Identitarians vs. liberals

[I have a much better new post at Econlog, on monetary economics.]

Many intellectuals see politics in terms of left vs. right. Today, I wonder if the more important split is between those obsessed with identity politics and those who are not. In other words, left wing ideologues obsessed with identity issues are closer to white nationalists then they are to mainstream liberals (both progressives and classical liberals.)

Matt Yglesias has a cute tweet that illustrates this concept:

It seems to me that the far left and the far right increasingly share a view that identity trump’s everything else. As a result, both extremes agree that George Washington and Robert E. Lee are equally deserving (or undeserving) of being cancelled. In contrast, mainstream liberals on both the left and right believe that identity issues can be important, but lots of other stuff is also important.

White nationalists are so focused on defending white rights that they cross over from highly plausible claims (Washington’s accomplishments are more important than his faults) to much more doubtful claims, (former Confederate leaders deserve our respect.)

Extreme leftists believe that identity is such an all-important issue that Washington is roughly as tainted as Lee.

White nationalists believe that NFL teams should cancel sincere black protesters like Colin Kaepernick, while extreme leftists want to cancel highly respected scientists like Steven Pinker. Liberals believe people should be fired (if at all) only for extremely offensive views, such as advocating Nazi or KKK ideas.

At the bottom of this post you’ll see a list of the people who signed the petition favoring free speech. Notice that it includes many highly respected people on both sides of the ideological spectrum. (And one idiot, who backed off from the letter once she found out who else signed it.) Perhaps we have a new ideological spectrum, and just don’t know it yet.

Right now, I’m more worried about white nationalists, because they are the people in power in DC. But if someone claimed that 10 or 20 years from now the biggest threat will be “woke” people on the left, I would not necessarily disagree. We (liberals) are fighting a two front war. The key is to stick to our principles and don’t get drawn to either extreme based on phony “enemy of my enemy” arguments.

It’s often noted that left wing “woke” people are helping Donald Trump by pushing moderates to the right. Perhaps they believe that if only they and the white nationalists are left standing, they can win the battle. But can they? Didn’t the German communists believe they could win a battle with the fascists, once the moderate parties were made irrelevant via chaos in the streets?

[Don’t blame me for the analogy overreach—it’s Godwin’s Law.]

One solution is education. Not in the sense of telling students they should support free speech—that won’t work. You need to show them, to make them see that they should believe in free speech. Every student in high school should be exposed to several weeks of coverage of the right wing European nationalistic ideologies of the interwar years, and several weeks on left wing Maoist movements such as the Chinese Red Guards and the Khmer Rouge. They need to understand what happens when the extremes of the right or left take control. And please describe the torture in vivid detail; they also need to be toughened up. The world’s a brutal place.

PS. I waver back and forth in terms of how to view the thought control people on the left. At times their arguments seem funny, easy to mock, like something out of The Onion. Because it doesn’t affect me personally (yet), it seems like a big joke. But then I recall people I knew and respected who were badly (and unfairly) damaged by PCism run amok, back in the 1990s.

PPS. If you are a millennial interviewing for a company dominated by boomers, don’t you have an incentive to come across as a tough, irreverent person, who can take a punch and likes self-deprecating humor? Wouldn’t that make boomers feel safer about hiring the person? Or might they fear this person ends up fighting with coworkers? In other words, is it already too late? I’d be interested in the views of those closer to the job market.

PPPS. The recent NASCAR “noose hoax” perfectly encapsulates this moment in time. Some see racism everywhere, even where it doesn’t exist, while others want to scapegoat black people for mistakes made by white people.



58 Responses to “Identitarians vs. liberals”

  1. Gravatar of rayward rayward
    8. July 2020 at 10:50

    Sumner: “Right now, I’m more worried about white nationalists, because they are the people in power in DC. But if someone claimed that 10 or 20 years from now the biggest threat will be “woke” people on the left, I would not necessarily disagree.” Thank you. I wish you would explain this to your friend Tyler Cowen. I’ve explained it this way: That certain leftish conformity can be confused with certain rightish confromity reflects just how much we are all alike. But I’ve always been impressed by rightish conformity, the former critics of Trump’s boorish and erratic behavior quickly falling in line when it came to real power, the power to control Congress and the Courts, while leftish conformity is stuck with a war over what words might offend the most sensitive in their ranks.

  2. Gravatar of Brian Donohue Brian Donohue
    8. July 2020 at 10:50

    “Right now, I’m more worried about white nationalists, because they are the people in power in DC.”

    Surely you aren’t talking about the Democratic House or permanent civil service. Also, sorry, but Trump is not a white nationalist. Maybe you’re thinking of the Supreme Court, with its raft of recent decisions upholding fascism?

    Things are moving fast. I’d be happy to show Trump the door, but we are handing the keys to a senile meat puppet whose four decade career is completely anathema to those leading the charge from the left, but they don’t care cuz he’s mouthing all their garbage now.

    If Biden wins and the GOP loses the Senate, you will come to realize how silly the whole McCarthyite push against imaginary Nazis was.

  3. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    8. July 2020 at 11:44

    Brian, Take a deep breath. We heard all the same warnings before Obama, and somehow the country survived.

    The President is just one person—Biden’s a buffoon, but he’ll be fine.

    You said:

    “Also, sorry, but Trump is not a white nationalist.”

    Are you not paying attention? Almost every day Trump tries to provoke racial antagonism via twitter. He’s decided that white nationalism is his best path to re-election.

  4. Gravatar of Carl Carl
    8. July 2020 at 12:08

    First time I’ve seen someone invoke Godwin’s Law as a defense.

  5. Gravatar of Brian Donohue Brian Donohue
    8. July 2020 at 12:56

    Scott, I can’t cure your TDS.

    Biden was a serious politician for decades with a track record of mainstream Democratic positions that the party has 100% repudiated now. He’s just a sad old husk at this point.

