Strangled by Identity

Rishabh Bhandari & Thomas Hopson

Current Issue

American politics is overwhelmed by bitterness and rancor. The norms that structure the work of our constitutional system are everywhere under attack. Partisan loyalties now seem to determine not only people's worldviews and policy priorities but also what facts they will accept or choose to treat as lies. The rhetoric of animus and apocalypse is the everyday parlance of both parties, particularly when each talks about the other. And although this polarization may have its roots inside the Beltway, its toxicity pervades the public.

None of this began with Donald Trump. It was all there in the culture wars of the Obama years and in the deep divisions of the Bush era. It is systemic. Our political dysfunction in this century looks less like a failure of individuals and more like a corrosion of our entire political culture and its institutions.

Many observers of this problem, especially on the right though increasingly on the left as well, tend to explain it by resorting to critiques of "identity politics." But identity politics is something we tend to see others doing while failing to recognize that we are doing it ourselves. And because we tend to miss the breadth of its scope and reach, we fail to see not only how central it is to the trouble with our politics but also how it might be overcome.

Identity politics is not just a problem of the left. It is a way of thinking that pervades our self-understanding. Our rancorous political conversation now consists of three competing theories of identity in America — three stories of how our differing backgrounds should shape our common political life. One of these (espoused by a significant swath of the left but increasingly co-opted by an influential minority on the right) treats politics as a continuous struggle across racial lines, and so conceives of coalitions on racial grounds. Another (advanced more commonly on the right in our time) insists that the principled distinction in our politics is not between racial groups but along the legal line of citizens versus non-citizens. Finally, the third theory of identity (espoused by some elites of both parties, and barely aware of itself as a theory of identity at all) views the other two schools of thought as pernicious and proposes its own form of identity defined by an ideal of cosmopolitan dignity.

Each of these theories, as practiced, is unstable. And each rejects the other two as un-American without really quite understanding them. It is this problem — our country's conceptual blind spot on identity — that drives so much of our present polarization. To be sure, disagreements over identity are a causa causans of why Republicans and Democrats can barely get along. But it isn't only that the two sides speak different languages; it's that our political languages fall short of our political needs.

The solution is not a new and improved theory of identity, although in time the country could use one. Instead, a practical solution would require us to begin by pivoting from philosophy to institutions. It is all well and good to debate the various theories of identity. But our leaders should also focus on building and sustaining those institutions that can concretely ground a functional civic life — one that works in practice even if it sometimes seems as though it couldn't work in theory. To begin this work, we should seek to better understand the quandary of American identity, so that we might rise above it. 

BLACK AND WHITE

In the wake of Donald Trump's surprise victory in 2016, a profound debate emerged within the American left about the tactical efficacy and ideological value of identity politics. Some, like Columbia University's Mark Lilla, argued that identity politics had captured the Democratic elites' worldview at the expense of ideals that could connect with a broader swath of voters. Lilla recognized that identity politics has become a tag of derision for a large slice of the population, and that their scorn has been particularly targeted toward college students at some of the country's most selective schools. From Princeton to Oberlin, undergraduates have protested to change the names of buildings, disinvite disfavored speakers, and redistribute more funds toward their cherished causes and favored departments. These demands are also threaded with a common language; phrases like "safe spaces," "microaggressions," and "structural racism" are often invoked when administrators weigh the tradeoffs between free speech and censorship.

It is tempting for those on the right to dismiss these students' views — to chalk them up to either "victim culture" or "kids being kids." Indeed, this kind of thinking has inspired hundreds of patronizing diatribes against the student left, aptly symbolized by a 2015 National Review piece titled, "Coddled College Students Need to Grow Up." Churlish provocateurs like Milo Yiannopoulos have made careers out of "exposing" college activists by parodying and straw-manning their logic and tactics. Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff leveled the most sophisticated critique in an essay for the Atlantic, which documented a generation too sensitive to cope with the stresses of the real world.

