America’s Original Identity Politics

The Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum at Ohio State University

“The Hyphenated American,” cartoon by J.S. Pughe from Puck magazine, August 9, 1899

We hear a great deal these days about how the right’s hostility to “identity politics,” inflamed by advocates like BreitbartNews, its erstwhile editor Steve Bannon, and Fox News, enabled the rise of Donald Trump. In this framing, the election of 2016 was a populist backlash of ordinary voters against an increasingly aberrant left that has allowed itself to be distracted by narrow questions about groups whose niche concerns do not rightly pertain to the proper functioning of democracy. Their identity-based complaints are marginalizing the left, leaving it out of touch with the troubles of Middle Americans, who primarily worry about how to pay the bills, but who are also concerned with the degradation of national values. Identity politics—according to this telling—fosters a series of peripheral grievances that, in travestying political norms, pose a dangerous threat to these values.

This argument is made not only on the right. Liberal academics like Francis Fukuyama at Stanford and Mark Lilla at Columbia have recently chided progressives for championing causes like Black Lives Matter and transgender rights, thus provoking a “whitelash” among the “left-behind” Trump voters. The counterblast from these left-behind Americans will, they argue, defeat progressivism, which needs to get practical and focus on regaining power through calls to commonality, rather than difference. Their argument is that a proactive sense of white identity was “triggered,” in effect, by an over-emphasis on racial and social identity in political discourse. Lilla, for example, urged in a 2016 New York Times op-ed that America return to a time of “pre-identity liberalism,” because identity politics “absolves liberals of not recognizing how their own obsession with diversity has encouraged white, rural, religious Americans to think of themselves as a disadvantaged group whose identity is being threatened or ignored… they are reacting against the omnipresent rhetoric of identity, which is what they mean by ‘political correctness.’ Liberals should bear in mind that the first identity movement in American politics was the Ku Klux Klan, which still exists.”

Similarly, when The Economist published an interview with Fukuyama and excerpt from his book last year, it headlined the article, “Can liberal democracies survive identity politics?”, and offered a highly typical definition: “identity politics describes when people adopt political positions based on their ethnicity, race, sexuality or religion rather than on broader policies. Though it started on the left, it has been more potent on the right: it fueled Donald Trump’s election and Britain’s vote to leave the European Union.” The Federalist Society tweeted in October 2018 in similar, but even more baleful, terms: “Identity politics aims for the end of America itself.” That certainly sounds bad.

The good news for anyone feeling perturbed is that it simply isn’t true that identity politics represents the end of America or of liberal democracy. Nor is it true that identity politics began on the left, or that the Klan was America’s first “identity movement.” As historians like Fukuyama and Lilla should know, the United States was founded on identity politics, per The Economist’s description: political positions based on ethnicity, race, sexuality, and religion. There are no pre-identity politics, just as there are no pre-identity economics, in a country in which political, economic, and legal rights were only ever granted to some identity groups and not to others. The only thing new about “the omnipresent rhetoric of identity” is the voices that have been added to it, reshaping it in ways that alarm and affront those who used to be its sole authors. But it was always omnipresent.

Virtually every major event in the long and troubled history of the United States was a direct consequence of identity politics. Start whenever you think America begins, and power struggles based on identity will be staring you in the face, starting with the genocide and forced resettlement of indigenous peoples by European migrants. A handful of those migrants, traveling on the Mayflower, called themselves “Separatists” and decided to start a new society based on their religious beliefs, in which church membership would be a requirement of political representation. That’s identity politics.

Black people were enslaved, white people were free: it takes a colossal set of blinders to keep from seeing that as identity politics. Political judgments and legal decisions based on identity underwrote white supremacy from the start: measuring African Americans as three-fifths of a human is identity politics, a logic that led to the one-drop rule, the Dred Scott decision, Jim Crow segregation, and the Birther movement, to name just a few of the most consequential instances. Electoral colleges were established in order to solve the “problem of the Negroes,” as James Madison put it, rigging the number of electors a state received in order to put a white supremacist thumb on the constitutional scale. Insofar as identity politics helped elect Donald Trump, electoral colleges seem a more proximate cause than debates over gender-neutral bathrooms.


That The Economist did not even notice that its checklist of identity politics skipped gender altogether is both ironic and typical. In 1776, Abigail Adams famously pleaded with her husband to “Remember the Ladies” in drafting the nation’s new code of laws. Warning him against putting “unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands” because “all Men would be tyrants if they could,” she promised that American women would “not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.” John Adams replied by telling her thanks, but he preferred male privilege: “We know better than to repeal our masculine systems.” The masculine systems established by the framers meant that women didn’t get the vote until 1920, still earn a fraction of what men earn, and remain subject to a state asserting control over their bodies that it doesn’t assert over male bodies. That is identity politics.