    2008 was forever ago. Very poor analogy. A big chunk of the Democratic Party actively rejects Obama today.

  6. Gravatar of Tom Tom
    8. July 2020 at 13:03

    In the job market, the first line of hiring is typically HR, which is mostly millennial or gen X. HR tends to attract individuals who are more PC than average. So the optimal interview strategy probably involves pivoting from being very PC in the initial screening, to self-deprecating and tough when meeting the team you will be working with.

  7. Gravatar of Mark Mark
    8. July 2020 at 14:05

    For hiring, it seems the ideal person is someone who will neither get offended nor offend others. Therefore it would probably be best to not initiate a conversation that could be controversial, but to agree politely or even join in a bit if someone else initiates.

  8. Gravatar of Bob Bob
    8. July 2020 at 14:06

    The hiring process is probably much more siloed than what you’re familiar with. In my experience:
    – 1st, a 3rd party firm gets in touch and does a touch-base interview to get a sense of your background. Usually closing with “great, I’ll see if the company is interested in your application.”
    – 2nd, nothing happens for 2 weeks.
    – 3rd, they schedule a meeting with an HR person from the actual hiring company. That interview is a bit more substantive, but the HR person usually isn’t well versed in your expertise.
    – 4th, nothing happens for 4 weeks.
    – 5th, the HR rep schedules a meeting with the actual person you’re going to be working for. As a Millennial myself, this is usually with a Gen X manager. Despite the stereotypes, office work seems to reward and attract much more team-focused managers, so charging in and making crass self-deprecating jokes wouldn’t come off very well.

    In my experience, the pop-culture stereotypes of the office are years behind the lived experience of the office. A good example is the tech-clueless boss who can’t open a pdf. I’ve been in the workforce for a decade and I’ve never once met a manager who didn’t have proficiency in those kinds of tech basics. Of course, some office stereotypes are forever.

    However, the hiring process is quite a nightmare. It’s not an exaggeration to say that a whole month will go by with radio silence from the hiring manager, or that firms will literally bring you into the office five times and then never contact you again; not even for a courtesy “Thanks, no thanks”. And firms have vastly over-specified their job postings. It’s not enough to have years of experience in R, SAS, and SPSS; if you don’t have 3-5 years experience in Stata (or whatever specific program that they use) they’re not interested.

  9. Gravatar of Negation of Ideology Negation of Ideology
    8. July 2020 at 14:11

    Scott –

    I generally agree with the post, I’d just like to note that there’s a difference between someone protesting while on the job, like Colin Kaepernick, and someone expressing opinions on their own time, like Steven Pinker.

    I’m not saying either should be fired, I just think it’s a very big distinction. If the guy taking your order at Burger King decides to start preaching politics to the customers, he will soon be an ex-employee. If he tweets about politics when he goes home, he most likely won’t be fired, or at least he shouldn’t be.

  10. Gravatar of Bob Bob
    8. July 2020 at 14:24

    I was brought up with the idea that you try to treat everyone the same. My K-12 experience was probably 90+% white, so it was more rhetoric than substance until college, which was more 60-70% white. That’s what I strove for through most of my life so far, trying to just treat people with equal respect regardless of gender, color, accent, or belief. I’d probably be maligned as a proponent of “color-blindness”, but I kinda thought that’s what we were going for the whole time.

  11. Gravatar of Michael Sandifer Michael Sandifer
    8. July 2020 at 14:29

    Yes, the immediate concern is fascism, but I am concerned that left-wing extremism could be the next populist movement to cause significant problems. There is already a purity movement in the Democratic Party pushed by the far left that reminds me of that begun by the far right in the 80s.

    We seem to be witnessing the beginning of a great liberal backlash, which will be positive in some ways, and hopefully many significant ways, but I’m concerned. I’m concerned about more the excesses. I’m concerned the far left will teach the center a more effective, but less moral political approach, combining government giveaways with Chavez-style demagoguery. To be clear, such an approach would be utterly immoral, but could offer the prospect of Democrats having more permanence in their dominant political position.

  12. Gravatar of Michael Sandifer Michael Sandifer
    8. July 2020 at 14:43

    I find it humorous how differently Biden is considered than Obama or Hillary,on the right. Even many Trump supporters say Biden is basically a good, moderate guy, but is senile and will be controlled by the far left. Many of those same people said Obama was a secret Muslim who hated America and would have us all living in hobbit houses, after he let the UN take over. Hillary is said to be running child sex prostitution rings, giving 80% of our Uranium to Russia, and heartlessly sacrificed American lives in Benghazi.

    Biden, Obama, and Hillary overwhelming agree on most things. What does that tell you about right-wing perceptions?

  13. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    8. July 2020 at 14:49

    Brian, You said:

    “A big chunk of the Democratic Party actively rejects Obama today.”

    Nope. You make the mistake of confusing a big chuck of twitter with a big chunk of the Democratic Party.

    Tom and Mark and Bob, Thanks for the insights.

    Negation, Agreed, but my complaint is more with certain people calling for him to be fired, like the President.

    Michael, There are always excesses, then swings back to sanity. It’s a constant throughout American history.

  14. Gravatar of Bob Bob
    8. July 2020 at 15:16

    Michael, it’s not an accident that the US elected 43 white, male presidents in a row. Nor that out of ~2,000 senators since our founding, only 30 were non-white and only 57 were female.

    Conservatives perceive liberals as obsessed with identity politics. But in America, somehow a demographic cohort with ~37% of the population represents 98% of presidents and 96% of senators. So, it’s pretty clear that America has long been obsessed with identify politics, as long as that identity is “white dude”.

  15. Gravatar of Benjamin Cole Benjamin Cole
    8. July 2020 at 17:05

    It is interesting that US media, including the New York Times And The Washington Post, aggressively embrace identity politics as the defining feature of our society today.

    Thinking about politics in terms of class is still mostly forbidden.

    Thus, illegal immigration must be good as non-whites are the largest part of illegal immigrants.

