Identity politics, tribes, and nations

Last week I called identity politics “an existential threat to our society“.  The article attracted quite a lot of interest, with some discussion on other blogs, and a number of comments, some of which were rather negative.  I think perhaps I didn’t elaborate enough on one aspect of the problem – hence this morning’s post.

We give our loyalty to groups in an expanding hierarchy, or circle of influence, as it were.  The innermost circle are our families and closest confidants.  The second circle is those for and with whom we’re willing to stand under almost any circumstances.  I’d call these our “tribe”, whether self-selected or an accident of birth (the latter almost universally true in more primitive cultures).  These are the people for whom, if we had to, we’d kill, or die, or help bury the bodies.  They’re the ground on which we stand.  They’re at the core of our existence.

Outside those inner circles, we have others.  One might be those with whom we work.  Another might be those near whom we live – those on our street, or in our village or town, or in our suburb.  Our attachment to them is considerably looser, but we owe them a certain basic loyalty, and expect it from them, too.  Many of those expectations are not codified, but have become social custom.

Outside those circles, we have our state or province, and our nation.  Today there are many who have little or no loyalty to those conceptual ideas.  If you look at most deeply committed religious believers, for example, they would consider their loyalty to their faith to take priority over their loyalty to their country.  In this country today, there are many on the extremes of both left- and right-wing politics who are loyal to their country only insofar as it expresses or embodies what they believe in.  They don’t have faith in or loyalty to America, as such;  they are committed to America as they think she should be under their system of values.  If she doesn’t conform to them, their loyalty is at least compromised.

This is why I called identity politics “an existential threat to our society”.  Our society is built around the concept of a nation state as the focus of our loyalties, embodying our families, our tribes and our communities into a higher order of commitment.  As former President Theodore Roosevelt famously said in a 1915 speech:

There is no room in this country for hyphenated Americanism. When I refer to hyphenated Americans, I do not refer to naturalized Americans. Some of the very best Americans I have ever known were naturalized Americans, Americans born abroad. But a hyphenated American is not an American at all. This is just as true of the man who puts ‘native’ before the hyphen as of the man who puts German or Irish or English or French before the hyphen. Americanism is a matter of the spirit and of the soul. Our allegiance must be purely to the United States. We must unsparingly condemn any man who holds any other allegiance. But if he is heartily and singly loyal to this Republic, then no matter where he was born, he is just as good an American as anyone else.

The one absolutely certain way of bringing this nation to ruin, of preventing all possibility of its continuing to be a nation at all, would be to permit it to become a tangle of squabbling nationalities, an intricate knot of German-Americans, Irish-Americans, English-Americans, French-Americans, Scandinavian-Americans or Italian-Americans, each preserving its separate nationality, each at heart feeling more sympathy with Europeans of that nationality, than with the other citizens of the American Republic. The men who do not become Americans and nothing else are hyphenated Americans; and there ought to be no room for them in this country. The man who calls himself an American citizen and who yet shows by his actions that he is primarily the citizen of a foreign land, plays a thoroughly mischievous part in the life of our body politic. He has no place here; and the sooner he returns to the land to which he feels his real heart allegiance, the better it will be for every good American. There is no such thing as a hyphenated American who is a good American. The only man who is a good American is the man who is an American and nothing else.

If you believe in the concept of a specifically American nation, it’s hard to disagree with him.

The concept of a “tribe” can be inimical to this national identity.  If one places more pride in being a socialist or communist or capitalist or Democrat or Republican, or a Christian or Muslim or Jew or Buddhist or Hindu, or a citizen of Texas or California or Vermont or Wyoming or Alaska, than one does in being an American, then one’s loyalty to one’s country is necessarily affected or influenced by the extent to which one identifies with that primary personal identity.  If the group(s) to which one belongs place similar emphasis on being this, or that, or the other, before being American, the same problem arises.

The trouble is, such divided loyalties end up weakening everybody – ourselves, our tribes, our communities, and our nation.  Consider the following examples, which many of you will have observed during the course of your lives.

