Yascha Mounk is the founder of Persuasion. His new book, The Identity Trap: A Story of Ideas and Power in Our Time, was published this week.
In this week’s conversation, Coleman Hughes and Yascha Mounk discuss the intellectual origins of the "identity synthesis"; how this novel ideology was able to become so influential so quickly; why its application to areas from free speech to cultural appropriation is a trap; and how to make a compelling case for the liberal ideals that are more likely to remedy injustices.
This interview was recorded with Conversations with Coleman, a podcast hosted by Coleman Hughes. The transcript has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Coleman Hughes: We're here to talk about your new book, The Identity Trap. It's a great book. It's broadly about a topic I cover a lot, which is the evolution of the ideology that has become very popular on the left in the past several decades, that goes by many different names: wokeness, identity politics, etc. But your book has a really deep and interesting history of how we came to be here. Can you tell my audience why you came to care about this particular set of ideas and how it links up with your previous books?
Yascha Mounk: I was a bit of a “crisis of democracy” hipster, in that I was worried about the crisis of democracy before it was cool, before Donald Trump was elected and all of that. I worry a lot about threats to the basic liberal institutions that I think sustain a country like the United States and make it, despite all of its real flaws, a great place to live. Serious threats do come from the far right and from authoritarians like Donald Trump, or Narendra Modi in India, or Recep Erdogan in Turkey. And that's definitely one of the things that I continue to be concerned about. But I came to worry about developments on the left for a number of reasons, and one is that I care about beating right-wing populists, and I think when mainstream institutions are increasingly captured by an irrational ideology that is deeply unpopular, and a lot of people lose trust in the decisions of government officials that actually empowers those figures on the right.
I also care about these ideas because I think the stakes are significant in themselves. I'm an academic and a writer. I care about the kinds of ideas that are governing our public sphere, social life, and universities. When a new ideology has been adopted at incredibly rapid pace without people really interrogating it in a serious way, that's concerning in itself. And it's particularly concerning when it's inspiring all kinds of destructive norms in our schools, universities, and corporations.
To give one example, many elite private schools in the United States now have teachers come in in first or second grade and divide kids up by race: if you're black, you go there, if you're Latino, you go there, and so on. And they try to teach those people, as the name of one particularly influential organization puts it, to “embrace race:” to think of themselves as racial beings, to double down (for the white kids) on their white identity and to own their whiteness. Now, the goal of that is to build a more tolerant society. I think it's much more likely to lead to a zero-sum conflict in the heart of our society–and to inspire those white kids to be racist or white supremacist rather than anti-racist.
Hughes: I think the difference between the threat from the right and the threat from the left, at least among my network and the people I've known in my life, is that the threat from the right is generally more obvious to most people. And again, that's a statement relative to my own situation, having grown up in a blue area, having lived in and around New York City my whole life. The threat from the right, from racism, is a wolf in wolf's clothing. The threat of separating kids by race with the aim of teaching them to “embrace race”—that is a lot more confusing to people, because I think some people fall for the identity trap. They fall for the trap of believing that this is the way to fight racism, this is the way to stand up to bigotry on the right. And so that's why I spend more time critiquing it.
Mounk: A trap is something attractive, it's saying, “Hey, this is the most radical, principled, uncompromising way to fight against racism, homophobia and discrimination, and so on.” That is what lures people in, but you're going to be trapped: the outcome is going to be bad for you, and it's also going to be bad for society. Part of it is a political trap: a lot of progressive organizations have torn themselves apart because of internal meltdowns, making it harder for them to sustain their missions. When you encourage people to “embrace race,” you might be trying to build a more tolerant society. But actually, you might build a zero-sum conflict in which the historically dominant continue to win out. You might think that this is the most radical way to oppose Trump, but actually, you're going to make it easier for him to win again in 2024.
It's not just a political trap though; it's a personal trap as well. It inspires people to seek that recognition that they desperately need in forms of reductive self-descriptions that actually will never quite satisfy them.