    The impact of illegal immigration on wages in the lower half of the US labor Force is rarely discussed.

    A few eons ago when I attended school at Berkeley, the furry Marxists on-campus described US media as primarily a diversion. I ended up spending four decades in various parts of financial media.

    Curiously, reporters in financial media understand class politics fairly well and even write about it sometimes.

    But the reporters and editors in mainstream media have not spent the time necessary to learn about monetary policy, tax codes, trade, income distribution and a dozen other topics. So, to be seen as Progressive, they sanctimoniously jibber-jabber about identity politics.

    Which is very convenient for the upper class.

  16. Gravatar of Daniel Daniel
    8. July 2020 at 17:50

    Francis Fukuyama wrote a book on this. The title? Identity.

  17. Gravatar of Benjamin Cole Benjamin Cole
    8. July 2020 at 18:58

    I am banned, evidently for life, from commenting in the Econolog blog (cancel culture is everywhere!). So I will comment on Scott Sumner’s latest post here.

    Scott Sumner dismisses MMT, and certainly the version expounded most often in public is dubious.

    But we see thinkers such as Stanley Fischer, David Beckworth, and an earlier version of Ben Bernanke, speak of money-financed fiscal programs, or a fiscal facility operated by the Fed.

    David Beckworth discusses permanent additions to the balance sheet of a central bank.

    The difference between MMT, a money-inanceAd fiscal program, or a fiscal facility operated by the Fed begins to muddy, no?

    Also, the central bank of any particular nation operates within globalized capital markets. This strongly suggests that interest rates on sovereign bonds are set globally. It also suggests that quantitative easing takes place not within the United States (in the case of the Fed) but within globalized capital markets.

    Thus, the actions of any particular central bank take place within a gigantic global pool of capital. No wonder Stanley Fischer is promoting a fiscal facility for the Fed,

    A fascinating side note: 5 years ago the Yen traded for 124 to the US dollar. It has since appreciated to 107 to the US dollar.

    Does this tell us anything about Bank of Japan monetary policy?

  18. Gravatar of Jonathan Miller Jonathan Miller
    8. July 2020 at 20:32

    As someone who considers themselves a member of the progressive left, the focus on identity on the left is terrifying. A lot of the poorer, lower class minorities who are part of the ‘left’ would fail the left identity test that Rowling is currently failing much faster than Rowling is.

    They get ignored, for the most part because of class segregation. This division can’t last forever. The progressive left will not be successful with an identity focus.

  19. Gravatar of mbka mbka
    8. July 2020 at 21:37

    The whole trouble with identity, right or left, is evidently that it is tied to belonging to a group. And since every human has many facets (or dimensions) of “identity”, this group belonging is completely misleading. We all have numerous “identities”. So, two things then happen, 1. one dimension of identity takes undue precedence over all others as if they didn’t exist, and 2. group membership is tightly controlled by the watchdogs of that group, to enforce group conformism. That’s not a bug but a feature – each group needs to self define at the exclusion of other groups.

    I don’t think the left is any less exclusionary than the right, as someone commented elsewhere, and never was. Witness the endless purges of socialism. And, in analogy to monetary policy, maybe the worst excesses of identitarianism on the left and right, come right at inflection points in history where people feel lost and need to label themselves and others as card-carrying members of a group. They then pick any group that fits the bill – nation, sexuality, religion, it doesn’t even matter.

    So the defining feature of all of this is the desire to belong to a group (tribalism) and not even political. It was common that fervent socialists could also become fervent anti socialists (in the 20th C), or that fervent atheists used to be fervent believers. But neither ever becomes a fervent libertarian who just likes to be themselves and leave others in peace.

  20. Gravatar of Mark Z Mark Z
    8. July 2020 at 22:28

    Most liberal-minded people – ironic though it may be – seem to identify more with identitarians on the side toward which they lean than with liberal-minded individualists that tilt toward the other side. As long as that’s the case, the ‘liberal’ vs. ‘identitarian’ divide, while perhaps important intellectually, won’t be important politically. “No enemies to the left/right” seems to be the order of the day. There are exceptions, like Andrew Sullivan (and Jonathan Chaidt as well lately, and some others at NYMag) or David French or Kevin Williamson, who understand that it’s ok to hate more than one thing, but they do seem like, well, exceptions.

  21. Gravatar of Kevin Erdmann Kevin Erdmann
    8. July 2020 at 22:37

    There are Progressives that are on the fence, but I think the identitarian stuff is an inevitable and natural outgrowth of egalitarian-centered Progressivism because it creates the cognitive basis for sectarianism. Everyone belongs to a group or groups, and each group either deserves to have its status raised or lowered, in order to meet an egalitarian standard. I think it makes the most sense, today, to think of Progressivism as a form of Conservatism, and its most ardent forms become more sectarian. Equating Progressives with liberals is sort of like equating libertarians with Conservatives. There were alliances of convenience, but beyond that it isn’t very helpful to think of them as ideologically similar.

  22. Gravatar of Ray Lopez Ray Lopez
    9. July 2020 at 01:37

    Has Sumner read Philip Roth’s novel, The Human Stain (2000)? Seen the movie? It might be too familiar to the professor to be comfortable reading. Has he read the Wikipedia entry on Anatole Broyard?

  23. Gravatar of Ray Lopez Ray Lopez
    9. July 2020 at 02:01

    Kevin Erdmann’s post upstream is really good. His status went up in my mind (sorry I flamed you about your kooky housing bubble theory, but maybe you were right?).
    As a member of the 1%, by inheritance, and living in the Balkans and PH, when I’m not in the USA, I see identify politics in all three countries I live in. For me, there’s only one constant: money is good, and more of it is better. That way you don’t need to conform. Note all the people who were cancelled depended on other people’s opinions to keep their job. That’s a sign of weakness.

    @ Ben Cole. I also am banned at Econlib, their loss.

