Yascha Mounk is a Professor of the Practice of International Affairs at Johns Hopkins University. He’s a writer for The Atlantic, founder of the online magazine Persuassion, and host of the podcast The Good Fight. He is the author of The People vs Democracy, The Great Experiment, and The Identity Trap: A Story of Ideas and Power in Our Time.
I really do think that what we’ve witnessed over the last decades is the emergence of a new ideology that is meaningfully distinct… I think it really is meaningfully distinct from other forms of what is meant to be left wing in the past from other ideological traditions.
- Introduction – 0:51
- Values and Beliefs – 3:15
- Higher Education – 13:56
- Identity – 22:34
- Differences from Marxism – 37:21
Whenever I discuss illiberalism, there is always a recognition that it can come from the left or the right. But in recent years, we have worried more about the far right than the far left. Yascha Mounk established himself as one of the first to warn against the rise of rightwing authoritarian populism. You might have read his book The People Vs Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It.
But anyone who follows Yascha’s work knows he is concerned about illiberalism from the left as well as the right. He’s had multiple episodes on his podcast The Good Fight where he criticizes illiberalism from the right and the left. His online magazine Persuassion has featured numerous articles on similar themes.
Yascha is a Professor of the Practice of International Affairs at Johns Hopkins University. He’s also a contributing editor at The Atlantic. His most recent book is called The Identity Trap: A Story of Ideas and Power in Our Time.
Our conversation discusses what Yascha refers to as a new ideology of the left. He calls it the Identity Synthesis, but most of us would probably call it woke or wokism. Now I find this is a controversial topic and it’s one I’ve largely stayed away from. I worry it fits into rightwing narratives. I’m also worried that we’re talking about a small fringe of the population. But Yascha makes the case that we need to call out illiberalism even when it makes us feel uncomfortable.
Before we get started, I do want to give a shoutout to the faculty and students at Notre Dame in South Bend. I’m visiting the campus on Thursday, October 6th. I plan to meet with some professors and students and attend a lecture at the Kellogg Institute for International Studies. If you’re listening to the podcast and want to meet, please send me an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. But for now… This is my conversation with Yascha Mounk…
Yasha Mounk, welcome to the Democracy Paradox.
Thanks for having me on.
Yasha, I really enjoyed your recent book, The Identity Trap, A Story of Ideas and Power in Our Time. I thought it was a fascinating read, just like all of your books. In fact, when I read your books and I listen to you on your podcast, I feel like in some ways you’re a little bit of a different kind of intellectual. I feel like you wear your values on your sleeve in a lot of ways in a way that’s very different than maybe some of the more academic people that I’ve spoken to in the past. Values really seem to shape who you are and the ideas that you share. Can you talk a little bit about how values do shape your intellectual thought?
Oh, that’s a really interesting question. It sounds like a compliment though perhaps it’s a backhanded compliment. No. Look, I think that we’re in a moment in which some of the values that academics and political scientists have perhaps taken for granted in the background for a long time are under real threat. I started to make my name when I was in graduate school because I warned earlier than a lot of the profession about the danger to democracy from the rise of authoritarian populism and in this new book, I talk about a different kind of contestation of ideas.
A clash between a set of interesting, in many ways attractive, in some ways quite profound, but I think ultimately wrongheaded, ideas about the role that identity should play in our society that I think would also lead us astray from some core liberal values like free speech, for example. So you’re right that a lot of what I do in my work is to try and make the case for those values and think about the kind of changes and reforms and policies and campaigns that we would need in order to defend them at a very vulnerable time.
Perhaps I’m sufficiently influenced by postmodernism to think that we all hold values and that may influence how we work in all kinds of ways. I don’t think that’s an excuse for blindness. I don’t think that’s an excuse for propaganda. I don’t think that means that truth is not a useful standard. But perhaps it does mean that when your work is motivated by values, you may as well put that on the page rather than leaving it implicit off the page.
Yeah. I definitely don’t mean it as a backhanded compliment. I think it’s really important to have beliefs and to share those beliefs and to allow that to influence your work and your ideas. In fact, something that I’ve always known about you, but I’ve never completely understood. I mean, I think I do, but I’d like to hear from you your explanation. You chose to not just live in the United States, but to become an American citizen. Can you talk a little bit about what it means to you to be an American, because I think that’s a big part of your own identity. And that’s really a topic of this book in some ways and I think it comes back to some of the ideas of your values and some of the ideas that you have as well.
