Yesterday at The Atlantic, Adam Serwer put forth an idea that has struck me as so obvious that it could only surprise a sophisticate. The headline:
Trumpism Is ‘Identity Politics’ for White People.
Serwer seems to think that he’s achieved some sort of satori with this realization, and that he is exposing a hypocrisy, because the GOP has historically complained about the very identity politics that his piece puts in ironic quotes, and that he defines as “a politics based in appeals to the loathing of, or membership in, a particular group.”
Congratulations, Sir: you’ve discovered tribalism. We look forward to your development of the wheel and axle next semester.
But to me, the surprising part is that this should surprise anyone. I have seen much of the discourse during my lifetime driven by the tribalist conceit that membership in Group X defines Member Y’s interests and political positions. Along with this comes loopiness like “true Scotsman” fallacies (“You can’t hold position Z and be a real woman/African-American/member of the LGBT community!”), and the notion that the individual’s fate is also inextricably linked to his or her tribe’s position in the social hierarchy (which is generally expressed as a zero-sum game: the rise of one tribe means the descent of another).
And part of what this means is that members of those tribes are expected to pull together to establish, maintain, or improve the tribe’s position. All the tribes find themselves in forms of the Prisoner’s Dilemma, with a seeming incentive to distrust and screw over members of the other tribes. (Why yes, I did set my metaphor mixer on frappe today. Why do you ask?)
So why is anyone surprised that a sizable chunk of a tribe that has been defined as “white people” would act accordingly, and would respond to the same incentives that the other tribes have recognized? If what is important is a tribe’s status, why wouldn’t the members of that tribe place the tribe’s interest first? Heck, isn’t that kind of the goal of stuff like “class consciousness?” “The true Scotsmen/United/Will never be/Defeated!”
And the corollary to all this is that a tribe (or class, or party…) in our system must focus on the acquisition and maintenance of power as a means to its ends, and in turn, power becomes an end-in-itself. If identity politics (as defined above) is how the game is now going to be played, and if it’s a zero-sum game with power as the prize, we shouldn’t be surprised when all the groups play it, even if it leads the game in ugly directions, and even if it surprises Adam Serwer.
As for me, I’ve come to think that it’s a stupid game with stupid prizes, and I don’t want to play it any more than I must.