Re­ject­ing iden­tity pol­i­tics is part of Amer­i­can creed

San Francisco Chronicle (Sunday) - - INSIGHT NATION - © 2018 Tri­bune Con­tent Agency, LLC Jonah Gold­berg is the au­thor of “Sui­cide of the West.” Email: gold­bergcol­[email protected] gmail.com. Twit­ter: @Jon­ahNRO. To com­ment, sub­mit your let­ter to the ed­i­tor at SFChron­i­cle.com/letters.

I’ve spent much of the last year pro­mot­ing, de­bat­ing and — let’s just be hon­est — hawk­ing my lat­est book, “Sui­cide of the West: How the Re­birth of Trib­al­ism, Pop­ulism, Na­tion­al­ism and Iden­tity Pol­i­tics is De­stroy­ing Amer­i­can Democ­racy.”

An in­ter­est­ing pat­tern has de­vel­oped. Of the terms in the sub­ti­tle, ev­ery­one from my friends in right-wing talk ra­dio to in­vari­ably po­lite lib­eral NPR hosts — and the au­di­ences that lis­ten to each of them — agrees that “trib­al­ism” is bad. I think it’s be­cause no party or fac­tion has adopted the term, so each side thinks only their op­po­nents are guilty of it. Sim­i­larly, lib­er­als tend to be sym­pa­thetic to the idea that pop­ulism is bad, largely be­cause they so closely as­so­ciate it with Don­ald Trump, though a few re­mem­ber that Bernie San­ders is a pop­ulist, too, and so want to of­fer caveats about “good” pop­ulism and “bad” pop­ulism. The same holds for con­ser­va­tives, only in re­verse.

On na­tion­al­ism, I get the most push­back from the right and the least from the left.

On iden­tity pol­i­tics, it’s the other way around. It’s hard for many lib­er­als to un­der­stand (or at least ad­mit) that there might be some­thing per­ni­cious about di­vid­ing every­body up into cat­e­gories of race, sex, eth­nic­ity, etc. Mean­while, many on the right strug­gle to see how their side might be guilty of do­ing the same thing.

Be­cause I’ve been so mired in th­ese con­ver­sa­tions for so long, I’m al­ways in­trigued when some­one from the other team, or tribe, breaks the pat­tern.

En­ter for­mer Pres­i­dent Barack Obama. Last week he said some­thing very in­ter­est­ing. At an event cel­e­brat­ing the 25th an­niver­sary of the Baker Cen­ter at Rice Univer­sity, Obama de­cried “pol­i­tics based on a na­tion­al­ism that’s not pride in coun­try but ha­tred for some­body on the other side of the bor­der. And you start get­ting the kind of pol­i­tics that does not al­low for com­pro­mise, be­cause it’s based on pas­sions and emo­tions.”

For­mer Sec­re­tary of State James Baker in­ter­jected, say­ing, “It’s iden­tity pol­i­tics.”

To which Obama re­sponded: “Which is why, by the way, when I hear peo­ple say they don’t like iden­tity pol­i­tics, I think it’s im­por­tant to re­mem­ber that iden­tity pol­i­tics doesn’t just ap­ply when it’s black peo­ple or gay peo­ple or women. The folks who re­ally orig­i­nated iden­tity pol­i­tics were the folks who said three-fifths clause and all that stuff. That was iden­tity pol­i­tics . ... Jim Crow was iden­tity pol­i­tics. That’s where it started.”

Obama is right — with two caveats. The three-fifths clause of the Con­sti­tu­tion, which held that blacks in slave states be counted as three-fifths of a white per­son for pur­poses of rep­re­sen­ta­tion in Con­gress, is widely mis­un­der­stood (though of course it was part of the larger evil of slav­ery). It was the slave­hold­ers who wanted slaves to be counted as whole per­sons. The anti-slav­ery forces, mostly in the North, didn’t want them to be counted at all, be­cause to count slaves as cit­i­zens would em­power the slave states.

Sec­ond, the framers didn’t “start”

iden­tity pol­i­tics — it’s been around for thou­sands of years. Aris­toc­racy was among the first, and most per­ni­cious, forms of iden­tity pol­i­tics. It de­rives from the Greek word aris­tokra­tia ,or “rule of the best-born.” It held that some peo­ple were sim­ply born bet­ter than oth­ers. Some hu­mans were “slaves by na­ture,” ac­cord­ing to Aris­to­tle, and for thou­sands of years all around the world, peo­ple be­lieved that lower or­ders, or castes, were born to be peas­ants, serfs, slaves, etc., and other peo­ple were born to be rulers.

Where Obama is right, how­ever, is more im­por­tant than where he is wrong. Slav­ery and Jim Crow were in­dis­putably man­i­fes­ta­tions of iden­tity pol­i­tics. Amer­ica’s sys­tem of le­gal­ized racism was just an­other form of aris­toc­racy un­der a dif­fer­ent name. And as such, it was a vi­o­la­tion of the best ideas of the found­ing. Per­haps the sin­gle most rad­i­cal thing about the Amer­i­can Revo­lu­tion was the de­ci­sion to re­ject all forms of hered­i­tary no­bil­ity.

It took longer — far too much longer — to rec­og­nize the rights and dig­nity of all Amer­i­cans, but the idea that you should take peo­ple as you find them, and judge them not as a mem­ber of a group but as in­di­vid­u­als, re­mains per­haps the great­est part of the Amer­i­can creed, re­gard­less of whether you’re a lib­eral or a con­ser­va­tive.

Brett Coomer / Hearst News­pa­pers

For­mer Pres­i­dent Barack Obama speaks with Jon Meacham at a cel­e­bra­tion for Rice Univer­sity’s Baker In­sti­tute for Pub­lic Pol­icy.

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