This essay is adapted from "American Awakening: Identity Politics and Other Afflictions of Our Time," by Joshua Mitchell (Encounter, 312 pages, $20.99)

An American Awakening

The seemingly novel developments of the last several years have not taken me by surprise. When I completed American Awakening in May 2020, the national election was still five months into the future, and the stringent measures ostensibly instituted to hold the Wuhan Flu at bay had just been implemented. I thought then that a Democratic Party victory in November 2020 would promise the American electorate a return to normal politics, but in fact would operate on the basis of what, in American Awakening, I called the politics of innocence and transgression; and that if Joe Biden became the Democratic Party nominee, in order to demonstrate that he was the-right-kind-of-white-man, he would champion this sort of politics. 

The veneer of moderation, of adult politics, would not long conceal the inner logic of identity politics, according to which white heterosexual men—the current prime transgressors in the identity politics dystopian moral economy—must adopt every species of political madness offered up by identity politics or suffer social death. That has indeed come to pass in the Biden Administration, leaving the Democratic Party in a position from which it is hard to imagine it can recover in the near future. To argue against identity politics in the Democratic Party today is to invite the charge of being “racist,” “misogynist,” “homophobic,” “transphobic,” etc. Comply or be expunged. 

Can Anyone Save the Democratic Party?

Who within the Democratic Party might be capable of turning it from its present, self-destructive, and nation-destroying course?

One group might be members of the 1960s Left who have, over the course of the intervening decades, retained their commitment to addressing race in America, to defending the middle class, and to warning about the unreasonable use of U.S. military power abroad. All good ideas. Alas, members of this group have fallen into two categories: those who naïvely think the Democratic Party has not defected from the path it walked in the 1960s; and those who are well aware that it has, but who are frightened to speak up for fear of being scapegoated and purged. Neither of these contingents from the 1960s Left will likely alter the current state of things.

The second group, some of whose members should be counted among the 1960s Left, are black Americans who, as I have argued elsewhere, have the necessary moral authority in America today to put an end to identity politics with a single declaration. Identity politics parishioners use the wound of black America to go further—into women’s rights, gay and lesbian rights, and more recently, transgender rights. In a world oriented by liberal pluralism, these groups can and will make their claims. A liberal society will respond soberly but generously that exceptions to the rule are not ruled out. In a word, a liberal society will, within bounds, be a tolerant society. 

Identity politics does not operate according to this liberal paradigm. From its defenders, we hear of the pressing need for “diversity,” and are perhaps seduced into thinking that diversity is contiguous with earlier liberal ideals. It is not. Identity politics proceeds on the basis of the illiberal claim that the exception is the rule. To make room for the transgendered, for example, identity politics parishioners claim that those who believe that “man” and “woman” are natural categories, that sex matters, must be regarded as guilty of a thought crime, of heteronormativity, and therefore must be purged. This is anti-liberal lunacy. 

How far we have come since the 1960s. Then, the Reverend Martin Luther King argued that the state could appropriately supplement the vibrant and necessary mediating institutions of family and church, but not be a substitute for them. In the world identity politics constructs, however, the world where transgenderism is not the exception but rather the rule, the family that Reverend King had in mind—the generative family of a man and a woman—would today be charged with the thought crime of heteronormativity; and the church he had in mind—the patriarchal Christian Church—would be charged with being homophobic. 

Is this really where the civil rights movement takes us? Can it really be the case that the latest identity politics cause of transgenderism, whose adherents today dare claim the mantle of black America, should require that we ostracize and purge the very institutions that black America, indeed all Americans, needs to thrive? Black America endorses those institutions, in their historically inherited form, by a sizable margin. Yet black America under the tutelage of the Democratic Party that today promulgates identity politics must do as it did under the Democratic Party in the 1950s, namely, go to the back of the (figurative) bus, as more important riders take the front seats—first feminists, then gays and lesbians, and now the transgendered. 