  1. In the former Soviet Union, authority was centralized.  The Communist Party in Moscow controlled everything, down to the selection of regional and local officials, the approval of Party candidates for office in controlled elections, and so on.  Local independence and initiative were stifled, and dissidents found themselves in serious trouble.  The inevitable result of the collapse of the Soviet Union was a massive reaction against central authority, and the centralized national identity that had been forced upon its people.  Every republic or region wanted to become independent, and most did.  The Soviet Union disintegrated in the face of more parochial, localized national identities.
  2. In Yugoslavia, something similar occurred.  Tito was able to unite several fractious Balkan states by force of arms, and by being utterly ruthless in dealing with separatist movements who sought to restore their former, smaller nations.  After he died, the same thing happened;  the formerly forcibly united states making up the nation fled in all directions, re-establishing their national identities and borders in a series of bloody civil wars.  Serbia, Tito’s home state, tried very hard to maintain its dominance of the region, but was beaten back by force of arms.  The tensions that erupted in the Balkans during the 1990’s are still active today.
  3. In South Africa, the opposite problem occurred.  The apartheid government tried to forcibly separate tribal and racial groups, assigning many of them their own homelands (woefully inadequate and underfunded for the most part), trying to strip them of their national citizenship in favor of their unwanted homelands, and treating everyone and everything on the basis of racial politics.  When apartheid was finally overthrown, the inevitable “equal and opposite reaction” was for all those dispersed groups to demand to reunite in a single, central nation.  That, in turn, has led to the marginalization of the formerly dominant white community in a backlash against its previous policies.  The latest symptom of that is the determination by large elements of the black community to confiscate white-owned farmland that they believe was “stolen” from them generations ago.

I could cite other examples, but those should suffice.  In every case, the nation-state was imperiled – and in some cases destroyed – by loyalties that did not encompass it, or were overridden by other, more important local or religious or racial or cultural or ethnic loyalties.  Those “other” loyalties eventually reshaped the state in its entirety.  That’s the inevitable result of what happens when identity politics trumps national identity.  They lead to the fragmentation of an overarching national loyalty into smaller factions.

This must inevitably lead to local and regional rivalries as well.  Trouble is, those are not sustainable or “winnable” by smaller forces pitted against each other.  It becomes a dog-eat-dog world, where your identity politics can “steal” resources or property or money that I think my identity politics deserves better, and vice versa.  National priorities degenerate into internal squabbles over who gets what share of the pie – but no-one is then focused on building up the pie so that there’s more for everybody.

In medieval, Renaissance and pre-modern times, Europe learned to deal with this by expanding the concept of the state.  The Holy Roman Empire drew together literally hundreds of states, cities, principalities and localities, at first at arms length, then in a growing commercial union.  A map of them (courtesy of Wikipedia) looks like a patchwork quilt.  Click the image for a larger view.

The Holy Roman Empire led (after many fits and starts) to what is today Germany.  A similar process resulted in the formation of nations such as France, Britain, and so on.  Tiny states and interest groups could not stand alone against each other;  so those with similar cultures, faiths, commercial interests, etc. banded together in larger and larger groups, submerging their differences in the more urgent priority of staying alive, until nations were formed.

Today, it looks very much as if identity politics wants to regress to a situation prior to the rise of the nation-state.  Unfortunately, that ignores the reality that nations came to be because they were necessary.  Without unity, there was no strength.  I fear that identity groups will soon learn that for themselves, the hard way.  There will always be another identity group (sometimes more than one, if they band together) who will see your identity group as a threat, or an attractive target, and try to destroy it, or take what it has and make it their own.

That’s why I called identity politics “an existential threat to our society”.  In the sense of a national society, they most certainly are.  However, to those who focus on identity politics, that’s not a bug – it’s a feature.



  1. The concept of liberty is hard for many to understand, even though that was the uniting goal for the founders. For those that want to identify with one section of society, it can be a responsibility they don't want to undertake, and the destruction of opposing views, without following the rules, is soon to follow.

    The Constitution should be the glue to hold the United States together. At one time it did. Today, too many want to corrupt the mandates, or ignore any of the guidelines for changing the law. In the long run, the liberty guaranteed is gone, and replaced by those willing to assume power at any cost.

  2. Peter – We're so far past the opposition to identity politics being relevant that you can't even see it with a telescope.

    It is simply reality now. The genie has been released from the bottle, and like toothpaste, there is no stuffing it back in.

    The civil war/revolution is coming. Your skin is your flag, your beliefs are your faction. Victory is survival.

  3. It's the same with the succession-tards now who think they can fragment the U.S. into some smaller polities where they'll have a happier time, and actually believe, exactly contrary to the examples of the former Yugoslavia or Soviet Union, that things will be better that way afterwards rather than a Hobbesian version of far, far worse.

    This is from the same sort of Common Core-educated/handicapped folks who think a pack of housecats will defeat a tiger, because numbers.

    Some people won't learn the lessons of history until they feel the lance penetrate their chest.

    "Unite Or Die" was the rule 240 years ago, and the world hasn't gotten any friendlier since then.

    Small fish will always be eaten by bigger fish.