Yeah, I think that’s right. I’m not the most introspective person in the world, so hopefully I’m accurate in my self-perception. But I would say first of all, part of it is prosaic reasons. I mean, when I wanted to do a PhD and wanted to become a political scientist, obviously American universities remain in many ways preeminent in the world. That was a lot of the reason why I wanted to come here. Another reason is perhaps a little bit less prosaic, starts to connect more of my values in a different kind of way.
But it’s just that since I first visited New York City, I fell in love with the place. I wanted to come and live in New York and even though I’ve sort of failed at that for the last 15 years, because mostly I’ve ended up being in Boston and Washington, D. C. and so on, all of the things that I love about New York are things that – so, of course, the city is quite different from much of the rest of the country in certain respects – things that I love about America: its energy; its inventiveness; its diversity; the way in which people from all over the world have come here and created a new culture. Not a homogeneous culture, but a culture that is shared in important ways.
Then finally, I am somebody who growing up was a Social Democrat, which in many ways I still am today. Perhaps I would say that I’m in the American sense, a philosophical liberal, somebody who believes in the basic values of liberal democracy, who despite all of the imperfections of any country today and the evident imperfections of the United States today, thinks that these values have allowed us to create, by historical comparison, a phenomenally tolerant, inclusive, thriving, prosperous, and peaceful democracy. Certainly, part of my now feeling American is my love for the everyday culture of the United States. But part of it is that commitment to those civic ideals. The fact that America is a credal nation built on immigrants from the start.
I feel like one of the other values that seems to appeal to you about American culture is this idea of free speech. How is free speech different in the United States? How is how we think about free speech different in the United States than it is in other democracies, like maybe in Europe?
Yeah, all democracies lay claim to free speech to some extent. So, did many nondemocracies that really didn’t respect free speech at all in their practice. But the United States has much more stringent protections for free speech than other countries. You know, in Germany during the pandemic a minister in the city government, which is also a state of Hamburg, insulted people who had held a party irresponsibly. But his criticism was quite harsh and somebody on Twitter responded saying, ‘You’re such a ****.’ This person’s apartment was raided for evidence that he had indeed authored this tweet, which was considered an offense in Germany, because you cannot insult people. That is an offense. There’s lots of examples of this kind of thing in European countries.
One of the more perverse ones is a far-left activist getting prosecuted in the state of Baden-Württemberg in Germany, because they had produced all kinds of paraphernalia with a swastika into a trash can, which is a very visible sort of anti-fascist symbol. But because that drawing featured a swastika, which is outlawed in Germany, he was prosecuted, in this case criminally, for supposedly spreading Nazi propaganda, which evidently was neither what he had done nor what his intent had been. So, the basic protections that people enjoy to robustly criticize politicians or to engage in speech that might really be unpleasant, that might really be hateful, but for which the state, I believe, should not have the right to lock you up in jail, are much, much weaker in European countries than they are in the United States.
Denmark is currently in the process of reinstituting a blasphemy law in order to deal with, again, the morally abhorrent stunts of far-right activists who burned the Quran. Something that is certainly in no way endorsed. But in order to be able to stop that from happening, the government is now passing a law that would make blasphemy punishable with a prison sentence. In the United States, thankfully, we have a First Amendment that protects us from that. And I do think that’s something that’s important and something that members of the left or of the liberal left or of any part of the political spectrum should defend and embrace.
I think it’s very strange that in the space of a few short years, we’ve gone from thinking of free speech as a left-wing value, one that Frederick Douglass had called the dread of tyrants, one that inspired the student movement in the 1960s in Berkeley and far beyond to somehow coding it as a right-wing value that all sort of good liberals or progressives somehow find suspicious. I think that is very, very historically short-sighted. How did we get to that point? Why is it that people on the left have somehow given up on the idea of free speech, and I don’t mean everybody on the left. But maybe those extremist fringes that seem to take up a lot of the conversation these days. Why is it that they’ve become more hostile to free speech in recent years?
I think there’s a relatively straightforward institutional story and a much more complicated intellectual story. The relatively straight-forward institutional story is that the people who are in charge are always tempted to put in restrictions on free speech and the people who are marginal are always fighting for free speech for the very obvious reason, which often gets elided in conversations today, that who is going to make decisions about what is allowed and what is not allowed if you do have some form of censorship. Well, it’s by definition the people who are powerful. It’s going to be the government censor bureau. Perhaps today more likely some Silicon Valley speech facilitation committee somewhere in California.
