During the 1990s, there was much hand-wringing in some quarters at the prospect of America’s beautiful mosaic fracturing into an unworkable, divided society. Doomsayers fretted that Americans were no longer identifying themselves as, well, Americans first and foremost.
Critics claimed that identity politics were the culprit in this emerging crisis. That too many people’s allegiances, identities, and agendas were based on their membership in various sub-groups of ethnicity, gender, and/or class. None other than Arthur Schlesinger, an eminent American Historian and former adviser to President John Kennedy, complained that America was suffering from “too much pluribus and not enough unum.” Another term that became popular among critics was “hyphenated Americans,” a jab at those who were supposedly not content to simply be “American.”
Of course identity politics were nothing new to the United States. Indeed, the very term “hyphenated Americans” was first popularized by former President Theodore Roosevelt back in 1915 when he gave a Columbus Day speech in which he derided anyone, whether immigrant or nativist, who did not identify solely as American. “There is no such thing as a hyphenated American who is a good American,” he decreed. “The only man who is a good American is the man who is an American and nothing else.”
The issue girding identity politics in Roosevelt’s time was foreign immigration. Immigrants had been washing over America’s shores by the millions for 35 years when TR gave his speech at a Knights of Columbus meeting in New York City, to an audience comprised mostly of Irish immigrants no less. But identity politics in American history go back much further than that.
Historians, though they don’t necessarily use the term in this context, are keenly aware that Andrew Jackson’s rise to the presidency came as he rode a wave of unprecedented identity politics. Although their candidate was a wealthy land speculator who owned a cotton plantation nearly two square miles in size and over 150 slaves, Jackson’s campaign presented him as an every man. They starkly contrasted him against and even mocked the well-heeled, blue blood elitism of his main rival, John Quincy Adams.
The timing of this approach was not coincidental. By the 1820s, most states had lifted property requirements for voting. Universal, white male suffrage had arrived, and the elections of that decade pivoted on an expanded electorate that now included poor and working white men previously shut out of politics. Jackson capitalized on this by casting himself as a man of the people despite his own wealth and standing.
Going back even further, one could argue that the first case of identity politics in U.S. history was the Revolution itself. After all, prior to the 1770s, there weren’t too many Americans who really thought of themselves as, you know, Americans. Rather, they viewed themselves as British, as did most of the loyal subjects in Great Britain’s twenty-two Atlantic colonies that ran from Canada to the Caribbean.
Although their grievances began stockpiling in 1763 at the conclusion of the French and Indian War, most Americans continued to see themselves as British. Even as late as July of 1775, leaders of the Continental Congress tried to make nice with King George, sending him the so-called Olive Branch Petition, in which they openly avowed their obedience and brotherhood. They carefully accorded King George all of the niceties due His Most Gracious Sovereign Majesty, and referred to themselves as his “faithful subjects.” The letter closed with men like Hancock, Franklin, Jefferson, Henry, Jay, and the Adamses proclaiming their desire to be:
. . . the most dutiful subjects and the most affectionate colonists. That your Majesty may enjoy a long and prosperous reign, and that your descendants may govern your dominions with honor to themselves and happiness to their subjects is our sincere and fervent prayer.
But alas, in a more modern parlance, the letter was a day late and a dollar short. There was too much water under the bridge, and too much of it in the Atlantic Ocean for the mails to reach London in a timely manner. In August, before ever seeing the petition, King George declared New England to be in a state of rebellion. And after he saw and dismissed it, Parliament tacked on the other nine colonies the following December.
Waging a successful political revolt partially hinged on Americans inventing new identities as just that: Americans. And in fact, not everyone bought into the notion that you’re British one day and something called “American” the next. Historians estimate that as many as one-third of the colonists remained loyal British subjects, known as tories. Another third wavered for various reasons and trod a neutral path until the rebellion actually started going well. But a feisty third or more engaged in a revolutionary form of identity politics, reclassifying themselves as Americans. Meanwhile, roughly 80,000 tories either abandoned or were chased out of the colonies, re-settling in other parts of the British Empire.