Hughes: I graduated high school and entered college right at the time where these kinds of racial separatist rituals were going on. I had one at my high school, probably around 2013-14, and in my orientation at Columbia University there was another one. And, by that time, I think I was already searching for criticisms of my milieu, and I didn't really know how to find them (I was listening to podcasts and so forth). But I do recall being asked to go to one side of a classroom, the black corner, and, of course, I'm half-black, half-Hispanic. So it's inherently ambiguous which I would choose. But for whatever reason, I chose the black corner. And the intention of this experience was presumably good. But the effect was to make me feel more acutely aware of my race, which I was not going into that classroom. Going into that classroom, I figured it's my first week of college, I hope I make friends. And after that, I felt this was pigeonholing me as the black student. And I wonder if other students are going to now look at me and see my blackness as a bigger feature of my identity, simply as a result of this exercise, which is not something that I wanted. I wanted them to get to know me as an individual. So this struck me as a very strange exercise.
Mounk: In that situation, you're required to make your ethnicity the primary thing about you in a kind of self-affirming way and that does violence to how you think about who you are, right? I don't define myself, in the first instance, as somebody who's white or Jewish. That’s true about me. I'm aware of that, and I'm aware that that mediates my social standing in certain ways. But it’s not what I think really defines me. The other important point here is that, inevitably, a society which always bases its treatment of people on the group to which they belong is going to spell trouble for people whose membership in those groups is somehow ambiguous.
Hughes: I want to address one critique right off the bat, which is that this stuff is all marginal. It's one news story here, another cherry-picked story there. It's not mainstream enough to be worth worrying about or writing a book about. How do you address that?
Mounk: Well, in two ways. First of all, I teach this stuff at college and my students are great, they want to engage with stuff and are grateful to have a space where they engage with it. In the classroom, I assign readings that broadly agree with my point of view. But I also assign Derrick Bell and Kimberlé Crenshaw. In fact, I would not be able to teach some of my classes at a public university in Florida, because they're not supposed to teach critical race theory and identity politics. But I teach papers that are clearly out of that tradition and defend that—I want my students to be able to think critically about these things and make up their own mind. I tell them at the beginning of class, “I want you to change your mind about something. I don't care in which direction you're going to change it.” But the bottom-line assumptions that these smart, open-minded students hold are deeply steeped in this tradition and they haven't heard the counter-arguments in their education. That is how deeply the most influential people in America—which they are going to be in ten, twenty, or thirty years—are being shaped as part of that tradition. So that's not marginal.
But there are also really clear cases of this having influence on public policies when the stakes are extremely high. For me, the most important and the most shocking was the way in which the United States rolled out vaccines in 2021. We had these amazing life-saving vaccines, but there were too few of them, so what were we going to do? Virtually every country in the world did it by age. But the key advisory committee to the Centers for Disease Control, called ACIP, said that even though that course of action is much easier to implement, we're not going to do that. It would, they said, be unethical because a disproportionate number of older Americans are white. Even though, according to their own causal models, adopting a different rule would increase the number of deaths by between 0.5 and 6.5%, could lead to thousands more people dying, simply prioritizing older people would be the ethically wrong thing to do. Instead, they recommended putting essential workers, who supposedly are more diverse, first. A couple of things happened because of that. One is that it's really hard to communicate who's an essential worker. And immediately the politicking started about being included as essential workers: Film crews were essential workers. Finance executives were essential workers. I was an essential worker, as a college professor in Maryland, at a time when I was not allowed to teach classes in person…
Then what happened is that you had way too many people eligible for the vaccine at a time when there were barely any appointments. So who got the appointments? The people who were able to refresh the websites for hours a day, or who could write computer programs to find eligible spots, or who were able to drive hours out of town in order to get to some rural pharmacy that had more capacity for some reason. They were the ones to get it. In other words, more privileged people who were probably at slightly less risk of death. AI suspect that this policy even killed more non-white people, because if you give a vaccine to two 25-year-old black Uber drivers, rather than one 80-year-old black retiree, more black people are going to die.