So, in the 1960s, the establishment was conservative and self-consciously conservative and quite open to saying these people who want these radical things, you know, when they’re too extreme or they’re too lewd or too pornographic or they praise the Soviet Union too much, then perhaps we should constrain their ability to express themselves. So, of course, it was the left that was arguing against those things. I think today the left is in a weird position where it, of course, doesn’t have all of the power in the country and I remain very worried about Donald Trump being able to win the 2024 presidential election.
But in many of the spaces where these debates are being held, in universities, but also in big parts of the media, in think tanks, even in the professional firms that set a lot of the tone of our public life, the left does dominate over the right. So, I think the left is in a certain way in charge without wanting to admit that to themselves, while still wanting to see themselves as the brave protester from the Coca Cola ad or the Pepsi ad, I think it was, standing up to injustice.
From that, I think comes this weird tension where suddenly the left, like any people who are in certain ways in charge in certain institutions, are going to say, well, let’s impose the rules here. There’s a temptation to say, let’s stop the speech that we find abhorrent. But at the same time, we can’t admit in the way that the conservative establishment admitted in the sixties that they are in charge. That, I think, explains a little bit of the strange structure of debate around this.
When did that really change at higher education institutions? Because when I went to college and got my undergraduate, I mean, I graduated in 2003. I think that was maybe a few years before you.
It was the same year actually.
Okay. It didn’t feel that much different. I mean, it didn’t feel like things were woke. It wasn’t something that was really discussed. I mean, people were conscious about racism, conscious about a lot of different issues, but it wasn’t at the level that I hear that it is today. And I didn’t go to an elite university. I went to Truman State over in Northeast Missouri. It was a good school, but it’s not considered an elite university. Is this something that we’re only seeing at these elite universities, like in the Ivy League or Stanford and the University of Chicago or is this something that’s pervasive everywhere? And when exactly did this sea change really happen at these universities?
Yeah, so first of all, let me just say that I really do think that what we’ve witnessed over the last decades is the emergence of a new ideology that is meaningfully distinct. Of course, it builds in all kinds of ways on previously existing ideas and political commitments as any new ideology always does. But I think it really is meaningfully distinct from other forms of what is meant to be left wing in the past from other ideological traditions. So, in the new book, in The Identity Trap, I do four things. I trace the intellectual origins of these ideas and that’s just a straightforward intellectual history. But it’s not trying to be evaluative. It’s just trying to actually explain what the history of these ideas is.
Secondly, to try and understand how these ideas went from being influential in some parts of the academy by about 2010, but very marginal to society as a whole, to having tremendous influence over how a lot of Americans now think about topics like free speech or cultural appropriation or public policy, how we should educate our children. Thirdly, to critique the applications of a popularized version of what I’m calling the identity synthesis to those areas. And fourthly, to really boil the ideology down to some of its core philosophical claims and offer a liberal response.
I outline what I think was smartest way for committed liberals to, of course, take very seriously the injustices and discrimination that exist in our society, but also to point a better way forward to build a more just society that we would actually be excited to live in together with each other as compatriots. So, when you ask me how influential are these ideas at various stages I do think that it is somewhat of an elite phenomenon. You know, when More in Common did this hidden tribe study and looked at the demographic attributes of people whom they called progressive activists, they were disproportionately affluent disproportionately well-educated and disproportionately white as it happens.
It is also, I think, somewhat clear when you look at opinions about things like free speech, for example, that views that it is acceptable to disrupt a speaker in a violent manner, which are now scarily common among students, are more widespread among the most elite campuses than among less elite ones for a variety of reasons. But I think it has now become a very influential and perhaps the dominant ideology among a lot of young people. That’s partially because schools of education up and down the scale of prestige from Harvard and Teacher’s College at Columbia to much less famous institutions have embraced many of those ideas and so they do start to share what kids are taught in the classroom. I see that in the students I teach at these fancy universities, but who come from a variety of backgrounds.
They’re open to having real conversations about this, but actually grateful to have a space where they can discuss ideas in a serious way. But the starting assumptions are just deeply steeped in these ideas. So, on free speech, for example, a very simple point of who’s going to be making the decisions and are they always going to be on the side of what’s right. It’s one that often really surprises my students because they never heard it in their education. It’s not a particularly profound point. It’s a relatively obvious one, but for they had studied free speech and often heard sort of negative things about it. That is not a point that they’d ever been asked to consider.
It blows my mind when I see videos of students that are disrupting speakers at higher education institutions. It comes across as privileged in a lot of ways. I mean, at the school that I went to, we were happy to have speakers come and it was a big deal because we were in the middle of nowhere. Speakers didn’t naturally come to our university. We had to pursue them to be able to get them to come and actually speak to us. It wasn’t something that you would just throw away so easily and even when you had a controversial speaker that people didn’t agree with it wasn’t something that you purposely tried to disrupt and force that person out.