But these approaches, from the lurid Milo to the urbane Lukianoff and Haidt, miss the forest for the trees. The students' demands and occasionally obnoxious actions are not the story in themselves, but merely the outlines of a more developed ideology. It is one that reflects a particular attitude toward identity that deserves to be taken seriously, even if it is ultimately dismissed. Safe spaces are premised on the idea that marginalized groups are safest, at least in some respects, among their own. Concerns about microaggressions flow from a belief that a minority's identity is constantly under attack. The phrase "structural racism" captures the idea that racism is embedded in the foundations of American society. An ostensibly ordinary political move — some provision in tax-reform legislation, for example — is no longer merely a sign of Wall Street's lobbying clout or a disagreement over esoteric tax policy. Instead, to the student left, it is an explicit victory by white supremacists against black liberation; any policy that has disparate impacts across the races is an instrument of oppression used by one race against another. According to this worldview, organizing by race is not a perverse form of "identity politics." It is politics done right. And identity-based solidarity is the bedrock of contemporary progressive politics.

The genealogy of these ideas can help us to better grasp them. Today's left owes much to the French philosopher Michel Foucault, who diagnosed oppression in the day-to-day operations of social, structural, and linguistic power. Foucault's successors, particularly in America, have created and become enamored with critical race theory, which defines racism as the ultimate structure of societal power. It is this set of beliefs that drives the activists' style of protest and provides the root of their broader idea of how identity should function in a democracy. 

Critical race theory emerged in the late 1980s, founded in large part by two legal scholars, Harvard's Derrick Bell and Columbia's Kimberlé Crenshaw. The movement, according to its chief anthologist Richard Delgado, advances three central claims. The first is that racism "is normal, not aberrant, in American society." It is so much a part of our lives that even seemingly neutral rules — rules of equal opportunity and free speech — can be racially oppressive in practice. The second claim, more abstract and philosophical, maintains that "a culture constructs its own social reality in ways that promote its own self-interest." Finally, quoting again from Delgado, the "third premise underlying much of Critical Race Theory is interest convergence....[T]his concept holds that white elites will tolerate or encourage racial advances for blacks only when such advances also promote white self-interest."

We can put this in simpler terms: In the critical theorist's view, white elites construct a society where racism is not the exception but the rule. In this society, black interests are taken up only when they overlap with white interests. In all other cases, politics is a clash of black and white interests, decided by the crude mechanisms of racial power. If you believe this, then your view of identity in politics — which identities should follow us into the ballot box — is set from the start. The most important coalitions in politics are based on race. And there is good reason to actively distrust people on the other side.

While few people read critical race theory itself, many encounter its ideas in more mainstream forms. For instance, Michelle Alexander, author of the bestselling book The New Jim Crow, has described American prisons as a "racial caste system" and accused "law and order" politicians of supporting anti-drug laws as a means of weakening black political power. Similarly, Ta-Nehisi Coates, the celebrated author of the epistle Between the World and Me, sometimes reduces American politics to an unending struggle between status-quo white supremacists and the "black bodies" upon which, he alleges, the American Dream has been built. Even in cases where systematic racism is economically disadvantageous for majority interests — few economic historians would dispute that post-Civil War segregation and racism played a large role in the South's impoverishment vis-à-vis the more prosperous North — Coates argues that white America will continue celebrating and condoning racism against black Americans. This racism, which Coates insists runs from Ted Cruz to Bernie Sanders, infects every system and circumscribes the agency of all black Americans. Politics, at its core, is a matter of identity-based teams. This explains, Coates suggests, why it's hard for a black man to feel sympathy for the white firefighters who died on 9/11 or the white police officers who were murdered in the summer of 2016 in Dallas.

The trend transcends public intellectuals. When Yale students called the university's president, Peter Salovey, a racist, or Yale itself "white supremacist," they were not comparing their president to Bull Connor or their alma mater to the Jim Crow South. They were instead making a claim about social power. In these students' eyes, Salovey and Yale were siding with essentially white, racist interests at the expense of essentially black, anti-racist ones. These students see Yale College, along with practically every institution created before the turn of the century, as a component part of a racially tinged superstructure. Their response takes form in a racially oriented theory of politics.