So here's a policy that is a life or death question; is capable of inspiring just the worst kind of zero-sum racial competition in our politics; and can easily be exploited by the political right to empower people like Donald Trump. Is that a trivial example? I don't think so.
Hughes: Let's go right to the story that you tell about how it is that identity politics or wokeness has come to predominate in culture. Identity politics and wokeness—these are both terms that have been kind of beaten to death. And in some way, that's a natural effect of their being so important: we have to have names for things and, when things are on people's minds, the names for those things just end up getting repeated over and over; when they're contested philosophies, it becomes especially fraught.
You have this new term that I really like—“identity synthesis.” Why have you chosen that? And what is this ideology a synthesis of?
Mounk: I think Freddie deBoer said, “Look, just tell me what on earth you want me to call this ideology that is reshaping our social reality. And I'll call it that. I don't really care. But we need to have a term that allows us to talk and debate about it.”
Why the “identity synthesis?” Well, first of all, because these ideas are fundamentally about forms of group identity (race, gender, and sexual orientation). The claim is: “These are the most important categories through which to understand and think about the world. They should be what political activism is based on and, in many ways, what our social institutions and policies should revolve around.”
And then I think that, in its current form, this ideology is a surprising synthesis of three different intellectual traditions: postmodernism, postcolonialism, and critical race theory. And if you actually go through each of those traditions and their main thinkers and concerns, the six or seven themes that dominate progressive circles in the United States in 2023 really emerge.
Hughes: The synthesis as you describe includes, basically, Michel Foucault, Edward Said, Gayatri Spivak, Derrick Bell, and Kimberlé Crenshaw. It’s roughly those five?
Mounk: Yeah, and of course you can always add other figures in that tradition. I read very, very broadly, in order to write this book. I'm trained as an intellectual historian, originally, but I think these are the ones who most meaningfully contributed to this tradition.
Hughes: Let's begin with Foucault. Stripped down to as few ideas as possible, what is Foucault all about and how does he contribute to this synthesis?
Mounk: There's a little bit of a subtext here. A lot of the right says this is just “Cultural Marxism”; that's what somebody like Chris Rufo argues. I think that’s a fundamental misunderstanding, and it makes it very hard to see how influential Foucault—who himself rejected Marxism—was on the entire tradition.
Foucault was a member of the French Communist Party, which basically listening to Moscow's political directives, from 1950 to 1953. But he hated the party and, to his honor, he left in 1953. Indeed, he rejected “grand narratives,” these big attempts to structure our understanding of the world, to think that it has some kind of directive purpose. One of those grand narratives was Marxism, with its predictions about how the proletariat was going to stage a revolution to bring about socialism, and so on. Another grand narrative was liberalism, the idea that if we live up to the Bill of Rights and the Constitution (or, in the French context, the values of the French Revolution), that is going to create a better and more humane world. So, from the beginning, Foucault has a very deep skepticism about any claim to neutral or universal truth, and about any political values that claim to be superior to others.
That deep skepticism about objective truth is the first big contribution he makes. The second big contribution is that he changes how we think about political power. Now, you know, you ask a smart high schooler what political power is, they'll say something like, “Well, there are laws and a bureaucracy and a police force, and they exercise power over the society (and perhaps, in some complicated way, that power derives from us through elections).” It's a pretty top-down model of power. Foucault says, “No, that's not the most important form of political power; the most important form of political power comes from discourses; from the way we think about and conceptualize the world. What's truly important is how we have this conversation on this podcast, and how that constrains the kind of possible moves that people can make in thinking about the world.” So power is much more diffuse. It's omnipresent. And that made Foucault quite skeptical about the possibility of bringing about improvements, because you might fight against one kind of oppressive discourse and that might give you a second of freedom. But then the discourse is going to reconstitute itself and the new discourse is probably going to be just as oppressive as the one that came before.