You might not go to hear them speak, but you didn’t try to stop others from hearing them speak. Is that something that we’re really just seeing at a handful of universities or is that something that’s happening everywhere? Because when I see it on social media, it feels like it’s everywhere. But then I only see just a couple universities where it’s really has occurred.
Yeah, I mean, a couple of words. The first is I’m actually less shocked in some ways by students doing this than by administrators standing by or celebrating it. One of my best friends, when we were undergraduates, disturbed a speech that Jean-Marie Le Pen had been invited to give at the Cambridge Union. Now, I think he did it in sort of nice kind of burlesque fashion. He threw confetti from the balcony while saying something about how he sucks. So, it was a momentary disruption. I think if you’re going to disrupt his speech, there is the way to do it. But the point is it’s okay for 19-year-olds to make mistakes and it’s okay for 19-year-olds to express their opinions in very forceful ways. A lot of 19-year-olds have stupid beliefs. I had stupid beliefs when I was 19. All of that is fine.
The point is that there’s supposed to be adults in the room and the adults in the room are supposed to say… Here’s one thing I don’t understand about these things. I’ve never heard of a university president who says anybody who disrupts the speech more than momentarily is going to face very serious disciplinary consequences. But you know what? I also deeply disagree with the speaker and if it’s a peaceful protest, I’m going to join it. I’m going to signal very clearly that the speaker has a right to be here. He’s been invited by whatever student group. That the university will do anything it needs to ensure that this event goes ahead and that the speaker is not threatened. But if you want to have a protest that challenges his views, count me in, right?
It’s not that hard to combine the expression of the defense of free speech values with a robust critique of particular viewpoints where the speaker might be expressing in a particular instance. What was so shocking to me about things like what happened at Stanford Law School a few months ago is that the administrators failed in that duty, but they actually seem to be encouraging and celebrating the students for making it impossible for invited speakers to talk. That I think shows one of the problems on campus today, which is the role that administrators have. I do think it’s a little bit concerning when nearly all faculty members are on the left. I’m certainly on the left and there isn’t anything wrong with me.
But I think it would often make us smarter and more thoughtful if we had some people who genuinely disagreed in the seminar room and perhaps even in the faculty meeting. Still while faculty members are far more left wing than the average student and certainly the broader public, administrators are actually far more homogeneously leftwing than faculty members and more importantly, when you ask about the questions that I think are important, like whether or not it is acceptable to disrupt the speech with violence, faculty members tend to be much more on the liberal side of that and administrators are much more likely than faculty members to take the liberal view. So, in this area, like in many other areas of higher education, I think the marginalization of faculty members, relative to those other forces on campus has been one of the problems.
It feels like one of the reasons why there’s such a struggle to be able to draw a line is between the idea of dissent and offense. That having genuine disagreements with one another versus actually crossing the line into offending people. And I think one of the big reasons for that is that this notion of identity. Who we are has become so important in politics and society, because when we start drawing these firm lines that different types of things inform who we are and what we are, it becomes much easier to become offended rather than to have genuine disagreements. Why has identity become so important in politics and society?
Yeah, you know, in a sense, it’s always been important and I want to be very clear that my book doesn’t argue that any form of identity politics is illegitimate. I don’t use the term identity politics because I find it so vague and it refers to so many different things that it’s sort of hard to parse. Some of them are legitimate and some of them are less so. In certain senses, the civil rights movement was identity politics. It was mostly motivated by the extremely legitimate aspiration of one part of a population to achieve equal treatment.
And to be fair, I mean, there’s a huge history of literature where identity has played a role dating back generations, not just in terms of African Americans with W.E. B. Du Bois. But also, Jewish writers like Hannah Arendt. I mean, her sense of Jewishness played a very significant role in terms of her ideas. So, I don’t want to say that the sense of identity in terms of politics and society is completely new. I mean, it’s always been there, but it feels like it’s taken the predominant role and has become something that we talk about an extreme amount and really leads to this idea of identity trap within your book.
So, I think the two big transformations here have been, first of all, the rejection of a long tradition in American history, which was never uncontested, but which was dominant for how to think about identity. When you look at Frederick Douglass in certain ways, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, you know, all the way up to Barack Obama, what they were saying is that the universal values and the neutral rules on which America was founded were noble but hypocritical. That they evidently were breached in the observance in extreme ways. When Frederick Douglass was invited to give a speech to celebrate the Fourth of July, he called out the hypocrisy of his fellow citizens saying how can you talk about these lovely words that all men are created equal and so on while slavery is going on in our country.
