Can the left do without identity politics?

Anis Shivani argues in Slate that it’s time for the left to give up on identity politics because this approach is dragging down the progressive agenda. He acknowledges, however, that it’s too late for such a change of course.

I agree. It would take decades for decades worth of indoctrination to be undone.

I also question Shivani’s premise to this extent: it may well be that, for all of its drawbacks, identity politics represents the best hope of the modern American left.

To explain why, I’m going to draw on Samuel Huntington. Not Huntington’s best known book, The Clash of Civilizations (1996) or his last work, Who Are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity (2004). Rather, I will rely on a much earlier book, American Politics: The Promise of Disharmony (1983).

In American Politics, Huntington made the argument, familiar now but relatively fresh then, that America is a “creedal” society, founded and based on values of liberty, equality, individualism, democracy, constitutionalism. Political upheaval occurs when Americans come to believe that the gap between our creedal values and reality is unacceptable.

Huntington identified four periods in which such upheaval occurred: the Revolutionary Period (when the creed originated in two English revolutions and was articulated by British Whigs), the Jacksonian period, the Progressive Era, and the 1960s. During these periods, discontent was widespread and major reforms were demanded.

But what was distinctively American about each of these periods was that the demand for reform usually was presented in terms of our creedal values. By and large, the appeal was not to an ideology — e.g., socialism or communism — but rather to Americanism. We were falling painfully short of our ideals.

Huntington noted that creedal upheaval has occurred in America every sixty or seventy years. Even the American Revolutionary period began a little more than 70 years after England’s Glorious Revolution.

This means that we’re due for another upheaval. Indeed, Huntington said that if past patterns prevail, we will have a major creedal upheaval period in the second or third decade of the 21st century.

We seem to be in an upheaval period right now. But is it creedal?

I say it isn’t. For the most part, the modern left isn’t invoking the traditional American creed. How could it? The authors of that creed were unworthy men. They were racist, sexist, and homophobic. They were “privileged” and sought through the Constitution to become more privileged yet.

Part of this critique draws on identity politics, to be sure. But even if identify politics somehow could be purged from the left-wing play book, a creedal attack on the status quo still wouldn’t do.

As noted, the creed Huntington identified consisted of these values: liberty, equality, individualism, democracy, constitutionalism. This is not where the modern left is coming from (nor did the left of the 1930s draw heavily on these values, which is a major reason why Huntington didn’t include the 30s as a period of creedal upheaval).

Huntington was quite clear that equality in the creedal context means equality of opportunity. Equal distribution of income has never been part of the American creed, although high levels of inequality can, and have, helped spark and fuel creedal upheaval.

The contemporary left is doing much more than complaining about high levels of inequality. It is openly advocating socialism. Thus, in Huntington’s terms, its movement resembles the un-American ideologically-based upheavals of Europe.

Before turning to the implications of this analysis for identity politics, let me briefly consider whether President Trump’s “Make American Great Again” movement can be considered a creedal upheaval in the sense described by Huntington. Certainty, there is a strong creedal element to it. Other elements are also present, including the questioning of expertise and the rise of social resentment.

Some seemingly key elements are missing, though. These include the demand for new rights and a hostility towards power (the Tea Party exhibited such hostility, but I don’t see it from Trump supporters, at least as long as Trump is wielding the power).

In any event, it’s clear to me that the current leftist upheaval is not creedal. What does this mean for the role of identity politics?

I think it means the left needs identity politics. Identity politics sparks the passion that the gap between creed and reality normally provides. If the creed itself is an oppressive manifestation of noxious patriarchy, it can’t be relied on. Nor can socialism. It may be a trendy ideology, but lacks the “faith of our fathers” status it enjoys in Europe. In this country, one normally outgrows socialism.

That’s why the sense of raw injustice and victimization instilled by identity politics is required. If America is, and always has been, a conspiracy to repress “the other,” that’s reason enough to take to the street.

Identity politics also provides a colorable basis for adopting an anti-American posture in a creedal society. Even today, the strength of our creed is such that anyone whose radical activism is based not on our failure to live up to it, but rather on rejection of the creed itself, has got some explaining to do.

Identity politics provides the explanation. It enables one to argue that America is rotten to the core.

One can try to argue that we’re rotten to the core because income isn’t distributed equally enough. But this argument has never worked in America. Despite recent inroads, it seems less promising than identity politics given our rapidly changing demographics.

What we may witness in the second and third decades of the 21st century is something not even Samuel Huntington could predict: two radically different upheaval movements, both of which exhibit some but not all of what’s required to bring about creedal upheaval.

Is there any American precedent for this? Perhaps the 1930s to some degree.

I can’t even hazard a guess as to how this dynamic will play out.


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