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A 2016 essay in The New York Times by Mark Lilla, a professor of intellectual history at Columbia University, exemplifies this anti-identitarian thinking. Lilla calls for “the age of identity liberalism” to be “brought to an end” because it has “produced a generation of liberals and progressives narcissistically unaware of conditions outside their self-defined groups.” For Lilla, identity is enervating the political resources of an older left, supposedly able to rally around ideals everyone could get behind. This political tension has only increased as “identity politics” has been rendered synonymous with dubiously liquid and hotly contested terms like “woke” and “critical race theory.”
The backlash comes with its own popular history of identity politics’ origins. A recent version of this popular history is articulated by Yascha Mounk in his new book, The Identity Trap. In a viral thread promoting the book, Mounk offers a genealogy of the “new ideas about race, gender, and sexual orientation” which, he says, constitute a “novel ideology” that “radically departs from the traditional left.” Mounk suggests that the “trap” of a particularist identity politics and “woke” ideology originates in the theories of postmodernists like Michel Foucault and postcolonial theorists like Edward Said and Gayatri C. Spivak, among others.
There is only one problem. This is the wrong origin story. Far from being the spawn of postmodernism, identity politics dates back over a century and half earlier, to the cultural shifts that created the modern world. As the philosopher Charles Taylor has shown in a wide range of books and essays, identity politics is rooted in a fusion of Romanticism’s ethic of authenticity and the Enlightenment notion of popular sovereignty. The goal of identity politics is what Taylor famously dubbed “recognition.” Although it is not popular to say it, the oldest form of such politics is not based in race, gender, or sexual orientation, but rather in nationalism.
Whereas premodern people interpreted their identities as grafted onto the cosmos, emerging from a mythic past and secured by spiritual entities, modern people do not. Rather, part of the pathos of modern identity is that even religious people must self-consciously mobilize their identities within secular historical time — what Taylor famously calls in A Secular Age the “immanent frame.” No earthquakes or ghosts or other such signs and wonders will manifest to secure an identity’s place in the political order. One must do it oneself.
Modern people, according to Taylor, feel their identities to be fragile. They must either secure recognition or face possible eradication or repression into an ethnic, religious, gender, or other such ghetto. Recognition, according to Taylor, means not merely tolerating but positively affirming a group’s value to a community, its right to a certain standing. For this reason, Taylor warns that the modern turn to identity is “felt existentially.” The need for “recognition” in the “face of nonrecognition” stimulates an effort to confirm one’s place. To survive, modern identities seek protection from the modern administrative state. The first identity that rallied in this way, Taylor notes, was the mass category of the nation.
One key component of this politics stems from Romanticism and its notion that humans each have a unique expressive way of existing in the world. In The Ethics of Authenticity, Taylor calls this ethic the “child of the Romantic period,” which teaches that “each of us has an original way of being human.” For everyone, “there is a certain way of being human that is my way.”
Although the ethic of authenticity is often experienced and practiced at the individual level as a resistance to social pressures to conform, it can also take on group forms. This important mutation in Romantic culture was articulated by thinkers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Johann Gottfried Herder. For Herder not only individuals but also the world’s peoples are formed by unique and singular spirits or cultures that cannot be forcibly changed or stifled without doing damage to them.
Nationalism then blends this demand to be oneself with the earlier Enlightenment’s idea that legitimate government is founded in a social contract and ratified by popular sovereignty. The state, on this view, is legitimate only if it represents the will of a people. Identity must be represented. In the case of nationalism, the goal is frequently a one-to-one identity of state and nation. The state is even seen by nationalists as the highest expression of recognition that a people’s culture and language merit existence.
In a 1997 essay entitled “Nationalism and Modernity,” Taylor built on the work of leading scholars of nationalism like Ernest Gellner, Craig Calhoun, and Benedict Anderson, to argue that this entire dynamic of authenticity, recognition, and popular mobilization is part of a uniquely “modern social imaginary.” But he also extended its relevance to identities of gender, sex, race, and so on. As he succinctly put it there: “Modern nationalist politics is a species of identity politics. Indeed, it is the original species” whose “model” of “struggle” then “comes to be applied to feminism … cultural minorities, to the gay movement, etc.”
