Identity Politics Explained

AP Photo/Susan Walsh


Racism is the lowest form of collectivism. Ayn Rand once called it “barnyard collectivism.” Throughout history, it has usually been the handmaiden of every other form of collectivism.

In the early 20th century, for example, racist attitudes were common among people who called themselves “progressives.” Woodrow Wilson was notoriously racist, and progressives at the time were generally strong advocates of eugenics, in order to improve the gene pool. At the same time, communists, fascists and socialists in other parts of the world often espoused racist views of one sort or another.

By the last half of the 20th century, however, it became unfashionable in the developed world to espouse racist views. The focus instead shifted to economic collectivism. Such mainstream economists as Paul Samuelson suggested that a socialist economic system might actually work.

Today, that view is no longer tenable. We have a plethora of side-by-side examples of market economies and government-run economies:  North Korea and South Korea, West Germany and East Germany, Cuba and its neighbors, Venezuela and its neighbors.

These contrasts are so stark that only the most obtuse can today assert that governments can organize economic activities better than markets.

But above all else, collectivists are still collectivists (for reasons I will conjecture below). Unable to make a plausible case for economic collectivism, they have resorted to identity politics.

What Identity Politics Is About

Identity politics asks people to view their role in the world not as individuals, but as members of a racial, ethnic, or religious group.

In terms of substantive policies, identity politics is the view that one’s race, ethnic background, religious affiliation and maybe even skin color alone determine what rights and claims you have; or what obligations you have incurred.

A particularly crass form of racist thought is the view that the burden of wrongful action and the right to retribution are passed down from generation to generation biologically – in a secularized version of the doctrine of original sin.

One reason our judicial system works as well as it does is that each of us is presumed to be born with a moral blank slate. We are not burdened by an obligation to atone for the wrongs committed by our parents. Nor are we entitled to reparations for wrongs committed against them.

Identity politics is the rejection of this idea.

In the United States, it is common to associate identity politics with left-wing causes, especially the pursuit of “social justice.” But if we look around the world, we find that most collectivist thinking is a lot more like the legendary conflict between the Hatfield’s and the McCoy’s. If a Hatfield murders a McCoy in one generation, is a McCoy is entitled to kill a Hatfield in the next generation – by way of atonement? In much of the world, the answer would appear to be “yes.”

Most ethnic conflicts around the world are the Hatfield/McCoy story writ large. Examples are found in IraqIndonesiaSri LankaIndia, and DarfurIsrael, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip.

Evolutionary Psychology

Given the self-destructive nature of such conflicts, why do they persist in the modern age? A possible answer is that collectivist impulses are in our genes.

Fifty thousand years ago, our ancestors lived in small groups, for whom survival was tenuous. By today’s standards their consumption level was subsistence, and they were continually at war with other tribes.

In such an environment, there are tremendous benefits to be had if individuals put aside their own self-interest and cooperate to achieve goals that  are good for the group as a whole. Alternatively, there are tremendous costs if individuals pursue their own interests at the expense of group welfare.

In battles with rival tribes, for example, the group is advantaged if its warriors act heroically and take risks to secure military victories. But it is in no one’s self-interest to be a hero. Cowardice is much safer.

In hunting wild game, it’s in no one’s self-interest to take the risk of being gored. It’s much safer to let other hunters take the risks and enjoy the consumption once the game is felled.

In the gathering of food and in ordinary camp maintenance, it’s in the self-interest of individuals to shirk and let others do the work. The preference of leisure over work seems to be almost universal.

In the modern era, conflicts of self-interest among individuals are generally resolved in the economic marketplace and in the political system. But our ancestors did not have organized markets. Nor did they have political systems as we understand them today. Instead, they had to rely on culture.

In primitive societies, rites and rituals and other cultural phenomena have one overriding purpose: To encourage individuals to view the group as a whole as extended kin and to make sacrifices for the entire group the way nature has programmed us to make sacrifices for our biological kin.

Here is the problem. In the modern age, the way you can meet the needs of the most people most of the time is by pursuing your own interest in a competitive marketplace. This is the miracle of Adam Smith’s invisible hand. But 50,000 years ago, the way an individual met the needs of the most other people was by sacrificing self-interest for the welfare of the group.

Whereas our ancestors survived by suppressing self-interest, today we survive by encouraging it.

More than one scholar has theorized that the behavioral instincts of the past may have been passed on to us genetically. (See Frederich Hayek, for example) If so, one way to explain the modern world is that we have some people with a caveman mentality trying to live in a world where that mentality is completely out of place.

Elections

Nowhere is identity politics more prevalent than in elections. Although both of the major political parties in the U.S. are guilty to some extent, studies show that Democrats far more than Republicans campaign on group identity rather than on public policy issues.

Remember Joe Biden’s comment: “If you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t Black.”  The racial politics reflected in Biden’s remark have been advancing full throttle for some time.

  • On the eve of the 2000 election the NAACP ran radio and television ads trying to falsely convince black listeners that Texas governor George W. Bush favored leniency for three white racists who dragged a black man to death behind a pickup truck.

  • It is now known that the killer of Treyvon Martin was not white. He was Hispanic and of mixed-race background (with blacks in his family). Yet in the period leading up to his 2012 reelection bid., President Obama falsely claimed the killing was racially motivated.

  • Vice President Joe Biden piled on by telling an African- American audience that if Mitt Romney were to win, he’d “put ya’ll back in chains.”

  • Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, was a thief and a bully and his death at the hands of a police officer apparently had nothing to do with race. It is now known that he never said “Hands up don’t shoot.”

  • Yet at the National Democratic convention that year, Hillary Clinton had the mothers of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and other supposed victims of white racists on stage, as a way to court Black votes.

Identity politics is ugly politics. That’s because racism itself is ugly.


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