His upshot from that was not to reject the United States Constitution or the Bill of Rights. Instead, he said, I will organize, engage in identity politics, if you will, in order to make sure that we African Americans are included under those principles and values as much as anybody else that we come to be in the enjoyment of these values from which you are unfairly excluding us. And that is what Martin Luther King Jr. argued for as well. Now, the tradition whose origins I describe in this book, which has really come to be dominant on big parts of progressive left of late, was explicitly set up to oppose those ideas.
The main thinkers that inaugurated the tradition of critical race theory are subtle and interesting, but the debate we’ve had about it on both sides of the aisle and increasingly the way that academics think about it, when you haven’t actually done the reading, is just a caricature. You have on the right people saying, well, teaching kids about slavery in schools is a form of critical race theory and we should be worried about it. But that’s absurd. As a result, a lot of really smart people who I know would think, well, critical race theory, that’s just wanting to think critically about the role that race plays in society. It’s wanting to be aware of our history. So, what could be wrong with that? Um, no.
Derek Bell explicitly said that his goal was to reject, quote unquote, the defunct racial equality ideology of the civil rights movement. He argued for desegregation of schools and businesses and other institutions throughout the American South as a lawyer for the NAACP in the 60s, but then came to think of much of that as a mistake coming to agree with segregationist senators that a lot of civil rights lawyers hadn’t really argued for the interest of their clients, but had just tried to impose their integrationist ideology on the country. He came to be deeply critical of Brown versus Board of education.
Twenty years later, Kimberley Crenshaw, after Barack Obama was elected, said that his political views are fundamentally at odds with the key tenants of CRT. So, if you want to understand that tradition in a way that its own originators would recognize, you must see that it is an explicit challenge to the tradition of Douglas and King and Obama, not a continuation of it.
What are some of the positives you get from critical race theory and some of these other theorists? Because there’s a give and take in your book where you go through the history of a lot of these different ideas and there is both a critique of those ideas, but there’s also a respect that exists. A sense that you feel like you’re learning something from these thinkers, even though you disagree with the bigger picture sense of some other ideas at the same time.
Yeah, well so a few things. So, first of all in the book there’s the actual origin of these ideas at the level of intellectual history and the thinkers with whom I engage on that I have some profound disagreements with, but I think are smart, thoughtful people who are well worth studying and who reacted in interesting ways and in understandable ways to political challenges and the big questions of the day. In the second part of the book, I then talk about how those ideas become popularized, which is a much more political and technological and sociological story. But it also involves covering some of the bestselling authors that really start to enshrine the frankly vulgarized version of these theories in our public discourse, particularly around 2020 when Robin DiAngelo and Ibram X. Kendi were dominating the bestseller lists.
I think those thinkers are very sociologically interesting, but they’re frankly intellectually a lot weaker. So, what do I take from some of those thinkers? Well, for example, the term of intersectionality has been much abused. Crenshaw herself has told Jane Coaston, the New York Times journalist, at one point that sometimes when she sees somebody talk about intersectionality, she thinks, oh, that’s interesting. I wonder whose intersectionality that is. And when she sees herself cited, she would think, that’s not my intersectionality. But her original insight is one that is straightforward, but important. It’s what a lot of social scientists would know as an interaction effect. That the oppression and the discrimination suffered by black women is not just an arithmetic sum of the oppression suffered by white women and black men, but goes beyond that.
She has compelling examples of workers being fired in a first in first out system in a General Motors plant in Michigan, for example, and being unable to get redress for that because the courts at that time didn’t recognize that intersectionality or that interaction effect saying, well, black people aren’t being discriminated against in general and women are not being discriminated against in general in this factory. So sorry, we can’t help you. That is clearly a legal and moral mistake. Coining that term, I think was helpful. But the main figures I talk through are postmodernism, Michel Foucault, the postcolonial thinkers, particularly Edward Said and Dietrich Spivak and Critical Race Theory with Derek Bell and Kimberley Crenshaw, that I think are the main figures.
One of the things that struck me is that many of the earlier figures in this edition, in particular, came to be quite concerned about how the ideas were later appropriated. Michel Foucault famously worried about the panopticon as a model, not just of criminal punishment, but as a model of how modern society might work. The idea that there’s a guard in the central watchtower and all of the prisoners arranged in cells around him in a hemicircle never knowing whether they’re being watched or not and so they have this form of anticipatory obedience, where part of how order is imposed on them is straightforward punishment, but a lot of it is self-discipline. It’s anticipatory obedience.
