30 August 2017

Identitarianism and White Republicans

David Brooks now uses the word "identitarian" to identify a middle ground between ideological conservatism of the sort he presumably practices and outright white supremacism. He estimates that 40% of white Republicans can be described as "identitarians," which means that they practice "identity politics" in a manner similar to other ethnicities of self-conscious groups in American society. A larger number, though not a majority, espouses the sort of conservatism Brooks describes as universalist. "White universalists believe in conservative principles and think they apply to all people and their white identity is not particularly salient to them," he explains, "White identitarians are conservative, but their white identity is quite important to them, sometimes even more important than their conservatism." Identitarians are not supremacists, since they do not claim superiority to others, nor do they assert the inferiority of any other group. Instead, according to Brooks's idea of what identity politics is, white identitarians practice the politics of self-pity. They feel that they are being picked on due to their color or culture -- presumably by not only other colors or cultures, but by the white elite identified with the "mainstream media." Brooks considers the emergence of white identitarianism an unfortunate development, other people's identity politics being bad enough, that President Trump has only exacerbated. He sees it as something that could destroy the Republican party, which he sees as an entity historically and fundamentally opposed to race hatred.

"The G.O.P. was founded to fight slavery," he writes. That's a deceptive generalization. The Republican party was founded to fight "the slave power," i.e. the disproportionate influence of slaveholders over the federal government. It opposed the spread of slavery into the territories conquered from Mexico in the 1840s to prevent plantation owners from gaining unassailable power in Congress, once slave territories became states, and because they thought that slave economies limited economic opportunities for yeoman farmers. Few Republicans were abolitionists committed to the actual extinction of slavery, although Lincoln provocatively claimed that denying the territories to slaveholders would put the peculiar institution on the course of ultimate (albeit natural) extinction. Some early Republicans agitated for "free soil" while striving to prevent free blacks from living in their states. Lincoln himself was not committed to emancipation until it seemed expedient to him as a wartime measure. It's true, however, that after Lincoln Republicans regularly portrayed themselves as the champions of black America until the 1960s, when G.O.P. congressmen provided critical votes for major civil rights measures even as Barry Goldwater's ideological opposition to those measures set the tone for the party's future. The Republicans' transformation into the "white" party since 1964 has been fairly well documented and even more strongly denounced, but Brooks believes that things have really gone south, so to speak, over the last decade. To be more specific, something has changed for the worse since 2005, as measured by a great increase over that year in the number of whites claiming that they or their kind experienced a "great deal" of discrimination. This probably has less to do with the advent of Barack Obama than with a surge of challenges to a cultural hegemony that many whites had taken for granted.

Brooks implies that white identitarians are likely to feel discriminated against not just as whites but as Christians, and some no doubt feel discriminated against, however they might mean the word, as men, or as straight men. Some of that has to be written off as inevitable anger at inevitable change. If there really was such a thing as "white privilege" that all whites (or at least all white men) enjoyed once upon a time -- mostly with no real economic benefit to make it meaningful to them until it was gone -- it was the privilege of thinking of themselves as the default or "average" American, entitled to judge the authentic American-ness of everyone else regardless of any individual intellectual or moral qualification. To have that almost unconscious privilege yanked away, or at least yanked at, amid a profound economic downturn and societal demoralization (measured by suicides and opiate addiction) was the last straw, apparently, for many whites whose newly assertive demands for respect and anxiety over their perceived cultural endangerment are taken by many in other groups as a reassertion of a now-unacceptable hegemony -- and by some, most notably in the antifa movement -- as virtually a casus belli. The irony of all this, from the standpoint of partisan politics, is that the Republicans' ancient antagonists in the Democratic party may have done more than any other entity in American history to invent "whiteness" in a conscious effort -- and here's a further irony -- to gain acceptance for immigrants who were considered culturally alien by virtue of their religion. So if Republicans seem to many observers to betray a noble legacy by pandering to "white identitarianism," Democrats, in opposing that phenomenon, are confronted with a monster -- it's purely a literary metaphor, folks! -- of their own creation.

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