    @Brian Donahue – can’t believe somebody as smart as you is a Trump supporter. His inheritance tax stance is the only thing I like, but still not worth my vote. More bureaucracy will also help Chicago, not just DC, so you should be voting Blue.

  24. Gravatar of Postkey Postkey
    9. July 2020 at 02:17

    “Let’s take Biden. What does it mean to vote for Joe Biden? He has this kind of goofy persona which some people find charming. What is Biden’s record? What is a person voting for if they back Biden on Election Day 2020?
    The humiliation of courageous women like Anita Hill who confronted her abuser. You vote for the architects of endless war. You vote for the apartheid state in Israel. Biden supports those things. With Biden you are voting for wholesale surveillance by the government, including the abolition of due process and habeas corpus. You vote for austerity programs. You vote for the destruction of welfare. That was Biden. You vote for cuts to Social Security, which he has repeatedly called for cutting, along with Medicaid. You vote for NAFTA, you vote for “free trade” deals. If you vote for Biden, you are voting for a real decline in wages and the loss of hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs.
    With Biden you are also voting for the assault on public education and the transfer of federal funds to Christian “charter schools.” With Biden you are voting for more than a doubling of the prison population. With Biden you are voting for the militarized police and against the Green New Deal.
    You are also voting to limit a woman’s right to abortion and reproductive rights. You are voting for a segregated public school system. With Biden you are voting for punitive levels of student debt and the inability of people to free themselves of that debt through bankruptcy. A vote for Biden is a vote for deregulating banking and finance. Biden also supports for-profit insurance and pharmaceutical corporations.
    A vote for Biden is also a vote against the possibility of universal health care. You vote for Biden and you are supporting huge, wasteful and bloated defense budgets. Biden also supports unlimited oligarchic and corporate money to buy the elections.
    That’s what you’re voting for.
    A vote for Joe Biden is a vote for more of the same. The ruling elites would prefer Joe Biden, just like they preferred Hillary Clinton. Donald Trump is vulgar and an embarrassment. But the ruling elites also made it abundantly clear about their interests: Many of these people were quoted by name saying that if Bernie Sanders was the nominee — or even Elizabeth Warren — they would vote for Donald Trump.”–compared-to-whats-coming-next/

  25. Gravatar of sty.silver sty.silver
    9. July 2020 at 03:58

    This tracks my experience. I’ve barely argued against right wingers lately, but almost only against woke people. Obviously primarily influenced by what sites I visit, but still.

    > seems to me that the far left and the far right increasingly share a view that identity trump’s everything else.

    > trump’s


  26. Gravatar of El roam El roam
    9. July 2020 at 04:36

    One may find great interest hereby, complaint lodged against official Chinese, to the international criminal court in Hague, a press release, titled:

    “PRESS RELEASE: Uyghur Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity: Credible Evidence submitted to ICC for the first time asking for investigation of Chinese officials”

  27. Gravatar of rr rr
    9. July 2020 at 07:19

    -“PPS. If you are a millennial interviewing for a company dominated by boomers, don’t you have an incentive to come across as a tough, irreverent person, who can take a punch and likes self-deprecating humor? Wouldn’t that make boomers feel safer about hiring the person? Or might they fear this person ends up fighting with coworkers? In other words, is it already too late? I’d be interested in the views of those closer to the job market.”

    I employ, hire, and occasionally fire, lots of millennials and GenXers, some boomers and one zoomer. Talking politics, blue or red, moderate or extreme, is a terrible career move for senior leadership in my organization. Everyone on my team is high skilled and high payed- I’m in IT with a focus on business systems. Starting at the front-line manager level I coach my staff not to discuss politics at work, and most grasp it quickly. Generally speaking, front line staff are not hurt by having political views unless they say something truly offensive. I probably bring someone into my office a
    once a year to tell them that their discussion of politics is disruptive (causing fights), and that they need to stop. Off the top of my head, most off those conversation have been with boomers. BTW- I’m Genx.
    My experience is that Millennials are very pragmatic. That said, there may be some adverse selection with boomers who chose not to pursue management positions.

  28. Gravatar of Rick Sint Rick Sint
    9. July 2020 at 08:12

    The essential similarity between the authoritarian alt-right and the postmodern (i.e., woke) left is what I was getting at here:

    Conveniently, I have located you, Scott, in a 2d plot, which I think gets at the ideological axes that are emerging as the important ones now that the old categories of “left” and “right” are becoming increasingly meaningless.

    For over a century up to the 2000’s it had been progressives vs. conservatives in American politics. But starting in the 2010’s the two “principal components” of ideological variation are changing. It’s not progressives vs. conservatives–it’s true liberals, on the one hand, vs. both the woke version and the alt-right version of identitarianism. Progressives and conservatives were differentiated by moral-political views, but the liberal vs. woke split is deeper philosophically–it’s about the whole Enlightenment project, fundamentally a question of being pro-reason vs. anti-reason.

  29. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    9. July 2020 at 10:26

    Bob, Exactly.

    Jonathan, You said:

    “They get ignored, for the most part because of class segregation. This division can’t last forever. The progressive left will not be successful with an identity focus.”

    I may do a post on the way that identity politics conflicts with socialism. The left will have to choose.

    Kevin, Yes, but I’d also say it’s part of the inevitable evolution of modern conservatism away from Ronald Reagan and toward identity politics.

    El Roam, They should investigate.

    rr, Very good. Reading that makes me realize how little I know about management.

    Thanks Rick, Very interesting article. Keep in mind that Rorty does not deny the existence of truth, he just denies the usefulness of distinctions between subjective and objective truth.

  30. Gravatar of TGGP TGGP
    9. July 2020 at 10:35

    “Liberals believe people should be fired (if at all) only for extremely offensive views, such as advocating Nazi or KKK ideas.”
    What counts as “extremely offensive” is subjective. I am firm, you are obstinate, and he is a pigheaded fool.

