The American conservative movement has consistently declared its opposition to all forms of identity politics, arguing that such a form of politics is at odds with individualism. In Conservatism in a Divided America, George Hawley examines the nature of identity politics in the United States: how conservatives view and understand it, how they embrace their own versions of identity, and how liberal and conservative intellectuals and politicians navigate this equally dangerous and potentially explosive landscape.
Although I argue the research on identity, tribalism, and group conflict tells an important story, the story is not always straightforward. Sometimes interesting studies are so flawed that they are ultimately useless – though this may not be understood until after the study has made a great impact. Sometimes researchers examining similar subjects reach very different conclusions, despite all using proper methods. In other cases, results are statistically-significant but not substantively important. In the pages ahead, I will try to provide as complete of a picture as possible, not relying too heavily on any single set of research, and acknowledging the research that contradicts my main arguments. This is a complex topic, and although I argue that identity cannot be extricated from politics, I do not want to overstate my case or oversimplify the subject.
I hope conservatives will view this work as a well-intentioned critique. I hope to start a conversation, rather than score partisan or ideological points. The United States benefits from a strong debate between competing ideological visions, even if ideological principles will always be rare in the electorate. This is harder to achieve when different sides fail to understand each other’s basic premises or have very different views about the basic nature of democratic politics in a heterogeneous society. Furthermore, I agree with the conservatives that say identity politics can create real problems for American democracy. However, resolving or at least mitigating those problems is not possible until we understand their true nature. I hope this book provides some clarity.
In various passages in this book, I acknowledge that figures on the far right and sometimes even the extreme right have made cogent arguments. This may be a controversial decision, but also one that is necessitated by intellectual honesty. One can recognize that the radical right sometimes makes arguments that cannot merely be waved away without agreeing with a radical right worldview. One can, after all, think that Lenin made some very perceptive arguments without being a Leninist or even a leftist of any sort. As I have argued in the past, the right should be treated in an intellectually serious manner. Although I take the field of political psychology seriously, I disagree with efforts within that field to pathologize the right, to treat right-wing views as a sign of some kind of mental disorder. Extremely learned and intelligent people can reach conclusions that many others find abhorrent. The mere fact that a position is discordant with the progressive Zeitgeist is not enough to dismiss it. I am sensitive to the concern that discussing extreme views in a dispassionate manner risks normalizing and amplifying these kinds of ideas, perhaps helping them make a breakthrough. In other forms of media, this may be a greater concern. For scholarly texts from a university press, however, I am confident any such effect would be, at most, miniscule.
As I write these words, identity questions are even more salient in American politics than normal. The death of George Floyd, an African American man, at the hands of a white police officer in Minnesota recently set off a wave of protests across the nation; in rare cases, these protests were followed by rioting and looting. The Black Lives Matter movement has achieved remarkable success in changing how journalists and the general public discuss questions of race and racism. At the same time, conservative activists have recently had great success demonizing Critical Race Theory, leading to acrimonious debates about how race should be discussed in public schools. These developments add an additional level of timeliness to this project, and a greater sense of urgency to the questions I consider here.