Identity Politics: Sensible and Inescapable

For a long time, the right has complained that the left engages in “identity politics”. They are referring to the practice of appealing to Americans as not simply or even primarily Americans, but as blacks, Latinos, women, homosexual, etc. This divides us and pits us against each other. And that’s very bad. So, we should not practice identity politics.
That’s at least what many on the right say. And the answer to identity politics is a politics of individualism. Here’s a recent expression of that view, by Jonah Goldberg:
American conservatism, unlike traditional European conservatism, is liberty-loving because we are defending the revolutionary ideals of classical liberalism. Classical liberalism holds that the individual is sovereign and that he or she should be judged on his own merits, not according to his tribe, his class or faith. Identity politics is hemlock to this vision.
 Well, then bring on the hemlock. Or, on second thought, the hemlock isn’t even necessary; because what Goldberg and right-wingers who agree with him are offering is not only dead, but was born dead, and only ever existed as “revolutionary ideals” in the crazed, utopian minds of those who dreamed them up, and in those who have been indoctrinated into this fantasy.
Remove the weasel word “judged” from Goldberg’s statement. Identity politics isn’t about judging people. It’s about promoting and protecting their interests and values. And those things have almost everything to do with a person’s “tribe, his class or faith”. To not understand this, to think that people are primarily individuals, is to be in the grips of an idea that is as divorced from reality and human well-being as any of the ideas of the left.
People are men, women, parents, nurses, sports fans, Christians, dog owners, and, yes, black, white, etc. That’s how they see themselves. It’s how they find order and purpose in their lives. If they saw themselves merely or primarily as individuals they would be lost, confused, wondering who they were and what they should be doing with their days. Being more than an individual is essential to human well-being. So, to engage in identity politics is to engage with people in a way that is directly concerned with their well-being. That’s why identity politics are so appealing to people.
But how can we get along in a diverse, multicultural society with a politics that appeals to special identities? Great question. That’s a huge problem. But the point that I want to make here is that, in a multicultural society, a politics of the individual is a politics for no one. It’s not the politics that we have, or ever had, in this country. A truly neutral politics of the individual would not, e.g., observe Christmas as a national holiday while failing to observe many other non-Christian religious holidays. It wouldn’t be fighting about who uses what bathroom because it would never have favored “cisgender” norms to begin with. Etc.
Worse, a politics of neutral individualism is not even possible. Take, as an example, public dress codes for women. Allowing women to walk the streets with bare arms is to fail to uphold a basic value of decency for many Muslims. But forcing women to cover their arms would conflict with a value of freedom in dress that traditional Americans support. There is no neutral solution to this problem. One group’s values are necessarily subverted. And so it goes for countless practices and customs.
To summarize, the politics of individualism fails to engage with important aspects of human well-being; it’s not what we have, or ever had, in our country; and it’s not even possible. We have always practiced identity politics and always will. 

The question is just what kind of identity politics we should practice. Obviously, those of us on the right do not favor what the left has been peddling. But what is the sensible alternative? I’ll take that question up in another post.

Criticus Ferox

Criticus Ferox was relegated to the basket of deplorables because he refused to embrace the vilification and destruction of his nation, culture, race, sex, and way of life. You can contact him at:

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  1. One of the issues, I think, with the leftist form of identity politics it’s part of a calculated tactic to shame critics into silence or submission through intimidation.

    That’s the sense in which it tends to separate (class warfare) in some nasty ways.

    I’m simultaneously surprised and impressed the liberals can maintain their constituents under this model.

    Maybe it will implode someday.

  2. This was an insightful post for me, Criticus Ferox. I admit that I have uncritically thought that we conservatives ought not play identity politics, but it does seem to me now that the politics of neutral individualism is not even possible.

    One point I’m not quite sure about is whether you were criticizing the classical liberal view that the individual is sovereign right? I take it that you are just criticizing conservatives’ reluctance to use identity politics.

    One other thought that I had is that my right to life, which is clearly one of my primary interests, seems to have nothing to do with my tribe, class, or faith, no?

    • Thanks, Walter. I am pretty sure that I’m not a liberal, classical or otherwise, although it’s unclear to me what exactly it means to be a liberal. (That might be a good topic for a post from someone on here.) So, I probably don’t think the individual is sovereign. I do agree that what it makes it really bad to kill someone for no reason has something to do with him simply being a person, not because he’s part of a particular tribe, class, etc.

