Our national identity is not, and has never been, predicated on being of a certain race or ethnicity. This is not to say racial or ethnic concerns have not affected America’s development. Certainly, English political traditions and social customs influenced our Founding.
Without a doubt, race has long divided Americans. Citizenship was once denied based on the color of one’s skin; in reality, however, attempts to make whiteness or European descent requirements for American-ness (not mere citizenship) have been contrived, born out of parochial prejudice and not a defined historical tradition of racialized nationality. America, in fact, is exceptional in this regard. I can become a citizen of Germany, but I will be no more German three decades from now. People from across the globe, however, can become Americans by embracing our ideals; for it is the ideals, rights, liberties, and republican system of government found in our Founding texts which define us as Americans. It is the fact we are a nation predicated on the notion our rights come from God, that we are created equal and stand equal before God, that no human power can take this away from us. This idea of nationhood, while justifying a sometimes irresponsible sense of moral superiority, has served as a beacon of hope and opportunity to countless immigrants.
There have been many times in our history when we have lost sight of our ideals. Slavery was the great, unsustainable contradiction, the dark blot that stained (and stains) us morally and prevented us from being a truly united nation. It was resolved only after a bloody war. Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, nativists and anti-immigrant parties sprung up to defend their racially and religiously-grounded ideas of American-ness. In the mid-20th century, America once again had to reconcile its ideals with flagrant racial injustice. Living up to our ideals has been a struggle, and the siren calls of racially or ethnically based nationalism, the standard in much of the world, have been loud.
Today, tribal politics (aka extreme identity politics) is threatening to divide us once again, threatening our national unity by appealing to our baser racial and ethnocentric instincts.
And this is a partisan issue—both the Right and Left are guilty.
On the Right, this cancer has reemerged in the form of the alt-right, personified in the hip horseman of the conservative apocalypse: Milo Yiannopoulos. Milo characterizes the alt-right as “natural conservatives.” These “natural conservatives” are “mostly white, mostly male middle-American radicals, who are unapologetically embracing a new identity politics that prioritises the interests of their own demographic.” They seek to preserve “their own tribe and its culture.” Blatantly justifying segregation, Milo writes that the alt-right doubts “full ‘integration’ is ever possible,” believing other, non-white American groups will also “prioritise the interests of their tribe,” making walls “a much safer option.” In short, the logic of Milo and the alt-right is an enclaved America if not a broken one.
In addition, the alt-right is inherently collectivist, reducing humans to mere animals who pride in-group identity above all else. Dylan Matthews of Vox put it succinctly: “Neoreactionaries are not individualists… neoreaction places huge value on group membership and group loyalty.” In this way, they stand outside the American conservative tradition, which has never been so radically collective. Richard Spencer, president of the National Policy Institute, a white nationalist organization, even admitted there is an ideological gulf between the alt-right and American conservatism.
The revival of right-wing tribal politics has been facilitated by a divisive GOP nominee. Research by RAND Corp. has shown that “racial and ethnocentric attitudes will matter more in November than they would have if Donald Trump was not the GOP nominee.” Demographic shifts, economic uncertainty, and heightened racial tensions have stirred the fears of working and middle class white Americans—promises to ban Muslims from entering the country, increase barriers to global trade, and seal off the southern border appeal especially to those who feel uprooted by a changing America. This toxic atmosphere feeds the ideologically-infused radicalism of the alt-right as well as genuinely racist and hateful rhetoric.
The Left is also guilty of playing divisive, tribal politics, and the Democratic nominee is culpable. One liberal commentator noted the irony of a candidate “who not so long ago bragged that Obama had failed to attract the support of ‘hardworking Americans, white Americans,’ is now tweeting through the lens of intersectionality….” (Not only is she tweeting, but her speeches are laced with buzzwords of identity politics.) Following the brouhaha over Democratic delegate allocation in Nevada, a liberal pundit derided Bernie Sanders’s predominantly white supporters, saying she does not “accept the presumption of moral and ideological superiority from a coalition that is dominated by white men, trying to overturn the will of black, brown, and female voters or somehow deem it fraudulent.” These comments sparked a racially-tinged firestorm in the left-wing blogosphere. Appeals to race such as these only serve to subdivide Americans into easily definable electoral blocs, and pit Bernie’s mostly white supporters against Hillary’s racially diverse base. They do not produce constructive dialogue on serious and continued problems regarding race and poverty in this country.