John Trumbull: Declaration of Independence, 1818

The point is spectacularly obvious but has been all but drowned out by the rhetorical noise around the phrase “identity politics” itself, which distracts listeners from noticing that the “broader policies” fondly imagined by The Economist are imbricated with identity from start to finish. Different identity groups have always fought over what and who would define Americanism. “National politics in healthy periods is not about ‘difference,’ it is about commonality,” Lilla pronounced. But this fantasy of commonality has always excluded, de jure and de facto, large swaths of the American population on the basis of their identities. The logic of exceptionalism is embedded in the American imagination: one set of rules historically applied to white American men, another set to all other people in the country, who were not recognized as full citizens—which is to say, as fully American.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote to Susan B. Anthony in 1859 that when St. Peter would ask her at the gates of heaven where she’d like to sit, she planned to reply: “Anywhere so that I am neither a negro nor a woman. Confer on me, great angel, the glory of White manhood, so that henceforth I may feel unlimited freedom.” A similar sentiment was widely expressed a century and a half later, when Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed to the Supreme Court in a bitter fight that was perceived by half the country as evidence that white men are now routinely being victimized for historical crimes, and by the other half as proof that white men are never punished, even for their own crimes. White men who complain that they no longer feel unlimited freedom are likely to be greeted unsympathetically and told to join the club. That lack of sympathy, while understandable, also exacerbates their sense of grievance. Although these generalizations (which white men?) become increasingly untenable, they are also produced by the terms of the debate itself, which we have all inherited, and may obscure us from seeing that one person’s justice always risks being another person’s grievance.

In other words, when Lilla blames liberals for “encouraging” white, rural, working-class Americans to think of themselves as a disadvantaged group, he’s rather missing the point. They have always defined themselves as a group, and frequently felt disadvantaged, even when history shows that they weren’t, in relative terms, at least. Resentment directed at perceived “elites” and “establishment insiders” has been at the heart of every populist movement in American history, from Andrew Jackson through William Jennings Bryan to Huey Long to Donald Trump. American populist movements have tended to take shape around the identity of white working-class men precisely because “the people” were imagined as this particular person. The idea that rural white men are more virtuous, and thus more American, than other people is deeply embedded in our nation’s mythology, and aligned with perspectives that see white Anglo-Saxons as superior by divine right. (Indeed, identity politics is so powerful a force in American history that it brought a mythical identity like “Anglo-Saxon” to life and endowed it with political supremacy.)

In 1787, Thomas Jefferson wrote in Notes on the State of Virginia: “Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people, whose breasts he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue.” Forty years later, a backwoods hunter from Kentucky who grew up in a log cabin won the presidency, in part by mythologizing his own origins on the frontier in terms of the natural aristocracy of the common man. This vision of populism exalts a rags-to-riches story of the self-made man rising above his station through hard work and merit: the yeoman farmer in the White House. A paradox was installed at the heart of American mythology: the common man who nevertheless embodied American exceptionalism; an imaginary person who was both unique and representative. But that person was, without exception, typified as a white working man of rural origins, which became the synecdoche for Americanness itself, a reductive oxymoron of universality.


From Jefferson’s ideal of the yeoman farmer to Jackson’s resourceful frontiersman, from the rugged individualist cowboy to the blue-collar steel worker, this was the nation’s backbone, the salt of the earth: national identity forged through a mythic conceptualization of the “common man” as a “real American” who lived in the “heartland” or, as time went on, “Middle America.” These rhetorical associations continually cemented the idea that there was something central to American life about this particular identity, while other identities were marginal, fringe, extreme, or alien.

By the twenty-first century, the humble origins of the American leader had become a truism not of republicanism but of Republicans, as two GOP candidates in a row were elected in part because they successfully deployed the populist stylings and demeanor of the “common man,” despite their inherited wealth and elite education. George W. Bush adopted an informal, folksy rhetoric and turned the state of Texas into a political accessory to distract attention from his elite East Coast upbringing as heir to a political dynasty. And Donald Trump’s incivility, vulgarity, and rhetorical violence were all seen as proof of his anti-elite authenticity: he might be rich, but he was not parasitical; he earned his money, they said, and the undisciplined, unrefined way he spoke was proof that he was one of them.

