The intellectual historian Mark Lilla has a must-read essay in today’s New York Times explaining how the academic and media fixation on identity politics doomed the center-Left this election cycle. One of his key points: The Democratic Party’s decision build its coalition around race and gender differences, and emphasize those differences in order to mobilize its base, predictably produced a parallel response from the identity groups that were not included:
The whitelash thesis is convenient because it 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. Such people are not actually reacting against the reality of our diverse America (they tend, after all, to live in homogeneous areas of the country). But 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. Those who play the identity game should be prepared to lose it.
We often think of the diversity-obsessed left and the alt-right as diametrically opposed to one another, in substance and style. But in their focus on identity, the groups are indistinguishable, which actually leads them to a number of overlapping positions. As Jason Willick wrote earlier this year:
The campus left has been arguing for years that the United States Constitution, the Western canon, and other “dead white male” materials are shot through with misogyny and white supremacy, and are largely irrelevant to the experiences of oppressed minorities. Mainstream conservatives have historically fought this tendency, arguing for the continued relevance of Western intellectual traditions despite America’s social revolutions and demographic upheavals. The approach of the alt-right is to effectively concede the issue to the campus leftists, and then some: “Yes, you’re right, our political and cultural institutions were not built to accommodate people like you.”
Both left and right see the politics of group identity as useful to securing short term gains. But in the long run, it will not produce anything good—only tribalism, distrust, and, ultimately, violence.