Identity Politics, Left and Right

Christopher Caldwell has a wide-ranging piece in the New York Times on the rise of the alt-right, which concludes by highlighting the way that identity politics of the Left pioneered on college campuses in the 1990s helped supply young white nationalists with a vocabulary for their own form of tribalism:

The Vanderbilt University political scientist Carol Swain was among the first to describe the contours of this worldview. In her 2002 book, “The New White Nationalism in America,” she noted that young people were quick to identify double standards, and that they sometimes did so in the name of legitimate policy concerns. “I knew that identity would come next,” she recalled. “It had to come. All they had to do was copy what they were hearing. The multiculturalist arguments you hear on every campus — those work for whites, too.” Mr. Spencer, asked in an interview how he would respond to the accusation that his group was practicing identity politics in the manner of blacks and Hispanics, replied: “I’d say: ‘Yuh. You’re right.’ ”

This passage has aroused vigorous pushback on social media from readers who interpreted it as holding the Left responsible for creating unapologetic racists like Spencer. Naturally, this would be inaccurate. White supremacy was the norm for much of American history, and there would be racists today no matter what tactics the Left engaged in.

But there is no question that the liberal cultural fixation on race and gender over the past generation—the academic dismissal of “dead white males,” the corporate celebration of diversity training, the championing of multiculturalism rather than assimilation—has made right-wing identity appeals more palatable to a broader constituency.

Tribalism on one side, in other words, strengthens tribalism on the other. Saving liberalism will require arresting this cycle of mutual escalation. We need a politics that is longer on solidarity and shorter on difference.

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