Readings — From the September 1993 issue

The Left, Lost in the Politics of Identity

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The crack-up of the universalist new left was inevitable, though it was muted for a while by the exigencies of the Vietnam War and the commonalities of youth culture. If there seemed in the late 1960s to be one big movement, it was largely because there was one big war. But the divisions of race and then gender and sexual orientation proved far too deep to be overcome by any language of unification. There was a lingering rhetorical style of universalist radicalism, but the political passion broke up into separate caucuses.

The resulting identity politics deserves credit for inspiring powerful studies in history, literature, and all manner of ideas. It has also proved more exciting and more energizing to activists than the politics of commonality–especially in the 1980s, with fights over hiring, requirements, curricula, and so forth taking place during a time of increasingly scarce resources, For the participants in these post-Sixties movements, the benefits of identity politics have been manifold: they provide experiences of solidarity and belonging, and remedies for specific injustices, along with ready-made reservoirs of recruits. As advertising, marketing, cable TV, and popular music have grown more and more specialized, dividing the mass audience into progressively narrower segments, so has university politics.

The left’s attention is now paid to group self-assertion rather than, say, campaigns against poverty or the bankrupting of public education. As once-excluded territories have been recognized in the academy, any lingering aspiration for the universal has been largely abandoned. Whatever universalism now remains is based not so much on a common humanity as on a common enemy=-the notorious White Male. While defenses of group rights often have a powerful logic, the idea of a common America and the idea of a unified left, both great legacies of the Enlightenment, have lost their force.

As a result, we find ourselves today in a most peculiar situation: the left and right have traded places, at least with respect to the sort of universalist rhetoric that can still stir the general public. Unable to go beyond the logic of identity politics, the disparate constituencies of the cultural left have ceded much political high ground to the right. Today, here and there on the left, one hears a half-whispered recognition that, beyond necessary demands for racial representation, feminist principles, gay rights, and so on, some common ground must be found: in campaigns for more economic equality and against poverty, unemployment, ecological depredation, and educational erosion. Ronald Reagan’s genius lay in his ability to demarcate common ground on the right. Unless it learns to speak its own language of commonality, the shards of the left will be condemned to their separate sectors, sometimes glittering, sometimes smashed, and mostly marginal.

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