It would seem then that identity politics has a long and tempestuous history in the United States. So perhaps it is not surprising that the worried teeth gnashers of the 1990s were not in fact prescient prophets; rather they simply misread the tea leaves and misinterpreted the zeitgeist. After all, terms like African American, Asian American, and Native American are rather mundane at this point, and no longer come off as terribly fractious. In fact, they are often easily interchanged with other, older terms such as black, Chinese, and Indian.
In retrospect, it seems the new terms were less about driving wedges into society and more about historically marginalized groups demanding respect. If anything, it was a de-escalation of the Pride and Power politics of the 1970s. It was creating a new language to usurp the common derogatory epithets and suddenly-arcane terminology (“negro,” anyone?) of pre-civil rights America. It was about being new, more so than it was about being divisive. Multiculturalism and Diversity were less about building fences and more about increasing America’s cultural flexibility. Of course reading Shakespeare is wonderful. But adding Zora Neale Hurston to the list doesn’t water it down, it strengthens it.
So here in the 21st century, have identity politics in America gone the way of the Dodo bird? Hardly. They’ve simply evolved. Hi-top fades and Amy Tan have just been replaced by Whole Foods and Ayn Rand.
So with that, here is my own very personal take on what I see as identity politics in modern America, as expressed through viable, major American political movements. I’ve avoided dealing directly with parties because, quite frankly, in our duopolistic system the two biggies are far too large to have a coherent identity, no matter how hard they may try. Instead, I focus on those movements that turn common words into proper nouns. Behold.
Liberals – I trim my cat’s claws by myself instead of having a groomer do it. I like doing it, and she seems to enjoy it as well, often purring as I move across her paws from nail to nail. One time, before I realized I needed glasses, I clipped just a little too close to the nerve. And oh did she yelp, a heart-wrenching screech that made me feel just awful, and rightly so. Ever since then, I wear glasses and take extra care when tending to her paws. But if I were a narcissist, I mean Liberal, who instead of engaging in genuine empathy, mostly just reveled in faux sympathy driven by how everyone else’s experiences would make ME feel, then it would probably have driven me to demand universal healthcare coverage. You know, it just hurts me too much to see other people suffer.
As is, I think universal healthcare really is a good idea, largely because I believe think it would be good for the economy in the long run, and it’s also the moral thing to do. It’s not because I can’t bear to watch other people suffer. I can. You know why? Because I”m a grown up. I don’t like to, I’m not sadistic, I don’t get off on it, and if someone’s in trouble, I’ll go over and help them without whimpering or crowing about it. But the fact is, I don’t care if someone decides to kill themself in a responsible way or if some dumbass blows his fingers off with fireworks. I’m also not gonna breakdown in tears if the local news team tells me some kid fell down a well. It’s awful, but I don’t know the kid, I won’t pretend, and I’m not going to personalize that tragedy. Why? Because countless thousands of people around the world die in tragic circumstances everyday, and I think getting emotional about the one complete stranger you hear about instead of the thousands you don’t is actually quite selfish and self-induglent. In fact, I don’t even watch the local news. Oh, and I’m not giving Sally Struthers any of my goddamn money either. I’d rather give it to P.T Barnum.
Conservatives – Tim Kreider is probably the best cartoonist you’ve never heard of. A sure sign of this is that he’s the only person to have not one, but two cartoons magneted to my fridge. The creation debate between science and Norse mythology is brilliant. But the one I’m thinking of right now dates back to the outbreak of the second Iraq war and features portraits of two candidates, one Liberal and one Conservative. The Liberal is a nervous, smiling white woman pandering at length about the war. The Conservative is a smirking, heavy-set white guy in a suit whose platform is quite simple:
-More money for us.
And these are your Conservatives: smug, self-absorbed, self-satisfied assholes completely incapable of sympathizing with anyone. Indeed, they are they exact inverse of Liberals. Both of course are far too narcissistic to actually walk a mile in anyone’s shoes. The difference is that Liberals externalize and soft-peddle their bullshit while Conservatives internalize and brag about it. The result is that Liberals pretend to care about you, while Conservatives pretend to care about America.
