The Right's Identity Politics Is More Dangerous Than the Left's

A renewed commitment to pluralism is its only cure.


I spoke last month at a conference organized by Arizona State University's School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership, titled "Polarization and Civil Disagreement: Confronting America's Civic Crisis." I was on a panel discussing populism and tribalism in America. Below is a version of the remarks I delivered, which have taken on renewed relevance in the wake of the terrorist attack on two New Zealand mosques by a white nationalist.

"Liberty provokes diversity, and diversity preserves liberty. That intolerance of social freedom which is natural to absolutism is sure to find a corrective in the national diversities, which no other force can so efficiently provide."
Lord Acton

I left my native India and arrived in Louisiana on a cold winter night in December 1985 to study in the journalism program at Louisiana State University. There I took a class in media ethics with a true Southern gentleman named John Calhoun Merrill. Professor Merrill was something of a libertarian and a First Amendment absolutist, and he sensed that I was perhaps a natural fit for his "tribe." I was bolting from India, a Fabian socialist country, after all. And I had some Milton Friedman and Ayn Rand under my belt. He took me under his wing, introducing me to some great, and white, males: John Locke, John Stuart Mill, Joseph Schumpeter, Karl Popper, F.A. Hayek.

New Zealand Mosque Mourners
Adam Bradley/SOPA Images/Sipa/Newscom

The mid-'80s were the tail end of Ronald Reagan's term. That conservative president, in stark contrast to the current one, talked about America as a "shining city on the hill whose beacon light guides freedom-loving people everywhere." It was also the relatively early days of the identity politics of the left. But when I met Prof. Merrill, the times were still innocent. The left hadn't yet started telling me to look at myself as a racial minority and a woman whose advancement in her adopted country would be stymied by rampant racism, sexism, and misogyny. And the right hadn't yet started telling me that I was a cultural and economic threat to its way of life. That if I put a hyphen in my identity, as every previous immigrant group has done, I'd be an "invader" signaling divided loyalties rather than simply an attachment to my birth culture. This was not a thought that seemed to have occurred to Prof. Merrill, a man, ironically, named after a fierce defender of slavery, even though, I, as an off-the-boat Indian with little money for new clothes and lots of homesickness, often showed up in class in a salwar and a dot on my forehead. He seemed to neither notice nor care.

Clearly, America today is not the America that I arrived in. Both the left and the right are arguably in a darker place, pushing their own form of tribal politics—both of which are a threat to America's liberal democracy, whose core promise is to protect individuals regardless of their tribal affiliation. Liberal democratic institutions have allowed individuals to cooperate and collaborate freely beyond the confines of their tribes, generating what Deirdre McCloskey has dubbed the Great Enrichment and Jonah Goldberg calls the Miracle. Yet now these institutions are under assault from both sides.

The left's excesses and efforts to silence reasonable debate through political correctness arguably helped to spawn the current backlash on the right. But even if that's true, the minority identity politics of the left is not ultimately as dangerous as the majority identity politics—the ethno-nationalism—of the right. I agree with conservatives like Goldberg and centrists like Francis Fukuyama that the antidote to the left's mishigas and the right's reactionary turn is a restoration of civic nationalism, a patriotism of liberal democratic principles, that can once again subsume the narrower tribal identities on both sides and bind the country together in a broad creedal identity. But I don't agree that this requires pushing toward a more culturally and socially homogeneous America. That, I'll argue, will only heighten the risk of majoritarian tyranny.

In fact, I think, we need the opposite: a redoubling of a commitment to the pluralistic project—or, in modern parlance, the diversity project—that James Madison said was the most effective bulwark against illiberalism. The right shouldn't treat diversity as a dirty word just because the left has sullied it.

There is no doubt that America has made very great strides in undoing the legacy of slavery and other injustices, as the right points out. It is also true that old biases and arrangements are still baked into existing social norms and power structures, as the left points out. If individuals face discrimination because of their membership in a group, they will band together as a group to demand relief.

Black Lives Matter might have its excesses, but it is hardly wrong when it demands body cameras on police officers to deter rampant harassment. Nor is the #MeToo movement off base in demanding a rethinking of lingering Mad Men–era attitudes in the workplace. Nor is it unreasonable that a diverse America would like Hollywood to reflect diversity and tell diverse stories that may have a broad appeal. There is no reason that a superhero shouldn't be black!

