America’s Original Identity Politics

tags: political history, American History, identity, social movements

Sarah Churchwell is a professor of American literature and humanities at the School of Advanced Study, University of London. She is a contributor to the Times Literary SupplementThe Guardian, the New York Times Book Review, and New Statesman, and is the author of several books, most recently, Careless People: Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of The Great Gatsby (2013) and Behold America: The Entangled History of ‘America First’ and ‘the American Dream’ (2018).

We hear a great deal these days about how the right’s hostility to “identity politics,” inflamed by advocates like BreitbartNews, its erstwhile editor Steve Bannon, and Fox News, enabled the rise of Donald Trump. In this framing, the election of 2016 was a populist backlash of ordinary voters against an increasingly aberrant left that has allowed itself to be distracted by narrow questions about groups whose niche concerns do not rightly pertain to the proper functioning of democracy. Their identity-based complaints are marginalizing the left, leaving it out of touch with the troubles of Middle Americans, who primarily worry about how to pay the bills, but who are also concerned with the degradation of national values. Identity politics—according to this telling—fosters a series of peripheral grievances that, in travestying political norms, pose a dangerous threat to these values.

This argument is made not only on the right. Liberal academics like Francis Fukuyama at Stanford and Mark Lilla at Columbia have recently chided progressives for championing causes like Black Lives Matter and transgender rights, thus provoking a “whitelash” among the “left-behind” Trump voters. The counterblast from these left-behind Americans will, they argue, defeat progressivism, which needs to get practical and focus on regaining power through calls to commonality, rather than difference. Their argument is that a proactive sense of white identity was “triggered,” in effect, by an over-emphasis on racial and social identity in political discourse. Lilla, for example, urged in a 2016 New York Times op-ed that America return to a time of “pre-identity liberalism,” because identity politics “absolves liberals of not recognizing how their own obsession with diversity has encouraged white, rural, religious Americans to think of themselves as a disadvantaged group whose identity is being threatened or ignored… they are reacting against the omnipresent rhetoric of identity, which is what they mean by ‘political correctness.’ Liberals should bear in mind that the first identity movement in American politics was the Ku Klux Klan, which still exists.”

Read entire article at New York Review of Books