Hughes: As you point out, Foucault’s whole ethos is to criticize everything, every ideology that is a metanarrative; do not try to replace it with your own because your own will be just as bad. That's sort of what one gets if one is a Foucault devotee. That's a problem because it doesn't actually allow you to organize if you have an activist bent. If you want to change the world, Foucault only gives you the tools with which to critique the world and to continue critiquing the world until you die, but not to change it or to build something of your own.
Mounk: The question you're asking is precisely the question that a set of postcolonial thinkers were asking themselves in the 1970s. They came from countries that had recently become independent and now had to figure out how to rule themselves and what kind of ideology to adopt. They often were skeptical of the main Western traditions, including liberalism and Marxism, because they felt these were external impositions and they had, in various ways, justified colonial oppression. (Critics of liberalism always point out that John Stuart Mill had a kind of defense of colonial rule in India. But Karl Marx had a defense of colonial rule in India that actually is very similar to Mill’s.) And so they were asking, “How do we use those critical tools of postmodernism to dismantle some of the ideas that we think are bad but in a way that's more politically fruitful, that we can actually use in a concrete political context?”
And so the first step here is Edward Said. In Orientalism, what he says is these ideas about the East, about the Orient, that people in the West have developed over the course of decades and centuries, were a key part of justifying colonial rule. And so uncovering these ideas and why it is that the West felt the East was immature and not yet capable of political self-governance can help us understand how colonialism persisted. And Said explicitly and repeatedly quotes Foucault positively; he’s just about the only thinker Said quotes positively in Orientalism.
But Said then becomes impatient with the apolitical nature of Foucault and says, basically: “The point is not just to uncover those kinds of discourses and the power that they played. It's to invert them. It's to actually rethink the world in a way that will give political agency to those people who have lacked it for so long.” And so that becomes the model for a politicized form of discourse analysis, in which re-describing the world—imposing new categories, new concepts and new identities on the world—becomes a key part of how you do political battle.
So today, what it is to be an ant-racist activist may, in part, be to pass certain kinds of laws or advocate for certain kinds of policies. But a lot of it is critiquing how some new Netflix show is inadvertently racist. What it is to be a feminist may in part be to stand for abortion rights or something like that. But a lot of it is going to be celebrating or perhaps critiquing the new Barbie movie.
Hughes: Said develops this critique of language and this imperative that you can change the world by changing language, and his critique is that the colonizers have changed the world by using a set of words to describe it and we should change those set of words. And in doing so, we contribute to changing the world for the better. And that directly links up with the tendency nowadays to obsess over language (it looks like obsessing to an outsider to the ideology, at least). If you look at the kind of word salad that has come to be associated with the LGBTQIA+—you know, it just gets longer and longer. And from the outside, if you're not part of this particular proto-religion, it looks insane. From the inside, they have accepted that to change the world, you must first change the language.
Mounk: The success of this form of politics, which actually has had a lot of impact on our world, is nearly self-validating, right? I don't think this means that truth is actually subjective. But one of the core postmodern critiques is that a lot of the time what we think of as truth just depends on who's in which social positions and who exercises power. And ironically, I have become more convinced of that over the last ten or twenty years, precisely because we've all started to believe a lot of bullshit.
In the same way, there’s this kind of ambivalence where Foucault inspired this attempt to reshape our social reality by insisting on these terms. And some of that is sort of fruitless. Some of this makes people engage in word salad that might work in activist spaces, but it's completely irrelevant to everybody else. But some of it is actually very powerful. I think the idea that America is effectively divided between whites and people of color, and that's how to understand our elections and how to understand our basic social contract and so on, has had a real impact on how the Democratic Party runs its campaigns, for example. At some level, it’s self-sustaining. I think the category of the Asian American, which is a completely nonsensical category if you think about the vast cultural and historical differences between India and China, has, in a weird way, created a reality of Asian Americans who think of themselves as standing in solidarity with each other and having commonalities even if, historically, they come from very, very different groups. And at the same time, someone like Foucault would give you the tools to criticize that, right? The idea that America is fundamentally to be understood as a clash between whites and people of color, and everything that comes with that now-current political narrative; that is something that Foucault would have immediately recognized and criticized as a grand narrative.
