Ricochet is the best place on the internet to discuss the issues of the day, either through commenting on posts or writing your own for our active and dynamic community in a fully moderated environment. In addition, the Ricochet Audio Network offers over 50 original podcasts with new episodes released every day.
One of my reactions to the events in Charlottesville was to chide my liberal friends: See, this is what you get when you embrace identity politics. Do you really want to double down on that? At that moment nothing seemed more obvious than the fact that, when you mainstream ethnic identity politics and insist on politicizing “Whiteness”, as the Left has been doing for more than a generation, both reasonable and unreasonable people will choose to organize politically around white identity. Even some Liberals are coming around to the realization that identity politics is no way to run a railroad.
But two minutes of calm reflection were enough to see that I was being a little unfair. Identity politics is not really the problem. Rather, identity politics is the normal mode of political organization in a multi-ethnic democracy that worships the twin gods, “Diversity” and “Multiculturalism”. Identity politics is our politics, and it’s here to stay. Get used to it.
This wouldn’t be so bad, except for two problems: 1) identity politics is bad for society; and 2) identity politics is bad for democracy. The purveyors of multiculturalism didn’t really think their little theory through.
The language we use to talk about our political institutions is full of embedded assumptions about the nature of peoplehood. Consider the terms “self-government” and “self-determination”: who is this “self” that is free to determine how it is governed? Who makes up the “demos” in democracy?
The first word of the first political document drafted in the name of American independence is “We”:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed, by their Creator, with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Likewise, the first words of our Constitution:
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
In a multiethnic, multicultural United States, the “We” becomes problematic, there is no “People of the United States”, no “ourselves”, there can be no talk of a more perfect Union and “we” can kiss domestic Tranquility goodbye.
Of course, you could object that we were never “We” to begin with. The idea that factions are both natural in human societies and harmful to politics is not new, as James Madison famously expounded in Federalist No. 10:
“So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts. But the most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property.”
Madison and the other Federalists argued that the effects of faction based on economic interests could be controlled through republican government institutions. But Madison never had to deal with ethnic identity politics.
Ethnic factionalism is different. I’m blue in the face from pointing out that human beings are naturally tribal and gravitate easily toward exclusive collective identities. People naturally self-segregate along various criteria, and they are especially prone to self-segregate along ethnic and racial lines. This being the case, the marginal cost of political organization along the lines of ethnic and racial affinity is lower than the cost of organizing with respect to other criteria, such as economic interest. So we should not be surprised when a multi-ethnic democracy like the United States splinters into rival ethnic and racial blocs. We don’t need much government encouragement to do this.
This is a recipe for problems. The dirty little secret of social science is that serious academic research in management science, economics, and other areas suggests fairly unambiguously that ethnic diversity imposes substantial social costs in many if not most settings, from reduced firm productivity to loss of social capital, to reduction in effective government and the willingness of taxpayers to fund public goods.
Truly free and democratic multi-ethnic societies are rare. Switzerland perhaps comes closest, but it’s unclear that the Swiss model can be grafted on top of any other society. The Swiss have had more than 600 years to figure out how to govern themselves, and therefore it shouldn’t be surprising that they have arrived at a formula that works well for their particular circumstances. Also, because of their long history, there is actually a quite strong unifying Swiss national identity, despite the linguistic and ethnic divisions. Moreover, a core principle of the Swiss solution is separation: the country’s four ethnicities are overwhelmingly concentrated in their own cantons. Because of this, Switzerland is very decentralized: it is a true confederacy, and most political issues are decided at the canton level. This keeps ethnic and regional tensions to a minimum. The federal government in Bern is practically invisible; most Swiss can’t name their country’s president. This is not a model that is easily copied, even if we wanted to do it (which nobody does).
The bottom line is that the “diversity tax” is a problem crying out for a solution. The question is, what to do about it.
Fortunately, national and ethnic identities are malleable, and countries use a mix of strategies to build them up: language policy, nationalist ideology, mobilization against an external threat, and various social engineering schemes. For a country of settlers and immigrants like the United States, it is especially important to undergo a continuous process of what in other contexts we call “nation-building”. The United States actually used to be exceptionally good at this. Lately, though, we seem to have forgotten how to do it.
The good news is that the melting pot model is actually alive and well, just not operating on the same scale as it did a century ago. Consider the case of the most authentically American ethnicity of all: Hispanics. Lots of countries have white people; lots of countries have black people; one country has lots of Chinese people. But only the United States has Hispanics – an ethnicity that didn’t exist at all until the Nixon-era Census Bureau cooked it up in its basement. The Hispanic ethnicity is purely the product of Yankee ingenuity.
(Someone more bloody-minded than I might even conclude that its invention was a clever Republican plot to sow strife and division between two groups of Democrats vying for the same socio-economic space. But this is unlikely – the Stupid Party is incapable of such Machiavellian cunning. Richard Nixon, though, surely was capable of it.)