In 1914, Walter Lippmann wrote that most Americans believed “in the unsophisticated man, in his basic kindliness and his instinctive practical sense,” while also distrusting “the appearance of the expert.” This, Lippmann declared, was “the American dream, which may be summed up, I think, in the statement that the undisciplined man is the salt of the earth.” It was the delusion that the common man—“the real American”—should be the moral barometer of the nation.

To this day, the American common man remains strongly coded in racial, classed, and religious terms. The common man is not, for example, commonly understood to be a Muslim. He is understood to be a coal miner from West Virginia, despite the fact that American Muslim men are much more common, statistically speaking, than West Virginian miners. These are the voters we’ve heard from endlessly over the last two years, the white working-class men of so-called “Trump country,” especially the white men without a college education who voted for Trump by a margin of 71 percent to 23 percent. The reasons for their choice have been hotly debated, including the erosion of perceived power, economic stagnation, cultural backlash, racial bigotry, gender bias, and evangelical social agendas. Yet Trump’s election was also widely perceived as an anti-elite insurrection, one that was treated as an anomaly, instead of as the latest in a series of populist surges in American history that have sought to “restore” a power to the common man that he perceived himself to be losing to other less-deserving groups.

This aggrandizement of the common man is also at the heart of nativism and nationalism, the dark shadows of populism that began taking hold in the wake of Jacksonian America. Any logic of inherited nobility or rights granted by ancestry—the logic of aristocratic pedigree—is identity politics; nativism is just aristocracy for populists. This was clear from the beginning: in 1845, an editorial in the New York Evening Post denounced “the effort to confine the political functions incident to citizenship to native-born Americans,” as the despicable “attempt to found an aristocracy of birth, even a political aristocracy, making the accident of birth the condition of political rights. Is this Americanism? Shame on the degenerate American who pretends it! He is false to his American creed, and has no American heart.” This was twelve years before the Supreme Court would rule in Dred Scott that citizenship rights depended on ancestry, and therefore enslaved African Americans and their descendants were not American citizens. Although the Fourteenth Amendment emphatically overturned Dred Scott in 1868, guaranteeing all Americans birthright citizenship, it did not succeed in putting an end to identity politics. Just ask the Trump administration, which has said it wants to challenge the Fourteenth Amendment as part of a panoply of anti-immigrant measures seeking to narrow the identities granted access to full citizenship.

Nativist nationalism was also behind one of Trump’s favorite slogans. “America First” was popularized by Woodrow Wilson in a 1915 speech delivered to the Daughters of the American Revolution (another ancestral organization exalting supremacist identity politics) about “foreign-born” versus “native-born” Americans, urging “every man to declare himself, where he stands. Is it America first or is it not?” The speech was widely interpreted as a “Warning to the Hyphenated,” in the words of The New York Times—that is, to German-Americans, Italian-Americans, and Irish-Americans who might have conflicting loyalties during World War I. “While the president did not refer in terms to hyphenated Americans,” The Times observed, “his speech was a denunciation of them.” Wilson ended by calling for the “hazing” of foreign-born citizens who seemed insufficiently patriotic; The Times endorsed this idea as an appropriate cure for any “un-American habits” naturalized citizens might still have. But who was to decide which habits were sufficiently American?

Increasingly, those who had inherited white Protestant traditions defined themselves around racial and ethnic homogeneity, as cultural oppositions began to harden. Anti-immigrant witch hunts and lynch mobs ensued. More broadly, the social and geographic divisions we now refer to as “culture wars” began to break along recognizable lines, as immigrant, polyglot cities full of foreigners and corrupt elites were defined against the real America of the common man. The antagonism between “Main Street” and “Wall Street” goes back to this time as well, when Sinclair Lewis’s bestselling 1920 novel Main Street gave a new name to Middle America just as the stock market began to boom. Urbanites defined themselves as forward-looking sophisticates who sneered at yokels in backwaters; cosmopolitanism faced off against parochialism.

This is where the Ku Klux Klan comes in—far from the nation’s “first identity movement,” but certainly one of its most malevolent. By no coincidence, the Klan also construed its nativism in terms of “America First.” A 1921 KKK pamphlet that circulated around the country declared: “The ABC of the Klan is America First, benevolence, clannishness.” A few years later, in another pamphlet titled “The Klan’s Fight for Americanism,” the group demanded the “return of power into the hands of the everyday, not highly cultured, not overly intellectualized, but entirely unspoiled and not de-Americanized, average citizen of the old stock. Our members and leaders are all of this class—the opposition of the intellectuals and liberals who held the leadership, [and] betrayed Americanism.” What the Klan cast as its anti-elite populism was motivated, it insisted, by “economic distress”: “We found our great cities and the control of much of our industry and commerce taken over by strangers, who stacked the cards of success and prosperity against us.”

