I’ve been plagued by Noah Millman’s recent accusation that national security is now a conceptual tentpole for Republican identity politics. “Foreign policy,” he writes,
is now basically a branch of the culture war: a way of convincing the white working class to support a party that is not pursuing their economic interests by flattering them with the implication that, in the memorable words of Edward Wilson, they’ve got the United States of America. The rest of you are just visiting.
This ungenerous but plausible account adds to a string of important musings, kicked off by Julian Sanchez, on the capture or near-capture of a certain kind of movement conservatism by the political performance of shared selfhood that once seemed to belong entirely to the contemporary left. A few days ago Reihan Salam contributed to the conversation, in typically intriguing fashion, with a long post on symbolic exclusion and the politics of taste.
Reihan gives us several points of entry into the dual problem of conservative identity politics and the mistaken judgment that conservative identity politics is best understood as just another species of the identity politics genus. Reihan’s remarks revolve around the claim that “disagreements flow from heterogeneity in tastes and preferences, e.g., basic disagreements regarding the meaning and implications of fairness.” It’s useful to remember that this is true even within political groupings. (Partisans of the view espoused by John Rawls sometimes act like ‘justice as fairness’ is better measured legislatively, by the act of redistribution, than judicially, by the act of caring.) Disagreements across groupings, however, seem to be the primary concern of those painting contemporary conservatism with the identity-political brush. In fact, their primary concern is to establish that conservatives have fallen in for identity politics (because, e.g., without it, their political project can’t muster popular support adequate to preserve the power position of party and movement elites). If they were really moved to understand political disagreement across identity groups, however, critics of movement conservatism would spend substantially more time shifting their inquiry to consider what it is that identity politics in general, and its conservative variant(s) in particular, are conceptual alternatives to.
As Joshua Mitchell has argued, identity politics
may not immediately seem to oppose Madisonian pluralism, but it bears no family resemblance to it, and that fact itself is telling. Madisonian pluralism emerges out of the Anglo-American tradition; ‘identity politics’ is of Continental origin and can trace its proximal roots to Hegel’s claim that in the course of the march of world history, Absolute Knowledge subsumes all ‘difference’ (Plato’s Fable p. 5).
This insight yields the following argument: Identity politics is an alternative to Hegel’s appropriation, “purportedly on the higher ground of philosophical thought,” of the “final unification that Christianity proffers” (p. 6). It is “not an exaggeration to say that ‘identity politics’ is the response of the Hegelian Left to the notion that difference is subsumed by the Absolute. [...] Difference can never be subsumed; identity remains intransigently self-same” (id). Critically to contemporary American politics, identity politics “supposes not only difference, which pluralism acknowledges, but also difference of a sort that is not mediable through the scalar calculus of preference [...] identity is not a preference. Preferences, because scalar, can be quantified; ‘identity’ must be qualified” (id).
Left progressivism, properly understood, demands the earthly unity that, as Tocqueville observed, individuals long to experience above all in a democratic age. But it denies the experience of difference that democrats stubbornly demand too. The result is an ongoing liberal struggle to accommodate to the politics of the expansion of the all-subsuming Hegelian State the ever-more ceremonial politics of according official recognition to identity groups (who themselves only recognize the recognition of the State as authoritative!). In theory, this two-pronged process has a certain logical appeal; but in practice, as the limits of liberal progressivisim under Obama seem to indicate, its painful contradictions cannot be suppressed, nor its real-world disappointments forever concealed behind the drapery of political theater.
Underscoring the leftist roots of identity politics is important, albeit in a limited way, to understanding what’s happening on the right. Even if the presence of some particularly unreflective conservative imitators of the leftist pattern is freely stipulated, what should already be evident is that the confluence of identity and politics on the right does not fit the pattern produced on the left in Hegel’s wake. For conservatives reject all three of (1) the ultimate unity promised by the philosophy of the State; (2) the investiture of all meaning in earthly identity and difference; and (3) the compromise principle that diversity is the source of political rights. What is caricatured by the left as a copycat conversion of rural Christian whiteness into a political identity is in fact something both more and less.
“On the one hand,” as Mitchell puts it, “there is the demand to level all difference; on the other hand there is the wish to retain difference in the face of the democratization of the world. The first aspect produces the affliction of envy; the second, the promulgation of difference that manages to maintain distance” (The Fragility of Freedom p. 183). Tocqueville’s proposition, notes Mitchell, is that “Christianity can ameliorate but never wholly arrest both of these intransigent problems, and that democracy requires this palliative in order to avert these twin perils” (id). In the space of this blog post, more important than the particulars of Tocqueville’s political theology is the fact that, for many conservatives, his is a scandalous claim. For many on the right, identity is a preference — or, rather, our preferences are our identities. Mockery of ‘Real America’ conservatives as identity-political goons is often a pastime of critics of liberalism unwilling to follow Tocqueville in taking Christianity seriously as something categorically other than a political identity — as a deep conceptual alternative to the left’s would-be solutions to the problem of political authority in a democratic age. In addition to the three items listed above, conservatives accused of identity politics also reject the contention most popular on the right that all differences can actually be subsumed — that is, made interchangeable — by the Market and not the State. It is of huge importance that this disagreement not be caricatured as ‘Conservatives vs. Libertarians’. Barry Goldwater, one of the most prominently libertarian Republicans, dismissed the reduction of all human interests to material ones as the central myth of the command-and-control left. Corporatist Republicans, meanwhile, often share stereotypically libertarian views about the supremacy of the market. Indeed, Ron Paul and his popularity should be proof enough of the point.
What’s more, Christianity is not the only source to which conservatives turn to ameliorate the problems of difference in a democratic age. In addition to the biblical tradition of forbearance, conservatives avail themselves of the classical tradition of honor and the neo-classical tradition of virtu (understood, as J.G.A. Pocock argues, to mean that bearing the burden of armed independence is the best defense against decadence and corruption). These things, more than the allure of identity politics, must be borne in mind when diagnosing the forbearance (and more) of conservatives with regard to the global militarism and maximum-security nationalism that have become unquestioned doctrine for much of the establishment right.
If the left is indeed the aggressor in the culture wars, the defining tactic of that protracted conflict should be recognized as the conceptual transformation of all combatants into commensurate units of analysis. That might not resolve the conservative predicament, but it may well ameliorate it.