Multiculturalism Versus Identity Politics

Multiculturalism preceded identity politics and has become identified with it.  I think it important to distinguish between the two, even oppose them.  I’ll begin with personal history.  Though I grew up at a time (the nineteen thirties and forties) and in a place (Brooklyn, New York) before multiculturalism entered our language, my upbringing anticipated it.  Mornings and afternoons of my childhood and adolescence were mostly spent in public schools where I was educated in a curriculum common to all American students.  Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, my parents were determined to educate me in the Jewish tradition and sent me to a secular Yiddish shuleh, which I attended late in the day after public school.  My friends of similar background and I became part of American life without erasing our ethnic identity.  “Assimilation” and “melting pot” were negative terms in our vocabulary.  We were taught to view the Jewish presence in American life as a contribution to it.  An ethnic-erasing assimilation into a WASP dominated American culture was anathema to us, even un-American as our national poet, Walt Whitman, would have agreed.

We didn’t reject the White Anglo Saxon Protestant, we opposed only his hegemony, a term that came later into fashion, but expresses our sentiment at the time. The preservation of our Jewish identity was not viewed by ourselves as antithetic to our American identity.  Our proto-multiculturalism was for the most part benign.  The Jewish People’s Fraternal Order, the sponsor of the Jewish school I attended, was the largest ethnic organization in The International Workers Order.  The IWO promoted solidarity with the other ethnic groups in the Order.  It contained 15 ethnic branches, among them Hungarian, Italian, Spanish and Slovak.  Given its leftist orientation, it had a class bias in favor of the working class.  Indeed, our working class sympathies were what bonded us to other ethnic groups.  What was not benign was our support of Stalin’s Soviet Union.  Subtracting its Stalinist inflection, I think of today’s multiculturalism as a continuation in spirit of my early experience.  Our secular Jewish identity lasted a generation.  My cohort and I did little to instruct our children in the Jewish tradition. It was eroded by its contamination by Stalinism, but also by the evaporation of Yiddishkeit and intermarriage.  (The IWO was undone in the 1950s during the Eisenhower administration by Attorney General Herbert Brownell’s anti-Communist subversive list.)  The cultural and secular ethnic progressivism in which we were brought up pulled in opposite directions:  intermarriage and universality, on the one hand, and cultural preservation, on the other.  As for what remains of Jewish secularism in American life, we can see examples in comedy and musical theater.

If we engaged in adversarial identity politics, it was working class, not ethnic, identity.  In the 1980s ethnic identity became politicized and adversarial.  And not only ethnicity.  Race, gender and sexual orientation, each has become the single-minded agendas of movements.  The model for identity politics (a positive one) is the Black Civil Rights movement.  Black identity is exceptional for obvious reasons.  As Nathan Glazer and others have pointed out, African Americans were not immigrants seeking and embracing a new life in a new world.  Their origins are in slavery, and they have had to battle authority daily for freedom and equality.  The militancy of African-American identity politics has spread to other groups.  Critics on the right tend to be either indifferent to their grievances or regard them as exaggerated; on the left, critics view identity politics as narrowly focused on the self at the expense of outward looking coalitions with other groups with their aspirations.

As for criticism on the left, here is Marc Lilla’s characterization of its evolution.  It “was at first about large classes of people…seeking to redress major historical wrongs by mobilizing and then working through our political institutions to secure their rights.  But by the 1980s, it has given way to a pseudo-politics of self-regard and increasingly narrow, and exclusionary self-definition that is now cultivated in our colleges and universities.  The main result has been to turn people back onto to themselves, rather than turning them outward towards the wider world they share with others.  It has left them unprepared to think about the common good in non-identity terms and what must be done practically to secure it—especially the hard and unglamorous task of persuading people very different from themselves to join a common effort.”  Lilla is not alone as a critic of identity politics on the liberal or progressive side.  He has been anticipated in earlier books by Arthur Schlesinger (The Disuniting of America) and Todd Gitlin (The Twilight of Common Dreams).  I confess my sympathy with their critiques—with reservations in the case of Lilla.[1]