Carl De Keyzer/Magnum Photos

A Ku Klux Klan rally in Hico, Texas, 1990

The rhetoric is virtually identical to that used to explain Trump voters, whose “economic anxiety” became a byword in media discussions, as did their hostility to the “highly cultured and overly intellectualized.” But economic anxiety is triggered by nativism, not the other way around. As Paul Krugman noted in a recent Times column, “there is little if any support in voting data for the notion that ‘economic anxiety’ drove people to vote for Trump.” To back his claim, Krugman cites an “important new book analyzing the 2016 election” Identity Crisis, by Michael Tesler, John Sides, and Lynn Vavreck, which found extensive data to suggest that “When economic anxiety was refracted through social identities,” it changed people’s perspectives: “instead of a pure economic anxiety, what mattered was ‘racialized economics.’”(Tellingly, The Times had to print a correction beneath Krugman’s column, as it had originally misnamed the book Identity Politics.) As a phrase, identity politics is always a red herring, leading the debate away from the real question—namely, which groups have access to political, legal, and economic power. The history of America is a history of violent battles over who gets to be counted, in every sense, as a “real American.” That is why the upcoming census has also become a lightning rod for the Trump administration with its proposal to add a citizenship question: because who counts is at the heart of who gets represented, and in a representative democracy that is the source of political power.

Take, for example, the Johnson–Reed Act of 1924, also known as the National Origins Act, which introduced a quota system based on the nation of an immigrant’s origin. Republican Senator David Reed, one of the authors of the act, told the Senate that earlier legislation was insufficient because it “disregards those of us who are interested in keeping American stock up to the highest standard—that is, the people who were born here.” Concern with bloodlines and “racial stock” is pure identity politics, and it was praised by Trump’s former attorney general, Jeff Sessions, during a 2015 radio interview with Steve Bannon. “In seven years, we’ll have the highest percentage of Americans, non-native born, since the founding of the Republic,” noted Sessions. “… [I]t’s a radical change. When the numbers reached about this high in 1924, the president and Congress changed the policy, and it slowed down immigration significantly.”

This logic is not only nativist, it is outright eugenicist, which is the slippery slope down which identity politics always risks heading. Fascist movements, too, are political projects that valorize “the people,” a group bound by ancestry and region into an ur-identity that is seen as a more authentic form of national identity than that granted to other citizens. The form of nationalism that fascism takes can be political, militaristic, cultural, ethnic or some combination thereof, but it is always framed as an appeal to the “real” people of the nation.

Just as nativism was quickly identified by some as an attempt to create an aristocracy of “the people” in all but name, so did the affinity between America First nativism and European fascism receive instant recognition. As I detail in my book, Behold, America: The Entangled History of “America First” and “the American Dream,” in 1922, after Mussolini took power in Rome, a Montana paper noted that in Italy, fascism meant “Italy for the Italians. The fascisti in this country call it ‘America first.’” It went on to observe: “there are plenty of the fascisti in the United States, it seems, but they have always gone under the proud boast of ‘100 percent Americans.’” It is perhaps a coincidence that Trump’s adviser Stephen Miller, one of the architects of the policy that separates immigrant families at the southern border, wrote, quoting Teddy Roosevelt out of context in his high school yearbook, that “There is room here for only 100 percent Americanism, only for those who are Americans and nothing else.”

Clearly, American populist movements have not historically been identical to European fascism; but they do share a strong family resemblance, including a nominal populism that bolsters the power of a corporate or oligarchic state, an emotional wave of personal identification with an individual leader, a faith in authoritarianism as an expression of “authentic” national identity, the demonization of “alien” groups who are said to undermine national virtue, a willingness to sacrifice the rule of law to defeat those whom it views as enemies, and a reliance upon an economy of fear. Both American populism and European fascism also replace constitutional principles with mass ceremonies that affirm tribal loyalties: fascism is nothing if not identity politics in its exaltation of ethno-national identity over all other forms of affiliation.

