Why can’t Americans reach across the aisle like they used to? This question becomes more and more relevant every day, as we see the American political and media establishments retreat to the fringes, leaving the chasm between left and right ever wider. Americans have slowly withdrawn from the candidates hoping to bring people together and begun throwing their support behind those who will exert their power against the opposing group. Last year, America ceased to be a country of liberals, conservatives, and moderates; we proudly segregated into enclaves of deplorables and nasty women. This segregation wasn’t based on color or class, but on a more advanced (and more harmful) identity politic that rallied members of each tribe around the idea that they alone are good and the others are evil.
It is the ever-increasing force of identity politics that has put up a nearly impenetrable wall between the right and the left in America. Identity politics is the tendency to define people in terms of what groups they belong to. Oftentimes people will signal their membership in a certain group in order to establish an immediate ethos. In a sense this is completely natural, even unavoidable; as a Christian I will say and do things daily that signal to other Christians that we are on the same side. But identity politics can become malignant very easily, especially in public discourse.
When two Christian friends are catching up over coffee, they’ll frequently say, “I’ve been praying for you,” “God has a plan,” or any number of other phrases that signal that the two are bonded together with the same Christian identity. This is completely biblical and socially beneficial. It is easy to see the same identity politics act in entirely benign ways, like sports rivalries or bragging about one’s home state. But on the other end of the spectrum is a much more pernicious form of identity politics. This type assigns a certain identity to someone and uses the negative connotations of that identity to invalidate their argument before examining it.
Identity politics have been active since the beginning of man, and well before the term was coined. But in modern times, identity politics have taken on a much more prevalent place in civic discourse, and serve as a rubric by which to grade all arguments. Social psychologist and NYU professor Jonathan Haidt believes that this staunch split between Democrat and Republican, black and white, globalist and nationalist, is due to a sacralization of our own identities (Haidt, 2012). There are some identities that are already inherently sacred, like religious ones. Many identities, however, have been made sacred in the last fifty years.
Haidt designates the Baby Boomers as the generation that gave rise to identity politics (Haidt, 2012). The generation that fought World War II—the Greatest Generation—was able to unify around a common foreign threat. Asking a liberal or a conservative what they were would provoke the same response: I am an American. We should not idealize this time, as it certainly had its sectarian flaws, but we should understand that the presence of an external threat made internal cooperation and compromise easier for Americans. The Baby Boomers came of age in a very different world. The news stories that dominated their televisions and radios were about McCarthyism, racial tensions, women’s rights; their conscience was occupied by domestic threats. It was around these problems that they gathered and split, bonded and fought.
Haidt considers this time a renaissance of Manichean thinking (Haidt, 2012). Mani was a third century Persian prophet and religious leader who taught, in brief, that the whole world was involved in a battle between light and dark. The Baby Boomers’ “foundational experience…is fighting each other over whether [America] is doing evil or good.” This gave birth to an essential dichotomy in the American mind: “My side is doing good, the other is doing evil.” This was a turning point in the American psyche. No longer was the enemy on the other side of the globe. Now the enemy was much closer to home. The danger is not from fascism or communism; now the threat is your neighbor who dislikes Affirmative Action, or your coal mining uncle. This dualistic Manichean thinking slowly edged out America’s ability to agree to disagree, by making all opinions necessarily good or evil.
This makes each side’s success appear more urgent. It also makes the idea of compromise into a sin. In a 2010 interview with Leslie Stahl, then-incoming Speaker of the House John Boehner famously said of compromise, “I reject the word.” He went on to say that when a politician says they will compromise, “a lot of Americans look up and go, ‘Uh oh, they’re gonna sell me out’” (Boehner, 2010). The principle of compromise has become a casualty of identity politics, because we’ve collectively lost the ability to simply disagree without vilifying. How could we not, when we all suspect the other side has entered into a deal with the devil?
For liberals, equal outcomes for minorities is a top priority. So if a man tries to speak out against Planned Parenthood’s abortion services, the response will be a personal attack. They will not provide a statistical argument to support Planned Parenthood’s health services; they will say that men don’t have the right to talk about women’s health, or that a woman who speaks against Planned Parenthood is too privileged to be credible. If that fails they’ll say that the person is out of touch with the needs of poor women, or else that they secretly want minority women to go without healthcare. One way or another, any critique of what these groups have sacralized (read: the central point around which they have built their identity) will elicit a visceral response aimed at the identity of the person making the critique.
The most common place we see this occurring today is likely around the Trump administration. To many, he can do no wrong, because he is draining the swamp or ruffling the feathers of the establishment. To these people, his policies and individual actions are only ancillary to their opinion of him—what really matters is that he identifies as one of them. To many others, everything he does is wrong. No matter how many women or minorities he employs or speaks well of, their opinion of him does not change. This is because no matter what actions he takes, he is identified as a misogynist and a racist. He is one of them.
We as a nation are retracting into tribes, becoming increasingly unable to communicate beyond the boundaries of our territories. We rely upon our opponents’ identities, rather than the merits of their arguments, to decide whether or not they are correct. We come with prepackaged arguments and refutations. Like Solzhenitsyn in his Gulag Archipelago, our culture has become “incapable of admitting any new fact or evaluating any new opinion before a label has been found for it from the already available stock” (Barker 1977, 97). All we need to know is who said it, and no more; the argument never mattered anyway. This is why our nation is splitting in two.
Barker, Francis. 1977. Solzhenitsyn: Politics and Form. London: The MacMillan Press Ltd. Accessed June 2, 2017. https://books.google.com/books?id=9eyvCwAAQBAJ&pg=PA97&lpg=PA97&dq=solzhenitsyn+incapable+of+admitti.
Boehner, John. 2010. Interviewed by Leslie Stahl. December 12. Accessed June 2, 2017. https://thinkprogress.org/boehner-i-reject-the-word-compromise-131314328f01.
Haidt, Jonathan. 2012. Interviewed by Bill Moyers. June 13. Accessed June 1, 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jHc-yMcfAY4&list=PLWt0DCSh6VTiV5vEvH1TUkRZJchAZg5p3.