Identity Politics Is All That’s Left

COMMENTARY Progressivism

Identity Politics Is All That’s Left

Jul 21, 2023 10 min read

Former Director, Simon Center for American Studies

Richard was Director of the B. Kenneth Simon Center for American Studies and AWC Family Foundation Fellow at The Heritage Foundation.
Pro- and anti-affirmative action rotestors shout at each outside of the Supreme Court of the United States on Thursday, June 29, 2023 in Washington, D.C. Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

Hawley’s assessment is that, in regard to identity politics, political correctness, and intersectionality, conservatism’s overall response has been hypocritical.

Ideological claims about the power of identity involve ultimately remaking the American constitutional order into a racial and gender collectivist stew.

One positive finding Hawley makes and should be of concern to everyone is how partisanship itself has become pungent in American life.

In a series of academic books, George Hawley has proven himself to be a thoughtful writer and thinker on American politics and its disputatious conservative and progressive elements. He is also that rare breed in contemporary academia who generally takes seriously and credibly conservative arguments on a range of issues, even those dealing with the most controversial of subjects. This is not to say that he presents as a conservative, but he calls readers to consider arguments from the right side of the spectrum rather than dismissing or mocking them. For that, Hawley should be commended. Even more, his writing is dispassionate, critical, and reasonable, giving readers intellectual leverage on crucial issues.

His latest book, Conservatism in a Divided America: The Right and Identity Politics, does not disappoint in this regard, but, and as I’ll discuss, Hawley’s methodological tools fail him in ways that almost undermine a book aiming to understand conservative arguments against identity politics. Hawley informs us in the introduction that “conservatives should view this work as a well-intentioned critique.” The question, however, is the veracity of the criticism itself.

Such a book calls for authoritative judgments being issued from engagement with the core of political ideas themselves, revealing their truth or falsehood. Hawley, ever the social scientist in this book, provides mostly observations, however, not judgments. When he does offer the latter, they fail to satisfy because they don’t take seriously the question of the political good itself, the precise thing that conservative writers are trying to understand and articulate.

Hawley’s assessment is that, in regard to identity politics, political correctness, and intersectionality, conservatism’s overall response has been hypocritical, naive about politics, and altogether lacking in substantive argument. We should, though, engage Hawley’s definitions and arguments themselves and weigh them against the best of conservative thought about these phenomena rather than the comparative historical and social science literature survey that Hawley utilizes.

>>> Reason, Revelation, and Identity Politics

Hawley defines conservatism as “all of those different ideological groupings that place something else higher than equality in their hierarchy of political values.” There is great truth to this observation, as conservatism must value pre-liberal goods of family, community, religion, and tradition. Conservatism within a liberal constitutional order must be in tension with an egalitarianism and false liberationist instinct that denies the soul and our capacity to wonder and understand the truth about ourselves. This hollow liberalism equates truth with will and subjective desire, looking askance at virtue and self-restraint in the name of higher goods of existence. In the words of Eric Voegelin, conservatives must resist the impulse of “modernity without restraint.”

But Hawley also seems to recognize that other conservatives, nevertheless, define equality as the essence of conservatism in America. A crucial voice in this regard is Harry Jaffa and his earnest students, who have clearly impacted conservative political thought. But that is an equality rooted in the nature of the human person and “Nature’s God.” Jaffa’s claim is that equality rooted in human nature cannot be dismissed or refashioned by a progressive left intent on remaking society, or by a historicist right that endlessly lauds tradition and community without first principles of reason. Hawley responds to equality conservatives by indirectly acknowledging that “American conservatives believe in equality in the sense that all people within a society are entitled to certain negative liberties, such as those liberties protected by the Bill of Rights.” That’s a nod in the right direction of a salutary position that we have equality in our liberty.

Lacking in Hawley’s engagement with a definition of conservatism, though, is that conservatism means little without a context of what it means to conserve. American conservatism can only be understood by its quest to preserve the American constitutional order. That clearly involves protecting equality under law as grounded in the Declaration of Independence, along with the structural constitutional goods of separation of powers; competitive federalism; limitations on power listed in Article I, Section 9; and the Bill of Rights. And this order should provide a wide range of protections for civil society and free markets.