    As for whether Trump is actually a white nationalist, I think Scott Alexander’s “You Are Still Crying Wolf” still holds up:
    Trump riling people up is not new, and not all that uncommon these days. It doesn’t entail adherence to an extremely unpopular ideology.

  31. Gravatar of bb bb
    9. July 2020 at 11:03

    BTW: rr above is me. I think this is a very worthwhile view. I’ve long felt that the idea of Communists and Facsists being at opposite ends of a spectrum is absurd. They have more in common with each other than with their more moderate left and right peers respectively. Imposing ones views through non-democratic means is very troubling- authoritarian instincts. Cancel culture, patriot shaming, disrupting public events, bringing guns to protests, and pretty much everything on twitter are examples of “soft authoritarianism”, while I would use the label “hard authoritarianism” for things like activist judges, punishing wistleblowers, hunting leakers, voter suppression, abuse of subpoena power, ignoring subpoenas, and executive orders. Hard authoritarianism scares me more than soft authoritarianism, but both are dangerous. Being on the left, the M4A crew feels more authoritarian that the woke group but that’s probably just point of view.
    Have you read or listened to Ezra Klein’s deep dive into what he defines as identity politics. It’s a different framing, but very useful look into how our primate brains send us down very bad paths.

  32. Gravatar of sd0000 sd0000
    9. July 2020 at 11:25

    Thanks Scott. This is thought provoking. I think the issue is when you’re plugged into internet political culture, certain trends get amplified. It really does seem as if the illiberal left has been on an unstoppable death march since ~2012.

    Whenever I take a break from Twitter I find myself shifting to the left; but as soon as I go back on my views lurch back towards the right. And it’s not because I follow any particularly right-leaning folks. The opposite in fact. Seeing journalists at reputable, “neutral” institutions effectively act as DNC operatives is disgusting.

    That being said, which view is “correct”? We used to say the craziness is restricted to the far corners of the internet, then just universities, then media, and now schooling, corporations, criminal justice, etc. Every facet of culture and society has been taken over. Like I said, death march. You can take a break from the internet and try to ignore it, but you can’t ignore real life.

    You can (I think wrongly) argue that cultural power isn’t as relevant as political power, but that’s going to change as well! Sure, Biden is a “moderate”. And yes, maybe his immediate cabinet will also be close to the center politically. But the broader administration will undoubtedly have more rank and file who disagree than agree with the contents of the Harper’s Letter. I would bet the farm on that.

  33. Gravatar of sd0000 sd0000
    9. July 2020 at 12:01

    @ Bob – your comment makes no sense (Scott, surprised you agreed with him here). Yes, that group represents 37% of the overall population TODAY, but that’s an extremely unfair comparison!

    If you want to argue whether outcomes are meritocratic or not, you have to make proper cohort comparisons. As an extreme example, think of how absurd it would be to argue that the fact that there were no Hispanics among the first 10 Presidents even though the country today is ~20% Hispanic is proof of discrimination. Everyone would realize how insane that is.

    So not only do you have to take demographics *at the time* into account. You further have to cut it by: demographics of those graduating elite institutions, demographics of those getting high enough test scores to get into elite institutions, etc, etc.

    Whenever you really cut things like this (whether it’s in politics, corporations, etc.), you realize in positions of power, by far the most discriminated against demographic is Asian Americans; and that’s because there are various mechanisms that allow for legal discrimination against them.

  34. Gravatar of Rick Sint Rick Sint
    9. July 2020 at 12:20


    Indeed, your soft spot for Rorty is the main reason I put you a little closer to the postmodern pole in that 2d plot.

    Despite my overall take on postmodernism, I do see value in the new kinds of problems the postmodernists raise, especially neo-pragmatists like Rorty and Kuhn, in relation to naive acceptance of an orthodoxy within a particular discipline at a particular moment in time. I just think the postmodern solution to these problems–essentially, to belittle and discard the Enlightenment project–is a dangerous overreaction. And it is the ultimate source of both wokism and the alt-right.

  35. Gravatar of Bob Bob
    9. July 2020 at 15:37

    sd0000, just consider the lengths to which you have to go to explain away the rampant racism and sexism that is clearly pervasive in the system. Who was given access to those elite institutions that launched elite careers? Who was denied? Women, slaves, the poor. At our founding you couldn’t even vote unless you were a white, landowning, man.

    I’ll make it even simpler. At this nation’s founding women were 50% of the population, and yet we’ve never had a woman president. If you want to wrap yourself up in delusions of meritocracy, how to explain away the fact that the largest demographic group in the United States since its founding is completely unrepresented in the Presidency? Or that women account for only 3% of all senators ever? Or that even today they’re only 26% of the Senate and 23% of the House?

    I hate identity politics. I hate the identity politics that suggests that all’s well and fair and equitable and meritocratic so long as only white dudes write and enforce the laws.

  36. Gravatar of sd0000 sd0000
    9. July 2020 at 15:53

    @Bob – what is the correct split for you for Senate / House today? 50/50? That would imply that men and women both equally desire to be politicians AND that they’re both equally represented at the right most tail in characteristics that make one a successful politician. I would strongly argue against both those points.

    I’m not saying that the current split represents perfect meritocracy, but I think it’s insane to say that only proportionate to demographic cohort means it does as well.

    But at least you’re now making proper cohort comparisons.

  37. Gravatar of Christian List Christian List
    9. July 2020 at 16:24


    what’s your explanation that apparently over 90% of the people killed by US police every year are men? I’d really like to know. What is the explanation? Does the police hate men? Is there a law that forces them to shoot men nearly exclusively? What is the plot behind this? Should we shoot a woman for every man, to make it even? I assume it’s all a secret plot by white women going on since at least 300 years. Oh these guys are so slick.

  38. Gravatar of Romeo Stevens Romeo Stevens
    9. July 2020 at 17:58

    To truly love liberty is to be at war from cradle to grave.