Organized segregation was once visible. Today it is invisible. If you are black in America today, and want to live without fear of cancellation, you must support the social movements that came after yours and which trade on your wound. If you do not, the Democratic Party and the Institutions of Higher Stupification that inflame it—our colleges and universities—will ostracize you. Do you doubt this? Peruse the course catalogs of Black Studies Programs around the country; look at recent hiring; seek to discover the direction these programs intend to take. You will learn that not an insignificant number of these programs have courses on feminism, gays and lesbians, and transgenderism. Black studies programs were instituted a half-century ago with a view to redressing the unbalanced account of American history, and for that, they would have been a valuable and necessary undertaking. Today, they seem to have another purpose: to demonstrate, through curriculum and pedagogy, solidarity with causes that a vast majority of black Americans think have no right to draw their moral authority from the historical wound black America endured. 

Elite blacks must support these causes. Asked in her Senate confirmation testimony what the definition of a woman is, Harvard-trained black Supreme Court woman nominee Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson said she does not know. We should not be surprised. Black Americans have the moral authority to begin to cure our country from the identity politics madness that consumes us like a plague. But if they wish not to be cast into the pit with the rest of the irredeemables, both black and white, elite blacks who should be at the forefront of the effort to heal our country are instead compelled to accept a terrible bargain with the defenders of identity politics. Instead of challenging identity politics, instead of declaring with a firm and unwavering voice, “No, your cause may not invoke our wound,” they are the very agents who permit and authorize identity politics to invoke ever-new victim groups, whose interests are increasingly anathema to those of black America.

No small part of American Awakening chronicles the respect in which identity politics betrays black America. Here is but another sickening example. Defenders of identity politics are quick to call out so-called cultural appropriation; but without compunction, they support ever more marginal causes, whose moral authority rests on wound appropriation.

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Identity Politics Succeeds Where
Cultural Marxism Failed

I gave some consideration in the first edition of this book published in 2020 to the inability of the conservative movement to comprehend, let alone push back against, identity politics. Identity politics I characterized as a deformation of Christianity and, more provocatively, as a deformation of the Reformation Christianity of our Puritan originaries. I suggested that free market conservatives who defend the American regime understood debt in terms of the ledger book of monetary payment, and that cultural conservatives who defended the American regime understood debt in terms of what we owe to the tradition of our forefathers. Identity politics, I suggested, attends to what I called spiritual debt, which is akin to the deep internal debt Christians call original sin. 

Call it spiritual debt, call it something else, but whatever we call it, we should understand that one of the reasons why conservatives do not understand identity politics is that they understand the first two kinds of debt, but not the third. Speaking generally, the default account from both sorts of conservatives is that identity politics is a further outworking of cultural Marxism, whose long march through our institutions they have long fought. How convenient if that were the case, for no additional work would need to be undertaken to understand identity politics; and critics could continue to bemoan the ongoing losses on the various battlefronts of the culture wars. Alas, identity politics has required no long march through our institutions. It has been met with no resistance—indeed, it has been welcomed—as Marxism never was. Cultural Marxism has been working away at American institutions for three-quarters of a century; identity politics has taken only a few years to penetrate those same institutions. 

Tocqueville’s framework, so often invoked in American Awakening, helps us understand the bigger picture. In his last great work, The Old Regime and the French Revolution, Tocqueville called the French Revolution an “incomplete religion,” by which he meant that it less destroyed Christianity than replaced it with fragments of Christianity. “Liberty, equality, fraternity”—were these not the promise of a post-lapsarian order, complete with a new calendar, and without the social stratification that sinful human societies always produce? The French Revolution: the brotherhood of saints, without God the Father. Marxists, no less contemptuous of Christianity than the French Revolutionaries, also promulgated an incomplete religion. Because of the productivity unleashed by cruel capitalism, man, cast out of the Edenic splendor of primitive communism, stands now on the threshold of ending his long labor amid the thorns of creation to secure his daily bread. When Christianity falters, one or another incomplete religion will step in to fill the vacuum. You do not get religion-free secularism after Christianity falters, you get distorted, fragmentary, remnants of Christianity, which, like secularism, purport to have transcended Christianity, yet whose revolutionary fervor disrupts rather than contributes to the tranquility that defenders of secularism claim emerges once Christianity no longer reigns in the souls of men.

