Polarization, Identity Politics, and the Future of America

The controversial sociologist, Charles Murray, has published a new book, Facing Reality.  He claims that the polarization in our current politics is caused by identity politics.  Here is an outline of his argument:

  • Racism persists in America but it persists in spite of the American system and its institutions, not because of them. Many of the problems are systemic but they will not be solved by going after racism.  They will be solved by going after systemic educational dysfunction, systemic law enforcement problems, and systemic employment problems.
  • Identity politics is an existential threat to the American experiment. If working-class and middle-class whites adopt identity politics, disaster could follow.
  • The American system is comparable to a garden hacked out of a tropical jungle. A garden surrounded by jungle is unnatural.  It must be tended with unremitting care lest the jungle return.
  • Treating our fellow human beings as individuals rather than as members of groups is unnatural. Our brains evolved over thousands of years to think of people as members of groups, to care for people who are like us, and be suspicious of people who are unlike us.  This shaped human government for 10,000 years.  The natural form of government was hierarchical, run by a dominant group that arranged affairs to its own benefit.
  • America proved that a durable alternative to the natural form of government is possible – a constitutional republic combined with a carefully circumscribed democracy. The introduction of identity politics into that carefully constructed constitutional system does not simply distract us from warding off the jungle.  It is the jungle, the primitive sense of “us against them” pressing in upon the garden.
  • In 1958 (according to Gallup), 73% of Americans trusted the federal government to do what is right either “always” or “most of the time”. Trust hit a high point in 1964 at 77% and then began to drop.  It was 27% in 1980, rebounded to the low 40s during the Reagan years, then fell to a new low of 19% in 1994.  It rose briefly to 54% after 9/11 and then hit a new low of 15% in 2011.  It has been in the 15-20% range ever since.  Conclusion: a government distrusted by more than 80% of its citizens has a bipartisan legitimacy problem.
  • The rhetoric about white privilege and systemic racism coming from black opinion leaders has always seemed self-defeating. Blacks, constituting 13% of the population, are telling whites, 60% of the population, that they are racists, bad people, and the cause of blacks’ problems.  White guilt is real amongst the affluent and millennials but there has also been a huge backlash from middle-class and working-class whites.  This is the cause of our current polarized politics.
  • Murray is certain of two things. First, the white backlash is occurring in the context of the long-term erosion in the federal government’s legitimacy (see above), which makes the white backlash all the stronger.  Second, Donald Trump’s election, and the lessons from his term in office, have changed the parameters of what is politically possible in America.
  • Murray sees the root problem as the aggressive affirmative action which is being practiced for government jobs at all levels. His proposed solution is to eliminate all forms of government-sponsored preferential treatment by race.  Antidiscrimination law and its enforcement should be limited to behaviors that would be unacceptable regardless of race, i.e. real behaviors, not statistical evidence of disparate impact.

Conclusion.  Mr. Murray pulls no punches in his analysis of identity politics.  The data he draws on is well established.  His argument should be taken very seriously by everyone concerned about the future of our country.  I believe that there is a counterargument to Mr. Murray’s pessimism which I will discuss next week.  It is based on one of my previous posts.  Stay tuned!

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