Indeed, it was inevitable that having won basic rights, minorities striving to find their place in mainstream America or women joining the workforce en masse would force a reckoning with old ways. As Fukuyama points out in his last book, identity politics is ultimately a quest for dignity or satisfaction of what the Greeks called thymos—that aspect of the soul that craves recognition. And it comes into play precisely to satiate the need for social recognition that formal liberal equality fuels but doesn't necessarily address. In fact, formal equality makes informal inequalities and injustices seem not less but more galling.

So the left's basic project is understandable. The trouble is its methods. In its eagerness to overcome these inherently intractable problems in one fell swoop, it has convinced itself that liberal democratic principles—free speech, due process, presumption of innocence, the rejection of all notions of collective guilt—are actually white patriarchal inventions that interfere with the quest for justice rather than aiding it. So on college campuses, debate and discussion are being replaced with trigger warnings; Title IX sexual assault rules are replacing due process and individualized findings with blanket judgments and collective guilt. The #MeToo movement isn't merely snagging serial predators like Harvey Weinstein but Aziz Ansari, a first-generation Muslim comedian whose "crime" was nowhere near the same league as Weinstein's.

No one's group membership tells you anything about their guilt or innocence in specific circumstances. To try to use such membership as a way to dispense justice will only create a whole slew of new victims, even among those the left otherwise wants to help, and generate pushback, including from its own ranks, which is already happening.

The left's main problem is that it is trying to knit together very disparate groups based on claims of oppression on account of their race, gender, sexual orientation or religion. The underlying assumption is that the world can be divided neatly into persecutors and persecuted. But this discrete binary is—to use the left's own lingo—a social construct that has little bearing in reality.

The left's identity politics is internally incoherent and self-undermining so that, ultimately, it'll have to rediscover liberal democratic principles if it wants to advance its ends—or perish. Victims on one dimension can also be victimizers on another. Women who are victims of patriarchy can also be homophobes, racists, Islamophobes, or anti-Semites.

Identity politics treats each individual as if he or she has a singular identity built around a singular interest. But the fact is that each of us is a sum total of multiple identities and multiple interests that sometimes collide and sometimes converge with different groups at different times. Each one of us contains multitudes, as Walt Whitman mused. In the absence of a unifying experience of massive oppression on one dimension—slavery, segregation, disenfranchisement—it isn't possible to ignore these inner multitudes and develop a single coherent movement around a single goal.

Just look at the Women's March: It studiously assembled a rainbow of leaders. But that calculated attempt at diversity made it impossible for them to agree on an agenda. Its minority members could not always get along with white women who hadn't experienced their adversity. The white feminists couldn't understand how their gender did not qualify them as proud second-class citizens every bit as much as their minority sisters. And then there was the tension between Muslim and Jewish leaders. The last straw were revelations that the march's black and Palestinian leaders, Tamika Mallory and Linda Sarsour, were enthusiastic admirers of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, an anti-Semite, homophobe, and—remarkably—unabashed misogynist. How is it possible that feminist leaders would possibly have anything to do with a retrograde peddler of patriarchy? Because their concerns as a Muslim and a black trumped their concerns as women. Yet they won't allow their Jewish sisters the space to balance their feminism with other commitments and concerns.

If unifying everyone behind a march is hard, unifying everyone around a political agenda for electoral success is even harder. The predicament of the Democrats in Virginia—whether to fire accused racists or an accused sexual assaulter—is instructive. So are the attacks on Beto O'Rourke's white privilege. It shows that the game of identity politics requires such a high level of purity and conformity on so many dimensions that it becomes extremely difficult to find one leader who can please everyone. Ultimately, identity politics self-destructs by devouring its own. As Mark Lilla has noted, the left's identity politics can't win elections, only lose them.

So the left's identity-politics danger is limited because its self-destructiveness makes it weirdly self-correcting, although whether it can come to its senses before the next election is anybody's guess.

Majoritarian identity politics does not suffer from the same inner contradictions, on the other hand. The right does not need to pull together multiple unwieldy tribes with disparate interests to advance its ends. It has enough numbers in one tribe with overlapping identities of race and religion to launch a coherent and credible populist ethno-nationalism, as Trump's has shown. If tribal politics becomes the game in America, the right's mono-tribalism is much more powerful and dangerous than the left's multi-tribalism.

Princeton Univeristy's Jan-Werner Mueller has brilliantly pointed out that this sort of populism isn't so much against elites as it is against pluralism. A populist demagogue can claim to represent "the people" but not mean all the people, only the "real people" who back him. He makes it morally acceptable to exclude the others from the state's protection and patronage. Trump, Muller notes, has made many Americans see themselves as part of a white identity movement. Christian whites are the in-group. And who are members of the out-group? Hispanics, Muslims, portions of the media that don't cheerlead for him, and immigrants—not just undocumented ones but even legal ones from "shithole" countries.

