Not long after Sohum Pal ’20 enjoined white students to “take a few steps back” — from leadership positions, from debate, from power — his column ended up on iSteve, an alt-right blog whose readership consists mostly of racists and reactionaries. The ensuing 161 comments confirmed what centrist liberals like Mark Lilla have been saying ever since President Donald Trump took office: For reasons no one fully understands, identity politics seems to work much better for the right than the left.
This might be because elaborate taxonomies of privilege and privation inevitably alienate more than they include. It might be because, in Lilla’s words, identity politics “is largely expressive, not persuasive,” meaning it lacks the intellectual resources to win over white voters who don’t already agree with liberal principles.
Or it might be because identity politics has proven so persuasive that the alt-right and radical left now agree on quite a bit.
They agree, for instance, that the history of the United States is the history of white supremacy. There’s an obvious sense in which this thesis transforms American identity into a moral problem and American patriotism into a political sin, transformations which different segments of the left have embraced to varying degrees.
But there’s another sense in which it forms the basis for a reactionary critique of liberalism, one that understands social progress as cultural suicide and racial revanche as self-preservation. The logic here is straightforward. If American identity cannot be disentangled from white supremacy, then white Americans have one of two choices: Either they can reject American identity, or they can reject anti-racism. And if, like many white Americans, you have seen your community torn apart by drug abuse and wage stagnation, chances are you won’t want to renounce your last particle of social attachment in the high-minded pursuit of social justice.
The second point of consensus is that the politics of race are zero-sum. You see this idea in Richard Spencer’s argument that multiracialism cannot coexist with European culture — that unless the coming demographic revolution is stopped, white Americans will live in a country “alien and hostile” to their grandchildren.
But you also see it in a certain species of Foucauldian rhetoric, popular with the campus left, that conflates racial justice with racial power. Pal’s column is an almost comical manifestation of this impulse. Having a seat at the table is not enough, he tells us, because people of color must “be seated at the head of the table” in order to dictate their “engagement with white power structures.” This dispensation has a perverse resonance with Spencer’s: It rejects pluralism in favor of rank group-interest, reducing politics to a conflict of wills in which only one tribe, one identity, can emerge victorious.
That brings us to the third point of consensus, which is the peculiar kind of cryptorelativism that dominates victimhood narratives on both the left and the right. Student activists have no problem with moral absolutes when it comes to prosecuting perceived injustices. But as soon as those activists face ethical scrutiny themselves, objective morality is cast aside as an oppressive social construct that only serves the interests of the ruling class. In the same vein, the alt-right regards the preservation of Western culture as an ethical imperative, yet it rejects the very principles on which that culture is based. “Our dream society,” Richard Spencer has said, would be based on “very different ideals than the Declaration of Independence.” Morality thus becomes little more than an instrument of tribal advancement, to be used or discarded as the situation demands.
Now imagine you are a white person who has been convinced of each of the above propositions. You believe that the story of America is one in which you come out — or should come out — on top, that the politics of race is zero-sum and that there is no objective morality apart from naked group interest. Given these premises, what reason could you possibly have to take one or even two steps back? What person in their right mind would cede power to any group patently unconcerned with the welfare of outsiders? The real problem with identity politics isn’t that it focuses too much on difference, as Lilla contends, or that it promotes rhetorical onanism. It’s that it allows the alt-right’s narrative to make sense.
None of this is to draw an equivalency between neo-Nazis and campus Bolsheviks. But it is to draw a connection. The more people see race relations as a competition to sit at the head of the table, the more Americans will be tempted by extreme ideologies like Spencer’s. And the more converts Spencer gains, the more our common bonds of citizenship will deteriorate.
Better by far to understand the promise of America as the promise of a round table, the goal of which is equal citizenship and the head of which does not exist.
Aaron Sibarium is a senior in Timothy Dwight College. His column runs on alternate Tuesdays. Contact him at email@example.com .