What are you to do in this world? If you believe that politics is a struggle across racial lines, the logical way forward is to organize along those lines and pursue a politics of solidarity that puts "natural" coalitions first. There is, of course, a radical application of this idea: Both activists at Yale and organizers of the Women's March that followed the 2016 election made known that certain identities would play a greater role than others in shaping their movements. But there is also a mundane, moderate approach, more at home amid the daily rhetoric of the Democratic Party. You can hear it in some longstanding catchphrases of the left, like the notion of a Republican "War on Women," implying that a major political party is the enemy of half the country. You can hear it in then-Vice President Joe Biden's 2012 warning to black voters that Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney would "put y'all back in chains." And it was present in 2016. The Atlantic's David Frum was one of the first to notice it when he remarked that Hillary Clinton presented herself as the warrior who would seize "a larger piece of the nation's dwindling resources" from the people her political coalition didn't like.

In a sharp rebuttal of Lilla, the political theorist Jacob Levy pointed out that organizing along identitarian lines can inject powerful energy into political life. By this metric, it's hard to disagree with Levy. Black Lives Matter has catapulted its agenda to the top of the New York Times editorial page. The fight for racial justice has become a core issue for every well-intentioned left-of-center college student. This efficacy has explained why most Democrats have overwhelmingly rejected Lilla for Levy. But it also helps us see why identity politics has not been contained to the left.

The entire chattering class learned this lesson on Election Day in 2016 when, in the words of the New York Times' Nate Cohn, they found out that "white working-class voters just decided to vote like a minority group." Indeed, one study by researchers at Stanford and the University of California, Santa Barbara, showed that white voters were more likely to vote for Trump when they were told that America was becoming a less white country and that minority groups were in ascendance. Although the study's respondents might be dismissed by your typical Ivy League undergraduate as paranoid or practitioners of white privilege, it is unsurprising that, when you're told that every other group is organizing by race, you'll consider following suit.

The number of real racists — in the mold of Bull Connor and his ilk — has long been declining in America. But beyond simple changes in partisan demographics, the last year has also seen a noticeable upswing in white-nationalist politics. Some of this is likely the function of a desire by liberal media outlets to exaggerate the dangers of a Trump administration. Another common explanation is economic and social anxiety as whites face the specter of absolute and relative declines in health and wealth — frustrations that historically manifest in norm-shattering political reactions. These explanations hold merit, yet a stone sits unturned.

The so-called "alt-right" shares a common idea of identity with Yale's protesters. Namely, they think that politics and political outcomes break down along racial lines. Their "team," however, has not been historically marginalized. They seek not to overcome past injustices such as slavery or segregation. Instead, they see their team — white Americans — as losing ground to others in the present.

If the alt-right has a policy platform, it is something like the view laid out in the "Principles" section of the VDare website, one of the movement's most prominent outlets. The page begins: "America is real: [It] is not a melting pot, or a tossed salad or any other fashionable dietary metaphor that strips our nation of its rightful identity." It continues, "Demography is destiny: Human differences are not social constructs." Finally, it concludes, "The racial and cultural identity of America is legitimate and defensible: Diversity per se is not strength, but a vulnerability. It is a luxury that we can only afford as long as we preserve our breadwinner, the American people." And by American people, VDare means white Anglo-Saxons only.

On top of these doctrines, white nationalists hope to build a politics of "racial consciousness." According to Jared Taylor, a prominent white nationalist, "racial consciousness has as its goal the preservation of a certain people. Its aim is to rekindle among whites...an instinctive preference for their own people and culture," built on the assumption that "every other racial group acts on this healthy instinct and desire." This can sound a lot like the identity politics of the left. Jacob Siegel, writing in Tablet, has summarized the outlook of alt-right leader Richard Spencer and his followers this way: "If, in a sense, white-nationalist identity politics was just another form of the left-wing identity politics that they claimed to despise, so be it."