    • “Do you see the alt-right as a sensible alternative?”

      Yes. But there are questions about what the alt-right is, of course.

    • I’m new to the alt-right arena but it seems to me to be a flexible term. I do believe an important feature of the alt-right movement is recognizing that race does matter and that it is an essential part of identity.

  3. The “sensible” thing to do is to remain faithful to the identity that allowed the country to come about in the first place. Namely, white European culture and judeo-christian values. Unfortunately, the politicians play favorites thus, are easily swayed by a vocal minority if they think doing so will get them votes from the larger group. (You don’t have to have great numbers if the politicians believe you have great influence).

  4. Very interesting and provocative, Mr. Ferox. I look forward to reading your next post on the matter.

    “To not understand this, to think that people are primarily individuals, is to be in the grips of an idea that is as divorced from reality and human well-being as any of the ideas of the left.”

    There are a couple issues worth untangling. One is the empirical question about how people primarily identify themselves. Another regarding what the metaphysical bedrock is, the individual or the group. That statement above taken in isolation suggests the latter. Is that your view? To paraphrase 1984: “There is no individual mind, there is only the collective mind. The individual is a mere part. All that exists is Big Brother.”

    Regarding the empirical question, I think many people DO identify as individuals. It certainly *seems* to be the case that many people embrace their uniqueness as individuals and that this apparent uniqueness is important to their values. What about all the subjective relativism and Randian egoism in the culture? It sure seems like there are a lot of people who identify as bootstrapping their way through the world. “I’m a rock. I’m an island.”

    Or is perhaps your point that, even though this is the case, it shouldn’t be (such people “are lost”). Human flourishing in a state requires identity politics because humans *should* identify as members of certain groups and value such group membership over the value of one’s uniqueness.

    Feel free to take these issues up in another post if you choose to address them at all.

    • I was especially wondering about the metaphysical bedrock question that AR-15 mentions. I find it quite natural to think of individuals as being the bedrock, and not the group, since you could separate all the individuals from their groups by putting them on their own island if there were enough), in which case the groups would cease to be functional, but the individuals would remain.

      Regarding whether people identify as individuals, a famous OJ Simpson quote comes to mind: “I’m not black; I’m OJ.”

    • I think, whether people know it or not, they identify with some racial group. My brother is one of those people that thinks he’s somehow exempt from this. Thus can morph his identity into whatever he chooses. But, after several years of living as a married man in Taiwan, he’s making some interesting moves to try and reenter the US. I think he finally realizes that he’s not Taiwanese. Racial identity is the sort of identity that people cannot simply change on a whim. It’s, more or less, embedded in our genes.

      Even though OJ made that statement, it’s doesn’t change the fact that he’s a black man. He has black friends, black body features and so on. Everyone should be proud of what they are. But I digress, that doesn’t mean one can’t be pleasant to others, even having close ties under certain circumstances-like at work. It’s a mistake to think of racial identity as this evil separator of people. People generally come together, regardless of race, based on common interests.

    • “I think, whether people know it or not, they identify with some racial group.”

      This gets at a general idea that I think is important and true: that the things with which people really identify or the identities that are really important to people are not necessarily those that they consciously recognize. Race is an interesting example to think about here. People may not explicitly think or feel that race is an important part of their identity. But why is it, then, that there is so much voluntary racial segregation?

    • Speaking for myself (I have the standard caucasian appearance), I tend to self-“segregate” mainly by one criterion: interest in philosophy. As it happens, not many non-causasians (or non-males) are in the philosophy arena compared to their percentages of the population as a whole. I also tend to self-segregate along neo-Aristotelian lines, which means I tend to associate a lot with Randians (the better ones 😉 ) in the online world, and I’ve been pleased (although why I should be I’m not really sure) to see the number of those with African-descendent features being involved more and more in that Randian scene….

    • Thanks, AR-15. Those are really good questions and points. I was certainly not trying to argue against the ontological status of individuals. My point was just that individuals are of certain general _kinds_ and that the features of those general kinds have important relations to the well-being of the individuals.

