocratic rule, and environmentalism generally works for Democrats, tensions do remain — most notably over whether those whose identities are not recognized deserve much sympathy (as noted), as well as over how cozy the party is and should be with big business. The Sandersian wing of the party is very critical of so-called neoliberalism. Although no one identifies as such in America, neoliberal is a term of opprobrium used to criticize those who run or profit from the existing world order of financialized capitalism and corporate globalization. On the Left, the epithet is applied to the likes of the Clintons and Barack Obama. All are accused of “selling out” by advancing corporate and financial interests at the expense of the working class.
The identitarians, by contrast, are much less critical of corporate America and Wall Street. All they really demand of companies and banks is that they hire and promote enough women and minorities. Corporate America is generally happy to oblige, as its CEOs also worship at the altar of diversity and fear the identitarians more than they do union bosses. But these token gestures do not satisfy the Sandersists. As Nancy Fraser recently observed in Dissent: “Ideals like diversity and empowerment, which could in principle serve different ends, now gloss policies that have devastated manufacturing and what were once middle-class lives.” To its credit, Sandersism is willing to challenge the interests of big business and the ruling class to defend those of ordinary Americans.
The Democratic Party thus confronts many questions, chief among which is what should matter most: the needs of ordinary Americans — including those who do not have the privilege of having their identity recognized — or the demands of preferred groups? Should we give all Americans in need the same entitlements or should we give preferential treatment to favored groups? And what happens when the views of the people — on immigration or trade, for example — do not align with those of big business or of the elites who claim to know best?
The Democratic Party has so far successfully avoided these questions. While some speculated that the rise of Trump and Sanders — both of whom claimed to champion the interests of ordinary Americans — would force it to make up its mind, it has not. Instead, the Democratic Party has settled, for the time being at least, on being the anti-Trump party. Even when the anti-Trumpist hysteria quiets down, it seems unlikely that class-based redistributionism will regain the upper hand and disrupt the status quo, given how heavily invested in the politics of aggrievement the Democratic Party and the Left are, to say nothing of their dependence on big business.
The party thus runs of the risk of becoming a boutique, coastal and urban party disconnected from the concerns of ordinary Americans and contemptuous of their way of life. This would still allow it to win a majority of the popular vote in presidential elections, without however winning the electoral college vote or controlling Congress.
This article is the first part of a series, the second part can be found here.