A tenacious debate in intellectual circles in recent years has centered on the question of whether the most pressing threat to liberal democracy comes from the illiberal right or the illiberal left. One of the more compelling exchanges on this front took place in the summer of 2020 between the liberal philosopher Yascha Mounk and the conservative historian Niall Ferguson on Mounk’s website, Persuasion.
Just months before the leader of the Republican Party tried to overthrow a free and fair election, Mounk argued that the right’s turn toward authoritarian populism remained far and away the principal threat to established democracies from India to Hungary to the United States. Ferguson argued that the lingering danger posed by Donald Trump and other nationalist demagogues was overstated but that authoritarian progressives were on the march. To Ferguson’s mind, the “woke” phenomenon and the takeover of education and other cultural institutions by American Red Guards would prove the true menace to liberal democracy in the post-Trump era.
Remarkably, it appears that despite the outrages of January 6, 2021, Ferguson may have convinced Mounk about the acute dangers of progressive authoritarianism. After writing two books chronicling the rise of right-wing parties whose authoritarian populism was inimical to liberal democracy, Mounk has now cast his gaze leftward and has concluded that the GOP is no longer the main problem. His latest work, The Identity Trap, traces the genealogy of the peculiar obsession with group identity that has overtaken the left and shows how its own bout of tribalism repudiates the liberal creed hook, line, and sinker.
The past decade or so has seen the emergence of a body of ideas principally concerned with the role that identity categories such as race, gender, and sexual orientation play in the world. Mounk dubs it the “identity synthesis.” He begins his account by granting that many advocates of the identity synthesis are animated by noble purposes: namely, the desire to redress the inequalities that characterize every nation in the world. This is the “lure” of the movement that has captured the imagination of key cultural institutions, major corporations, and large swaths of the Democratic Party. But the “trap” is that the ideology encourages citizens to see themselves primarily in terms of their ethnic or sexual identity, breeding a Manichean worldview that is at odds with the liberal ethos as well as the project of building a more harmonious society.
The identity synthesis has come to exert tremendous influence over public life in a remarkably short span of time. Its illiberal premises and principles are exacerbated by the sheer intolerance of its methods. It seeks not merely to narrow the circle of human sympathy by encouraging everyone to see the world through the ever-present prism of identity; it also forthrightly rejects Enlightenment values and neutral rules such as free speech. By treating innocent bystanders and other outsiders with extreme prejudice, it hopes to coerce humanity into adopting a radical vision of all that is right and good. Unsurprisingly, the growing acceptance of identitarian nostrums has been attended by an increasingly censorious culture that stifles individuals’ ability to engage in dialogue and debate about crucial social and cultural matters.
In contrast to some more conservative works that take aim at this progressive fixation, The Identity Trap does not suggest that so-called wokeness is a form of “cultural Marxism.” If Mounk is right—and I believe he is—those endeavoring to discover the true roots of the identity synthesis will learn in his book that it is distinguished by its rejection of grand narratives, including both liberalism and Marxism, by postmodern thinkers such as Michel Foucault. And it harbors contempt for the values of the civil–rights movement, including the ideal of racial integration, as illustrated by critical race theorists such as Derrick Bell.
For Mounk, there is reason to think the identity synthesis will burn itself out. Such optimism is rare among critics of identity politics, who tend to believe that normal forms of persuasion stand little chance of success in the face of a cause buoyed by abundant supplies of self-pity and self-righteousness. In addition to holding a default belief that people undergo various ideological changes over time, Mounk claims to have already witnessed people in left-wing circles freeing themselves from the identity trap. Alas, a mass transformation along these lines would seem more a naive wish than a possible reality, given the religious quality of the fervor with which “the Elect” (to purloin John McWhorter’s term for these identitarians) have embraced their cause. How can they possibly jettison the faith now without condemning themselves as the moral equivalent of heretics?
This latest progressive ideology placing outsize emphasis on racial and sexual identity and radical ideas about gender, like all the others, tries to remake the world. Although Mounk firmly grasps this reality and proposes to offer a thoroughgoing critique of the identity synthesis, he often understates the case. He argues, for instance, that “at the heart of its vision” stands “an acceptance” of the enduring importance of dubious categories like race. The problem with the identity synthesis, however, is not its meek “acceptance” of inherited and immutable characteristics such as race but rather a belligerent insistence that those characteristics continue to define and defile the human experience.
Mounk does not flinch from recognizing the past—and present—injustices that have blighted the lives of so many individuals and groups around the world, including in the most advanced Western societies. But he maintains that it’s possible to acknowledge the full force of these injustices, and earnestly attempt to remedy them, without succumbing to the identity synthesis. For our sake, it better be. The alternative would be to cede the moral high ground to a cynically regressive ideology whose view of the world denies progress and invites the conclusion that the universal values that liberal democracies revere are no more than a fig leaf for a system of rank oppression.
The true alternative to that parochial spirit may sound quaint in our day, but it remains as revolutionary as it was when it was first declared: philosophical liberalism. That old creed is based on the rejection of natural hierarchy and the assertion—in Jefferson’s imperishable phrase—that human beings are “created equal.” That old creed has not only issued pretty words and precepts about liberty and equality. It also has a proven track record of generating more freedom and dignity, affluence and security, than any other system since the beginning of recorded history.
Liberalism is much maligned these days on both the left and the right. It is scorned by the crowd that populates much of the nation’s permanent governing class and its academic establishment. It is held in open contempt by most of the people who control its news and cultural output. Much of the managerial elite has turned away in the hopes of capturing increased market share.
But the ideals and institutions of liberalism remain the best possible source of moral and material progress. It contains an altogether more ambitious and ennobling set of aspirations for the human future than any other ideology on offer. To the extent that neither party has been a loyal steward of that tradition of late, the parlor game of determining which side is worse has been a misguided exercise obscuring the need to fight both.
The fact that an ideology diametrically opposed to philosophical liberalism and the American experiment has been adopted almost overnight in the highest echelons of society is prima facie evidence that something has gone terribly wrong in the American elite. Yascha Mounk’s The Identity Trap is one potent antidote—not the first and, let us hope, not the last, either.
Photo: AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar
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