Frederik deBoer, How Elites Ate the Social Justice Movement
Richard Hanania, The Origins of Woke: Civil Rights Law, Corporate America, and the Triumph of Identity Politics
Yascha Mounk, The Identity Trap: A Story of Ideas and Power in Our Time
Adolph Reed Jr. and Walter Benn Michaels, No Politics But Class Politics
Christopher Rufo, America’s Cultural Revolution: How the Radical Left Conquered Everything
All of these authors oppose identity politics, but for very different reasons.
Here is a taste:
As Americans compete over the diminishing returns of a decadent, hollowed-out empire, in which the super-rich seem to be the only clear winners, some have found it made good sense to pursue their interests not as citizens seeking their share of the American Dream, but as members of the identity groups into which they have been divided up by law. Doing so could allow the tokens of moral grievance to be cashed in for favors dispensed by oligarchs and politicians. Even those without the right identity credentials have found they could function well enough as brokers and middlemen in this arrangement.
This—as the accounts offered by Michaels, Reed, deBoer, Rufo, and Hanania all hint at in different ways—is the collective self-interest at work behind the neo-woke paradigm. In a context in which other opportunities for advancement have become more and more scarce, race-based (as well as sex-, gender-, and sexuality-based) grievance offers a means of extracting rents within the regime initially put in place by civil-rights law.
It follows that the war over wokeness isn’t fundamentally—as Mounk and other liberals would have it—a battle of ideas, but a fight for control over bureaucracies. This seems to be the project Rufo has in mind in his work as an activist, which often amounts to an effort to counteract the incentives driving identity politics. Banning CRT in state institutions is one way he and his allies have pursued this goal; more recently, they have waged a campaign to discredit the scholarship of Harvard’s first black, female president in the hope that it will make institutions reconsider prioritizing minority representation over other factors in hiring. On a distinct but complementary track, Hanania’s political recommendations entail using executive and judiciary authority to roll back the legal frameworks that encourage the leveraging of identity for status and gain: affirmative action, disparate impact, and so on.
Neither of these approaches, however, necessarily alters the nation’s long-term political and economic trajectory toward deepening material inequality. Hence, such reforms may reorient the identity regime, rather than ending it—for instance, giving us a version of it in which whites, men, and other “privileged” groups can cash in their own tokens. This prospect has been raised in intra-right debates about whether whites and men should embrace their own version of identity politics, rather than appealing to meritocracy as they contest preferences that disadvantage them. The racialist fringes of the right have long advocated for this position, taking white prison gangs as a model of collective self-interest amid brutal zero-sum competition.
Rufo rejects this approach, but other New Right influencers like the blogger Scott Greer make the case for versions of it. Greer argues that the right should “dispense with delusions” and accept that “‘anti-woke’ policies benefit whites”—much as progressives arguing against such policies often allege—and that such policies should be supported for this reason. This advocacy of grievance politics for whites in effect ratifies the conclusion that capturing a share of the declining dividends of a waning US imperium is best achieved through the rhetoric of ethnic solidarity. Proponents of rugged individualism à la Hanania or civic universalism of the Mounk or Rufo variety may struggle to prevail as long as structural incentives seem to point in this direction.
A distinct dissent comes from “class-first” leftists like deBoer, Reed, and Michaels, who argue for organizing politically on the basis not of race or ethnicity, but the collective material self-interest of working-class people. Empirically, their assertions—for instance, that the majority of people of all races are in the same boat economically and would thus benefit from the same policies aimed at rectifying inequality—are hard to dispute. But attempts to build political movements along these lines have repeatedly sputtered out or been reabsorbed into identitarian agendas in recent years. The first was Occupy Wall Street’s invocation of the 99 percent, a big-tent slogan that in practice translated into a movement that alienated all but a few with its fetishization of process over concrete goals. The second was the Sanders campaign, which lost out twice to the Democratic establishment and the activist groups that have become its clients and ideological enforcers. It isn’t clear the class-first cohort has any response to these failures other than to keep trying.
The different factions of the anti-woke coalition all make much of the fact that the majority of the population is alienated by the excesses of identity politics. Rufo and Hanania both argue the Republican Party is well-positioned to capitalize on this discontent by mobilizing voters on behalf of candidates and initiatives that will scale back affirmative action, discrimination law, and other diversity initiatives. For their part, universalists like Mounk take heart from the fact that most Americans retain some loyalty to older liberal values of colorblindness and equality before the law. Meanwhile, class-oriented leftists see potential in the majority of voters prioritizing concerns over wages, housing, and the cost of living above the symbolic conflicts pursued by identitarian activists.
But the fact that none of this has translated into a durable electoral coalition for the right or the left shows that the public remains up for grabs; to date, no faction has fully capitalized on mass disaffection from the elite consensus. Wokeness may not have a great record at the ballot box, but judging by the GOP’s stumbles in 2022 and DeSantis’s disappointing campaign, neither does anti-wokeness, at least when made into the center of the political program. This isn’t surprising: Those who are highly mobilized in opposition to elite progressivism tend to be elites themselves, directly engaged in struggles over the control of institutions. Those without a direct stake in these struggles may find the ideological leanings of these institutions distasteful but will likely turn their thoughts to other issues in the voting booth. As for the programs on offer from the critics of wokeness, all amount to a bid to revive moribund coalitions: fusionist conservatism, liberal universalism, left populism. Thus far, all have failed to reassert themselves as a potent political force. That seems unlikely to change.
Read the entire review here.