To appreciate just how amazingly well the Hispanic melting pot works, consider what an absurd concoction it is. The Census Bureau defines “Hispanic” to mean “a person of Cuban, Mexican, Puerto Rican, South or Central American, or other Spanish culture or origin regardless of race.” This category includes Eric Estrada, Jorge Ramos, His Royal Majesty King Felipe VI of Spain, a Zapotec-speaking peasant from Oaxaca, a Quechua-speaking peasant from the highlands of Ecuador, and former Peruvian president Alberto Fujimori. On the face of it, these people have nothing in common. Nonetheless, now, less than 50 years later, nearly 60 million Americans identify as Hispanic. There are Hispanic Awareness Months, a Congressional Hispanic caucus, Hispanic studies programs in the universities, Hispanic lobbying and advocacy groups, Hispanic cable networks, Hispanic grocery store aisles, Hispanic affirmative action preferences, and Hispanic supremacist and separatist organizations.
How did the government do this? Officially, the reason the Census Bureau collects information about race and ethnicity is this:
“Information on race is required for many Federal programs and is critical in making policy decisions, particularly for civil rights. States use these data to meet legislative redistricting principles. Race data also are used to promote equal employment opportunities and to assess racial disparities in health and environmental risks.”
Here is the plain English translation: We need to know your ethnicity to know how and to whom to distribute various Federal gum drops and lollipops: direct affirmative action programs, contracting set-asides, various gerrymandering schemes and private disparate outcome lawsuit payouts. The census ethnic category racket is a big, lucrative business for political entrepreneurs. It pays big bucks to have your own ethnic category officially recognized by Uncle Sam, which is why the advocates of the late Obama-era ethnic fiction called “Middle East and North African” (“MENA”) are celebrating.
(In fact, if I were more conspiracy-oriented, I might conclude that officially encouraging the fracturing of people the Census Bureau used call “White” is a cunning Democrat stratagem to undermine Republicans. But I would never suggest anything of the sort.)
That our government is capable of summoning up a 60-million strong fictional ethnicity out of thin air virtually overnight simply through administrative fiat is testimony to the truly awesome power of the Federal bureaucracy in the field of ethnic engineering.
Which leads naturally to a crazy question… What if we made it our national policy to create an “American” ethnicity? Surely the American population as currently constituted is no less diverse than the people our government has labeled “Hispanic”. If we wanted to create an American ethnicity, how would we go about it?
At the risk of falling into misty nostalgia, let me suggest that by the early 1960s – the high water mark of American nationalism – the United States came quite close to creating its own unique national ethnicity, albeit with a very large asterisk.† If we really wanted to, we could do it again. The most important thing to do would be to eliminate the 20+ census ethnic and racial categories. In fact, we should make it illegal for the government to classify and identify the U.S. population by race, ethnicity or religious affiliation for any purpose whatsoever. Make the government completely blind to race and ethnicity, so that all citizens look like those images rendered by the airport body scanners: vaguely human-shaped schematics with no identifying characteristics whatsoever. There is simply no innocent reason for the government to make it its business to know the race or ethnicity of any citizen.
How realistic is it that this could happen? Completely unrealistic. The census ethnicity and race categories are, in effect, huge government entitlements with constituencies numbering in the tens of millions and growing. As we know, once put in place, government entitlements never, ever go away.
The only imaginable scenario where I can see the United States getting its nation-building act together involves a rising China. I mentioned that mobilization against an external threat has historically been an important nation-building strategy. This has certainly been true for us, despite the fact that, thanks to its geography, the United States has been the most secure great power in history. Traditionally, the United States has focused laser-like on great powers that threatened to dominate parts of the world we cared about. We have been very good at dispatching such global rivals to history’s boneyard, and in the process creating a robust national identity. If China continues to grow, its sheer size and military potential will dwarf those earlier peer competitors and powerfully concentrate Uncle Sam’s mind. It is also interesting to note in this connection that China is an old-fashioned ethno-state whose leadership regards our obsession with diversity and multiculturalism with a mixture of amusement and contempt. The coming U.S.-China rivalry will be a contest, among other things, between two very different approaches to nation-building. The outcome of this contest depends to a great extent on how we think of ourselves as a nation. Personally, I am not optimistic.
† The asterisk, of course, is that the American ethnicity excluded African Americans. But even this exception seemed to be moving rapidly toward resolution before the country went completely off the rails and gave up on nationalism in the late 1960s. For example, there is a strong case to be made that the early Civil Rights movement was very much a product of the mid-century high water mark of American nationalism. Listen to MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech, and it is striking how classically nationalist it is, from its evocation of the country’s geographical features, to the reaffirmation of its basic creed of freedom, equality and individual rights, to its Old Testament shining-city-on-a hill rhetoric. Perhaps a topic for another post.