  39. Gravatar of anon anon
    9. July 2020 at 18:36

    re Kevin’s point above: If this is progressivism, nothing more than a mob mentality to force folks to conform to the-only-true-freedom-of-thought-speech-social-justice-as-we-deem-fit, not denying what Bob above has called out with respect to lack of actual meritocracy, sexism, racism etc. which are all very real, what exactly is the word “progress” doing in that “progressivism”? Is it like a euphemism to call regressivism as progressivism.

    Looks like the far left just had a moment of envy, see how Tea Party and the Norquist mob is able to bend the conservatives to their thought and force tax-cuts-always-orthodoxy and other such orthodoxies. Why can’t we do that?

    Meritocracy: what exactly are the merits that are required to be a US Senator or President? Or even a Supreme Court Justice. If one were to model it such that they came to their positions thru their own merits, then the merits that matter for achieving that position is not what other consider merits. Thats a fundamental discord then: what exactly are the merits necessary for women/oppressed etc. to give it back to WASP men?

  40. Gravatar of Mark Z Mark Z
    9. July 2020 at 22:00


    You’re being utterly ridiculous. Women couldn’t vote (or hold office) for most of the country’s history. Obviously they’re going to be under-represented. I’m not aware of anyone arguing that politics was meritocratic with respect to gender in 1900. The point is that, let’s say, earmarking the vice presidency in 2020 specifically for a ‘woman of color,’ even there is a more qualified choice that happens to be a white man, is not equalizing, it is not justice, or reparative of past wrongs. Quite the opposite. The ‘woman of color’ who gets the nod for her gender/race is quite privileged. She’s was lucky enough to live in circumstances where she benefited from such incidental characteristics, and the hypothetical white man who got passed over for that reason doesn’t have it coming because he’s the same color as Millard Fillmore. Your argument basically falls apart once you remember that we aren’t all mere instantiations of our races or genders and don’t inherit everything that happened to people before we were born.

    Suppose we passed a law saying white men can’t hold office, then in 2040, over 90% of the country’s presidents would still have been white men. By your metric, we’d still look at that and say, “clearly we’re not doing enough” when in fact we would have done far too much. Adding up all the presidents or senators from the last 300 years doesn’t tell us much about today.

  41. Gravatar of mario mario
    10. July 2020 at 03:31

    You throw around terms without defining them. For example, you say Trump is a nationalist. Compared to whom? Hitler? Mussolini? Stalin? He’s not even in the same ballpark. What makes him nationalist? The fact that he hugs the American flag? Is that nationalism? Is saying you love your country nationalism? Is wanting to protect your borders from drug dealers nationalism?

    Here is the oxford definition: “the desire by a group of people who share the same race, culture, language, etc. to form an independent country”

    If that is the innocuous definition of nationalism, then I guess I’m a nationalist. I would probably want to remove race from the equation. But culture and language sounds pretty good to me. Having an independent country I can call home sounds good too.

    I’m shocked at the stupidity that exists within academic circles. We have way too many academics today talking about things they know nothing about. You clearly cannot even grasp the definition.

  42. Gravatar of Cartesian Theatrics Cartesian Theatrics
    10. July 2020 at 03:48

    Almost half of my generation is against “capitalism”, so I think I know which extreme I’m more worried about long term. Also I’m a bid fan of liberty and freedom of speech and standardized testing. The leftist media has totally shocked me this year. Remember when Vox was good? It was so innovative for a while, but dear god what the heck happened to it. Ditto the rest of them. In any case, we seriously need to reform both our parties.

  43. Gravatar of Michael Rulle Michael Rulle
    10. July 2020 at 05:02

    Someone mentioned that women are an overall minority in federal politics. That is less true in local politics. But, there are more women then men in America, in recent decades there are more college graduates, they tend to have better grades, and maybe are smarter and tougher—who knows? My only point is if it matters to women that there be more women in federal politics it will happen. Nothing objectively stands in their way.

    Scott always casually asserts that Trump is a white nationalist. I never heard that term before Trump used in politics since maybe George Wallace or lesser crazies since him—-and even Wallace backed off that—-in Alabama!. Scott sees this as obvious as many do. I think this is silly——or at least as silly as calling John Lewis a “black nationalist”. As politicians they all want the easy vote——but it does not define them.

    The problem RIGHT NOW is the Covid Virus. Before Covid, politics since 2017 had been just a more extreme version of politics as usual—-the President is always “really bad” to the other party. I cannot believe Scott does not agree with that simple statement.

    Covid led to “not going to the office”, fear of calamity, and a whole new factor to help break down social cohesion. Remember when Pelosi was mocking the squad? No more—-they are helpful now.

    Identity politics is too shallow to last long——But it has a foothold today as we have been side swiped by a giant monster—Covid—-the dopes running some of our cities will fade. But unfortunately we have a year or 3 of more chaos coming our way.

    We know who Trump is. And Scott believes that is more than sufficient to unload him. I understand that view. But I do not know who “the Dems” are today. No one believes it is Biden—-So who will really have presidential control if he wins? I don’t know—-and for that reason alone I will vote for Trump

  44. Gravatar of Bob Bob
    10. July 2020 at 05:36

    Mark, what you don’t understand is that we’ve been doing that exact affirmative action for years, decades, and centuries. Who had access to voting? White guys. Who was considered for nomination? Only white guys. Who won the nominations? Only white guys. Who was run in the elections? Only white guys. We’ve been practicing white guy affirmative action for our country’s entire history. Here’s the big question: why does the “best person for the job” always just “happen to be white”?

    That’s always the excuse given, that the person just “happens to be white”, our nominee just “happens to be white”, “our mayor, governor, senators, and president all just happen to be white guys, it’s just a grand coincidence.” Let’s do a little mathematical experiment to show how utterly naive that mentality is.