Unlike many nationalist movements, most often, identity groups do not attempt to monopolize the state. But they do often demand equal inclusion and representation in the polity. They ask not only for legal guarantees to participate in politics and economic life, but also for a public space in which to affirm and celebrate their identities as not merely tolerated but valued.
As he wrote in his viral thread, Mounk believes the “ideas about group identity” and what he calls the “identity trap” originate in the obscure philosophies of academic postmodernists. The downstream effect is a mass, “woke” movement with, as he said in The Atlantic, a “preference for public policies that explicitly tie the treatment a person receives to their group identity.” But if Mounk had been guided by a better history he would have realized that such group claims were pioneered by nationalist movements dating back to the early 19th century (long before Foucault, Said, Spivak, or any other postmodernist wrote a single word). Doing so would also have scrambled and complicated Mounk’s tacit assumption that identity is largely something hatched by a single side of the culture war.
Far from being postmodern, identity is among the chief and most explosive modernisms.
Yet even a brief retelling of the actual origin of identity politics is enough to show that Mounk’s history is the result of reading his own ideological preoccupations onto the past. An animus toward both identity politics and postmodern theorists leads to a distorted history in which the supposedly baleful effects of the former are blamed on the latter. The villains and culprits of contemporary politics and history all align neatly. This is doubly tempting because in a culture war there is a tendency to render one’s own oppositions and fault lines timeless.
Yet the actual history of identity politics frustrates this ideological effort to simplify the friend-enemy divide. The picture that emerges from Taylor is both more complex in terms of the origin story of modern identity and in terms of its ethical significance. Although identity — nationalist or otherwise — can certainly form one of the most worrisome and fearful engines for political mobilization, it is also the source of much good. After all, to be true to oneself and express oneself authentically remain ethical characteristics that are admired across many (albeit not all) different philosophical and religious communities.
In addition, if Taylor is right, identity politics is in some sense inescapable. This is because even the universalist traditions of ideology (liberalism, socialism, and so on) are cultural traditions. While those traditions are well within their intellectual rights to argue that they are making universally valid claims, they remain in a situation akin to universalist religions (such as Christianity, Buddhism, and Islam) that must nonetheless win converts and change hearts and minds. Thus, even to join up with a universalist ideology is itself an act of identity or conversion. Ideology is, in fact, one of the profoundest sources of identity today.
What figures like Mounk, Lilla, and others lament as a lack of unity and universalism in politics, is in fact simply the basic starting situation in the modern age. Locke and other early Enlightenment theorists might have been able to think of their politics as not cultural but natural, but today such claims are no longer plausible.
There is, in fact, nothing automatically universal about being an old-style liberal, any more than there is about converting to Roman Catholicism or Sunni Islam. To win adherents to an ideology is to mobilize an identity. Whether we like it or not, identity is a central feature of modernity and modern politics. One might even say that the self-conscious thematizing and struggle over identity are the central features of the age.
A true genealogy of identity politics thus helps us overcome the harmful and facile binaries of the culture war. It might be effective as a rallying call to denounce “identity politics” and “identitarianism,” but it is also false. There are both left and right forms of identity politics — something that was clear to philosophers like Taylor well before the rise of Donald Trump and MAGA — but which is evident to millions of ordinary people now.
So, what do we do about this fact given that we can all appreciate how identity politics turns toxic and exclusionary (a temptation for any identity)? In his 1992 essay “The Politics of Recognition,” which remains hugely influential, Taylor argued that the antidote to identity politics is not the impossible act of leaping outside of the conditions of modern identity formation. Rather, it is to see that recognition is a key good that people intensely seek and require. “Identity,” Taylor wrote in an oft-quoted passage, “is partly shaped by recognition or its absence … and so a person or group of people can suffer real damage, real distortion, if the people or society around them mirror back to them a confining or demeaning or contemptible picture of themselves.”
Here LGBTQ advocates and Christian nationalists, feminists and traditionalists, might do the hard work of finding unexpected common ground in their shared worry about losing a sense of place in society. The interplay between recognition and misrecognition is not limited to the realm of ideas, but involves real inclusion or exclusion from economic and other such goods.
Far from being postmodern, identity is among the chief and most explosive modernisms. It is not likely to disappear until modernity itself vanishes from the scene — an event so vast and difficult to imagine that no mind can yet foresee it. If we want to understand our own modern predicament, we must learn to live with identity politics.