Identity politics is group politics, reflecting the interests of African Americans, women, Hispanics on one end of the spectrum and white workers and gun owners on the other end.  It is somewhat misleading to conflate identity politics with self-centeredness, as does Lilla.  The self may be self-centered, for example, in refusing to identify with the interests of the group of which it is a part, but hardly self-centered when joining with its fellows in struggle for a common cause. Lilla seems to assume that advocates of a particular group concerns, for instance those of African-Americans or Hispanics, are necessarily the only members of the group.  They may in fact be white, in which case their advocacy would reflect a turning outward rather than the self-centeredness that Lilla describes.  Lilla divides the political realm too neatly between social movements and parties.  He views social movements as the vehicles of identity politics, parties as coalitions for the common good.  Social movements are centrifugal, tending to split into factions, parties centripetal tending to coalesce.  “Yet it is an iron law in democracies that anything achieved through movement politics can be undone through institutional politics.  The reverse is not the case.”  But the reverse may be the case.  Trump has undone much of what Obama had done through institutional politics.  The undoing of Trump may require movement as well as institutional action.  Somewhat grudging in conceding the good that social movements do, he makes clear his preference for parties—as if one has to choose between them.  The case could be made that the most productive and constructive periods in our history occurred when movements and parties were actively engaged with one another in struggle as well as cooperation.  Consider the relationships between abolitionism and Lincoln’s unionism or between the Civil Rights movement and LBJ’s Democratic administration.  Lincoln was a unionist who resisted and benefited from abolitionist pressure.  Civil Rights legislation in the 1960s would not have happened without the contributions of both King and Johnson.  Lilla, I’m convinced, would agree, but his animus against movement politics at the present time inhibits him from giving these interactions sufficient credit.  At times, he seems to conceive of political history as a sequence of social movement and party activity and not as it has been in its most fruitful times an interaction between them.  He does, however, have a strong case against movements in our own time when they show no interest in, indeed contempt for, our party system, fail to distinguish between the parties, engage in resistance to political institutions, and perhaps, worst of all, self-destructively refuse to listen to the voices of others, friends as well as foes.*[2]   He is on target in his characterization of the effect of the New Left on our politics.  It “spawned issue-based movements that helped bring about progressive change…most notably [in] the environment, feminism [and] gay liberation…What the New Left did not do was contribute to the unification of the Democratic Party and the development of a liberal vision of Americans’ shared future” (76-77).  For Lilla, the idea of coalition and of solidarity is attached to citizenship.  A caveat: thinking of our solidarity solely in terms of citizenship may exclude those among us who are not yet citizens and lead to nativism.


The most virulent critics of identity politics are conservative commentators.[3]   Most troubling is their bad faith appropriation of liberal criticism, conflating as they tend to do multiculturalism and identity politics.  Matthew Continetti, a conservative journalist, addressing “The Problem of Identity Politics and Its Solution” at the conservative Hillsdale College, seizes upon Lilla’s call for a (liberal) coalition for the common good as if it supports the conservative cause.  What he passes over is Lilla’s acknowledging of “the early redress[ing] of major historical wrongs by Identity politics.”  In Continetti”s view, these historical wrongs are illusions of the left.  “The new multiculturalist Left [devotes itself to] unmasking the supposed power relations that subordinated minorities and exploited third world nations” (my emphasis).  The association of multiculturalism with identity politics is a common conservative theme. Here is Irving Kristol: “What the radicals blandly call multiculturalism is as much a ‘war against the West’ as Nazism and Stalinism ever were.  Under the guise of multiculturalism, their ideas—whose radical substance often goes beyond the bounds of the political into sheer fantasy—are infiltrating our educational system at all levels.”  What Kristol and Continetti have in mind are the departments and programs in colleges and universities such as African American Studies, Women’s Studies, Queer Studies, Chicano Studies and Gender Studies.[4]   There is a case to be made against the ideological tendentiousness and intellectual poverty of some of these programs, but comparing them to Nazism and Stalinism is itself a hysterical ideological reflex.

The conservative alternative to its conflation of multiculturalism and identity politics is national unity as formulated in the following manner by Continetti: “We are united by our creed of freedom and equality, and also by our habits, our manners, our national language, our territorial integrity, our national symbols such as the National Anthem, the Flag and the Pledge of Allegiance—our civic traditions and our national story.”  The unity proclaimed here is a flattening out of our national diversity and an implicit silencing of dissent.  In affirming our national language, Continetti shows little regard for American speakers of other languages; “territorial integrity” is a dog whistle for inhospitality to immigrants and refugees; the National Anthem, the Flag and the Pledge of Allegiance imply the unpatriotic behavior of those who kneel when the anthem is played, the flag is desecrated and the refusal to recite the pledge.  I for one have no truck with the desecration of the flag and I stand for the anthem, but have no desire to pledge allegiance.  My creed of freedom includes the permission of citizens and residents of the country to behave in these matters according to their lights.  As for the creed of equality, Continetti is, not to put too fine a point on it, in bad faith in avoiding the matter of gross economic inequality between the haves and the have nots while apparently embracing the creed of equality.