While it is necessary to acknowledge the different situations and challenges racial and ethnic groups face, the language of modern politics is too often geared towards demagoguery and pandering. The Left is all too often guilty of this, dismissing conservatives for presumptuously claiming the mantle of colorblindness, while tirelessly breaking Americans down into separate, categorized groups (with readily available votes). There is a fine line between being cognizant of America’s racial and ethnic diversity, and harping on such divisions excessively, to the point where we risk losing sight of the fact we are not a nation of nations. We are, as Americans, bound together by certain ideals, but racially divisive rhetoric (and behavior) on the Right and diversity-pandering on the Left threaten to place individual group identities above all else.
The consequences of racial and ethnic obsession on the Left are twofold: extreme multiculturalism or borderline racial nationalism.
Extreme multiculturalism is most evident on college campuses:
-The University of North Dakota was chastised by a doctoral student for combining its multicultural offices into one building because somehow that assumes “that these centers are all the same.”
-At Washington State University, some professors told students “their grades will suffer if they use terms such as ‘illegal alien,’ ‘male,’ and ‘female,’ or if they fail to ‘defer’ to non-white students.”
-Students at Stanford overwhelmingly rejected a referendum to bring back a Western Civilization course requirement, claiming these courses “perpetuated ‘European-Western and male bias’ and ‘sexist and racist stereotypes.’”
-Wayne State University no longer requires taking math to graduate, but may institute a diversity course requirement in its place.
Unfortunately, on the modern campus, preoccupation with racial and ethnic diversity does not extend to intellectual diversity. Sometimes Leftist tribal politics even go too far and alienate the very people for whom they try to create a safe space. In sum, the radical multiculturalists demand acceptance of a largely negative interpretation of Western civilization and a reformed, restricted vocabulary when speaking about diversity.
On the other hand, some on the Left have thrown aside multiculturalism and are following a path of borderline racial nationalism. The Black Lives Matter movement, in particular, is at risk of being hijacked by fringe elements who are combining the alt-right’s emphasis on in-group identity and the centrality of race with left-wing policy prescriptions. A large coalition of organizations under the Black Lives Matter umbrella recently released a list of demands which includes a provocative call for “independent Black political power and Black self-determination in all areas of society.” In the context of the other demands, this is not a call for a separate nation-state. What is concerning is its implications for the political structure of this nation. Are we a country of atomized racial and ethnic groups, each with its own claims to specific powers? Or are we a nation that needs to work harder to enforce liberty, equality, and justice for all?
To be clear, I am not saying Black Lives Matter was created by the Left. It undoubtedly arose in response to unjust treatment by police officers and continued poor conditions affecting the lives of too many African Americans in this country. However, it is in danger of transforming from a respectable protest movement into an organization that exemplifies the extreme implications of modern tribal politics. It is forsaking legitimacy as a broadly appealing force for change in the name of goals which are not constructive for healing, dialogue, combating everyday bigotry, fighting poverty, empowering minorities to be politically engaged, and holding unscrupulous law enforcement officials accountable.
The critical question posed by tribal politics is this: Does E pluribus unum still characterize America? If the answer is no, if nationhood is no longer found in ideals and God-given rights, then we must accept the consequences: we will be a state divided into nations or forced to adopt the language of the radically multicultural Left. We cannot stay in this current state of tense uncertainty.
Throughout our history, we have been forced to reconcile our ideal-based national identity with racial and ethnic identities. Each time, from Gettysburg to Selma, we pushed through, ending up stronger and more united. The beauty of being a nation predicated on ideals is we can still cherish our heritage and unique cultural backgrounds. Few other countries have ever been as open and accepting of peoples from across the globe as we have been. We are strengthened by our diversity when we remember that, in the end and at our core, we are all Americans united by our ideals and aspirations. We surely struggle to live up to them, to ensure all can take part in the American Dream equally, but if we answer no, there will be no “American” Dream because there will be no single, unified America.
The leadership of Lincoln and the sacrifice of Martin Luther King, Jr. would be for naught, as we would throw away our unique and exceptional notion of nationhood for racial and ethnic tribalism.