Conservatism in America has largely made the judgment that, in the 20th and 21st centuries, the primary threat to constitutionalism has been centralized government and its constantly metastasizing bureaucracy, which squeezes individual freedom, markets, and civil society. Hawley does not articulate a definition that most American conservatives believe to be their central project and that most of its writers and thinkers have spilled gallons of ink defending.

Perhaps the real source of Hawley’s thinking is his judgment that much of postwar conservative thinking bears little relevance to the challenges and questions that currently exist. He argues that “The conservative canon, for all its admirable qualities, may now be a hindrance to a thoughtful, modern conservative movement.” Why? “Some are more than seventy years old.” And yet, despite its age, much of the postwar conservative canon speaks to natural law, natural right, free market thought, progressive ideology, civil society and community, and the disordering nature of bureaucracy and regulation within a democratic government.

For example, when Frank Meyer declares in 1964 that the fundamental question is the relationship between the individual and the various forms of political and social order within society, he could easily be speaking to our own day. We can recognize the situation they were in and the motivations that led them to write as they did, but, unless we are historicists, we can and must acknowledge the timelessness of their arguments. Hawley argues “the fact that the conservative canon provides so few insights may be a blessing in some ways.”

While Hawley fails to interact substantively with the wellspring of conservative thought, he also can’t grasp its critique of ideology. Russell Kirk’s statement that “conservatism is the negation of ideology” is without firm support, Hawley finds. Ideology is about “inflexible thinking,” he notes. Hawley quotes Samuel Huntington to the effect that ideology is “a system of ideas concerned with the distribution of political and social values.” Robert Nisbet, Hawley observes, equates ideology with “any reasonably coherent body of moral, economic, social, and cultural ties that has a reference to … power.”

The sanity of the definitions provided by Huntington and Nisbet miss, though, what conservatives stressed about ideology in the 20th century. It was, in effect, the rejection of reality, of philosophic common sense, of decency, in an aggressive and at times violent bid to re-create political and economic order and human nature. Is there order, purpose, and meaning to creation that we seek to discover, understand, and participate in, or do we join the quest to impose will and power on the world for various egalitarian and liberationist objectives? This is, ultimately, the style of critique that Russell Kirk, Whittaker Chambers, and Eric Voegelin, among others, leveled at ideology.

Hawley’s discussion of identity politics and intersectionality suffers from the same relativizing analysis. Identity politics is actually baked into American history, he judges, as “identities have proved an inescapable part of American democracy from the beginning, even when only white Christian landowning men were assured access to the democratic process.” Yes, and that is precisely the trend that we are trying to overcome with a large repository of constitutional arguments.

In Hawley’s survey of identity politics, and the related but more radical concept of intersectionality, what he touches on but never really explores is that identity politics is a claim about power tied to racial and gender identity that must be vindicated against a fundamentally unjust society. Such ideological claims about the power of identity involve ultimately remaking the American constitutional order into a racial and gender collectivist stew. That is the source of conservative opposition, one rooted in being a constitutional people of citizens as individuals, not groups.

Hawley does not consider whether identity itself is a truthful way to think about what it means to be a human person. Nor does he ever seriously grapple with America’s founding documents—the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution—which do not put forward group identity as the measure of power. Hawley’s analysis doesn’t reach this level of thought. The American constitutional mind is logical and built on evidence that we are individual persons defined by our reason, which can bring order to politics. This is not a bloodless abstraction but an attempt to think logically about human nature, rights, accountability, and power.

Intersectionality “has not yet been demonized by the Right to the same extent as identity politics and political correctness.” Presumably Hawley thinks these are plausible concepts and should not be unduly criticized. Critical Race Theory has also been “demonized” by conservatives, according to Hawley, which is an established theory inside the academy, he adds. I should say that the critical race view espoused by Derrick Bell, among others, that race should be the primary tool in evaluating institutions, public and private, as judged by racial equality of outcomes, is positively wrong and, if adopted on a macro level, would shake the foundations of American society. But that surely is part of the gambit, as its adherents reject American norms of individualism, equality under law, and economic freedom.