To be sure, it would be foolish and irresponsible to draw a moral equivalence between Yale's protesters and the alt-right. But while there is no moral equivalence, both groups do share a common understanding of identity, which places race in particular at the center of political life. Ultimately, for radicals in both groups, politics is a contest of racial interests, where the "other guy" always puts his team before your own. And this cynicism just might be self-fulfilling. The risk is that, in speaking and writing on such nakedly tribal grounds, the two sides reinforce each other. Maybe, just maybe, theorizing and narrating politics as an endless conflict between racial coalitions serves to expand and entrench those coalitions in fact. 

CITIZEN AND ALIEN

The most prominent critics of race-based identity politics have been civic nationalists. This group has argued that dividing citizens based on their race and gender, no matter how well-intentioned, eventually becomes both reductive and dangerous. But this does not mean that civic nationalists are above carving delineations among groups. For them, the division exists on the national level: a line — dare we say a wall? — between citizens and non-citizen aliens.

This second theory of identity aims to build solidarity not through race or gender but through citizenship. It posits that there is something special about being American; the status of citizenship confers on us certain rights as well as certain duties. Nebraska's Republican senator Ben Sasse — one of the most articulate advocates for this position — put it best in a rousing speech at the 2016 Conservative Political Action Conference when he explained that "American exceptionalism is not some sort of ethnic claim that because of something we received in the bloodstream, Americans are better than other people." For Sasse and others, the exceptional nature of American citizenship comes from the set of ideals and institutions that first began with our founders and have largely improved with time and inclusion. It's a vision of a country that was — and remains — revolutionary in its commitment to acknowledging that our rights come from natural law and that government is merely the limited means by which our rights are secured.

For members of the civic-nationalist camp, this idea allows politics to transcend visible divisions between citizens and unite them under a common purpose. It also helps explain the everyday functions of our government — why we pay taxes, support our military, and worry about the well-being of our neighbors. Finally, it aligns with a core patriotic insight: As Americans, we rise or fall together. This is why Sasse can credibly say, as he put it at the 2016 Foreign Policy Initiative Forum, "We aren't a nation rooted in blood. We aren't a nation based in ethnicity....America was an idea that was about something much bigger than what tribe you come from." These kinds of statements — and there are many more floating through the work of writers such as Ross Douthat, Yuval Levin, and Reihan Salam — display a kind of nationalism in which citizens from all ethnic backgrounds are co-authors and co-owners of the American story. The national community is pan-ethnic and egalitarian, equally open to all citizens.

The civic-nationalist message has largely been sidelined to conservative publications such as National Review and this journal. If you're a cynic, this is because the Democratic coalition earns electoral success by its commitment to racial patronage. But a more charitable interpretation is that many Democrats question whether the national community is even real. 

For these Americans, many of whom are the well-heeled elites who have grown up in a globalized world, the line between citizen and alien seems arbitrary, if not unjust. This may be due to an intrinsic problem with borders; is it really fair that people have better opportunities because they were born north of Tijuana? Or it could be that national solidarity is an erasure; does speaking about a national identity paper over the country's historic wrongs — slavery, segregation, and discrimination — and delegitimize their lasting scars? Or maybe national borders are just a relic from an earlier age; isn't it intuitive that a Manhattanite may have much more in common, in terms of his tastes, dispositions, and values, with a Parisian than a Staten Islander? Can't we — or at least the wealthy and well-educated — pick and choose citizenships and residences? Unsurprisingly, these questions tend to find most resonance on either coast, the pillars of the modern Democratic coalition.

These are hard questions, challenging for even the sharpest defenders of a nationalist politics. But sadly, these thinkers are now in a kind of political limbo that prevents them from engaging in these debates. Instead, America's most popular spokesman for pan-ethnic nationalism is Donald Trump. Critics are right to note the demotic and dystopian tones in which he often speaks about America. But "America First" is also, rhetorically, the closest we've come to a presidential endorsement of civic nationalism since Teddy Roosevelt.