The conservative movement in America has focused a great deal of attention on the first two incomplete religions. Indeed, from its beginning to the present day, they have been its target. On the one hand, we see the stringent defense of “tradition” against the equalizing tendencies of the French Revolution and of Progressivism—that American movement also dedicated to the destruction of mediating institutions. On the other hand, we see what was, before 1989, a counterbalancing libertarian contingent, hostile to Marx’s vision and thoroughly modern, which hallowed Smith and Hayek and the “free markets” they thought important supports for liberty. I do not say anything new here by noting that the current reconfiguration happening within the conservative movement has involved the rise of the traditionalists and the fall of the libertarians—which is to say the rise of those whose fight is with the first incomplete religion, and the fall of those whose fight is with the second incomplete religion. Those in the former camp have found renewed confidence, after decades in which the free market veto, to use my friend Yoram Hazony’s memorable phrase, prevailed against them. 

This shift has satisfied a long-suppressed contingent of the conservative movement, but it will not in the least help conservatives understand the third incomplete religion that is now upon us, the incomplete religion of identity politics. Today, America faces a far greater challenge, its gravest to date. Conservatives who have battled the first two incomplete religions of the French Revolution and Marxism have little understanding of what is now upon them. They employ their old weapons. They declare we are facing an outbreak of cultural Marxism. Their weapons are useless against this new enemy. This new enemy has captivated one portion of America by its promise of a spiritually purified world, at which it will arrive by finally solving the problem of spiritual debt—the unpayable debt owed by the white heterosexual male to everyone else, against whom he has perennially transgressed. Free market conservatives and cultural conservatives do talk about debt, as I have said; but to parishioners in the church of identity politics, what they offer seems hopelessly superficial, even childish. “Do you not see that the problem of debt is deeper than you imagine—that free markets and your hallowed traditions are themselves stained and deplorable,” they say. The insight that identity politics is, in fact, a third incomplete religion to emerge since the French Revolution helps us understand why conservatives do not understand identity politics, and do not know how to defend themselves against it.

The Mortal Scapegoat

Along what lines can conservatives push back? On theological grounds. More precisely, on the basis of the theological observation that identity politics is a deformation of the Christian insight that a scapegoat does indeed take away the sins of the world, and the warning that there will be no end to trouble if that scapegoat is mortal rather than Divine. In the vertical relationship of innocence and transgression proffered by Christianity, Christ alone is the innocent victim, and all of mankind is guilty. In the horizontal relationship of innocence and transgression that identity politics offers, the white heterosexual male is the transgressor, and all those who are not him are the innocent voiceless victims—hence the insidious phrase, “people of color” (POC), which ignores the historical antipathies chronicled by the barbarism, wars, and mutual enslavement perpetuated among “colored” peoples, and which supposes instead a unity among them by virtue of their common aggrievement against Whiteness. Whiteness is the original sin in comparison to which their never-ending violence toward one another is rendered invisible.

Alas, conservatives are embarrassed by talk of original sin, and, as a consequence, have no way to respond to the various fictions that identity politics sets forth. Original sin is, let us face it, too much of a Reformation trope. That is why conservatives will continue to write and talk about free markets and tradition, and make no headway against identity politics. I do not say that America must become a nation of Reformation Christians to overturn identity politics. That would be illiberal. But I do say that parishioners in the church of identity politics who are currently captivated by the idea of irredeemable stain will only find what they are really looking for—a deep account of sin—in Reformed theology, however enfeebled it may be, and unable to deliver such an account at the moment. If a social pathology emerges from a deformation of religion, that pathology does not heal without a return to healthy religion. There are no secular solutions to religious problems—or more precisely, the relationship between the two is not as we imagine.

The liberal politics of competence, of the American sort that the conservative movement has heretofore defended, is not possible without the solution to the problem of the scapegoat that Christianity offers. That is because if we wish to build a liberal world together, a world of competence, we cannot continuously gaze at each other, and at the “group identity” that purportedly predestines us to be pure or stained, as possible objects of cathartic rage. Another way to put this would be that a secular liberal society is, in fact, precisely a society in which the Christian understanding of the scapegoat has won, and has receded into the background of public life without wholly disappearing.

