Identity politics will be the causal demise of the great American experiment. Throughout history, leaders of countries have menacingly, and expertly, wielded the power of identity politics to pit two sects of the community against one another. By splitting the populace into two distinct groups, it alleviates any fears of grassroots rebellion that the politically-established may have harbored. As the two groups fight with each other over talking points, the politically-established only need to sit back and make sure that their districts remain slightly their shade of blue or red.
This is not what our founders, nor the philosophers that influenced their thoughts, had intended. If you look back on the great political philosophers of the 18th century— Rousseau, Kant, Paine, Smith, and Burke— time and time again they emphasize the destructive nature of “factions” in society. Rousseau feared that the creation of these factions would mean that there would “no longer [be] as many votes as there are men, but only as many as there are associations” and pleaded to his readers that there “should be no partial society within the State, and that each citizen should think only his own thoughts.”
Today, unfortunately, Mr. Rousseau would be disheartened to see the state of our political relations in America. I fear that the creation of two separate echo chambers is endangering the delicately weighted balance of free thought in politics, potentially leading to a tearing point. One chamber echoes rebellion; the other echoes reasonableness. This galvanization of the previously intertwined elements into two mutually exclusive parties should give us, as citizens, a reason to pause.
Rebellion and reason are two basic human emotions that define a great majority of history. The past is littered with examples of rebellions and is simultaneously populated with instances of incredible reasoning abilities. Yet these two concepts cannot be extrapolated out from one another because they are intimately intertwined in the psyche of humanity. We all have the rebel inside of us that wants nothing more than to tell your boss to stuff it and then to go travel the world — we all also have the reasonable side inside of us that understands that telling your boss to stuff it may not be in the best interests for your well-being.
We constantly are balancing the rebel and the reasonable. However, governments in the past have not always been as keen on balancing these emotions as you, the individual, are. In fact, history has shown us scores of examples of politicians and leaders exploiting one of these emotions to rally the people to a veiled end, often to the detriment of the opposing forces.
Humanity has a natural desire to follow the outrageous promises of an audacious testator — a symptom of humanity’s instinctual nature to rebel. But this rebellious energy, if channeled properly, can propel innovation, create leaders, and shape the future. There is perhaps no better country that is illustrative of this positive rebellious instinct than our own Union.
Rebellion is a trait enshrined inside the very core of Americans — both the new and the multi-generational. America is the mother of rebels: from our founders, Washington and Jefferson; to our civil rights leaders, Dr. King and Malcolm X; the rebellious American women including Earhart and Tubman; and the artists of the digital world — Jobs, Gates, and Zuckerberg. We are the sons and daughters of explorers, frontiersmen, merchants, patriots, inventors, farmers, and leaders. Rebellion, the perpetual angst of the status quo, is what has propelled this country into the forefront of history. However, what has made America exceptional is her ability to nourish this natural rebellious inclination towards the betterment of society — to use rebellion in a reasonable way.
However, now because of the creation of these two echo chambers that recruit their adherents via the funneling techniques of identity politics, America is at risk of losing her ability to rationally and freely form her own opinions — not because of lack of ability, but because of the generalized ignorance created by the echo chambers.
Let me be perfectly clear, neither of these chambers is intrinsically superior to the other — in fact, I believe that both are handicapped in their attempts to govern because neither truly understands the populace as round, dynamic, characters; but rather attempts to play identity politics and categorize people by non-determinative characteristics. Just because one is black does not mean they are a Democrat — but if you listen to the television it is easy to assume that all black Americans are enthusiastic Democrats and have a disdain for the Republican party. This is obviously not true.
Observationally, however, this echo chamber schism should prove more frightening to the Democrat than to the Republican. The reason for which lies in the wisdom of the great 20th century thinker Aldous Huxley:
“Wherever the choice has had to be made between the man of reason and the madman, the world has unhesitatingly followed the madman. For the madman appeals to what is fundamental, to passion and the instincts; the philosophers to what is superficial and supererogatory – reason... Erasmus [the man of reason] was only reason and decency; he lacked the power to move men to action. Europe followed Luther [the madman of rebellion] and embarked on a century and a half of war...”
This past election is a perfect illustration of how reason cannot “move men” to vote, while rebellion proves a pungent persuasive power to mobilize voters. What then should the left do looking forward? The answer lies in looking back at Obama’s 2008 election. Though just a short eight years ago, we forget that Obama was the madman. It was John McCain who embodied the traditional sense of reason. However, contrary to the rhetoric of the 2016 election, the madman in 2008 used his soapbox for, as Huxley would say, the “sane and reasonable exploitation of the forces of insanity.” Perhaps Huxley was being incendiary with the use of “insanity,” but if we substitute rebellion for insanity the concept suits our purposes here well.
Obama did not fall victim to the echoes of ivory towers prior to his 2008 run, rather he could intimately and succinctly articulate the emotions swelling inside the chests of American rebels that were still reeling from the initial onslaught of 2008. He rose to power on the foundation of change — of rebellion.
Four years later, it appeared that the marble echo chambers of traditional reason in D.C. had caused Obama to lose the pulse of the American rebel after an uninspired performance at the first presidential debate. In retrospect, one can point to this moment as a turning point for Obama’s 2012 campaign. He quickly realized that if wanted to win reelection he must, once again, mobilize the forces of rebellion for the ends of reason. The pivot won him the election as Romney, the product of the corner-office echo chamber, was incapable of outperforming Obama’s appeals to our more basic human tendencies.
The most recent election, on the other hand, gave us two candidates who almost exclusively appealed to either the rebel or to the reasonable — and as Huxley predicted, the madman won. After all, it's only human nature. Secretary Clinton was not able to impassion the rebellious nature inside of us, nor did the reasonableness that she articulated persuade us of her validity. Rather it was the madman, with a frighteningly low regard for traditional reason and reasonableness, who rose to power as he enflamed the passions of the American rebel.
Certainly, President Trump’s actions inside the Oval Office will speak much louder than any words shouted on the campaign trail; he deserves every chance to prove that America will continue to be a bastion for the reasonable rebel. However, the crevasse that has now opened between the two echo chambers in our society and the gasoline that was poured onto the fire during 2016 has only widened the distance between the two and ought to be cause for concern for all free-thinking Americans.
Our hopes now lie in the better angels of the president to combat the agents of disunity; our Founding Fathers surely say a prayer towards the perpetuation of the delicately balanced dichotomy of rebellion and reason that has embodied, emboldened, and empowered America for centuries.
Mercer May is a J.D. Candidate at the University of Richmond and has worked in numerous public policy and legislative rolls - including the Virginia House of Delegates, the Senate of Virginia, and the Office of the Attorney General of Virginia.