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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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  • Anthony

    As another commentator says: Red Herring – more specifically “fallacy of irrelevant thesis” (the fallacy of irrelevant thesis derives its persuasive power from the fact that it often does prove a conclusion or thesis – though not the one at issue).

  • Andrew Allison

    “Tribalism on one side, in other words, strengthens tribalism on the other.” illuminates TAI’s biases: there’s no one side or the other, it’s every tribe for themselves. That’s why the tribalism fostered by the left is so dangerous.

  • Jacksonian_Libertarian

    The fact is that the “Benefits” of the faction is what is important.

    On the one hand you have “Nationalist Americanism” whose cultural ideals took 13 small colonies and in 200 years created by far the most powerful nation on earth. Compare the benefits of that accomplishment (imagine what could be accomplished if America recommitted itself to those ideals), with the Leftist culture whose benefits are best demonstrated by Venezuela but are true of every nation where Leftist culture has dominated.

    Venezuela went from arguably the most successful nation in South America, and turned it into a basket case in less than 20 years. Whose benefits are all negative, with people starving, and without basic needs like toilet paper. I read just today that Venezuelan women are selling their hair just across the border to buy food. Pretending that the Leftists and the Nationalist Americans are some how equivalent or that all Nationalist Americans are White Racists because the Leftists say they are without ever providing evidence, is delusional.

  • Gary Hemminger

    How intelligent do you need to be to see that identity politics was eventually going to create grievance groups across all races, creeds, and colors? The fact that many folks on the left didn’t see this is coming is really telling about their ability to reason. The Democratic party is completely dominated by the progressives that are ideologically Corbynizing the party. Joel Kotkin has a good take on it…

    • ——————————

      “How intelligent do you need to be to see that identity politics was eventually going to create grievance groups across all races, creeds, and colors? The fact that many folks on the left didn’t see this is coming is really telling about their ability to reason.”

      Not very intelligent.
      The fact that most of academia is on the left and most on the left are educated, says it all.

      Higher education…learning more and more about less and less….

      • Fat_Man

        Higher education (outside of Stem) does not involve learning anything other than how to duckspeak goodthink.

        • LarryD

          Outside of the STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math), it’s mostly indoctrination. The Liberal Arts are going to have to be regenerated from the source works. Fortunately, said works are almost all public domain.

          • Fat_Man

            “said works are almost all public domain.”

            Almost? Nothing important has been written since WWI. Everything important is PD.

    • Well, the same Kotkin (along with Aaron Wildavsky and Christopher Lasch) long ago offered an explanation of why this was happening: the core of the urban ‘left is not liberalism or socialism (these are just put on), but elitism. They need to stand above and outside. One way to do this was to deny they had anything in common with the rest of society, hence the vogue for draft dodging and ‘resistance’ in the sixties. The next stage was to deny even the existence of a civic, nationwide society. All there was is corporates and guilds: race, class, gender. Each a world, each with their histories, their truths, their sciences, their grievances. The urban elites were the ones who handed put the grievance points: blacks suffer, Asians not so much, etc. At bottom, they probably feel vindicated and relieved by the alt right, because it’s another stage in the undoing of civil society and its disintegration into corporates.

  • Beauceron

    It is patently absurd to look to the New York F*cking Times for any decent analysis of the right, much less the Alt-right.

    Nobody that is honest or fair-minded thinks anyone inhabiting the NYT building is capable of telling us “What the Alt-Right Really Means” and no one thinks the NYT actually cares what they mean. How often have they turned to denouncing anything they do not agree with as racist in those pages? They are fundamentally dishonest.

    Take a passage like this:

    “The word “racist” has been stretched to cover an attitude toward
    biology, a disposition to hate, and a varying set of policy preferences,
    from stop-and-frisk policing to repatriating illegal immigrants.”


    It has been stretched far beyond that into some of the most illiberal thinking in America. I have read in the pages of the New York Times repeatedly that ALL whites are racists. ALL whites are white supremacists. All of them, no exceptions– I am, you are, a 5 year old child is, a person married to a black person with interracial children is, your sweet ol’ granma is– every white person is inherently racist. Like some original sin, your white skin taints you with bigotry. But those blessed with melanin are somehow magically absolved– they cannot be racist. It’s impossible. For just one example of this nauseating line promoted in the New York Times, I refer you to this touching essay which ran, of all times, on Christmas Eve last year:

    That same ethic, that same philosophy, is now taught on pretty much every single college campus in the nation today. It is trickling down, as it always does, to secondary and primary education and being taught to kids.

    What did you expect was going to happen? The Left promoted this thinking for decades. Through their many media outlets, through the educational system, which they own outright, they promoted identity politics for every single group but one: white men.