In a vacuum, "America First" is a fine ideal. You could read it as a pledge to help the least fortunate Americans, crushed by poverty, crime, or drug addiction. You could even read it as a statement against racism, or as a commitment to address the ongoing effects of discrimination on American households. To his credit, Trump hinted in this direction during his campaign, calling in Charlotte, North Carolina, for a "new deal for black America."

But "America First" in practice has taken a different tone. For instance, Trump's attacks on Judge Gonzalo Curiel during the 2016 presidential campaign — questioning Curiel's impartiality because of his Hispanic heritage — showed that race would continue to be a divider in American politics. Similarly, Trump's seeming support for a registry of Muslims, which in most early iterations drew no distinction between citizens and non-citizens, suggested that some Americans were more American than others. The president's insistence that the news media is the "enemy of the American people" raises an ideological litmus test for citizenship: Anyone who opposes Trump politically is not a co-owner of a civic community, but a kind of dissident from it.

When left-leaning pundits equate nationalism with "Whites Only," they go too far. And when the same crowd equates any attempt to restrict immigration with thinly veiled bigotry, they wrongly neglect compelling arguments for lower immigration. At the same time, watching Trump, it is easy to see the cause for such criticisms. People are reacting — perhaps appropriately, perhaps not — to the most visible spokesman for any kind of nationalism in our politics now. And civic nationalism is discredited as a result. 

OPEN AND CLOSED

At times, Barack Obama clothed himself in civic nationalism. In his endorsement of Hillary Clinton at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia in 2016, Obama reminded his countrymen that "[o]ur power comes from those immortal declarations first put to paper right here in Philadelphia all those years ago: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that We, the People, can form a more perfect union." Indeed, Rich Lowry, the editor of National Review, marveled on Twitter during the DNC ceremonies: "American exceptionalism and greatness, shining city on hill, founding documents, etc. — they're trying to take all our stuff."

But while Obama's rhetoric soars easily to the heights of civic nationalism, it, like Icarus, cannot easily control its altitude. As he noted in his Farewell Address, "But the long sweep of America has been defined by forward motion, a constant widening of our founding creed to embrace all and not just some."

This conception of the American project as continually unfinished and perpetually expansionary can be touching. But it rejects the very concept of limits that is essential to any meaningful national enterprise. Citizenship becomes an illusory ideal under its influence. There are not "illegal immigrants" but merely "future citizens" categorized, for now, as "undocumented." When our current immigration laws are enforced in any meaningful way, those who subscribe to Obama's conception of identity stand up and declare that "this is not who we are." The Statue of Liberty is ritually pointed to.

Given the troubles with both race-centered identity and nation-centered identity, it is tempting to bow out altogether in this way — to minimize the role of any kind of identity in political life. This is the essence of the cosmopolitan view. Cosmopolitans, both in the United States and Europe, look askance at most restrictions on immigration; they see the citizen-alien distinction as arbitrary and deeply unjust. They are also wary of segmenting people by race, which they associate with either segregation in the United States or the Holocaust in Europe. Instead, cosmopolitans hope, human beings can relate to each other first and foremost through universal values. Their key concepts go back to Immanuel Kant's essay on "Perpetual Peace," which describes a cosmopolitan right "in as far as individuals and states...may be regarded as citizens of one world-state."

It is a noble, almost utopian idea, and one with prominent defenders on both sides of the pond. Europe's cosmopolitans have a prominent voice in German chancellor Angela Merkel. With Trump's victory, Merkel has been celebrated as our age's liberal lion. Her cosmopolitan canonization can be attributed to her decision to admit nearly a million refugees in 2015 alone. In North America, cosmopolitans swoon over Canada's Justin Trudeau. Even though Canada's immigration regime is more instrumental and harsher in many ways than our own, Trudeau's rhetoric and his admirable willingness to take more refugees than Trump has earned Ottawa considerable good press.

