The most woke politician on the planet finds his re-election campaign rocked by an apparent penchant for dark makeup. An Indian-African-American presidential hopeful tries to ride identity politics into office—only to find that her record on issues like truancy and single mothers is attacked by others in her identity “community.” Another presidential candidate is a self-described gay man—though warning against “identity politics” in the abstract, nonetheless calls attention to his sexual identity constantly—only to find other sexual identitarians, such as lesbians, renouncing him in favor of a female candidate. A third presidential candidate and Asian-American makes reference to successes by Asians—only to draw fire from Asians for playing into a stereotype.
What do these modern morality plays have in common? All are examples of a potent phenomenon: Identity has become a forever war whose combatants now habitually turn on their own. The result is a spiral of scapegoating and social destruction that no one seems to know how to stop.
In addition to hapless prime ministers and presidential hopefuls, many others who were once included within progressive ranks have been cast out for offenses under the new identity-first dispensation—such as opining that biological males on female teams will undermine female athletes. The ostracized naysayers here include one of the greatest competitors of the modern era, tennis legend Martina Navratilova. The same retributive fate has visited other transgressors who have lagged evolving identity commandments by only a step or two, like novelist Ian McEwan, feminist grande dame Germaine Greer, maverick scholar Camille Paglia, and a lengthening list of fellow insufficiently-woke offenders.
Or consider the example of so-called TERFs, or “trans-exclusionary radical feminists,” who describe themselves as “gender critical.” TERFs oppose the going idea that “I am whatever I say I am”—especially when the “I” in question carries XY chromosomes and is trying to enter a woman’s restroom or locker room or shelter. When one such feminist, Julia Beck, opined that “trans” “women” are not women, she was booted from her mayor’s LGBTQ Commission, quickly becoming what she called “the most hated lesbian in Baltimore.”
As such stories show, insisting on one’s own victim status is insufficient protection from identity mobs. Even being an identity “two-fer” does not suffice, as demonstrated by a New York Times story in March 2019. In that case, a young black man who identified as gay was employed as a “sensitivity reader” by several publishing houses—i.e., an enforcer of “cancel culture.” Then he wrote and tried to publish a book of his own. The result, as the Times story put it, was a “karmic boomerang.” Despite the author’s conformity overall to an identity-first narrative, he made the catastrophic mistake — by identity-first standards — of situating some of his story among Serbs and Albanians in Kosovo’s civil war in the late 1990s. Following a Twitter storm, he withdrew his debut book before circulation. As the reporter summarized, “He was Robespierre with his own neck in the cradle of the guillotine.”
All of which raises an interesting question about these and many others hoist on the identitarian petard: What, exactly, explains the primordial passion behind identity politics?
Here’s a guess: Decades into the potent experiment of the sexual revolution, a great many human beings now live as if we are not the intensely communal and familial creatures that we always have been; and systemic consequences of that profound species-wide shift are now emerging. These include our increasingly surreal politics. Identity politics is driven in large measure by a question that generations before us never had to answer: Who am I? Until very recently, that question has been answered at least implicitly by reference to one’s role in a familial social order: I am a mother, a sister, a cousin, an aunt, and so on. Today, in an age when families form and re-form and un-form at record speed, all of those “givens” have become attenuated. The result is a frantic search for self via other groups that substitute for the loss of familial gravity—namely, identity politics.
To study the timeline is to see that identity politics has grown in tandem with the fractured fallout of the sexual revolution. It’s now almost twenty years, for example, since political scientist Robert D. Putnam mapped the dislocations of declining communities and associations in Bowling Alone. It’s over twenty years since James Q. Wilson, one of the towering minds of his time, described America as “two nations” divided less by money or social class than by something that everyone once took for granted: family formation. And, of course, it’s more than half a century since the Moynihan Report worried aloud over who, exactly, would socialize boys, in a world where more and more fathers were vanishing from the home.
Add to those a few other trends counter-productive to the construction of identity. Widespread abortion has by now deleted potential siblings and cousins and other possible family members from many hundreds of millions of lives. Later and lower marriage rates have further reduced the gravitational pull of the critical mass of one’s own. So too has the shrinkage of the family unit; many of today’s and tomorrow’s citizens will never know what it is like to have a brother, a sister, an uncle, an aunt, cousins, and so on.
Post-1960s, the primordial passions once tethered to family and clan have migrated from the hearth into politics. That’s why identity politics has become a tale of two, three, many Dantons, as the destructive force of passions that cannot be satisfied by politics makes itself felt. Today it is Trudeau, Buttigieg, Harris, and Yang; tomorrow, it might just as well be their tormentors. What this means for Democratic hopefuls and aficionados of makeup may be hard to guess, but one other call seems easy: these tumbrils will not stop rolling until more enduring ways of answering Who am I? return, or are recovered.
* This essay is adapted from the author’s new book: PRIMAL SCREAMS.