This may seem like arcane theoretical wandering, but it is not. Almost all conservative defenders of liberalism in the academic world proceed on the basis of the claim that liberalism is secular, and that religion is but a private preference or, perhaps more strongly, a private value. Holding fast to this impoverished view, and unable to understand that, like Christianity, identity politics is also concerned with irredeemable stain and the scapegoat who takes away the sins of the world, these defenders can defend neither liberalism nor themselves against the indictments that identity politics levels. Responding to this impotence, a growing chorus of young conservatives, too many of whom are unable to secure positions within the academy because of identity politics hiring practices, have become disgusted with the failure of the old guard to repel the assault. They ponder and plot a new path, toward an anti-liberal order, in which a pre-liberal form of Christianity arrests our civilizational decay, guiding and informing it at every level, assisted by the enforcing power of the state. Roman Catholic integralism is currently the leading contender.

There is more. In our mixed-up world, another quite different path is also being explored, within and without the academy, namely the one cleared by Nietzsche. By this, I mean the path of forgetting. Can we really be surprised by this development? When young men are told they are irredeemably stained, that they have a debt they cannot pay, sooner or later they will stumble upon Nietzsche, who declared that we can have a tomorrow only through forgetting. So here we are: liberal competence requires that the scapegoat problem be solved—and not in the way identity politics proposes. For liberal competence to prevail, a Divine scapegoat who takes away the sins of the world is needed. Defenders of liberalism, insistent that liberalism is a secular project, have no place in their conceptual armory for the Christian understanding of the scapegoat or for the identity politics deformation of it. As a consequence, they have no understanding that the former makes possible the liberal politics of competence, while the latter will destroy it. Young conservatives see the feebleness of these secular defenders of liberalism, and are opting for pre-modern Roman Catholic integralism or post-modern Nietzscheanism. The one rejects the radical notion of sin that inheres in identity politics, and adopts, instead, the semi-Pelagianism of the Roman Catholic Church; the other rejects the radical notion of sin that inheres in Reformation theology and in identity politics, and casts off the idea of sin altogether. No one can predict how the current confusion will be resolved or further jumbled, or how many rounds this brawl will go. 

Michael Reichel/Picture Alliance via Getty Images

The Contenders

Three groups of contenders for the soul of the West are in the ring: Roman Catholic integralists; secular liberal heirs of the Reformation and the latter’s religiously deformed children, the identity politics New Elect; and Nietzscheans, who are sickened by guilt in all of its forms, and wish to start over. We will see whether a fourth group—Reformation thinkers who understand and can defend the theological precondition for liberalism, as WASPs once did—make an appearance. When I wrote American Awakening, I was concerned that conservatives did not understand, and could not fight back against, identity politics. Now I am concerned that their response to it may involve an endorsement of anti-liberal, pre-modern or postmodern politics.

An author has the opportunity in hindsight to form new judgments about which portion of what he has written may be most attended to in the future. My conclusion now is that the portion of American Awakening pertaining to identity politics will have a shorter shelf life than the portion concerned with the problem of substitutism. Substitutism is that malady that arises as a result of man’s perennial search for shortcuts. On his watch, supplements to our difficult labors are turned into substitutes for them. The instances I considered in the first edition of American Awakening were varied and seemingly unrelated. 

If I had seen things a bit more clearly at the time, I would have added an obvious instance of substitutism that we see all around us every day, namely, that pets have become a substitute for children rather than a supplement to them. But here, I want to move away from the whimsical to the serious, and consider a recent development of substitutism that is as pernicious and it is emblematic of the disease, namely, the hype around the metaverse, the purported full extension of digi-verse that social media only begins to reveal. A better case study of substitutism—which is to say a more delusional one—I can hardly imagine. 