One of the most devastating (demonizing?) criticisms of identity politics and intersectionality has been made by Joshua Mitchell in his book American Awakening, which provides a spiritual account of the power identity politics and intersectionality possess. Grouping people by race and gender, insisting that human beings are only the sum of race or gender, and that the content of that identity is oppression is a metaphysical and anthropological claim, Mitchell argues. The effect is to weld together all minority groups as sinned against, and to insist that they must oppose white males (original sinners) in the name of social justice and equity. This is a bastardized Christian theological claim, scapegoating later generations for the sins of earlier generations and uplifting the innocent. If it were to gain the upper hand in our politics and policy debates, we would become a very different kind of people.

Hawley lists Mitchell’s book as part of the conservative disagreement with identity politics while ignoring its overall argument: that identity politics is a revolutionary set of dehumanizing arguments at odds with American constitutionalism. Hawley then states later in the book that conservatism has failed to really challenge identity politics with better arguments. Even worse, conservatives frequently make their own identity politics claims. The term itself, seemingly for Hawley, really means nothing but strong political arguments about various issues like immigration, abortion, racial preferences, etc. Conservatives make them all the time in these debates.

Never was this truer, Hawley thinks, than during the debate over civil rights, when conservative leaders attempted to split the difference among their largely bigoted supporters, their desire for intellectual respectability, and personal opposition to racism. They chose to argue that civil rights legislation would imperil federalism, freedom of association, and property rights, and lead to a dramatic expansion of government power. Hawley gives the conservative thought leaders of this period some approval for not sounding like overt racists or backing racist policies. They easily could have, he argues. But they also weren’t exactly supporters of civil rights, even if thinkers like Willmoore Kendall did provide affirmation with certain conditions.

>>> Returning to Deliberation

Of course, many conservative concerns came true relatively quickly after passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as racial preferences, disparate impact, and school busing came to intrude upon people’s lives in ways that civil rights advocates had mostly inveighed against. Christopher Caldwell’s Age of Entitlement points this out, perhaps raising the question whether a multiracial America still needs this level of public intrusion in private enterprise.

Hawley underscores the GOP’s appeal to white racial anxieties after civil rights legislation passed, which he claims allowed it to dominate the South electorally. There were obviously many cultural anxieties in the 1960s and 1970s that the South became or remained concerned about as Democrats began their leftward social and cultural turn. I don’t doubt that race was one of them and that it was appealed to in various ways. Yet the Republican Party never really attempted to undo the Civil Rights Act or civil rights bureaucracy, nor were such efforts part of most Southern Republican campaigns.

What has been attempted is repeated efforts to roll back racial preferences, disparate impact, and other bureaucratic legerdemain that created arbitrary enforcement power at all levels of government regarding race, and which slowly eroded individual equality under law in favor of group rights. Hawley doesn’t think much of conservative efforts in this regard. Even the Christian Right is tainted by its own past racism, he notes. This would obviously ignore its pro-life work since Roe v. Wade and willingness to work for religious freedom for any race or ethnicity. Conservatives’ decades-long efforts to create a color-blind Constitution have recently been given a tremendous boost with the Supreme Court’s rejection of racial preferences in the Harvard and UNC student-admissions cases. That conservatives made these arguments in the face of progressive insistence that race should matter and is a morally justified double standard surely must count for something.

Hawley discusses other issues in the book such as immigration, where again conservatives come up short, contradicting themselves, and have little that is compelling to say, relying on, again, identity politics to screen out immigrants. One positive finding Hawley makes and should be of concern to everyone is how partisanship itself has become pungent in American life. People are increasingly shaping their religious beliefs to conform to their politics, among other disturbing examples. We might draw the conclusion that government’s claims on our lives should be dramatically lowered to decrease the partisan animosity and increase the level of voluntary and uncoerced space in our lives and communities. But that’s a long-standing conservative argument and, as Hawley might well believe, it’s surely code language for identity politics, and in any event is contradicted by mountains of conservative hypocrisy.

This piece originally appeared in the Acton Institute

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