'Identity politics on the Left eventually triggers identity politics on the Right'

And individual liberty loses. So argues New York University social psychologist Jonathan Haidt.



In a disturbing segment over at the BBC World Service's Newshour, New York University social psychologist Jonathan Haidt is asked about "the psychology of rising nationalism." From the interview:

Haidt: So the story that I tell, is one in which in a sense the globalists, or the Left started it, or I should say they did things that amplified the conflicts. So we have to ask why; why even in Scandinavia, why are the really successful and prosperous democracies, why are they having the same issues of rightwing reaction?

And I think what you have to see is that globalization doesn't just change our economies, it changes the next generation of people, so young people who are raised in peace and prosperity develop values that shift to the Left. That is they begin to care about women's rights, animal rights, gay rights, the environment. You get this very progressive set of values in the next generation. So the generation that fought World War II, they were tough and changed by that in many profound ways, but their children come out not caring much about nationalism and patriotism, but much more about women's rights and other issues far away. So that's beautiful in many ways, but it creates a generation that really is anti-nationalist, anti-patriotic. And I think the anthem here is John Lennon's song Imagine.

But you know what? A lot of people, maybe more than half, in any country have a very different psychology; they don't find this beautiful, they find this basically a commitment to eliminate many of the things that they love most: their nation, their culture, their sense of identity. Globalists have to understand that they are doing things that trigger authoritarian reaction.

Q: And what is it that you think is the outcome of this new division of globalists versus the nationalists because there appears to be not just a sense of acute polarization but actually intolerance on both sides.

Haidt. Yes, I think that there are two disastrous outcomes; two things I am very, very worried about for my country, and for all of the Western democracies; it's the same thing. One is identity politics on the Left has been brewing for a long time. I've been a professor since 1995 at the University of Virginia and now at New York University; so I've watched identity politics get stronger and stronger; more focused on matrices of oppression – straight white males this and straight white males that – and after a while, as I forget who pointed out in the current election, if you keep treating white men as an identity group, you keep saying that "they are terrible; they are evil"—eventually they become just like another identity group and they voted their racial interests, in a sense you might say. So identity politics on the Left eventually triggers identity politics on the Right.

The BBC segment evidently didn't get to Haidt's second disastrous outcome. Bolstering Haidt's insight that Left's relentless promotion of identity politics has created a nationalist/populist reaction is an article on rising "identitarian movement" in Europe just published by the Economist. According to the Economist the identitarian movement's "professed mission is to preserve national differences. 'Human rights include the right to a homeland' is a typical mantra."

It is more than tragic that Leftwing/Progressive promoters of identity politics do not realize that they have, in fact, embraced on the anti-universalist anti-liberal reactionary views of 19th century conservative French philosopher Joseph de Maistre who declared:

Now, there is no such thing as 'man' in this world. In my life I have seen Frenchmen, Italians, Russians, and so on. I even know, thanks to Montesquieu, that one can be Persian. But as for man, I declare I've never encountered him.

In his brilliant essay, "The Culture of Liberty," Peruvian novelist and thinker Mario Vargas Llosa explains that identity politics is actually the opposite of liberalism. He notes that "in reality, globalizaiton does not suffocate local cultures but rather liberates them from the ideological conformity of nationalism." Vargas Llosa continues:

The notion of "cultural identity" is dangerous. From a social point of view, it represents merely a doubtful, artificial concept, but from a political perspective it threatens humanity's most precious achievement: freedom. I do not deny that people who speak the same language, were born and live in the same territory, face the same problems, and practice the same religions and customs have common characteristics. But that collective denominator can never fully define each one of them, and it only abolishes or relegates to a disdainful secondary plane the sum of unique attributes and traits that differentiates one member of the group from the others. The concept of identity, when not employed on an exclusively individual scale, is inherently reductionist and dehumanizing, a collectivist and ideological abstraction of all that is original and creative in the human being, of all that has not been imposed by inheritance, geography, or social pressure. Rather, true identity springs from the capacity of human beings to resist these influences and counter them with free acts of their own invention. …

Globalization extends radically to all citizens of this planet the possibility to construct their individual cultural identities through voluntary action, according to their preferences and intimate motivations. Now, citizens are not always obligated, as in the past and in many places in the present, to respect an identity that traps them in a concentration camp from which there is no escape—the identity that is imposed on them through the language, nation, church, and customs of the place where they were born. In this sense, globalization must be welcomed because it notably expands the horizons of individual liberty.

The global outbreak of tribalism spurred by the spread of reactionary Leftwing/Progressive identity politics now threatens to stifle individual liberty everywhere.

For more background on moral psychology see Haidt's Reason feature article, "Born This Way?"