The Low of Prehuman Barbarism

To review terrain covered in American Awakening, social media can supplement our existing friendships; it can be a stimulant, which helps us keep in touch with old friends when we are not able to confirm, through a handshake, a pat on the back, or an embrace, that we are indeed friends. We feel the presence of our friends through this supplement; but the supplement by itself, without the preexisting competence of friendship, cannot produce the feeling of presence. That is why we are comfortable having Skype or Zoom calls with friends and family members who are far away, but not with strangers. I use the word “presence” because it is a term on the minds of many of our Tech Elect these days. Facebook has changed its name to Meta, and Mark Zuckerburg and his “metamates,” formerly known as his “employees,” are betting that the future lies in the metaverse, a digital platform that, he acknowledges, can only work if it is able to deliver the experience of “presence.”

Today, billions of dollars are being spent on this project, by Meta and other digital media companies, with a view to building a Tower of Babel with digital high-tech bricks (Gen 11:3–4) that will lift us altogether beyond the need for actual competence. They want to re-create the presence we feel through the social media supplement to friendship, but in the form of a substitute for the hard and patient labor—on the playground, in school, after school, in our families, in our churches and synagogues, in our civic groups, and in and through our local political affiliations—that friendship takes to develop and flourish. The mediating institutions through which we form friendship need no longer trouble us, they proclaim. The age of lived competence has now passed. Friendship once had to be formed in institutional settings where noise and signal could not be disentangled, where filth and festering wounds were always near. Places; always places—places of institutional and bodily regeneration, where man and women were sexed, not gendered; places where we must labor, by the sweat of our brow, to develop competence, or die. 

The metaverse will relieve us of a double burden: the burden of long labor in a place, and the burden of the transgressions that attended those labors. Digital substitutism will solve the theodicy problem that embodied life found intractable. This prideful delusion is a violation of the very order of things. When supplements are turned into substitutes, they make us ill. The competences we develop can be supplemented, but there is no substitute for them. Early forays into the metaverse have yielded the “high” that has been promised, the addictive release from the burdens of mortal life; but it has also yielded the “lows,” like virtual rape, virtual violence, verbal cruelty, etc., in short, all the horrible things that the world offers, but now without the competences we learn through our mediation institutions that alone can attenuate those horrors. Just as the “highs” of opioid addiction go with the “lows” when drugs become substitutes rather than mere supplements, so, too, the metaverse will bring soul-crushing lows if it becomes a substitute for competences we can only develop through our mediating institutions. In the metaverse, rape, violence, and cruelty seem to be ruled out because we have purportedly left behind the world of filth and festering wounds where that sort of thing does happen. In truth, the only way to attenuate rape, violence, and cruelty is to develop the competences that humanize man. 

To put the matter in terms of recent events: You do not get rid of Harvey-Weinstein-toxic-masculinity by purging masculinity, by building a de-sexed digital alternative; you do it by assuring that healthier versions of masculinity are around to quash pernicious versions—something every man either did learn or should have learned in his youth on the playground. It is healthy men who keep unhealthy men in check. Those healthy men are formed through the competences we develop in our mediating institutions. If we were to formulate this problem in terms of evolutionary biology, we would say that mediating institutions humanize the primitive, reptilian impulses in man. The metaverse promises transhuman man, but in bypassing the competences that humanize the reptile in us all, the twofold result will be the “high” of transhumanism and the “low” of prehuman barbarism. That is what happens when supplements are turned into substitutes. There are no shortcuts. Alas, everywhere we look, we and our fellow citizens are trying to find them, and stumbling as we go, over the terrible cost associated with the drug-like “highs” that attend them. 

The competence called friendship forms locally in mediating institutions. Extend the range, the “presence,” of friendship with social media, and eureka, our friendships seem to have no limits. That is only the half of it, however; the other half is that if we lose sight of the competence we call friendship, a loneliness that digital substitutism causes and cannot cure will become a central feature of our life, as it has throughout America. Like a crashing opioid addict, our Tech Elect seeks now to give us the ultimate drug, to lift us from the stupor of loneliness to which their corporations have contributed immensely. The metaverse—the “high” that never lets you down.

This will not end well.

Unlike identity politics, the pathology of which our fellow citizens are recognizing with ever-greater clarity with each passing day, substitutism is not really yet understood as a comprehensive problem. Indeed, I have struggled to find an adequate name for it. What appears before us today is a vast and seemingly unrelated set of temptations whose danger lies in their undeliverable promise of a shortcut that bypasses life’s difficult labors. For the moment, we see only the promise. A clear understanding of the danger lies off in the distance. I suspect that everyday life will look very different than it does today after we determine how to protect ourselves from it. The image of a drug addict returning to a life of sobriety gives some indication of the magnitude of the change that will be needed.