Hughes: Okay, so how might Foucault critique intersectionality if he were alive today?
Mounk: First of all, there are different ways of thinking about intersectionality. But to get there, we first need to talk about is the rise of “critical race theory” more broadly.
The founder of critical race theory is a really interesting African American lawyer called Derrick Bell, who did heroic work for the NAACP helping to desegregate schools, businesses, and other institutions in the American South and beyond in the 1960s. But he later came to believe that this was effectively a mistake.
Some of his criticisms were understandable. He observed that many clients he argued for wanted to attend a better high school, but by the time that he won those cases they'd already graduated, right? So they’re not going to get anything from that lawsuit. Some of the schools that were integrated got very poor resources, and sometimes black students ended up being discriminated against. And so that doesn't provide the quality education that black parents obviously sought for their children. But Bell then goes so far as to explicitly, in his first seminal academic article, agree with segregationist Southern senators who say: “These lawyers like Bell, they weren't really arguing for the interests of their clients. That was just a pretext to impose this ideology of desegregation.” And Bell himself concludes that perhaps, in some contexts, Brown v. Board of Education was a mistake. Perhaps we should effectively have fought for schools that were separate but truly equal. Bell is using those arguments to reject, root and branch, the civil rights movement. He mocks “We Shall Overcome,” the civil rights era song; he says we must finally reject the “defunct racial equality ideology” of the civil rights movement.
Today, we have this debate about critical race theory, and it’s kind of dumb because, on the right, a lot of the time people will call anything “CRT,” including thinking critically about the role that race plays in our society, teaching kids about the history of slavery, and so on. But then, as a result, when you listen to MSNBC or something, they say, “Well, critical race theory is wanting to teach kids about the existence of slavery and not claiming there's no racism in our society today.” No—the key theorists of critical race theory, like Derrick Bell and Kimberlé Crenshaw, would be offended by that characterization of CRT. Bell explicitly said his mission was to puncture and to oppose the pieties of the civil rights movement. Kimberlé Crenshaw says, in an article celebrating the 20th anniversary of CRT, that the core principles of CRT are fundamentally at odds with the political philosophy of Barack Obama.
So from Bell’s philosophy we get some more of the themes that end up being really relevant today: the rejection of universalist solutions; the idea that, to make progress, you have to treat people differently; that you have to fund black schools better than they were under segregation but that perhaps black schools are a better solution than integrated schools; the idea of the permanence of racism, that America never really makes any progress; that Brown was really just in the interest of whites and that's the only reason why it happened.
Hughes: And you get hints of Foucault in that as well, with the skepticism of progress and the impossibility of progress.
