Blaming "identity politics" for the bloodshed and chaos in Charlottesville misses the point. It's like blaming "greed" for the recession or blaming gravity for a plane crash.
Yes, the white supremacists and Nazis of Charlottesville and the authoritarian leftist radicals across college campuses are peddling vile identity politics, but we shouldn't therefore presume that only these villains play identity politics. Most politics is identity politics.
More importantly, people need identities — we all need to belong to groups, and groups more specific than "human being." When group identities fade or are stripped away, we don't get groupless culture or identity-free politics. We often get worse identity politics.
If you think there's such thing as non-identity politics, it's probably because your politics are of a piece with the dominant identity. Just as a fish may not know he's in water, a heavily educated coastal man with center-left or center-right politics may not realize he is in a specific subculture — the elite subculture. This subculture has distinctive mores, traditions, rites, and customs. These cultural norms show up in a politics that appeals to them, assumes them, or legislates them.
Look at the Brexit fight, where the Remainers accused the Leavers of narrow "tribalism," as if the euro-railing, jet-setting, Londoners with advanced degrees didn't constitute an insular tribe. Stripping power from London and the U.K. public and transferring it to your own democratic cadre of multilingual elites in Brussels because the old, white fishermen of Little England don't know what's best — that counts as identity politics. It's elite identity politics.
Mitt Romney was quite the practitioner of elite identity politics, making it clear that he didn't want the 47 percent in his party, because their low incomes showed they didn't take responsibility for their lives. Similarly, look at Maryland's Democratic Party leadership, which is dedicated to promoting Chevy Chase scions like Chris Van Hollen over qualified and competitive black opponents--because they didn't want to play identity politics.
Most people are in a tribe. If your tribe spans national and state borders and all have Ivy League degrees, that doesn't make it not a tribe or an "identity." Identities and tribes are good. In fact, they're unavoidable. And when people lack a coherent identity is exactly when we get into trouble.
James Alex Fields grew up without a father. He was kind of from Kentucky, kind of from Cincinnati, and lived in the outlying suburbs of Toledo. As far as we can tell he didn't go to church. He was neither Midwestern nor Southern. He tried to join the military, but couldn't cut it.
Fields, as far as we can tell, lacked the community, the tribal ties, the identity in which most people find their sense of purpose and of support. And so he donned the identity of white nationalism.
Many Americans enjoy identifying as Mormons, as Jews, as Portlanders, as Middlebury students, as Greek Americans, as Ballou High School students, or any of a million ethnic, religious, social, or geographic identities.
But millions of Americans are deracinated — rootless. Across working-class middle America, millions of Americans, when asked their ancestry simply say "American." They have lost their roots. This answer—"American" — was, tellingly, one of the best predictors of Trump support in the GOP primaries.
Similarly, the best description of a Trump supporter in the primary may have been a white Christian who doesn't go to church and has no bond to any ancestry. That is, someone without a tribe.
Absent a strong identity and tribe, would it be surprising if a man chose his most abstract traits, his race and his nationality, and made those into his identity? So we get a sort of invented identity — call it white nationalism — that's far more toxic than any smaller identity or tribe. Being invented, this identity is more likely to be based in ideology than in organic custom, ritual, or community.
Tribalism and identity politics are always dangerous. The Irish hooligans in Hells Kitchen may pound the Polish kids who walk by, and the Episcopalian admissions officer may turn away the qualified Jewish or Catholic applicants. The Mormons discriminated against blacks for decades. But that doesn't count as an argument against identity politics any more than a broken leg constitutes an argument against gravity. It's always there.
The question is what sort of identity politics and tribalism we will have. Will we be a patchwork of different cultures and organic "tribes" all proud of and defined by an identity rooted in organically evolved custom, belief, and practice? Or will it be the ersatz and ugly identity politics we saw by torchlight in Charlottesville over the weekend?
When a smaller, more organic, more local identity is absent, a more manufactured identity takes its place. And that's when things are guaranteed to get ugly.
Timothy P. Carney, the Washington Examiner's commentary editor, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. His column appears Tuesday nights on washingtonexaminer.com.