An Epilogue on the Wuhan Flu

A few words, finally, about Wuhan Flu, the subject of the Epilogue. The initial confusion about what to name the pandemic provided evidence that what would follow would involve more than medical science. One of the suppositions held by many who have fought in the culture wars over the last three decades has been that although the humanities might fall, the hard sciences would never succumb. The advance could proceed only so far. Although hinterland skirmishes might be lost, the home terrain—the hard sciences—were fortified or self-protecting. The claim made in American Awakening is that identity politics turns every domain of human life into a venue for innocence-signaling. Absent the once-and-for-all-time Divine scapegoat who takes away the sins of the world, every domain of human life becomes a battleground for establishing wherein stain and purity lie. Identity politics does not stop with the humanities; it comes for the sciences, too. In fairness to the World Health Organization (WHO), the outbreak of the recent pandemic was not the first occasion for its defection from its scientific mission. 

An extract from a May 2015 WHO memo reveals that the identity politics mindset had been established years before. It reads:

In recent years, several new human infectious diseases have emerged. The use of names such as ‘swine flu’ and ‘Middle East Respiratory Syndrome’ has had unintended negative impacts by stigmatizing certain communities or economic sectors.  This may seem like a trivial issue to some, but disease names really do matter to the people who are directly affected. We’ve seen certain disease names provoke a backlash against members of particular religious or ethnic communities, create unjustified barriers to travel, commerce and trade, and trigger needless slaughtering of food animals. This can have serious consequences for peoples’ lives and livelihoods.

Is this hard science or identity politics platitudes about innocent victimhood? History will establish if the virus now officially named COVID-19 is traceable to a laboratory in Wuhan, China, in which case the designation “Wuhan Flu” will be appropriate, because it will contain pertinent political information obscured by the designation “COVID-19,” and because if there is guilt, it ought to be located, addressed, and remembered by history. 

Irrespective of history’s judgment, this episode in virus-naming reveals that identity politics are penetrating the hard sciences. Is it any wonder, then, that more than half of our fellow citizens hear sentences that begin with, “The science says,” and become suspicious? They have had their doubts about so-called “clean energy” science and its war on “dirty” fossil fuels for some time. “Clean” and “dirty” are not scientific variables; they are religious descriptors. The global pandemic further eroded the trust of our fellow citizens in the hard sciences. 

And now, not to be outdone, departments of physics, chemistry, biology, mathematics, and astronomy in almost all of our colleges and universities are scurrying around trying to purge the “Whiteness” that inheres in their scientific disciplines, and which must be the cause of the disproportionate representation of peoples of European and Anglo-American descent. All together, these developments are accelerating public distrust of the hard sciences. Identity politics parishioners dismiss these concerns as the rantings of anti-science irredeemables. They do not understand the catastrophe that is already underway. The hard sciences, one of the great jewels in the crown of Western Civilization, are not going to be destroyed by hordes of deplorables who ride in from fly-over country on their Silverado, F-150, and Ram steeds of iron. They are going to be destroyed by the scientists within, who have become fixated on the identity politics categories of purity and stain, which tempt them into thinking—most unscientifically—that the world is divided into The Elect and the Reprobate, and that they are clearly the former. In such a world, truth succumbs to the dogmas the incomplete religion of the moment establishes. The record of the fate of the sciences under Marxism in the 20th century, the second incomplete religion, is well documented. Today, a third incomplete religion is upon us, and we can anticipate that historians of science will look back at the early 21st century with incredulity and disgust.

 

About Joshua Mitchell

Joshua Mitchell is a professor of political theory at Georgetown University, and a Washington Fellow at the Claremont Institute Center for the American Way of Life. His most recent book is American Awakening: Identity Politics and Other Afflictions of Our Time (Encounter Books, 2020). He lives on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

Photo: David Pollack/Corbis via Getty Images

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