      Thanks for pressing me on the issue of people who do seem to identify as individuals. I have to think more about that. My initial thought is that the type of culture where people can be these independent types making their own decisions is still going to require a lot of shared background norms about how public interactions go, what is allowed, etc. I’m doubtful that this can work out with more robust shared identities than just individuals. But I’ll think more about that.

    • Yes, with even the most ardent race-deniers able to write down what race they are on a job application. (Well, I guess there are some chronically deluted people out there that simply can’t admit it because their beliefs won’t let them, or something. But this doesn’t stop others from figuring it out).

    • One thing about being part of a racial group that requires no conscious prethought, is the genetic link one has to that group. I think, within the broad context of a racial group, specifically, one can be an _individual_. People have no control over the color of their skin, the pitch of their voice, etc. Even basic mannerisms align us with little care or concern. I think race is more deep seeded, while ethnicity is more flexible. If i have African roots but grew up in Brittain, i might describe myself as British. It would be very odd, however, for me to also describe myself as white though.

  5. Hi guys, I’m new to the squad, but I’d like to chime in.

    It’s natural for people to relate to particular identities or even a mishmash of identities, e.g., someone can take pride in being a white, Christian Georgian male marathon runner. Things go awry when people treat these predicates as essences or foundations of being for which everything else about that person must be ordered, and, to wit, all other persons must affirm as inviolable. This, of course, is what the Left embraces in its noxious brand of identity politics.

  6. The argument here (such as it is) against a politics of individualism sounds much too like a strawman. The basic idea of classical liberalism is political freedom, and while this leads some (often conservatives or communitarians) to lament that classical liberalism thereby unduly disregards things that add content to individual identity, it is also a view of many classical liberals that it’s not the place of *politics* for that, but for culture broadly speaking. As the Framers put it, governments are instituted to *secure rights*. It is the other institutions of civil society, of culture broadly speaking, that should be of concern to those looking for soulcraft at the non-individual-only level. There’s statecraft and soulcraft, and each have their own proper domain. We start running into trouble when we decide that it’s a legitimate function of the state to go beyond its rights-securing function and promote this or that vision of “how people ought to live.”

    A good place to begin on this subject would be Rasmussen and Den Uyl’s Norms of Liberty: A Perfectionist Basis for Non-Perfectionist Politics (2006).

    • This reply to CF’s argument (such as it is) sounds like begging the question. Sure, if you can just assume that “things that add content to individual identity” or “soulcraft” can be separated from “politics” or “political freedom”, then–assuming a bunch of other things–you can derive some kind of “classical liberalism”. If you can specify the “rights” that need to be secured in order for people to be “free” in abstraction from any facts about their concrete identities, then perhaps “statecraft” and “soulcraft” have different “proper domains”. But CF is criticizing precisely these kinds of assumptions.

      One important claim CF is making here is that abstractions such as “freedom” or “rights” are always and necessarily interpreted in light of some specific human community with its “identity politics” taken for granted–that there’s no way to specify what constitutes freedom or which rights government is supposed to secure apart from beliefs and norms peculiar to some specific cultural group or “identity”.

      Liberals do often say that the state should refrain from “promoting this or that vision of ‘how people ought to live'”. What could that really mean? In a good liberal society, surely the state will have laws; these laws will inevitably punish some behaviors and ways of life, while rewarding or incentivizing others. Won’t there be schools, where children are taught a certain moral code? Maybe they’ll be taught that abortion is morally acceptable (or that it isn’t). Or that being gay is normal and healthy (or that it isn’t). But anything like this seems to count as ‘promoting’ one particular vision of how people ought to live, at least on an implicit level. At a minimum, a liberal state must ‘promote’ the idea that individual autonomy and equal freedom of citizens are good things–that it’s better for people to live that way rather than being less autonomous or free or equal.

  7. I’m very sorry to read, Criticus, that you aren’t any kind of liberal, as it was classical liberalism — which is TRUE liberalism — that produced the United States. If the ideals of classical liberalism truly were “born dead” then the American Revolution was the false start that progressives/leftists believe it was.

    “If they saw themselves merely or primarily as individuals they would be lost, confused, wondering who they were and what they should be doing with their days.”

    But I must call bullshit on this notion — and thus with the entire article. I do not see myself as primarily a member of some group; this doesn’t prevent me from having goals.

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