    73% of the US is white, and 50% are dudes. White dudes make up roughly 37% of the U.S. population. I will use my polity as an example (~40% white dudes), but the math is easy enough to do for yourself. So let’s say your mayor is a white guy. 40% probability if we’re assuming a perfect meritocracy and an average demographic distribution. Nothing to be surprised about. Oh, the governor’s a white guy too, that’s a weird coincidence: 16% chance. My house rep is actually a black guy, so we’ve made some progress there. Both state senators are white guys…hmmm, that’s kinda unlikely: 2.6% chance. The President too? 1% chance. And that’s only from one election. If they all get reelected, 0.01% chance. What if that weird, crazy, completely bizarre result happened again, and again, and again year after year after year?

    My state has never elected a governor or senator unless they were a white dude. That’s 47 governors and 72 senators . My state has never voted for a president unless they were a white dude. But sure, they all just “happened to be white dudes”. All the best people for the job just “happened to be white dudes”.

    I’m a white dude and even I can smell out this corrupt, rotten situation. It ain’t women of color who are getting the affirmative action treatment, it’s white dudes.

  45. Gravatar of Christian List Christian List
    10. July 2020 at 06:00

    I’m a white dude and even I can smell out this corrupt, rotten situation.


    You finally found the pattern. Woke media like the NYT is full of white dudes like you telling the same stories. Interestingly, I’ve never seen any of these Bobo Blobs resign ever.

    Why don’t these hypocrites actually step back and make room for a black lesbian woke woman with the right ideology and preferably 2-3 disabilities?

    I can only hope that you are penniless hobo, without any hierarchical status, because if not, then you should urgently make room. Just step back and get out of the way, it can’t be that hard. Left-wing hypocrisy is so mind-blowing.

  46. Gravatar of Bob Bob
    10. July 2020 at 06:37

    Correction to my prior post, my state did vote Obama in 2008 and 2012. So as far as I can tell that’s: 47 white dude governors, 72 white dude senators, 44 white dude Presidents, and 1 black dude President.

  47. Gravatar of Christian List Christian List
    10. July 2020 at 08:00


    Trump is certainly some kind of populist and/or nationalist.

    This doesn’t have to be bad per se, but when certain people use the term “white nationalist”, they obviously want to make close connections to ideologies like Nazism, connections that don’t exist.

    It’s also interesting how these people emphasize racial affiliation in white people only. Regarding nationalists like Xi, Modi, Duterte they don’t do that, unless you explicitly force them to.

    Trump is a rather poor Nazi. His fatherline and the corresponding country do not interest him one bit, at best as an enemy and to ride populist attacks.

    And he has married a person who is certainly considered a Slav among racists, a person who is at the very bottom of Nazi ideology, and with whom, according to Nazi ideology, blood mixing must be avoided at all costs. So yeah, Trump the “white nationalist”.

  48. Gravatar of bb bb
    10. July 2020 at 08:53

    I’m curious what your views of equality are in Germany. 48% of Turkish kids are relegated to Hauptshule, as opposed to 16% of ethnic Germans. I’ve never heard a good explanation of this situation that doesn’t involve racism.

  49. Gravatar of Kevin Erdmann Kevin Erdmann
    10. July 2020 at 09:55


    Yes. Progressivism and Conservatism are both forms of the sectarian intuition, and I think American politics makes more sense if Progressivism is viewed as such.

    I really like Arnold Kling’s “Three Languages” framework. In it, he describes the Conservative language as Civilization vs. Barbarism and the Progressive language as Oppressor vs. Oppressed. But, over time, I have come to think of the Progressive language as just a subset of the Conservative language. Instead of basing the definition of barbarism on belief in a religion, ancestral connection, etc., the Oppressor is the Barbarian in the Progressive language. All the trappings of sectarianism are easy to see in these cancel-culture debates. The disgust response to outsiders, the pre-determined winner or loser status in debates, etc.

    The “billionaires shouldn’t exist” stuff and the “fire him for wearing a tacky Halloween costume 20 years ago” stuff all comes from the same Oppressor vs Oppressed (which is a subset of Civilization vs. Barbarism) predeterminism, which morally creates permission to dehumanize the outsider. Rich vs. Poor and White vs. Black are just different fields where the Oppressor vs. Oppressed framework goes to work.

    Hundreds of years ago, thinkers had to pay fealty to the religious beliefs of their time and place in order to avoid getting on the wrong side of the Civilization vs. Barbarism divide. Today, paying fealty to racial and social egalitarianism is necessary because that is the focus today.

    Actually, for some time, this process has been in place regarding economic language. Read any of the memoirs from the financial crisis. Bernanke, Paulson, Geithner, etc. They are constantly promising that any benefits to corporations or the rich as a result of their decisions were simply side effects that they had to allow in order to help the regular guy. Nobody today can explicitly admit to trying to improve the lot of those with the “Oppressor” label. It would be like associating with a low caste or helping pagans in other times and places. The whole Main St. vs. Wall St. framework is the result of this, and Progressivism (as a Conservative or sectarian impulse) has wholly won the day already in that sphere.

  50. Gravatar of Kevin Erdmann Kevin Erdmann
    10. July 2020 at 10:07


    That’s a good question. I would say that with traditional Conservatism, individuals are perfected through existing institutions. Probably the most clear example of this is the evangelical rituals around giving your life over to Christ. Even though those institutions clearly change with the preferences of their adherents, they are based on a sense of unchanging historical connections of some sort.

    Progressivism also tends to seek individual perfection through institutional control. Prohibition, and the various other types of control that were part of past Progressive movements, could be seen as an examples. It seems to me that Progressivism is Conservatism without being tethered to the sense of unchanging institutions. The moral demands are based on new shared revelations rather than ancient traditions, and so while the conceit of Conservatism is respect for some historical stability, the conceit of Progressivism is that it is part of a changing, improving moral world.

  51. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    10. July 2020 at 11:19

    TGGP, I doubt whether Scott Alexander stills believes that.

    You said:

    “What counts as “extremely offensive” is subjective.”