Mounk: Yes, and institutionally—just for the people who are sort of following the implicit debate about whether this is Cultural Marxism or rooted in postmodernism—all of critical race theory starts in American law schools within the subfield of critical legal studies, which is explicitly the application of postmodern ideas to American law: judges don't rule on the basis of doctrine and precedent, they just are trying to serve their interests, etc. And so, again, very far from Foucault, but deeply in conversation with postmodernism and derived from it, Crenshaw comes in, and she has this idea of intersectionality, which in its original formulation is relatively straightforward and sensible. It's basically what social scientists today would call an interaction effect. If you go outside and you're not carrying an umbrella but it doesn't rain, you don't get wet. If it rains and you're carrying an umbrella, you don't get wet. If it rains and you don't carry an umbrella, the combination of those two factors means you might get drenched. But what Crenshaw is saying is that in a factory of General Motors in Michigan, for example, they didn't hire white women for a long time, and then they started hiring them. They didn't hire black men for a long time and then started hiring them. And then, years after that, they finally started to hire some black women as well. And when there was a recession and it was last hired, first fired, all the black women got fired. And they rightly said, “Hey, we're only getting fired because of historic discrimination. We couldn't have had this job longer than we did.” A judge says, “Well, civil rights legislation says a protected category is women, but other women aren't being discriminated against, and another protected category is black people, and black men aren’t being discriminated against, so you don't have a leg to stand on.” And Crenshaw rightly says, “Well, hang on a second, the discrimination suffered in this context by black women, it's not just the arithmetic sum of the discrimination suffered by women or black people. It goes beyond that in an interaction effect kind of way, and that is intersectionality.”
This concept of intersectinality then gets reinterpreted in much broader ways. Crenshaw herself says, “Sometimes when I see intersectionality today, I think ‘Oh, I wonder whose intersectionality that is, and I see that they’re quoting me, and that's what I meant by intersectionality.’” And one key idea is that if you stand at a different intersection of identities, I'm not going to be able to understand you; and so the right thing for me to do is to defer moral judgment as well, perhaps to delegate political decisions to the more oppressed group.
Hughes: Okay, so how do you think Foucault would critique intersectionality as a metanarrative? What would he identify as wrong with it, in your view?
Mounk: I think he would say two things about intersectionality (not in the sense that Crenshaw originally defined it, but in the sense that it's really influential today). First, I think that he would say there's a sort of poor metaphysics at play here which says, “Who I, Foucault, really am, is a homosexual, and who you, Coleman, are, is a heterosexual. These categories are stable and make sense, and all homosexuals are going to have similar experiences, and all heterosexuals are going to have similar experiences. And so, therefore, I cannot understand you truly, and you cannot understand me truly.” He would say, “The boundaries of these groups are somewhat arbitrary and socially constructed, and so to think that homosexuals should naturally understand each other, because we're all part of the same group, or that members of one group can't understand members of the other group, is buying into a naive idea of who we are, what defines us, and so on.” And then in terms of the second interpretation of intersectionality, that all these forms of oppression go together, I think he would be sympathetic to some of that. But he might say that the idea that we know how to make progress on any one of those things is dubious, and the idea that we know exactly the grand narrative of how to build the just world across all of those domains is the opposite of the kind of critical spirit that we should affect. And in that way, I think it is interesting that even though the identity synthesis originates in a rejection of grand narratives, the new ideology it inspires becomes one of the most dominant grand narratives of our time. Foucault certainly would have recognized that.
Hughes: Let's talk about your different defenses of free speech.One argument I've often made is that free speech was one of the only principles defending all of the activists that the identity synthesis would have identified with in the past. For instance, Ida B. Wells, I think the most unambiguously important anti-lynching activist in American history—her newspaper was named The Memphis Free Speech.
What do you feel you're adding to the conversation here about defending free speech?
Mounk: I don't want to say that the arguments I'm making are being made for the first time. I think that they're in line with what you're saying. But a lot of the time in the public space, when we talk about free speech, we base it on John Stuart Mill—one of my favorite thinkers—who in On Liberty talks predominantly about the good things that flow from free speech; that if you have free speech, then you can preserve the truth. He's not naive about this. Someone might say, “Oh, there's no free marketplace of ideas. This is silly.” No, the point is that that argument might not win out in that moment, but some people can hear it and those ideas and those insights can persevere through the generations, and perhaps, at a later point, they will win out. Mill says that it will be bad to ban even bad ideas. That if nobody ever disagreed with us, we'd have to have devil's advocates, because that's what we need in order to hold these ideas as living truths rather than as dead dogmas. And if they become dead dogmas, by the way, then it's dangerous, because tomorrow, in a month, or in a year somebody might disagree with us, and we're not going to have resources to argue against them.
