Revolutionary origins of identity politics explain divisive nature

Revolutionary origins of identity politics explain divisive nature, by Jason Willick.

What exactly is identity politics? In his recent book “The Once and Future Liberal,” Mark Lilla offers the following illustration: “Conversations that once might have begun, ‘I think A, and here is my argument’, now take the form, ‘speaking as an X, I am offended that you claim B’.” In this view, “white men have one ‘epistemology,’ black women have another”. The contention is that people with different backgrounds can’t fully understand each other’s experiences.

There is some truth to that, but as Max Diamond has pointed out in the online magazine Quillette, fully accepting this premise poses a grave problem for representative institutions. If identity politics is true, then someone can’t be fully enfranchised if his elected representative comes from a different identity group. If a politician can’t understand his constituents’ interests, how can he act on their behalf? …


A voter today might say, “as a woman, I don’t want male congressmen deciding whether I can get an abortion”, or “how can multicultural urban elites know what I am going through as a downscale white Appalachian?” Similarly, an American in 1783 might have said, “I’m an artisan; I don’t want landed elites who know nothing about my way of life deciding the inflation rate.” …

Today, the American spirit is hyperdemocratic, and demands for ever more precise representation have generally succeeded. Hamilton’s idea of a unitary nation, steered by a benevolent elite, has given way to a fractious and pluralistic republic where industries have their own narrow lobbies and members of congress have separate ethnic caucuses. …

Today’s identity conflicts over race, sex and class reflect contradictions in the idea of representation that have been present since Americans parted ways with King George.

Elites who want to slow the spinning of the identity-politics centrifuge need to defend the philosophy of faithful representation-by-proxy against the new hyperdemocrats — that is, they need to prove that they can impartially advance a kind of common good without being a perfect reflection of the people who elected them.

But that argument won’t go very far as long as many Americans are convinced that the elites function as an identity group of their own.

hat-tip Stephen Neil