Identity politics is one of the worst things to hit the United States since slavery and the Civil War. Two World Wars and a Depression were not exactly a walk in the park, but they united the nation. How did Identity Politics come about, what fostered its growth, and why is it so devastating to the concept of the United States?
Any change in policy is going to be better for some groups of people than for others. That is unavoidable. And it is also true that some identifiable groups have not been given a fair shake in America over the years—just look at the African-American experience, from forced immigration to slavery to Jim Crow to de facto segregation and discrimination. That needed to be corrected, and we have made some significant progress—discrimination under the law has been eliminated, we have made policy discrimination reprehensible if not illegal, and we have drastically reduced individual prejudice— total elimination of the latter may not be possible, given human nature. And beyond race, society has not often been kind to people who are perceived as “different”, in many ways.
But something more is going on. Politicians have found that in elections that are close, swaying an identifiable group to split heavily in one direction or the other is a way of tipping the balance toward winning. And so by targeting a group that has a unifying characteristic, and offering specific benefits to that group if elected, the candidate hopes to achieve victory, which is what politics is all about. Politicians have identified groups by race, by religion, by gender, by ethnicity or nationality, by native language, by sexual orientation, by economic status, by urban/suburban/rural living, by any way that groups can be carved up.
Three trends have fostered the growth. One has been the absorption of people with the self. Psychology has been a great enabler, bolstering people’s sense of their own self-esteem and right behavior, which has led to a proclivity to blame others for an individual’s lack of desired success. In turn, lacking that success often leads to a hunt for blame, and to a feeling of victimization. Victimization is easier to take when it is cast as a result of prejudice against that individual’s perceived identity group, rather than as a result of the individual’s actions. A second trend has been the combination of activism with social media. The success of protests and civil disobedience evidenced in the Civil Rights movement has been adopted by many aggrieved groups, and social media has allowed many people who would otherwise be isolated, to dwell in the echo chamber of like-minded people, and with the strength of numbers, demand action to redress their grievance. Third, over time, as the government has offered more and more benefits to citizens, the nation has moved from the individualism and independence of its founding generations, towards a more collectivist state, where state benefits and their concomitant regulations and control are an accepted part of life. Benefits can be targeted to specific identity groups to corral votes. President John F. Kennedy, in his 1961 inaugural address, was prescient when he said, “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country”. Identity politics could not possibly be more in opposition to that sentiment.
The motto of the United States, found among other places on every dollar bill, is “E Pluribus Unum”, or, Out of Many, One. Identity Politics is the exact opposite, Out of One, Many. It is destroying the fabric of our society. It pits Black against White, Women against Men, Asians against Blacks and Hispanics, Religious against Secular, heterosexuals against all other sexual orientations, rural against urban, etc. Extreme conservatives ridicule Progressives; Progressives won’t even talk to conservatives. In the past, divisions existed, and in fact the era leading up to the Civil War and the war itself were probably worse. Divisions seem to be healed best by a national emergency, like a World War. We must find a way to reunite without war, in this age of nuclear weapons. If we do not reunite, there is no alternative to national decline. It happened to Greece, Persia, Rome, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union. It could happen here.
Although the current administration is not providing any leadership to address this problem (and in fact aggravates it), nor is the Congress, the problem started well before 2016, and is running deeper than the 2016 election and its aftermath. The next blog will pose some possible alternatives to ameliorate this critical problem.