But cosmopolitanism faces a powerful populist challenge that it has failed to take seriously. Merkel is losing ground in Europe. Having seen the success of Brexit in the United Kingdom and witnessed populist parties gain power elsewhere, she shows signs of scaling back her refugee program. Meanwhile, House speaker Paul Ryan and the pro-business wing of the GOP, which has championed immigration, looks feeble and adrift in the age of Trump. You have to ask: If cosmopolitanism is really just universal toleration, why is it increasingly unpopular, both at home and abroad?

The answer is that cosmopolitanism means more than the absence of identity politics; it is an identity in itself. Ross Douthat, writing in the New York Times, ties the label to a particular brand of elite culture:

The people who consider themselves "cosmopolitan" in today's West, by contrast, are part of a meritocratic order that transforms difference into similarity, by plucking the best and brightest from everywhere and homogenizing them into the peculiar species that we call "global citizens."...They have their own distinctive worldview (basically liberal Christianity without Christ), their own common educational experience, their own shared values and assumptions....And like any tribal cohort they seek comfort and familiarity: From London to Paris to New York, each Western "global city" (like each "global university") is increasingly interchangeable, so that wherever the citizen of the world travels he already feels at home.

Cosmopolitans can also be tolerant only within limits. They want a society where ethnic identity and national origin lack political punch. By definition, this world can welcome anyone, except for those who would rather reject cosmopolitanism. For if you prefer lower levels of immigration, if you want to keep Japan predominantly Japanese, or you don't see assimilation as a two-way street, then a cosmopolitan society has no place for you. You are backward, deserving of reproach, and beyond the pale. For this reason, cosmopolitanism does not escape the debates over identity outlined above; it just reframes the conversation.

There is still the moral question: Are cosmopolitans right to reframe identity in this way? After all, even if cosmopolitans are not as tolerant as they think, they may still have the better idea of what politics should look like.

But that seems unlikely. Human beings crave community. Born into families, religions, and dense networks of identity, we come into the world as members of groups, to which we rightly feel particular loyalties. The vast majority of people care more for their parents than their neighbors, and more for their neighbors than a stranger. National loyalty — or a particular regard for citizens of your country — is just an extension of these spheres of care. It's not clear why we should, or if we even can, shed this type of allegiance.

And then there is the problem of the past. For many Americans, the United States is something far more solid than a philosophical principle; it has a particular history that influences our understanding of the present. This history is often something to celebrate; for instance, Americans revere their nation's founders. Other times, however, our history is a point of shame, something to overcome in the present. This history shapes our ideas of identity, and thus how we will translate those identities into politics. It's not clear whether we can excise identity from our politics while also maintaining a connection to this history. And if we can't, it is safe to assume that most people would choose their history, particularly if the cosmopolitan alternative is inextricably tied to an economic system that disproportionately favors the few over the many.

BEYOND IDENTITY

American politics features three concepts of identity, but Americans are rarely clear-eyed about how these differ and disagree. Ethnic identitarians think civic nationalists are closet racists. Civic nationalists think that ethnic identitarians are "race-baiters." And while cosmopolitans wrongly believe themselves to be above the fray, the other two sides of this entangled triangle don't trust them or the institutions they lead. So it is that, at the end of the day, people on each side can blame those on the other two sides for playing identity politics while nonetheless playing the game themselves.

This tension reinforces the worst sort of polarization, in which we don't just see our political opponents as holding disagreeable views but as being dangerous or illegitimate in their own right. And this trend is likely to get worse: Student activists and the alt-right will each use the other's excesses to extend their own reach. President Trump will remain a poison pill for civic nationalists, sabotaging constructive discourse. And cosmopolitan politics will fall on deaf ears, failing to win converts because it mistakes its own role in the debate and underestimates the scale of its own ambitions.

