It takes ten minutes exactly for this moment to arrive, but it’s worth sitting through the rest to get a better sense of the tax-reform package that will inevitably crash and burn by the end of the year. We’ll get back to that, but House Speaker Paul Ryan offers a compelling and succinct broadside on identity politics and its corrosive nature, no matter who plays it. When asked about George W. Bush’s speech yesterday, Ryan notes that he hasn’t seen it yet, but laments the slide of American politics into a combat between aggrieved identity groups rather than a healthy debate and contest over actual policy.
“Look, I’m a conservative, there are liberals,” Ryan tells the panel on CBS This Morning. “We all want to help our country and help people and unify, and we all have different ideas and principles on how to achieve that goal. But when you practice identity politics,” Ryan continues, “you’re trying to divide people for gain, you’re trying to divide the country”:
“I think identity politics has gotten out of control in our country,” the Wisconsin Republican said in an interview on “CBS This Morning” for the ongoing series “Issues That Matter” when asked to react to President George W. Bush’s remark a day earlier: “bigotry seems emboldened.”
“I think identity politics is being played on the left and on the right and I think it’s really dangerous for our country,” he said, adding that it seeks to “exploit fear” and “exploit ignorance” and prey on differences. “That is how you disunify a culture, a society and a country.”
Ryan said that white supremacy is a “severe, awful, dark form of identity politics” and that people practice identity politics in order to divide people for gain.
Conservatives have decried identity politics on the Left for decades. Many consider it one of the major factors in the Democratic Party’s collapse over the last eight years in Congress and state legislatures, and perhaps a leading cause of Hillary Clinton’s defeat last year. Kevin Williamson challenges the Right to recognize a form of it on our side of the fence as well, one that has gained enthusiasm and formed a key part of the support for Donald Trump:
The manners of the white underclass are Trump’s — vulgar, aggressive, boastful, selfish, promiscuous, consumerist. The white working class has a very different ethic. Its members are, in the main, churchgoing, financially prudent, and married, and their manners are formal to the point of icy politeness. You’ll recognize the style if you’ve ever been around it: It’s “Yes, sir” and “No, ma’am,” but it is the formality of soldiers and police officers — correct and polite, but not in the least bit deferential. It is a formality adopted not to acknowledge the superiority of social betters but to assert the equality of the speaker — equal to any person or situation, perfectly republican manners. It is the general social respect rooted in genuine self-respect.
Its opposite is the sneering, leveling, drag-’em-all-down-into-the-mud anti-“elitism” of contemporary right-wing populism. Self-respect says: “I’m an American citizen, and I can walk into any room, talk to any president, prince, or potentate, because I can rise to any occasion.” Populist anti-elitism says the opposite: “I can be rude enough and denigrating enough to drag anybody down to my level.” Trump’s rhetoric — ridiculous and demeaning schoolyard nicknames, boasting about money, etc. — has always been about reducing. Trump doesn’t have the intellectual capacity to duke it out with even the modest wits at the New York Times, hence it’s “the failing New York Times.” Never mind that the New York Times isn’t actually failing and that any number of Trump-related businesses have failed so thoroughly that they’ve gone into bankruptcy; the truth doesn’t matter to the argument any more than it matters whether the fifth-grade bully actually has an actionable claim on some poor kid’s lunch money. It would never even occur to the low-minded to identify with anybody other than the bully. That’s what all that ridiculous stuff about “winning” was all about in the campaign. It is might-makes-right, i.e., the politics of chimpanzee troupes, prison yards, kindergartens, and other primitive environments. That is where the underclass ethic thrives — and how “smart people” came to be a term of abuse.
Feeding such people the lie that their problems are mainly external in origin — that they are the victims of scheming elites, immigrants, black welfare malingerers, superabundantly fecund Mexicans, capitalism with Chinese characteristics, Walmart, Wall Street, their neighbors — is the political equivalent of selling them heroin. (And I have no doubt that it is mostly done for the same reason.) It is an analgesic that is unhealthy even in small doses and disabling or lethal in large ones. The opposite message — that life is hard and unfair, that what is not necessarily your fault may yet be your problem, that you must act and bear responsibility for your actions — is what conservatism used to offer, before it became a white-minstrel show. It is a sad spectacle, but I do have some hope that the current degraded state of the conservative movement will not last forever.
Part of this springs from another inevitable human trait to treat opponents how they treat us, or more commonly put, to fight fire with fire. Identity politics has created an enormous resentment in middle America, and a curious sense of losing ground — even while the Right (in general) has pushed the progressives back into coastal/urban enclaves. The “underclass” behavior becomes more attractive as a revenge for earlier attacks received, and eventually we end up focusing on immutable identity rather than mutable policy.
As Ryan states, this creates a vicious cycle that is corrosive both politically and culturally. A healthy republic has to feature dissent but within a social fabric of basic unity. Otherwise, we become Balkanized into irresolvable conflicts, because no one can resolve identity differences as long as they remain the central focus of all grievance.
Be sure to watch the tax policy discussion too, although that’s everything except immutable. If the package sticks to what Ryan discusses, then it might have a chance of getting to 50-plus-Pence at some point in the Senate. Unfortunately, Senate Republicans haven’t done much better on policy this year either, identity politics or no.