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The Best Kept Secret of Our Political Divide

(Andrew Toth/WireImage)

“At present, each identity sees the other as its enemy and justifies its own excesses with the excesses of the other, but living in a diverse multi-ethnic democracy means tolerating a certain degree of difference.”

The best kept secret of our political divide is that it has little to do with views on policy and everything to do with identity. In fact, research has shown that political identities are  poor predictors of policy views. But what are the major political identities of our time—and what makes them so different from each other?

The dividing lines in our politics are always changing. Up until now, much of split between Blue and Red has been a matter of differing economic platforms: the Right has wanted freer markets, and the Left has sought more redistribution. But since the early 1990’s, culture has bled into politics and shifted the discourse towards identity issues. The amount of white Americans who identify with their race has  doubled, while immigration rates have  skyrocketed and  political polarization has reached new heights. Today, being on either the Left or Right is less about ideology, which is to say how we understand the world, and more about our cultural orientation and inner sense of identity: what we are culturally attached to and how do we think of ourselves as moral people. 

The ascendent identity on the Left is one of multiculturalism. This identity sees itself as a cosmopolitan citizen of the world—not merely as confined to the local and the particular. Rather, this identity is one of a participant in the unfolding global story. It’s more concerned with the shames of Western Civilization than its triumphs, in an effort to identify and empathize with other cultures and civilizations. Anti-racism is the moral compass of the multicultural self, undergirded by the assumption that grappling with the historical oppression of marginalized people is central to transcending inequalities in the present. Often, “whiteness” is understood as a scourge to be overcome. The shadow side of this identity is guilt and self-hatred, the feeling that our unearned advantages have come at the expense of others. Sometimes, however, this can all begin to morph into narcissism. 

The ascendent identity on the Right is what the political scientist Eric Kaufmann calls Ethno‐traditional nationalism, “which values the ethnic majority as an important component of the nation alongside other groups.” This identity sees itself as being intrinsically bound to local settings, within the context of the nation-state, as opposed to conceiving of itself as a global citizen. The ethno-traditional nationalist feels attached to home and carries with him a natural love of country that other places cannot match. It sees historical oppression as a stain rather than a character flaw of the country and the colonial project as a bloody but necessary step towards creating the modern world. This identity feels a connection to whiteness—but more as a cultural archetype than a racial identity; anyone of any background can be an ethno-traditional nationalist. The shadow side of this self is arrogance coupled with ignorance, a false sense of superiority deriving from the successes of the West. And, at times, it can mutate into chauvinism and ethnocentricity when challenged. 

Both multiculturalism and ethno-traditional nationalism are valid identities to hold. There is truth in both ways of seeing, and neither is inherently oppressive, in my view. Albeit, both selves have their excesses that need to be regulated from within and without. At present, each identity sees the other as its enemy and justifies its own excesses with the excesses of the other, but living in a diverse multi-ethnic democracy means tolerating a certain degree of difference. A nonpartisan solution would entail reining in the reflexively anti-white rhetoric of the Left, as well as the ethnocentric push of the far-right, unshackling ourselves from our history by seeing white identity as an ethnocultural identity like any other. That’s a healthier path forward than the trajectory we’re currently on.

Sam Kronen is an autodidact interested in the intersection of politics and culture. He can be reached on Twitter @SalmonKromeDome.

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