America faces a raft of growing challenges. China and Russia have grown stronger; Islamic terrorism will continue to roil large swaths of Africa and the Middle East; demographic imbalances, economic stagnation, and climate change will impel millions to migrate to the richer countries of Europe and North America; automation will fundamentally alter our labor market. But none of these phenomena necessitate the demotion of America as the world's indispensable nation. Only dysfunction at home can truly hamstring us.

Lee Kuan Yew, the late founder of Singapore and a favorite of supposedly hard-headed cosmopolitans, once warned:

In multiracial societies, you don't vote in accordance with your economic interests and social interests, you vote in accordance with race and religion. Supposing I'd run [a British-style democracy], Malays would vote for Muslims, Indians would vote for Indians, Chinese would vote for Chinese. I would have a constant clash in my Parliament which cannot be resolved because the Chinese majority would always overrule them.

As America grows increasingly diverse, our liberalism and political vibrancy will be tested against Yew's prediction. America's next great challenge is building a sustainable liberalism, one that unites an increasingly diverse country without the ills and errors of identity politics. This kind of liberalism needs to wrestle with the darkest days of American history without being subsumed by them. And it needs to feature robust debates between citizens while minimizing our natural tendencies toward partisanship and polarization. Ultimately, it needs a better answer to the question of identity: What does it mean to be an American?

Though this sounds like a conceptual or theoretical question, it can really only be answered in practice. Maybe our next step as a country should be to rely less on theory and more on practice. Maybe it is time to refocus our thinking on institutions: Which institutions could build the right types of civic identities, and how can we support their flourishing? 

General Stanley McChrystal has called for national service as one answer. In an era of national division, he writes, "service has the power to bring young people together from different races, ethnicities, incomes, faiths, and political backgrounds." In the process of addressing the country's most pressing problems, "they can build empathy by getting to know each other around something positive — the shared work of participating in a democracy — as they shape their views of their country and the world." Ultimately, McChrystal hopes that participants will develop the "powerful habits of citizenship," driving cultural change in their communities long after their periods of service. The all-volunteer military and service institutions such as AmeriCorps already offer affirming evidence that such efforts can bridge gaps and forge common identities among participants.

Colleges must also step up to the plate. Indeed, the university has traditionally been tasked with equipping its students for the democratic process. But in the pursuit of college rankings and alumni donations, the modern university has shirked this duty, meekly accepting student demands in order to minimize the risk of public backlash. College graduates are worse off for their schools' abdication. Having never been exposed to competing views — or worse, having suppressed them as malicious — these students will only exacerbate our country's existing divides. Universities are not coddling minds, as some have argued. They are fostering anti-politics.

Facing what Senator Sasse has called a "civilization-warping crisis of public trust," universities should once again pursue a higher calling: preserving above all else the institutions and values of the liberal society. This calling includes but goes beyond a simple support for the freedom of speech. Indeed, it requires colleges to actively promote a certain kind of discourse — one that is open, rigorous, inclusive, and targeted to the mutual interests of American citizens. This kind of debate is the foundation of a healthy democracy. By fostering it, universities can cultivate a certain type of democratic citizen, one well-suited for liberal political life.

Diagnoses are not always followed by cures. But it is important that we do not stop at simply recognizing how competing theories of identity have paralyzed our politics. We must also begin conserving the few institutions that build bridges between these different views of American identity, and searching for others that can share in this critical burden. It will be nearly impossible to solve our core national challenge in theory. But we can solve it in practice, as Americans so often have.

Rishabh Bhandari is a graduate student at the University of Oxford.

Thomas Hopson is a student at Yale Law School. 


Insight

from the

Archives

A weekly newsletter with free essays from past issues of National Affairs and The Public Interest that shed light on the week's pressing issues.

advertisement

Sign-in to your National Affairs subscriber account.


Already a subscriber? Activate your account.


subscribe

Unlimited access to intelligent essays on the nation’s affairs.

SUBSCRIBE
Subscribe to National Affairs.