American Awakening: Identity Politics and Other Afflictions of Our Time. Joshua Mitchell. New York: Encounter Books, 2020.
On first glance, it may appear that this book is a significant departure from Joshua Mitchell’s earlier published works in political theory. This, however, is mostly a matter of writing style, and represents a conscious decision on Mitchell’s part in recent years to be more accessible for a general audience. While this effort seemed academically acceptable in his 2013 Tocqueville in Arabia: Dilemmas in a Democratic Age, which – like his first two books – was published by University of Chicago Press, it appears that his perspicuous was less acceptable here since, as he relates, “Almost without exception, every major university press to which [he] submitted this manuscript responded… ‘The book does not fit our list.’” Despite the hesitance of university presses, Mitchell’s focus here on identity politics written for a general audience is a continuation of ideas on the origins of identity politics that he had previously adumbrated. However, where the introduction to Mitchell’s Plato’s Fable: On the Mortal Condition in Shadowy Times could only briefly allude to the challenge identity politics posed to the pluralist politics of the “scalar calculus of preference” through the claim that “members of an identity group purport to speak authoritatively not on the basis of a constellation of empirical attributes, but rather on the basis of a constitutive experience that outsiders cannot know,” here Mitchell focuses sustained attention on the problems of identity politics. While his language is more accessible (as well as provocative) and his footnotes are sprinkled with references to YouTube videos and web addresses, there are deeper references in his commentary to thinkers such as Tocqueville, Hegel, Rousseau, Nietzsche, and many others to warrant careful reading by a wide range of scholars and public intellectuals.
While also focusing, in the latter part of the book on the contemporary challenges of the opioid crisis and mental health, or what Mitchell renders as “addiction” and “bipolarity,” the majority of the text is focused on identity politics, which he identifies as an offshoot of the West’s Protestant Christian heritage that works through an accounting system of “transgressions and innocence.” Mitchell’s concern for our present political moment is that identity politics’ “invisible economy” of oppressor and oppressed seeks to overthrow the pluralist assumptions of Western liberal democracy where citizens seek to “build a world together” which Mitchell call the “liberal politics of competence.” According to Mitchell, even if we do not succumb to the pitfalls of identity politics, we will still have to account for the challenges of addiction and bipolarity, but we can only do so with a return to liberal competence.
In Mitchell’s perspicuous account, liberal competence is an outworking within individuals from the modest contestation of liberal politics. He frames this political modesty as a feature of liberalism’s ignorance of the future:
“Can liberal citizens know the future? No, they cannot. That is why there must be interminable arguments about its content and contour – and why markets, elections, and vibrant social institutions provide them with provisional answers about the present and future, but no final verdict…. For the liberal, each and every moment, no matter how fixed it may seem, is a temporary equilibrium inviting adjustment, compromise, and action – after which liberal citizens resume arguing, without end, and improving their lot as they go.”
A consequence of this liberal approach to politics is the necessity of waiting, and it is the prospect of waiting that is so antithetical to present identity politics. “Identity politics is for many today the compelling alternative to competence-based, self-interested, world-building liberal citizenship. Identity politics proclaims that innocent victims must be heard, and that historical perpetrators of transgression must listen, regardless of the competences they possess.” Mitchell continues, “Whatever the innocents wish to accomplish in politics is legitimate because the real basis of political legitimacy now is innocence.” Mitchell is swift to acknowledge that some Alt-Right extremists also make use of the logic of identity politics and the prescience of this insight was brought home by the Capitol Hill rioting on January 6th.
Similar to the way gnostic mass movements of the twentieth century were offshoots of Christianity that sought to “immanentize the eschaton,” Mitchell offers a slight shift of Voegelin’s famous insight by noting that identity politics “immanentizes the scapegoat” or immanentizes innocence. A politics solely focused on innocence, without concurrent conceptions of forgiveness, redemption, or reconciliation that identity politics has abandon with its deformation of Christianity, naturally leads to “purgation” whether social or physical. Further, once one impure group has been purged another must be found to replace it as the focus of blame and castigation, which can only culminate in the dead end of “the indictment of man himself, for which the resolution will be either the embrace of transhumanism or the eradication of man altogether.”
Of note for readers of VoegelinView, Mitchell’s concern in this book is not simply that identity politics does not allow us to “build a world together,” as he is also concerned that the unworkableness of identity politics will lead many towards the Nietzschean alternative of an undemocratic “pathos of distance.” This is the center of the relevance for Mitchell’s work that goes beyond his attempts to reach a general readership: “Christianity once declared that man’s stain was not the last word about him. Had it been, the burden of his transgressions would have become so heavy that he would not have been able to take another step…. The mysterious transference from the transgressor to the innocent at the heart of Christianity made a tomorrow possible. Nietzsche proposed, instead that man forget.” Cast in these terms, we see that Mitchell has not departed significantly from his larger project as exemplified in his weighty Not by Reason Alone: Religion, History, and Identity in Early Modern Political Thought (1993) and The Fragility of Freedom: Tocqueville on Religion, Democracy, and the American Future (1995).
As Mitchell states, “The foreboding question… stands before us: Is identity politics the final ghastly and unworkable manifestation of Christianity, which poisons us because [as Nietzsche held] Christianity is itself a poison; or is identity politics a pernicious defection from Christianity, whose incoherence and destructiveness can only be remedied by returning the categories of transgression and innocence to their Christian framework – and to their Hebrew context, too?” Mitchell suspects “it will take another century or more before we have our answer,” but this helpful book is a start in clarifying the stakes of the question and the outlines of the necessary work to do. Readers of Eric Voegelin will necessarily recognize that the investigation of such an important question is not always facilitated by the perspicuous language that Mitchell has employed in this work, but if Mitchell opens the door for some to join the deeper conversation, we should welcome the addition.
Also see Lee Trepanier’s review here.