    Yes, but in life there’s no avoiding decisions based on the subjective.

    bb, No, I haven’t heard that podcast. Is there a transcript?

    sd0000, I think it’s a big mistake to shift left or right based on what idiots are saying or doing.

    As for your response to Bob, he didn’t say tribalism is the only factor, but surely it was a factor. Blacks weren’t even allowed to vote in the South until the 1960s.

    Mario, You said:

    “You throw around terms without defining them. For example, you say Trump is a nationalist.”

    Trump calls himself a nationalist

    That Oxford definition would be like defining “communist” as people who believe in fairness. I’ve defined nationalism in several posts here and at Econlog. I don’t redefine it in every single post.

    Cartesian, Yes, conservatism went off the rails, and then a few years later so did progressivism.

    Michael, You have to be pretty dense to not see Trump’s white nationalism.

    Christian, You are a master of logic:

    Nazi’s were white nationalists.
    Thus if you accuse someone of being a white nationalist, you are accusing them of being a Nazi.

    How can I even respond to that?

    Kevin, Yes, I also like Arnold Kling’s framing of the three groups.

  52. Gravatar of Christian List Christian List
    10. July 2020 at 12:43


    yes, very roughly speaking you can put it that way, because white nationalism was certainly one of the most important elements of Nazism. What do you think about when you hear the term white nationalism? Santa Claus?

    You like to call Trump a “white nationalist” and not just a nationalist. You don’t to this with other infamous nationalist leaders from other “races”. Don’t you think it is legitimate to ask why? I mean what information is in “white nationalist” that isn’t already in “nationalist”, assuming that you don’t want to imply that Trump is basically a Nazi?

    I mean, we all know that Trump is white and that he’s from America, so if we call him a “nationalist” it is perfectly obvious that he is an American nationalist, and not a Russian one, or a Chinese one, or an Indian one.

    So please, what additional information do you want to give with “white”? Do you think people are color-blind? Or do you think Trump wants to create a new white (more like orange) Aryan super race with his favorite hate continent Europe? Or what do you want to tell us?

  53. Gravatar of bb bb
    10. July 2020 at 15:43

    Couldn’t find a concise transcript of Ezra Klein, but the Audio Hightights of this Russ Roberts interview give a nice introduction into the idea of mega-identities. This definition of identity is a huge distraction to me when folks on this site discuss identity politics, because I have trouble limiting the term identity to marginalized groups. I reflexively apply to term to all groups that feel marginalized. Whites, evangelicals, or white evangelicals are good examples of groups that seem to feel marginalized, and behave in ways that I think exemplify identity politics.

  54. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    11. July 2020 at 09:13

    Christian, I really feel sorry for people who can’t see what Trump is doing. To go through life with so little ability to read people . . . SMH.

    Check out the twitter feed for Tucker Carlson’s writer. That’s where Trump got lots of his talking points.

    And sure, you can find similarities between Trumpism and Nazism just as one can find similarities between SJWs and Maoists. But to say there are similarities doesn’t mean they are similar. Nazis and Maoists were a million times worse.

    bb, Yes, white nationalism is identity politics, I’ve made that point many times. That’s one reason I hate identity politics.

  55. Gravatar of Kevin Erdmann Kevin Erdmann
    11. July 2020 at 19:51

    I just came across this pew research question that is a great example of how we have all acquiesced to “cancel culture” on economics long ago. The choices are “corporations make too much profit”, “corporations make a fair profit”, or “I don’t know”. It would simply be too vulgar to contemplate the thought that profits are too low. Nobody would say that out loud. For the most part we self regulate not to even think it.

  56. Gravatar of Richard Richard
    14. July 2020 at 18:48

    Trump saved America.

    I remember sitting in Scotts class 25 years ago, and he told us then that China devaluation was nothing to worry about. The wages would rise, the currency would increase in value, and a level playing field would be created. The same mindless nonsense that I’m sure he brainwashes his students with today.

    Trump was the only politician to propose a tougher stance. rump got us out of the pathetic Iran deal. Can you imagine any other nation embarrassing themselves to the extent of delivering billions in CASH to a corrupt regime. Are we going to send billions in tax payer money to North Korea next. Is that who we are?

    Trump was the only politician to raise concerns about the Paris climate agreement, an agreement that China would never live up to – handicapping our entrepreneurs already more than they are.

    Trump had the guts to remove HK financial status despite Microsoft, amazon, google, and EVERY FINANCIAL COMPANY ON WALLSTREET, begged him NOT to do, because it wasn’t in THEIR interest. It’s in the taxpayer interest though.

    Trump is the only politician to ban graduate students working for the CCP.

    Trump is the only politician to place sanctions on Chinese for exterminating the Uighers.

    Trump is the only politician to mention the NAS report about social justice at the administration level of academia.

    Biden is a joke. He was in the senate for 30 years and spent most of it enriching himself. Its amazing how a guy on a 200K salary can afford 4 porches, two Ferraris, and four multi million dollar homes. And you want to vote for him?

    Scott has been wrong again, and again, and again and again, and again……yet he never gets tired of arrogant blog posts. I find it remarkable. Most people have some humility – especially when they have been proven wrong so often. Not Sumner!

  57. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    15. July 2020 at 10:06

    Richard, You said:

    “Trump is the only politician to place sanctions on Chinese for exterminating the Uighers.”

    LOL. Trump personally encouraged Xi to put the Uighurs into concentration camps.

    You said:

    “I remember sitting in Scotts class 25 years ago, and he told us then that China devaluation was nothing to worry about. The wages would rise, the currency would increase in value, and a level playing field would be created.”

    All of which happened exactly as I said.

    As for the rest, politics is a helluva drug.

  58. Gravatar of H_WASSHOI (Maekawa Miku-nyan lover) H_WASSHOI (Maekawa Miku-nyan lover)
    21. July 2020 at 04:04

    Since the United States has always struggled far from the truth, running from one extreme to the other, and has been inconsistent in its diplomacy, I think Japan needs to be uniquely prepared.

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