I think that Foucault would look at much of society today and fear the ways in which on social media, we engage in anticipatory obedience in which occasional exemplary punishments of people who somehow express themselves poorly, but make everybody afraid, such that you always try to stay away as far as possible from any possible line. You know, I think you would recognize that much of progressive thought today falls foul to the kind of grand narratives that he was very skeptical of.
In more concrete ways Edward Said whose use of discourse analysis to political ends I think has become really influential on how we do politics today in different contexts was very critical saying that victimhood is something to be remedied, not something to be reveled in. It’s something to be overcome so that everybody can enjoy the goods and the benefits that come from not being in a victim group rather than something to be set in stone and perpetuated.
Gayatri Spivak who came up with a concept of strategic essentialism, of saying I will recognize at a philosophical level that these essentialist accounts of identity that we tend to operate with are really problematic, but for practical political purposes, we should pretend that that critique doesn’t exist, we should actually try and encourage people to see themselves and so far as possible as members of these identity groups, came to renounce that term later on in part because she saw what used people like Narendra Modi made of it in India. She has a lovely line where she makes fun of the humorlessness – people will know perhaps that in India people who sell tea in the streets are called tea wallahs. Wallah is kind of a salesman. She made fun of the humorlessness of the identity wallahs at American universities. So, I think there’s much in this tradition to think through and argue with.
Yeah, I think that there’s a line that seems to exist where you sketch out the intellectual history and these are analytical thinkers, they’re deep thinkers just working through ideas and at some point we cross the line into evangelists where it almost has religious undertones. Like when I read Ibram X. Kendi’s book, How to be an Antiracist, it feels very religious to me. He even talks about a period early in his life where he’s giving a speech about race and he describes himself as a racist. It feels to me very much like a St. Paul approach where you say, I was a sinner too. He’s saying I was a racist too and I was able to overcome racism to be able to approach antiracism.
There’s a sense behind it that racism is always going to exist the same way that a Christian would say sin always exists. You’re always potentially going to be sinning, and so you’re trying to overcome the sin. I mean, do you get that same sense? Because I feel like it’s almost like a great awakening that’s happening, but it’s so much more secular than it would have been in the past.
Yeah, I do think that there is a striking amount of resonance of religious repertoire in American life. I do think that the structure of a lot of DiAngelo’s and Kendi’s thought is religious in certain respects. I don’t think it is literally a religion as some people like John McWhorter argue. I think he makes interesting points. I don’t ultimately agree with him. But I do think that they fill a religion shaped hole in part of American life. And one part of it, as you’re saying, is the structure of this. I mean, in those corners of antiracist discourse, and I consider myself an antiracist even though a liberal one rather than an identitarian one, whiteness is a form of original sin.
If you’re white, you are by definition guilty of racism. There’s a Manichean element to this thought where in parts of Christianity, if you’ve never been baptized, you’re going to hell, even if you didn’t have an opportunity to. There’s no such thing as being neither a sinner nor somebody who’s going to be saved. There’s no third category. That’s, of course, what Kendi argues about racism. That either you’re an antiracist, and by the way, part of being an antiracist, according to him involves rejecting key elements of the United States Constitution, or you are a racist. There’s no such thing as being not racist. So, if you want to defend the U.S. Constitution, welcome to hell, you’re a racist. So, I think, there’s also kind of a religious vibe to it.
Now, in a way, and this is the reason why I don’t think that that is a religion. That has existed in other historical moments as well. I was teaching George Orwell as a seminar recently, and having found really striking Kendi’s Antiracist Baby, his children’s book, which is aimed at children one to six years of age, in which he tells children to confess if they’ve committed a racist act. I was very struck by an aside that Orwell, himself a socialist, makes when he criticizes the kind of socialist culture of his day and mentions a book called Marxism for Infants. So, you have a similar vibe there.
But the other thing I’ll say is that I think some of the moral imaginary of the sort of circles that I move in is shaped by puritanism in ways that make the left in a place like Italy or Spain somewhat different, for example, which has a more Catholic inheritance. Now, at the doctrinal level, the things that people in New England believe today, and certainly, left leaning academics in New England believe today have no similarity to what the Puritan forebears in those towns may have thought when it comes to sex before marriage. Very different views, right?
But I think the idea that we must create a shining city on a hill and that having people who are morally impure in our community is a danger to that and could lead people astray and the devil is always lurking around the corner, tempting you away from the path of righteousness. I think that strikes me as surprisingly similar today. So there, I think there is this indirect influence.
