Address Identity Politics not Morality to Fix Today’s Polarization

Nietzsche contends that power-relations are at the basis of all social institutions. Ideologies are the principal and most cost-effective means whereby the mass of humanity is, and always has been, manipulated and controlled by its leaders. Ideologies all utilize morality to attain their objectives, because it is most readily through the moral and mystical concept of a morality that is both transcendental and universal that secular as well as religious ideologies are able to offer supposed solutions to humankind’s inherent and most profound psychological need. In our everyday lives, we confront a host of moral issues. Once we have deliberated and formed judgments about what is right or wrong, good or bad, these judgments tend to have a marked hold on us. Identity politics is an ideology that convinces people to band together in society and agree to a common project. There is now concern identity politics is hampering empathy and communication.

In the Theory of Moral Sentiments first published in 1759, Adam Smith distinguishes two kinds of normative guides to action: rules and virtues. Moral rules, formed on the basis of our reactions to specific instances (we say to ourselves, “I’ll never do that”), bar certain especially egregious kinds of behavior – murder, rape, theft – and provide a framework of shared expectations for society. They are essential to justice, especially, without which societies could not survive. They also enable people who are not fully virtuous to behave with a minimum of decorum and decency, and help all of us cut through the “veil of self-delusion” Smith developed social conception of self. Smith’s “impartial spectator” begins as a product and expression of society, but becomes, once internalized, a source of moral evaluation that enables the individual to stand apart from, and criticize, his or her society.

With respect to morality, Mark Twain observes, “Always do what is right. It will gratify one half of mankind, and astonish the other.” For the past 10,000 years or so, human society has been divided into antagonistic classes, and that has meant that morality has developed not as a general theory of human emancipation, but as a set of rules by which each class attempts to further its own interests. The most influential moral theories since the eighteenth century have tended to see morality as a necessary way of holding human impulses in check. A central component of Kant’s theory, for instance, is that morality has to control human desires in order to prevent social conflict. Underlying these views is the assumption that human beings are competitive individuals who seek their own self-interest and who will engage in a war of all against all if left to their own devices. Morality is supposed to moderate the war so that society can hold together.

Identity politics is a political ideology with a religious-moral overlay. It seeks to unite groups of traditionally-powerless people who share common characteristics – such as race and gender – into aggrieved collectives. The source of grievance is oppression by powerful groups in society, often associated with the white race and male gender. Identity politics highlights the social inequities that reflect this oppression. Although the term identity politics originated in the 1970s, it has its origins in socialist theory as expounded by Karl Marx in the mid-nineteenth century. Marx saw injustice and poverty in every modern society. Behind it all, was an epic conflict between a capitalist class (the owners of the means of production) and a working class (the proletariat). The injustice lay in the expropriation by the capitalists of the wealth created by the workers. In today’s identity version, the epic struggle between capitalist and proletariat has been replaced by a new struggle between oppressed and oppressor.

With the 2008 financial collapse and the subsequent Great Recession, Americans stopped believing in the American dream. Still, liberals ignored the undeniable fact that the gigantic losses incurred by the quasi-criminal financial sector were cynically transferred onto the shoulders of a working class they thought no longer mattered. Bernie Sanders understood the challenge of identity politics. In 2016 Sanders argued that while fighting to advance the rights of African-Americans, women, LGBT individuals, immigrants, and other marginalized groups, that those fights cannot be won without advancing the material interests of the working class, because “our rights and economic lives are intertwined.” The Democratic movers and shakers did not hear him warn of the need for economic populism in tandem with identity politics. The elites’ readiness to ignore widening class divisions, and to replace it with class-blind identity politics, was the greatest gift to toxic populism.