Again, he appropriates the words of the liberal opposition, citing approvingly the critique of Obama by Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg: “Obama’s refrain [of building ‘ladders of opportunity’ for those left behind in the economic recovery] was severely out of touch with what was happening to most Americans and the working class more broadly.  In our research, ‘ladders of opportunity’ fell far short of what real people were looking for.  Incomes sagged after the financial crisis, pensions lost value, and many lost their housing wealth, while people faced dramatically rising costs for things that mattered—health care, education, housing and child care.  People faced vanishing geographic, economic and social mobility…At the same time, billionaires spent massively to influence politicians and parked their money in the big cities whose dynamism drew in the best talent from the smaller towns and cities.”  Before turning back to Continetti, I want to stay with Greenberg’s flawed critique.  He fails to explain what “ladders of opportunity” signifies.  Nor does he locate the origins of the financial crisis in the administrations that preceded Obama’s, particularly that of George W. Bush, giving no credit to Obama’s significant, though by no means complete, success in extricating the country from the crisis in the face of obstructionism from the Republican party.  Astonishingly, he simply ignores Obama’s achievements in healthcare, education and environmental protection.  Continetti’s bad faith is in his apparent identification and his conservative party with the unaddressed suffering of “the real people” that Obama, according to Greenberg, failed to address. Trump did gain the support of “the real people,” but Continetti has nothing to say about the fake economic populism of his conduct in office; he is the president of the billionaire class.  What needs emphasis and receives insufficient notice in the media is the billionaire identity politics of Trump Republicanism.  Trump’s rhetorical focus is exclusively on his core supporters, who against the evidence regard him as an advocate of their white working class interests.  The sentiment of unity in diversity (e pluribus unum) that distinguishes the American idea, if not always its practice, is utterly missing from Trumpism.  Inclusiveness, not exclusion, is the aim of multiculturalism.

It is also missing from any identity politics that separates itself from the American idea, to which John Dewey gave resonant expression: “Such terms as Irish-American or Hebrew-American or German-American are false terms, because they seem to assume something in America, to which other factors may be hitched on.  The fact is, the genuine American, the typical American, is himself a hyphenated character.  It doesn’t mean that he is part American and that some foreign ingredient is then added.  It means that…he is international and interracial in his make-up.  He is not American plus Pole or German.  But the American is himself Pole-German-English-French-Spanish-Italian-Greek-Irish-Scandinavian-Bohemian-Jew—and so on. [Dewey’s failure here is his omission of African Americans.] The point is to see that the hyphen connects rather than separates.  And this means at least that our public schools shall teach each factor to respect each other, and shall take pains to enlighten us all as to the great past contributions of every strain in our complete make-up.”  If, as Dewey says, the hyphenations are false, it may be because the WASP has signified American culture and society in its earlier history and the hyphenations are challenges to the idea.  WASP dominance is in retreat, though not yet defeated as we learned in Trump’s advent to the presidency.  Multiculturalism in its cosmopolitan sense is the essence of the American idea currently under existential threat.


1 The call for coalition politics is generally addressed to one side of the political spectrum, rarely to the nation as a whole.

2 Examples of identity politics intolerance: 1) The angry response to Black lives matter that all lives matter.  2) The response to cautionary statements, particularly by males to metooism, about the danger of putting all instances of sexual misconduct in one bucket.

3 Nathan Glazer is exceptional among conservatives, in his appreciation of multiculturalism: “Behind the victory of multiculturalism, whatever the discomforts it brings, lie these two great principles, equality and liberty, and few want to be in the position of opposing their claims.” (We Are All Multiculturalists Now)

4 It should be noted that Jewish Studies, a venerable long standing subject, in the academy is not on the list of academic identity programs.  Evidently Jewish studies does not qualify under the rubric of identity, perhaps because Jews having made it in American society no longer have the psychology of victimization that partly characterizes the political orientation of the programs listed above. Identity politics are identified with victimization and, for the most part, Jews in America have ceased to regard themselves as victims.