I agree with you that it’s not a religion, but at the same time, it has many of the faults of people that push religion a bit too far. I mean, the way that DiAngelo approaches people through her sessions when she’s calling people out for white fragility seems to me like a preacher that’s yelling at somebody to repent. It comes across the same way, that you must repent. It reminds me too of being Catholic and saying some of the prayers. I mean, as a Catholic, every single Sunday you say a prayer where you say, through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault and you’re literally beating your chest when you say that.
It has the same kind of undertones to me as a lot of this stuff and I think that this is one of the reasons why it’s very different than Marxism, which you mentioned in the book as well. Because in Marxism, I don’t think that there’s a way to repent. You’re either the upper class or you’re the proletarian class. There is no middle ground. You’re either one or you’re the other. There is no repentance except for maybe to give up your possessions, maybe. That wasn’t really what Marx talked about. I mean, he didn’t talk about just giving up all your worldly goods. Again, that comes back to more of a Christian idea. It feels like this identity synthesis is very different than Marxism for even reasons beyond what you described in your appendix.
That’s interesting. Well, I think on that particular account, the difference is that both the style of antiracism of Kendi and DiAngelo and Christianity are fundamentally concerned with the state of your soul. What fundamentally is driving antiracism is the fear, ‘Oh my God, I think I’m a good person and I want to be a good person. Do I secretly have implicit biases? Do I secretly have nasty thoughts? Am I somehow guilty of racism without even knowing it? And so, I’m a sinner.’ That’s a similarity between that style of antiracism in Christianity. So, I think part of the problem with the style of antiracism is that it’s not actually geared towards effective political action.
I mean, in the most extreme forms, I know that this is a particularly absurd outpouring of this. It was sort of, you know, white people washing the feet of black people in the summer of 2020. Which is sort of an act of contrition or an act of displaying some form of humility that again comes from a religious repertoire, but it certainly doesn’t have practical political effects. I’m not saying that perhaps certain other forms of antiracist activism do, but there’s a big space for this.
I think Marxism, sometimes to a fault, sometimes in dangerous ways, isn’t interested in that. I don’t think it’s interested in what are the secret thoughts of the bourgeois. Is the bourgeois secretly enamored of certain bourgeois virtues? I think the Marxist would ask, what is he doing practically? And is that helping the revolution or not? In that sense, there is an inconsequentialist set of judgments that people usually applied. If you’re a bourgeois, but you’re using your bourgeois resources and so on, your education in order to further the revolution, you don’t have to repent exactly because you’re on the right side of history. That’s what matters. What matters is are you fighting for the right cause or not? You have some internal thought, but it doesn’t matter.
Perhaps in certain other versions of quasi-Marxist ideology like in Maoism that becomes more important. But I think that’s precisely the point on which it diverges. And now, of course, in Marxism, part of that is that you can be internally as pure as snow, but if it becomes expedient to bump you off, then we should do that. I think something like Darkness at Noon by Koestler is just this really haunting exploration of that rejection of bourgeois, which is to say liberal morality. So, I think Marxism goes wrong in a different way, but it really is very different in how you’d think about the evaluation of historical actors.
I do want to mention one more difference between them. One difference is just that, if you do intellectual history, it’s just a mistake to think that the ideas we’re talking about come from the Frankfurt school and Adorno and Horkheimer as many people have claimed. You know, you read Adorno and Horkheimer and it doesn’t sound like what people are saying on Twitter today. Whereas I think if you go through the figures and the tradition that I trace, you can see how each of them contributes a theme that is added to today’s discourse.
Again, I don’t think Foucault would like what social justice people are saying on Twitter, but you can see how his rejection of the idea of a certain form of truth and when Said’s embrace of a form of politicized discourse analysis and Spivak’s embrace of strategic essentialism, Bell’s rejection of universalist solutions and embrace of a certain kind of particularism and then what becomes of Crenshaw’s understanding of intersectionality, particularly the idea that we can’t understand each other if we stand at different intersections of identity. Those together, I think, do construct where we are today, but the other really interesting difference is that Marxism had a genuine utopian promise at its end.
If you buy into Marxism, then you’re saying after we’ve had the class struggle and we’ve had the revolution and built socialism and we move towards communism, the proletariat has become the universal class. So, what happens to the proletarian or perhaps his child or grandchild is they become part of a universal class like every other human being. We have a form of genuine human fellowship across the borders of the most significant identities or the most significant economic categories. Interestingly, one of the core elements of the new ideology that I’m tracing is the rejection of that.
