Meanwhile, the coming demographic shift has done little to allay minority concerns about discrimination. A recent survey found that 43% of black Americans do not believe America will ever make the changes necessary to give blacks equal rights. Most disconcertingly, hate crimes have increased 20% in the wake of the 2016 election ...
When groups feel threatened, they retreat into tribalism. When groups feel mistreated and disrespected, they close ranks and become more insular, more defensive, more punitive, more us-versus-them.
In America today, every group feels this way to some extent. Whites and blacks, Latinos and Asians, men and women, Christians, Jews, and Muslims, straight people and gay people, liberals and conservatives – all feel their groups are being attacked, bullied, persecuted, discriminated against.
Of course, one group’s claims to feeling threatened and voiceless are often met by another group’s derision because it discounts their own feelings of persecution – but such is political tribalism.
This – combined with record levels of inequality – is why we now see identity politics on both sides of the political spectrum. And it leaves the United States in a perilous new situation: almost no one is standing up for an America without identity politics, for an American identity that transcends and unites all the country’s many subgroups.
At roughly the same time, the idea of universal human rights proliferated, advancing the dignity of every individual as the foundation of a just international order.
Thus, although the Left was always concerned with the oppression of minorities and the rights of disadvantaged groups, the dominant ideals in this period tended to be group blind, often cosmopolitan, with many calling for transcending not just ethnic, racial, and gender barriers but national boundaries as well.
Perhaps in reaction to Reaganism, and a growing awareness that “colorblindness” was being used by conservatives to oppose policies intended to redress racial inequities, a new movement began to unfold on the left in the 1980s and 1990s – a movement emphasizing group consciousness, group identity, and group claims.
Many on the left had become acutely aware that color blindness was being used by conservatives to oppose policies intended to redress historical wrongs and persisting racial inequities.
Many also began to notice that the leading liberal figures in America, whether in law, government, or academia, were predominantly white men and that the neutral “group-blind” invisible hand of the market wasn’t doing much to correct long-standing imbalances.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the anti-capitalist economic preoccupations of the old Left began to take a backseat to a new way of understanding oppression: the politics of redistribution was replaced by a “politics of recognition”. Modern identity politics was born.
As Oberlin professor Sonia Kruks writes, “What makes identity politics a significant departure from earlier [movements] is its demand for recognition on the basis of the very grounds on which recognition has previously been denied: it is qua women, qua blacks, qua lesbians that groups demand recognition ... The demand is not for inclusion within the fold of ‘universal humankind’ ... nor is it for respect ‘in spite of’ one’s differences. Rather, what is demanded is respect for oneself as different.”
But identity politics, with its group-based rhetoric, did not initially become the mainstream position of the Democratic Party.
At the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston, Barack Obama famously declared, “There’s not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America.”
A decade and a half later, we are very far from Obama’s America.
I’m a white guy. I’m a well-educated intellectual who enjoys small arthouse movies, coffeehouses and classic blues. If you didn’t know any better, you’d probably mistake me for a lefty urban hipster.•••
And yet. I find some of the alt-right stuff exerts a pull even on me. Even though I’m smart and informed enough to see through it. It’s seductive because I am not a person with any power or privilege, and yet I am constantly bombarded with messages telling me that I’m a cancer, I’m a problem, everything is my fault.
I am very lower middle class. I’ve never owned a new car, and do my own home repairs as much as I can to save money. I cut my own grass, wash my own dishes, buy my clothes from Walmart. I have no clue how I will ever be able to retire. But oh, brother, to hear the media tell it, I am just drowning in unearned power and privilege, and America will be a much brighter, more loving, more peaceful nation when I finally just keel over and die.
Trust me: After all that, some of the alt-right stuff feels like a warm, soothing bath. A “safe space,” if you will. I recoil from the uglier stuff, but some of it— the “hey, white guys are actually okay, you know! Be proud of yourself, white man!” stuff is really VERY seductive, and it is only with some intellectual effort that I can resist the pull … If it’s a struggle for someone like me to resist the pull, I imagine it’s probably impossible for someone with less education or cultural exposure.