What are the dangers of this movement?

This country maintained its cool in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 because President George W. Bush avoided even a hint of collective punishment. To the contrary, he went to a mosque and prayed for peace. This is in sharp contrast to, say, a country like India, where Hindu mobs in 1984 killed thousands of Sikhs in a mini-pogrom and in 2002 killed a similar number of Muslims. In Trump's America, it is an open question as to what an aggrieved majority fed a steady diet of suspicion of the Other would do in the event of another terrorist attack. When minority identity politics overreaches, it lamentably forces Christians to bake cakes for gays. When a majority united by ethno-nationalistic passions does so, mass violence, often with the overt or covert complicity of the state, isn't off-limits.

So how do we get rid of the identity politics of the left and the right and restore a civic nationalism committed to liberal democratic values?

I don't mean to sound sanguine, but sooner or later minorities, with or without the help of the left, will discover that they need to get over any silly notions that the Constitution is a tool of white patriarchal oppression rather than a great resource for their own protection. This isn't mere speculation. New York Times writer Mustafa Akyol recently pointed out that American Muslims aren't converting America to Islam by preaching sharia. They are converting Islam into liberalism. They are invoking pluralism, tolerance, and religious diversity to maintain a safe space to practice their faith, but in the process they are transforming their faith. As one Muslim activist told Akyol: "Once you invoke diversity as a value," it becomes hard to "deny a place to gay Muslims, Shia Muslims, non-hijabi female Muslims, less-observant-than-you Muslims."

But a majoritarian identity politics isn't self-correcting or self-immolating. It is self-perpetuating.

A majority, by virtue of its numbers, always faces the temptation of gaining an advantage by weakening the constitutional limits on its power and imposing its will on others. Anything that strengthens the possibility of a permanent majority, therefore, is bad news from the standpoint of our constitutional and economic liberties and anything that weakens it is arguably good news.

That's why I think that the emerging consensus among thinkers as diverse as Jonah Goldberg, Andrew Sullivan, and Francis Fukuyama that America needs to refocus on social cohesion instead of diversity and rethink immigration is backwards. Goldberg frets that immigration might be economically advantageous but its impact on "social cohesion, civic and institutional health, and community trust," while hard to quantify, is undoubtedly negative. Fukuyama bemoans that a large number of immigrants weaken native support for large welfare programs and increase the appeal of quick-fix demagogues among the white working class. Sullivan maintains that immigration has undercut the national myths, shared icons, and common "pseudo-ethnicity" that binds America together.

In the same article, Sullivan also says, without any sense of contradiction, that the sharp fault line that was created between newly freed blacks and whites after the Civil War was diluted by a "myriad other ethnic loyalties" generated by the wave of European immigrants at that time. In other words, immigrants, who weren't yet initiated into polarized black/white and North/South divides, could see beyond America's sins to its promise of a better life. Immigrants may not arrive as partisans of limited government, but their starry eyes compensate for the gratitude deficit among the native population, rejuvenating America's sense of its worth and purpose. I doubt one will find too many foreign-born or even children of foreign-born among the ranks of Antifa.

Above all, there is a Madisonian benefit of immigration as a bulwark against majority tyranny. In the Federalist 10 and 51, Madison argued that tutoring the majority in the gospel of liberty would not be sufficient to persuade it to abandon the temptation of using the strong arm of government to advance its interests. Nor would efforts to "give every citizen the same opinion" by creating a homogeneous society work; nor could we depend on an "enlightened statesman." The solution, in his view, was to "extend the sphere": to enlarge the republic's population in order to "multiply the factions" to avoid the formation of a permanent majority.

Lord Acton went even further, explicitly emphasizing the need for diverse nationalities. In his essay on nationalism, he notes: "The presence of different nations under the same sovereignty is similar in its effect to the independence of the Church in the State….It provides against the servility which flourishes under the shadow of a single authority, by balancing interests, multiplying associations."

He goes on: "Liberty provokes diversity, and diversity preserves liberty….That intolerance of social freedom which is natural to absolutism is sure to find a corrective in the national diversities, which no other force can so efficiently provide. This diversity in the same State is a firm barrier against the intrusion of the government beyond the political sphere….That intolerance of social freedom which is natural to absolutism is sure to find a corrective in the national diversities, which no other force can so efficiently provide."

The left has badly overplayed its hand by insisting on a forced program of diversity. The right's program of engineered homogeneity might well be worse. If you replace the pluribus with unibus in "E pluribus unum," you can't really maintain a strong liberal democracy dedicated to protecting the liberty of all.