One of the things that you precisely are not supposed to say in a diversity training at a modern American university, one of the things that will be considered a microaggression is to say, I want to create a society where we don’t see race, where we don’t see those kinds of differences. So, what the equivalent of a Marxist utopian promise would be, which is the dissolution of race as a salient circle category, what people like Barbara and Karen Fields argue for in Racecraft, that is precisely seen as the opposite of what this ideological tradition aims for. So that I think is a quite important difference in the structure of the worldview and the goals.
We’ve just been talking about how there’s significant differences between Marxism and what you describe as the identity synthesis. But at the same time, it does feel very Leninist, if not Marxist, where there seems to be a single idea that everybody should be ascribing to and that dissent should not be tolerated. I mean, I’m thinking of Lenin in his book, What is to be Done, where he goes on a number of chapters explaining why we shouldn’t allow people to critique the communist line. It reminds me of the way how a lot of people now on the extreme left seem to feel that we shouldn’t be allowed to be able to critique these ideas of identity. That whatever the traditional view is that they’ve felt should be adopted can’t really be critiqued. That feels inherently illiberal. So, I guess my question for you is, is the real danger here, is the real concern that we have, the fact that the identity synthesis effectively becomes inherently illiberal?
Yeah, I think it is. That’s exactly why I don’t think the analogy with Marxism is that helpful because Marxism is one explicitly illiberal ideology, but there’s many others. I mean, divine rights monarchy was illiberal. Islamist theocracy in Iran today is illiberal. North Korea is illiberal. What all of these views share in one way or another is to say there’s one correct way of seeing the world. And if you’re not, then you’re a dangerous traitor or sinner or whatever the piece of vocab is that you slot into that variable. That allows us to treat you in sometimes quite horrifying ways. So, I think, yes, it is absolutely an illiberal set of views and that gives it a certain structural similarity to Marxism, and a certain structural similarity to these other illiberal views.
But we still have to understand it in its own right. Very briefly, I think the main themes that come from this ideology through the applications of it to all these different areas. But in the last part of the book, I really sort of do a rational reconstruction, trying to boil it down to some of its core claims. Those core claims are parallel to core claims of certain other authoritarian movements. If you change the content a little bit and it’s to say, number one, that the key way to understanding the world is one prism that really is the key to how to think about the world and in this case, it is in that entity categories like race, gender, sexual orientation.
The second is that those liberal institutions that claim to treat people fairly and equally, and that claim to allow us to make progress towards a more just society are just trying to pull the wool over people’s eyes and perpetuate domination. You can see the similarity to Marxism here. Thirdly, we have to reject them and build a completely new set of rules and practices. In this case, this is one in which how we treat each other and how the state treats all of us comes to be explicitly dependent on identity categories. The liberal answer to that set of points, which is going to be parallel to the liberal answer to a lot of other authoritarian movements or a lot of other illiberal movements, I should say.
First of all, yes, race, gender, and sexual orientation are very important to understand society as well as the disadvantages and forms of discrimination that people suffer within it. As by the way, in response to Marx, classes are. But neither of those is the master prism, the master value for which to see everything in society. We need to be open to many different forms of explanation, including these two sets, but also religion, also how people act, also ideology, also nationalism, also all kinds of other things that might drive human events or might explain how two particular people interact in a situation. Secondly, of course, universal values and the neutral rules promised by liberal democracies since the inception of the 18th century have often been terribly broken.
Many people have been denied protection under those values in horrifying ways, but the function of those values was not to perpetuate these injustices. On the contrary, appeals to those values are a lot of what allowed these societies to make tremendous progress, imperfect, but tremendous progress towards being more just and inclusive and thriving. The members of this tradition are simply wrong to say that America in 2023 is as homophobic or as sexist or as racist as it was in 1850 or 1915. And if you know anything about history, if you actually know about the extent to which societies were discriminatory in the past, that should really be quite obvious.
So therefore, how do we deal with this? What kind of solution do we have to it? Well, we have to double down on the effort to live up to these values. That is the right response.
Well, Yascha, thank you so much for talking to me today. I want to plug the book one more time. It’s called The Identity Trap: A Story of Ideas and Power in our Time. It’s a fascinating read and like always there’s going to be plenty more that we didn’t get to. Thanks for taking the time to talk to me. Thank you for writing the book.
Thank you. I really enjoyed this conversation. Justin.
The Identity Trap: A Story of Ideas and Power in Our Time by Yascha Mounk
The Great Experiment: How to Make Diverse Democracies Work by Yascha Mounk
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