Class and class struggle has returned to political controversy in today’s late capitalism, thanks to neoliberalism’s dismantling of the welfare state and the cruel, remorseless exploitation of the underclasses in both the advanced world and abroad. The right-wing populist upsurge of today is clearly all about class and class struggle. Class struggle is central to the right-wing populist upsurge as its leaders attempt to capture the discontent of the underclass and lead it into a right-wing political project (where you find echoes of fascism). Donald Trump is a symptom of a new kind of class warfare raging at home and abroad. Class wars in America are disguised as culture wars. Where the culture wars of the last several decades were fought over sexuality, religion and family, today’s culture wars offer a new set of cultural battles linked with shifting economic circumstances, including globalization, immigration and the changing boundaries of legitimate pluralism.

Francis Fukuyama reports today’s polarization is the result of identity politics. For the most part, economic issues defined twentieth-century politics. On the left, politics is centered on workers, trade unions, social welfare programs, and redistributive policies. The right, by contrast, was primarily interested in reducing the size of government and promoting the private sector. Politics today, however, is defined less by economic or ideological concerns than by questions of identity. Now, in many democracies, the left focuses less on creating broad economic equality and more on promoting the interests of a wide variety of marginalized groups, such as ethnic minorities, immigrants and refugees, women, and LGBT people. The right, meanwhile, has redefined its core mission as the patriotic protection of traditional national identity, which is often explicitly connected to race, ethnicity, or religion. Identity politics has become an ideology that explains much of what is going on in global affairs.1

Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign was widely viewed as a kind of populist revolt against the Washington establishment. As a candidate, the billionaire promised voters that he would take on the elite and fight for the “forgotten men and women” of America, and promoted himself as a man of the people. Yet since becoming president Trump has done virtually nothing to improve the lot of ordinary Americans who work for a living. In fact, his administration’s policies have, for the most part, benefited people like President Trump – the super-rich – while hurting working class Americans. According to John Judis the exact designation of the terms: ‘the people’ and ‘the elite’ don’t define populism; what defines it is the disagreement or argument between the two – or in the case of right-wing populism the three, as right-wing populists “champion the people against an elite that they accuse of favoring a third group,” which is typically an outsider group such as immigrants, foreigners or minorities.

America is divided on such issues of economic policy, social policy, foreign policy, race, privacy and national security – while clustered into groups that compete against each other in a zero-sum game where negotiation and compromise are perceived as betrayal. Partisan gerrymandering render the House of Representatives so polarized that most lawmakers now fear a primary challenge from the right or left more than they fear losing to the other party in a general election. They have no incentive to compromise. This cries out for non-partisan redistricting commissions to redraw the lines and make House members more accountable to people other than the extremes of each party. The influence of wealthy donors has only gotten more pronounced over the years, and the Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in the Citizens United case only tilted the scales even more in the direction of corporations and billionaires. It is necessary to overturn Citizens United and fully adopt public financing of elections.2

A study by Kevin Smith and his co-authors provides evidence that moral decisions may be more a product of political beliefs than vice versa. Smith observes, “We went into it thinking that moral foundations are a cause of ideology, and if anything, we found that ideology is a cause of moral foundations.” This would suggest is that your moral intuitions are coming from your social environment and your unique experiences, not evolution. This raised, but did not directly test, the possibility that political beliefs are at least in part justifying judgments of right and wrong. The study supports creating attitude change by shifting the political ideology that supports polarization.3 In addition, addressing issues such as partisan gerrymandering and exclusionary party primaries will be a significant start in undoing a political cultural that is so antagonistic. This will make political campaigns less negative; rather than tear down opponents, focusing candidates on building up support for their ideas.

1 Francis Fukuyama – Against Identity Politics. https://www.sas.upenn.edu/andrea-mitchell-center/francis-fukuyama-against-identity-politics

2 Russell Berman (08 March 2016) What’s the Answer to Political Polarization in the U.S.? https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/03/whats-the-answer-to-political-polarization/470163/

3 Peter K. Hatemi, Charles Crabtree, and Kevin B. Smith. (31 July 2019) Ideology Justifies Morality: Political Beliefs Predict Moral Foundations https://ajps.org/2019/07/31/ideology-justifies-morality/

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