I think all of that is right and important. But I can see why some people ask, “You know what, when there are people arguing for really terrible things on social media, and being really nasty, hateful, racist, homophobic and all of those things, and where the stakes of politics are really high, are these good things really that important?” I disagree with that. But I think there's a more robust answer we can give to it. And that’s to say that it is precisely in moments when the stakes of politics are really high, when our society is particularly divided, that free speech is what we need. And the first part of this is basically what you said, which is that, by definition, the people who are going to be making decisions in society are the people who are powerful, who are going to be members of the federal government’s censorship bureau or the Silicon Valley speech facilitation committee, or whatever they might call it. It's not going to be the most marginalized. That is the reason why it's called The Memphis Free Speech. That's the reason why Frederick Douglass said that free speech is the dread of tyrants. It’s the thing that abolitionists most needed in order to be able to make their case.
And here's a really weird sociological confusion that I think a lot of leftists have: because a lot of these debates originated on college campuses, where it's plausible to think that the speech code at, say, Smith College or at Harvard is going to protect progressive beliefs and make taboo non-progressive beliefs; that somehow, at the scale of the whole society, we would implement censorship that's also going to favor those ideas. I think that's really naive.
If something goes wrong, free speech provides us with a way to continue the conversation about it. If you lose free speech, we also lose the tool to self-correct.
Hughes: Finally, what do you feel is the best strategy to use to push back against the creep, which has been completed in certain institutions, of the identity synthesis into society? What do you see as the path forward?
Mounk: The first is that we need to really understand the core of this ideology and how to argue against that at the highest level. But I just want to do a little bit more of it at an abstract level.
I think there are three core principles that advocates of identity synthesis want us to believe. Number one is that the key prism for understanding society is to look at it through race, gender, and sexual orientation; that this is the fundamental way to understand our interaction today, to understand a historical event like a revolution, or anything else. The second claim is that—as someone like Bell would say—the grand ideals of the United States Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the 14th Amendment are just attempts to pull the wool over our eyes; their real social function is not to limit or fight against but to perpetuate forms of racial and sexual discrimination by making us blind to their reality. And so therefore—and here’s the third claim—what do we do? We have to rip up those universal values and neutral principles. They are the real enemy, and we need to make how we treat each other and—how the state treats all of us—more explicitly dependent on the particular identity groups into which we were born.
And I think that there's a very straightforward and coherent response that philosophical liberals can give to that, which is, number one: of course we have to be attuned to race, gender, and sexual orientation and the way that they often structure discrimination and social disadvantage in our society. But that is not the only prism to understand society. In other contexts, we might want to look at class; in another context, we might want to look at religion or people's aspirations or their values. As Jonathan Haidt would say, it's a mistake to be “monomaniacal” in our prism of the world in the way that Marxists used to be with class. Secondly, the activists who insisted that they be included in the universal principles that have been part of America since our founding are those who allowed us to make the greatest progress. Frederick Douglass was not naive about the hypocrisy of his compatriots who celebrated the Fourth of July while slavery was on the books. And yet he didn't say, “Go stuff your Constitution.” He said, “By what right are you excluding us from those principles?” Martin Luther King, Jr. did not say, “Let's rip up the fraudulent promissory note that the bank of justice wrote us.” He said, “Let's make sure that the bank of justice finally honors it.” That is what has allowed us to make tremendous progress over the last centuries. That is why America today, for all of its flaws, is a more just, and a less racist, place today than it was in 1850 or 1950.
And so, finally, what should we do? Well, we should stand with those luminaries in American history to demand that we live up more fully to our values, rather than ripping them up. This is the language we need to speak. These are the principles we need to embrace in order to argue against those ideas. This is ultimately a battle for hearts and minds. It is a fight over the kind of ideology that is going to be embraced at the highest echelons of our society. And to win that fight, we need the best arguments at our disposal.
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