A politics centered around the desires and grievances of one group, and around their restoring a hegemony that is challenged by other groups, is often experienced as nostalgia—a patriotic nostalgia for a time when their group was recognized as the nation’s best. Reflecting on the funeral of George H.W. Bush last year, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat offered a controversial elegy for “WASPs,” an elite establishment defined solely by racial and religious identity that, he declared, more surely protected the old liberal order than “their more meritocratic and diverse and secular successors [who] rule us neither as wisely nor as well.” Douthat views WASPs as nothing less than an aristocracy, inherently superior as leaders to those chosen by diverse, secular meritocracy. To be sure, he acknowledges, American elite institutions needed to admit “more blacks, Jews, Catholics and Hispanics (and more women) to [their] ranks,” but only “as a self-consciously elite-crafting strategy,” rather than ascribing to “the dubious ideal of ‘merit.’”

Quite apart from the manifest failures of gradualism and meliorism as strategies for the political advancement of the groups he names (and his remembering the ladies only in a parenthetical afterthought), Douthat’s rejection of merit as a “dubious ideal” would have come as unwelcome news to the framers, who sought precisely to avoid an “establishment” aristocracy imbued with ideas of noblesse oblige. Jefferson said America should seek leaders drawn from a “natural aristocracy among men,” men of ability and achievement, those who possess, added James Madison, “most wisdom to discern, and most virtue to pursue, the common good of the society.” Asking in Federalist 57 whom the people should choose as leaders, Madison answered: “Every citizen whose merit may recommend him.”

Moreover, Madison added, leaders should be barred by “no qualification of wealth, of birth, of religious faith, or of civil profession.” They weren’t to be barred by qualifications other than citizenship, which was limited to white propertied men. Identity categories quickly became not only the precondition of, but also proxies for, merit and ability, proxies that gradually became embedded in legal precedent and national institutions. Even an eighteenth-century white slave-holding Virginian of the planter class didn’t go so far as to reject meritocracy in favor of a principle that would declare only one group fit, by virtue of its race, religion, and elite status, for the condition of political leadership. But the logic is fundamentally the same: the framers believed in leaders drawn from a “natural aristocracy” of people of merit, while legally restricting that group to white Protestant men, whereas Douthat argues that white Protestant men (and some women) are a natural aristocracy that supersedes the ostensible “merit” of those other citizens the law now recognizes.

As far back as 1955, the historian Richard Hofstadter was warning of the “souring” of populism, of its becoming “illiberal and ill-tempered,” turning into “cranky pseudo-conservatism.” Populism was persisting in America into the late twentieth century, Hofstadter observed, less as a political movement than “as an undercurrent of provincial resentments, popular and ‘democratic’ rebelliousness and suspiciousness, and nativism.” But whenever it did appear, Hosftadter added, American populism tended to be marked by “isolationism and the extreme nationalism that usually goes with it, hatred of Europe and Europeans, racial, religious, and nativist phobias, resentment of big business, trade-unionism, intellectuals, the Eastern seaboard and its culture.” And it has often appeared “combined with strong moral convictions and with the choice of hatred as a kind of creed. The history of this characteristic of our political experience has never been studied on the folk level, but it has been reflected in the caliber of our leadership.”

Sandy Huffaker/AFP/Getty Images

A demonstrator at an “America First” rally at the San Ysidro Port of Entry along the US-Mexico border in San Ysidro, California on Saturday, December 15, 2018

Grievances are, in part, about legitimacy. They’re a moral claim, grounded in a conception of injustice. And that’s where the battle is joined: Do white people in America still wield disproportionate power? Many of them argue that they do not, that equality has been achieved, and further, that now the tables are turned, it is they who are victimized. Others see this perception as an aggrieved response to a loss of real power that was itself based on historical injustices, as resentment at their thumbs being forcibly removed from the scales.

This much is clear: none of this is new—not identity politics, white grievance, or even hatred as a kind of creed. But then history also teaches us that an overwhelming sense of grievance has rarely been satisfied by the lessons of history. The truth is that identity politics defines everyone in society. The freedom of which Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote is simply the right granted some people to feel unconscious of being so defined. They may thus dismiss the claims of less powerful groups as mere identity politics, instead of having to confront that mode of politics as the system under which everyone operates.

Perhaps Audre Lorde was correct that the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house: identity politics from the left may well prove an insufficient weapon against identity politics from the right. But it is not true that identity politics are necessarily divisive. Difference is a fact of life, to which divisiveness is only one response. Inclusiveness is another: not just tolerating but celebrating difference, fighting for the rights of all, not just the few. To be a truly representative democracy, America will need to stop thinking in terms of the representative common man. Thinking in terms of common decency might be a start.

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