Libertarians – I remember the first time I saw the mighty Thomas Sowell speak. It was on C-SPAN nearly fifteen years ago. After mumbling shyly into the microphone, he pushed his glasses up his nose with his forefinger, told a not very funny joke, and then loudly snorted and guffawed like a Trekkie watching a Monty Python film in his mother’s basement. And that’s when it hit me. Just about every Libertarian I’ve ever met fits a mold. Overwhelmingly male, white (apologies to Sowell), and middle class or higher, they were generally smart but socially awkward people who as teens were doomed to not lose their virginity until it was way too late, and they made up for it by showing off in class and always having the right answers, thereby watering the seeds of their mild megolomania.
As adults, they continued to read voraciously, and not just science fiction. Through their bookishness they accumulated ever more right answers, and they reveled in the mythology of individualism as a means to fantasizing about their greatness. I could rule the world if the world would just get out of the way! But of course, who else but megalomaniacal, educated, white men (and maybe some pampered Asian men) with money would ever believe that they’re in firm control their own destinies; at least when some jock’s not giving them a wedgie. And who else but men who couldn’t get laid would turn Ayn Rand into an intellectual sex symbol?
Libertarians, that’s who.
Tea Party – More so than any other current political movement, the Tea Party seems to have a real attraction to American history, particularly the Revolution. Their very name gives it away, and the historical actors who show up to their rallies in nickers, white stockings, and buckled shoes are cute, sort of, but it clearly runs much deeper than that. To them, real Americans have a strong connection to some misty, bygone era, the Golden Age of fighting for freedom and doing God’s bidding by founding His nation. They fetishize the Revolutionary leaders, and of course they molest our actual history in the process.
While all of the groups mentioned here want to establish themselves as the “real” Americans, Tea Partiers are not only the most anachronistic of the bunch, but also perhaps the most willing to warp reality to make their case. A sure sign of this is that their movement is a clearinghouse for Birthers, people who are willing to ignore every copy of Obama’s birth certificate or the August 13, 1961 Honolulu Advertiser birth announcement that you put in front of them, and insist beyond all reason that the guy was born in Kenya. Fucking Kenya. You know why? Because real Americans are white. And if the president is half-black, then he can’t possibly be a real American. And real Americans love all of the founding fathers. All of them. Including the ones who absolutely despised and detested each other.
I hate it when mommy and daddy fight.
So what have we learned? Well, there will probably always be various forms of identity politics in the United States because the nation is so damned big, and getting bigger. In a small community of a few hundred or even a few thousand people, it’s much more feasible for members to craft a single identity that works for everyone, or at least the vast majority. But in a nation/empire of well over 300,000,000? Not a chance.
Once you’re dealing with a population in the millions, as has this nation since its inception, a single identity for everyone is no longer plausible. Because in order to work, it would have to be hopelessly vague. Memorize the Pledge of Allegiance, take off your hat during the anthem, and stare at fireworks on the 4th. Great, but what about the really big stuff? You know, like an actual culture.
The United States has always been too wonderfully and impossibly diverse for any single, specific culture to triumph as the official American identity from top to bottom. Hell, Benjamin Franklin infamously believed that the German immigrants of the 18th century were a bunch of lazy, mother-beating brutes (literally) who would never fit in, and that because of their presence, “great disorders and inconveniences may one day arise among us.”
As someone named Reinhardt, whose patrilineal family has been here for centuries, Franklin’s concern about Germans seems downright comical. As someone named Akim, I get it.
The bottom line is that so long as there is a U.S.A., there will always be contests between various factions from among its millions of people to determine what it really means to be American. It will never end because culture is dynamic and always changing, so by necessity what it means to be American will also always be changing.
But don’t worry. It’s not always a bad thing. Funnel that through participatory democracy and our vaunted freedom of expression, and you have an endless tussle and countless variations manifesting themselves through identity politics.
And perhaps, in some strange way, that’s what it actually means to be American.
And besides, at least we’re not French. [Insert Thomas Sowell-styled guffaw here].