  4. Aesop said "Small fish will always be eaten by bigger fish."

    Unless the small fish is a piranha in a school, then the bigger fish gets eaten to the bone.


    Anyway, the exception doesn't disprove the rule.

  5. Said Roosevelt:

    "…. an intricate knot of German-Americans, Irish-Americans, English-Americans, French-Americans, Scandinavian-Americans or Italian-Americans, each preserving its separate nationality."

    I wonder why he left out the most influential – at least in Washington – Jewish Americans.

  6. The treaty of Westphalia in 1648 was the birth of the sovereign states (we are talking about the war makers). With the 9-11-2001 attack on the USA it looks like the world changed again, a step back… A multi-national group united by religion had stepped up.

    America was the land of "E pluribus unum" (one of many) & the "melting pot", it's being replaced with "hyphenated Americans" and diversity … and Teddy Roosevelt has been dead a long time.

  7. You mistake the fundamental problem in what was Yugoslavia: It wasn't that "Tito was able to unite…", it was that there was no real unity involved. It was more a case of the various ethnic groups putting their interests on hold until the big guy was gone, and then… Well, the root problem was that Tito didn't last a few more generations. The truce and the "national consensus" lasted until some of the groups tried playing games, and then, well… It fell apart. The Slovenes went first, because they were tired of getting economically raped to support everyone else's economic sloth, and the Serbs freaked out over the Muslims talking about bringing back the "good old days" of Islamic domination, which was never going to fly with the Serbs, and… Well, let's just say that about the only way post-WWII Yugoslavia was going to last as it was constituted was if Tito somehow lived for a few hundred years, and managed to outwait the generational memories involved. The root problem was that there was really no real unity, no national identity. The EU is in similar straits, and will likely fall to the same syndrome.

  8. The EU is worse than that. By presenting itself as a supranational entity that provides the services of a nation state – regulatory, economic, financial – with a fairly light touch, it actually enables the identity politics. Notably the Scottish Nationalists want to take Scotland out of Britain, but they most certainly do not want to leave the EU. That would leave a Scottish Government with all the hard stuff to do for itself.

    Czechoslovakia actually did split up, and there was that recent attempt at independence for Catalonia.

    Of course the EU can't actually make the 'light touch' work and will have to become much more of a nation state – to make its currency viable, for instance – or fall apart. And its component states are going to get a terrible shock the first time it faces a serious military challenge.

    Interestingly the Holy Roman Empire map shows what may be a similar effect. A lot of those places aren't what we might think of as states – they are more like counties (sometimes literally – I suspect that's what 'GFT' stands for – Grafschaft). A lot more are smaller than that. One has to wonder if they weren't at some previous point part of larger entities that were absorbed into the Holy Roman Empire and subsequently fell apart.

  9. 1) the Holy Roman Empire is like Meal Ready to Eat: three lies for the price of one

    2) it hindered nation aggregation, it didn't induce nor facilitate it.

    3) Early coherent nations, like Spain, England, and France, had the lion's share of the world's spoils and colonies, while latter-day attempts: Austro-Hungary, Germany, Italy, Russia were shut out, which envy and second-rate status only contributed to all the subsequent squabbling at the table, two world wars and a cold war, and the dissolution of every single empire extant.

    4) And the former colonies, being neither nations nor colonies any longer, get the worst of both worlds, something which has not nor will ever change, at least for some centuries, if even then, because their peoples haven't done the work to coalesce, mature, and consolidate – some of which involves sitting back, and letting what's there fight to see who survives and who dies off, something the UN tries to squelch, and instead only exacerbates and amplifies – and it's become obvious you can no more bootstrap a territory into a nation without all the intermediate steps of maturation, than can you grow stalks of corn faster by pulling on the sprouts.

    5) America provides the lone exception, because we got the benefit of the work of England, but escaped that Civil War, and had the spot in the New World largely untroubled by interference, until it became time to leave, and had two oceans to incubate the country for a century, by which time we not only joined the international community, we had grown to dominate it, because of both the personal character of the residents, and a bounty of natural resources and land the envy of the world, had they then any inkling of what we had going here.

    Now that character is dissipating (and being usurped by third-rate cultures aggregating here without assimilating here); the resources, while formidable, are looking rusty, and the very technology we championed is being used to undo the advantage of a two-ocean security blanket, while a veritable horde sneaks daily across the one land border in the world that needs a moat, alligators, and a mine field most desperately.

    And the only hope we have is to try and return to the nation that was, or else this one will go the way of Yugoslavia, in no small part by deliberate and malign design of those who seek to destroy it.

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