“In this campaign I’ve been presenting to the public some of the things I want to do for California – meaning for all the people of our State. I do not exclude any citizen from my concern and I make no distinctions among them on such invalid bases as color or creed.”That's 1966, before, as the article's authors note, the long march through the institutions.
At the time of the Eisenhower-Reagan exchange, today’s noxious mix of identity politics, adversarial multiculturalism, and political correctness was only in its infancy. It was just then coming into fashion on campuses and in the circles of the New Left run by cultural Marxists like Herbert Marcuse.Lyndon Johnson's failed wars, in Vietnam and on Poverty, had not yet given the Perpetually Aggrieved purchase. But the subsequent fifty years have not turned out so well, have they?
Building on the theories of Antonio Gramsci and the Frankfurt School, the New Left argued that─even more than class─America was divided along racial, ethnic, and gender lines into a dominant group (white males) and “marginalized” groups (ethnic, racial, linguistic, and sexual minorities). The goal of politics should be first to “de-legitimize” the ideas of the American system and second, to transfer power from the dominant group to the “oppressed” groups, they argued.
Today, this perverse form of Balkanization, which places Americans into various identity group boxes in employment, education, law, and culture pervades the academy, government, media, and political life. It is even codified in the official U.S. Census.
Yet almost 50 years ago, Eisenhower and Reagan immediately and instinctively knew that this embryonic identity politics was a direct challenge to the universalism that America stands for. Beneath their smiles and Midwestern amiability, Ike and the Gipper revealed a deep understanding and sophistication of what political philosophers would call “regime maintenance.” That is, the ideas and values are necessary to sustain the American way of life.This may be the case, and yet we're either going to get more substance-free rhetoric and policy wonkery, or both, tonight. That's not what an Eisenhower or a Reagan would have wanted.
Without using sociological terminology, Eisenhower and Reagan knew that an emphasis on one’s race, ethnicity, and gender group highlighted his “ascribed status,” i.e. what a person was born into, rather than the “achieved status” that an American earns as an individual. They knew that there was something “old world” and frankly un-American about emphasizing birth status and dividing our citizens into competing ethnic, racial, and gender groups.
In other words, five decades ago, they understood identity politics for it was: an attempt to de-legitimize American constitutional democracy.
We have taken no surveys, but we suspect there is a deep unease in our country with the identity politics/political correctness regime. There is a profound hunger for a presidential candidate to face this issue explicitly; to speak for Americans as a whole, and renounce group-based appeals. It would be wonderful to hear either a Republican presidential candidate at the Reagan Library, or a Democratic presidential candidate at another event, present the arguments of Eisenhower and Reagan, or paraphrase the language of George Washington in his Farewell Address when told his fellow countrymen that—before any other political identity─ they should consider themselves first and foremost as Americans.Perhaps we have not yet suffered enough. Would Abraham Lincoln observe that "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous?" Or is Jon Gabriel right?
"These are serious times. We are not a serious people."
No, we'll go to Hell watching people get voted off the island.