Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Strangled by Identity

This is great, at National Affairs:

American politics is overwhelmed by bitterness and rancor. The norms that structure the work of our constitutional system are everywhere under attack. Partisan loyalties now seem to determine not only people's worldviews and policy priorities but also what facts they will accept or choose to treat as lies. The rhetoric of animus and apocalypse is the everyday parlance of both parties, particularly when each talks about the other. And although this polarization may have its roots inside the Beltway, its toxicity pervades the public.

None of this began with Donald Trump. It was all there in the culture wars of the Obama years and in the deep divisions of the Bush era. It is systemic. Our political dysfunction in this century looks less like a failure of individuals and more like a corrosion of our entire political culture and its institutions.

Many observers of this problem, especially on the right though increasingly on the left as well, tend to explain it by resorting to critiques of "identity politics." But identity politics is something we tend to see others doing while failing to recognize that we are doing it ourselves. And because we tend to miss the breadth of its scope and reach, we fail to see not only how central it is to the trouble with our politics but also how it might be overcome.

Identity politics is not just a problem of the left. It is a way of thinking that pervades our self-understanding. Our rancorous political conversation now consists of three competing theories of identity in America — three stories of how our differing backgrounds should shape our common political life. One of these (espoused by a significant swath of the left but increasingly co-opted by an influential minority on the right) treats politics as a continuous struggle across racial lines, and so conceives of coalitions on racial grounds. Another (advanced more commonly on the right in our time) insists that the principled distinction in our politics is not between racial groups but along the legal line of citizens versus non-citizens. Finally, the third theory of identity (espoused by some elites of both parties, and barely aware of itself as a theory of identity at all) views the other two schools of thought as pernicious and proposes its own form of identity defined by an ideal of cosmopolitan dignity.

Each of these theories, as practiced, is unstable. And each rejects the other two as un-American without really quite understanding them. It is this problem — our country's conceptual blind spot on identity — that drives so much of our present polarization. To be sure, disagreements over identity are a causa causans of why Republicans and Democrats can barely get along. But it isn't only that the two sides speak different languages; it's that our political languages fall short of our political needs.

The solution is not a new and improved theory of identity, although in time the country could use one. Instead, a practical solution would require us to begin by pivoting from philosophy to institutions. It is all well and good to debate the various theories of identity. But our leaders should also focus on building and sustaining those institutions that can concretely ground a functional civic life — one that works in practice even if it sometimes seems as though it couldn't work in theory. To begin this work, we should seek to better understand the quandary of American identity, so that we might rise above it.