American Awakening: Identity Politics and Other Afflictions of Our Time
By Joshua Mitchell.
Paperback, 312 pages, $20.99.
Reviewed by Jeffrey Folks.
Identity politics is one of the defining issues of our time. In American Awakening, Joshua Mitchell addresses this issue, and he offers a coherent theory to explain what he views as the mounting decline of Western civilization. Yuval Levin’s opinion that American Awakening amounts to “a key to the times we are living in” may be not far from the truth because identity politics is now a pervasive ideology, finding its way into nearly every school, workplace, and civic institution. Joshua Mitchell’s analysis of identity politics is cogent, illuminating, and, in its way, courageous. His central thesis is that there exists a “deeply deformed relationship between identity politics and Protestant Christianity,” but, unlike traditional Christianity, identity politics finds its scapegoat not in the divine figure of Christ but in mortal groups such as white heterosexual males. The rise of identity politics, which Mitchell views as the expression of a spiritual quest, however misguided, should give pause to the idea that the West has simply become more materialistic and self-oriented: with identity politics, many who have turned away from Christianity have adopted a pseudo-religion that is more impassioned and extreme than anything to be found in Christian churches.
At the heart of Mitchell’s analysis is the paradigm of victim and scapegoat, an oppositional pattern that pervades every feature of identity politics and that has spread throughout our society, even into domains such as natural science and mathematics. What one finds in every domain is a mania for focusing only on victimization and scapegoating, even in the most unlikely places such as the nuclear family and the appreciation of nature. As Mitchell explains, “Absent the once-and-for-all-time Divine scapegoat who takes away the sins of the world, every domain of human life becomes a battleground for establishing wherein stain and purity lie.”
As Mitchell sees it, there is only one path back from the “debilitating pathology” of identity politics. It is for a community of thoughtful individuals to build, or rebuild, a society of honest “face-to-face” relationships and a “politics of competence,” and thereby restore a society in which individuals are judged on virtue, merit, and conduct rather than affiliation with one or more distinct identity groups. In this view, the rehabilitation of society depends on the actions of well-intentioned individuals to oppose identity politics in the public space, yet one wonders why these defenders of competence have not made their presence known already. The answer is that there exists enormous social pressure to support preferences based on identity, and anyone opposing them is immediately shunned and ostracized. Is there any reason to believe that this situation will improve rather than deteriorate further?
Mitchell may be too sanguine at times, but his writing is profound, and it addresses matters of central concern. The author probes deeply into the pseudo-religious origins of identity politics, and he demonstrates convincingly how widely this new ideology has spread across American society and Western society in general. An important point in Mitchell’s argument is that identity politics exists only in those societies that were once Christian but where Christian belief has lapsed, thus demonstrating that identity politics is in fact an ersatz form of religious scapegoating. Also important is the insight that, unlike Christianity, in which believers achieve forgiveness of sin through the intercession of the scapegoat figure, in identity politics the grievances of self-proclaimed victims can never be resolved. The model of Civil Rights protest has been hijacked and applied to a seemingly endless series of complaints, all of which obtain relief at the expense of some other group, only in time to be scapegoated by some other complainant. It goes without saying that the endgame of identity politics is an authoritarian society in which each identity group competes for recognition and relief, and in which the social cohesion that Tocqueville once highlighted as a crucial element of American democracy is replaced by distrust, isolation, and competition. This prospect is indeed a brave new world, as Mitchell makes explicit in several references to the Aldous Huxley novel “in which in order for citizens to be protected from suffering and death, they must renounce their political liberties altogether and bow without opposition to a world-controlling elite.” What is all the more disturbing is that the damage of identity politics shows no sign of running its course: every month there are more outrageous demands for equity and more assaults on well-meaning and blameless segments of the population.
American Awakening is truly impressive in all that it does, but it is also highly abstract, and it requires readers to follow the author through a labyrinth of demanding mental gymnastics. One of these is Mitchell’s repeated use of the schema of “meal” and “supplement” to discuss everything from abortion rights to social media to GPS driver systems. For all of these and much more, Mitchell concludes that there exists a “meal” and a “supplement,” as for example in his argument for limited government: “The government can supplement, but it cannot substitute for, the meal that is stewardship,” a sentiment of which few in Washington appear to be aware. Having adopted this schema, the author applies it even in somewhat unlikely situations. It does, however, have its limits and indeed, carried to an extreme, the “fixed law that declares that supplements cannot be turned into substitutes” has the effect of undermining absolute moral distinctions, which the author labels “justice” but that, in his view, require the supplement of “mercy” to avoid a hardening of social relations. The trope of meal and supplement is effective, as far as it goes, but clearly it cannot be meant to suggest that illegal drugs such as fentanyl may be viewed as appropriate supplements to a healthy lifestyle or that the current wave of organized theft can be regarded as a supplement to ordinary shopping. Nor, I believe, should extramarital sex be regarded as an admissible supplement to marriage, as at one point American Awakening appears to suggest. In reality, in terms of the most important aspects of our lives, we were meant to live with inflexible rules and limits, and the idea of a fixed law where supplements are acceptable as long as they do not become substitutes seems doubtful.
One caveat: I found it disappointing that in a book devoted to American awakening, there is no mention of the United States Constitution or of the many questions beginning to be addressed by the Supreme Court as to the constitutionality of identity politics in schools and workplaces. One would hope that the Court in future decisions would continue to combat identity politics. A discussion of “Students for Fair Admissions” and other cases would have added to Mitchell’s critique of identity politics.
Mitchell’s diagnosis of the harmful effects of identity politics is compelling and his discussion of its origins in lapsed Christian faith is illuminating. His solution to the problem, the happy future to be achieved when “liberal competence” displaces the nasty identity politics of the present, is less convincing. That day, I fear, will never come and may never have existed, or else it will be replaced by something even nastier. The reality of human history is that for eons one people has murdered, suppressed, and enslaved another, to be in turn murdered, suppressed, and enslaved by yet another, a pattern of violence and distrust aptly recorded in Homer’s Iliad and in most of the literature of war that succeeded it. America was the exception, founded as it was by a clear-eyed middle class suspicious of tyranny and the growth of government power, but we are long past the day of enumerated powers and limited government. With the rise of identity politics, we have entered the phase of tyranny of which many great minds of the past warned us, but it seems a bit late for a collegial “politics of competence” to restrain the zealots on the left.
Even now, when identity politics is causing such harm, over half of Americans believe that continuance of affirmative action is necessary, according to a 2023 NBC poll. It seems that the forces of repression and societal division, driven as they are by underlying self-interest and lust for power, are likely to double down, transforming accusation and scapegoating into something more ominous. A politics of competence may not serve as much protection against this threat.
Altogether, I found American Awakening to be a highly insightful and thought-provoking book. This volume is obviously the product of a long period of study and research focused on the harmful effects of identity politics. Its assertion that identity politics is a misguided form of Christian belief involving a scapegoat and victim is quite convincing and should be useful to all who study the issue. Also of note is Mitchell’s speculation as to what will happen once the current scapegoats, white heterosexual males, have been completely marginalized: at that point, identity groups will compete to scapegoat another group, perhaps white females or black males. At many points Mitchell’s analysis is profound and reaches far beyond most social commentary now available. American Awakening offers a useful framework for understanding the damage that the pathology of identity politics is doing to our nation, and it suggests a means of reversing the illness.
Jeffrey Folks is the author of many books and articles on American culture including Heartland of the Imagination: Conservative Values in American Literature from Poe to O’Connor to Haruf (2011).
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