December 15, 2023 Reading Time: 4 minutes

There is a specter haunting America, but it is no longer Marxism. Widely dubbed “Woke,” this ideology “is likely to make us stray from, not guide us toward, the kind of society to which we all have reason to aspire.” It is “likely to create a society composed of warring tribes rather than cooperating compatriots.” It is a “trap,” on both political and personal levels.

The most striking thing about those quotations from The Identity Trap: A Story of Power and Ideas in Our Time is the author. You might have assumed the author was a conservative, rehearsing well-worn arguments. But Yascha Mounk is a Man of the Left. His last two books were examinations of, in his words, right-wing illiberalism that “presents an acute danger to the survival of our political system” and is “an existential threat to democracies.” But, in his newest book, Mounk explores how the threat to liberalism also comes from the Left.

In a fairly sympathetic account, Mounk begins by tracing what he dubs the “Identity Synthesis” from its intellectual origins with Foucault through its culmination in Bell and Crenshaw. The trouble arose when these academic theories were unleashed upon the young. Social media compounded the problem, allowing the easy establishment of narrowly delineated identity groups. Then came “the short march through institutions,” in which college graduates immersed in the identity synthesis brought their strident beliefs into the workplace. The real break-out into the culture, though, occurred with the election of Trump. People steeped in the identity synthesis suddenly felt powerless, leading to a new realization:

The guy down the hall may not really be the biggest enemy of society. But he often turns out to be the biggest enemy over which you have some modicum of control….[A] small but consequential portion of [activists] grew intolerant of internal dissent — and directed much of their anger at anybody who dared to violate the unwritten norms of the identity synthesis.

Mounk is alarmed about the “way in which the popularized form of the identity synthesis is transforming the reigning norms and ideals of mainstream society, from neighborhood schools all the way to government offices.” Consider, for example, the new wave of progressive separatism: “progressives have increasingly militated for the creation of spaces and organizations in which members of minority groups can remain among themselves.” Separate but equal spaces were a hallmark of Jim Crow laws, which once upon a time were vehemently opposed by the Left. But Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream is now out of fashion; Segregation is back. Why?

As Mounk explores the facets of the identity synthesis, the pattern becomes clear. Dividing people into separate groups is not a means to an end; Division is the goal itself. People are physically separated into different places. People are told that it is impossible to understand those who are in different spaces. Adopting food or clothing or music or whatever from people in another space is forbidden as cultural appropriation. Speech needs to be regulated to make sure people in preferred spaces never hear something with which they disagree. Public policy should be structured to favor some groups over others.

One might think a society of warring tribes is something we should avoid, but this is exactly the goal of the identity synthesis. My life, for example, is seriously problematic in this new world. Well over a century ago, my ancestors came from a motley amalgamation of European countries. I grew up in Southern California, and thus my native cuisine is enchiladas, burritos, and tacos. My first musical loves were rock bands playing variations of blues songs. My religious beliefs originated on the Eastern edge of the Mediterranean Ocean. In years past, I would be considered a quintessential American. Now, I am a walking example of “cultural appropriation.” But, of course, so is every other American.

The identity of “American” is exactly what is most intolerable to the proponents of the identity synthesis. At a minimum, you must include a hyphen, preferably a color or ethnic or gender hyphen. Ideally, you will embrace your intersectionality and add more than one hyphen. Having added those hyphens, you now have your group, and we will put up the walls around your group, and you can then engage in tribal warfare with other groups for power. This may sound like a caricature, but it is hard to escape this image as you read through the examples in Mounk’s book.

As Mounk notes, the real threat to the identity synthesis comes not from conservatives. Far too many conservatives have embraced the hyphenated status given to them by the proponents of the identity synthesis and are engaged in tribal warfare. The threat to the identity synthesis, and the main targets of its proponents, are the old-fashioned liberals, whether they fall on the right or the left of the political spectrum. There was once widespread agreement on the virtues of collective self-determination, individual freedom, and government neutrality. Debates were over what role the government should play in advancing those values. But in the new landscape, those fundamental values are under attack, illuminating the common ground between liberals of the left and right. Mounk, in a book clearly written for political liberals, notes “a surprisingly wide and varied set of political and religious traditions give their adherents reasons to view with deep skepticism any worldview that puts group identities like race and ethnicity at its moral and epistemological center. Philosophical liberals should welcome these allies with open arms.” That admission is equally important for those on the right.

The timing of the publication of this book could not have been better. When the presidents of Ivy League universities are unwilling to say in a congressional hearing that a call for the genocide of the Jews would violate the school’s student code of conduct, it exposes the rift in the Left’s coalition. Many liberals are suddenly realizing the threat coming from the Left. Mounk mentions John McWhorter’s claim in Woke Racism that engaging with “the Elect” is futile. Mounk is more optimistic. But regardless of which path is best, the first step is acknowledging the problem. “Right-wing populists and the advocates of the identity synthesis see each other as mortal enemies. In truth, each is the yin to the other’s yang. The best way to beat one is to oppose the other — and that’s why everyone who cares about the survival of free societies should vow to fight both.” If you know someone, particularly someone on the left of the political spectrum, who has not yet realized the inherent dangers coming from the proponents of the identity synthesis, then this book will make an excellent gift.

James E. Hartley

James Hartley is Professor of Economics at Mount Holyoke College. A California native, he earned his B.A., M.A, and Ph.D. in Economics from the University of California at Davis. His publications include The Representative Agent in Macroeconomics, Real Business Cycles: A Reader (co-edited with Kevin Hoover and Kevin Salyer), and Mary Lyon: Documents and Writings.

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