    I am no expert on the Alt-right, but one of the names they went by, or maybe still do go by (or maybe it’s one of their many sub-groups), is NeoReaction. They are primarily a reaction to the Left’s identity politics–and frankly they are a necessary defensive reaction.

    Like it or not our universities, our professoriate, our media, and many of our politicians have created a system where race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual preference are the defining aspects of your character. It now affects whether or not you will get into the university of your choice, what scholarships you are eligible for, what your job prospects will be, whether you will be promoted. Richard Spencer did not do that. No one on the Alt-Right did that. No one on the right did that. In fact, people on the right have been fighting against this for decades– and they have been losing for decades. The Alt-right, in a way, is simply an admission of defeat. We have lost the battle. Identity politics, whether we like it or not, is here to stay. It is time to move on now. And the way you move on is start your own special interest group. Black identity groups, latino identity groups, Asian identity groups, Native-American identity groups are lauded. Their leaders meet with presidents and politicians. Their leaders are given space in the editorial pages of our most prestigious publications. They re given tenure at our most prestigious universities. Heck, you can major in racial studies.
    The Left has pushed mass immigration as an electoral tactic for 4 decades now. The demography is changing. The country has changed so much in the last 3o years it is in some places literally unrecognizable. Whites will be a minority in a mere twenty years. They need a special interest group too, just like every other group has. They are no different than any other group. In the wild racial identity milieu engineered by our elites, there is but one group without representation. That simply cannot last. It is not fair.

    I will say that Richard Spencer is a step up from the likes of David Duke. But he is not the right one to ultimately lead this. But you forbid a truth in polite society, you create a vacuum and someone who doesn’t care about the strictures of polite society will step into it. You don’t want people with National Socialist leanings to lead this group, then open the door and let some air in. But it’s institutions like the New York Times that will fight it tooth and nail. So it is left to men like Spencer must break down the barrier.

  • Frank Natoli

    What does “rise of the alt-right” mean?
    When virtually every elected Democrat practices identity politics, can the author name ONE Republican who does? One Republican who can be accurately said to represent the “alt-right”?
    Then I’ll ask again, what does “rise of the alt-right” mean?

    • Andrew Allison

      Wrong question. What we should be asking is why TAI is giving credence to the NYT’s utterly false assertion that the election of Trump means a rise of the alt-right. There’s absolutely no evidence of this, and in fact Trump has disavowed alt-right.

      • Beauceron

        What was telling about that was that he was asked at all. Most of the conservatives I know never hear of the Alt-right. I read a fair amount, Left and Right (more right) and I’d never heard of them. I first hear of them in the summer of 2015 because I read NR on ocassion, and there was some internet brouhaha about “cuckservatives.”

      • Frank Natoli

        Why? Permit me to offer a suggestion why. Most if not all the writers at TAI are Libs. To their credit, they come up with quite a few genuinely informative stories, but they’re still Libs at heart. And when they see their side guilty of one inexcusable mistake after another, they find solace in drawing moral equivalent failures to the other side.
        Except there isn’t a moral equivalent failure.

        • Andrew Allison

          There’s one grownup in the room. The rest are kids. They’ll grow up eventually. We should try and help.

    • GS

      Alt-right is so broad and varied phenomenon that to represent it is impossible for any single person (unless that person suffers from a multiple personalities disorder). To give an known-names example, the alt-right encompasses both Milo Yiannopoulos and Richard B. Spencer. It is possible to represent only one of them at a time, not both.

  • FriendlyGoat

    “Saving liberalism will require arresting this cycle of mutual escalation. We need a politics that is longer on solidarity and shorter on difference.”

    We’re going to need new isms with more durable definitions which are less susceptible to overnight change in meaning by anyone posting Internet material. As long as conservatism, liberalism, progressivism, evangelism, fascism, socialism, Obamaism, Trumpism, corporatism, and many others can be turned upside down and made backwards to where no one can rely with understanding on much of ANYTHING in discussion—–well, guess what? Everything is polarized all the time. Nothing goes on but a game of attempted spoof between tribe sides.

    • Beauceron

      I get a little worried when I agree with you, FG. But I agree with you on that. There is also the problem of over-use of these terms as political and cultural weapons. Every Republican candidate for national office in my living memory has been tarred as a [email protected] As Mark Steyn has aptly said, “When everyone is Hitler, no one is Hitler.”

      • FriendlyGoat

        No reason to be worried at all. We should be on the same side of wanting to sort out simple truths from the parade of noise. Right now it is nearly impossible to do so. Imagine being a thoughtful middle school or high school student in today’s America. What the “adults” are doing politically to snow not only themselves but to snow all kids as well is frightful and should be exceedingly embarrassing to all of us.

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