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How a new identity-focused ideology has trapped the left and undermined social justice

Yascha Mounk’s new book, The Identity Trap: A Story of Ideas and Power in Our Time, explores a radical progressive ideology that has been taking the world by storm. From its unlikely beginnings in esoteric scholarly theories and niche online communities, this new worldview is reshaping our lives, from the highest echelons of political power to the local school classroom.

Mounk argues that the new identity-focused ideology is not simply an extension of prior social justice philosophies and civil rights movements; on the contrary, it rejects both. He contends that those committed to social justice must resist this new ideology’s powerful temptations – its trap.

Review: The Identity Trap: A Story of Ideas and Power in Our Time – Yascha Mounk (Allen Lane)

While The Identity Trap focuses on the political left, Mounk’s two previous books – The People vs. Democracy (2018) and The Great Experiment (2022) – considered the dangers of the illiberal right.

His critique of identity-focused progressivism thus comes from a place that shares many of its values. He aims to persuade readers who are naturally sympathetic to social justice causes that those causes demand a rejection, not an embrace, of identity-focused politics.

A tour de force of intelligent argument, The Identity Trap covers a lot of ground. Mounk explores the intellectual history of the scholarly theories that support this new worldview. He interrogates its plausibility, explains the shifts in social media and news media that have amplified it, clarifies its key commitments and raises the alarm on its likely consequences.

To critique this perspective, Mounk must first name it. He settles on “identity synthesis”, in an attempt to avoid the more common but contentious term “identity politics”. His term refers to its synthesis of a range of intellectual traditions, including postmodernism, postcolonialism and critical race theory. These theories focus on ascriptive categories such as race, gender and sexual orientation.

One question that immediately arises is why the identity synthesis focuses heavily on some types of marginalised identities and not others. The lack of focus on class – that is, hierarchies built on wealth, income, education and closeness to elite institutions – is particularly surprising. After all, economic marginalisation has baked-in inequalities and power differentials.

As Mounk tells it, the Soviet Union’s moral and political collapse saw the concept of class struggle fall out of fashion on the scholarly left, empowering cultural concerns to take centre stage.

There is also a curiosity here that Mounk doesn’t dwell on, which is why this worldview requires naming at all. Most political ideologies – liberalism, socialism, libertarianism, conservatism – are reasonably well defined and understood. This is less true of the worldview that concerns Mounk. The vague term “woke”, which has its origins in African American vernacular, was once used to refer to those who had woken up to their world’s systemic inequalities. But the term is now mainly used in a pejorative sense.

This has given rise to the perplexing phenomenon of an ideology that dares not speak its name. Perhaps those who think of contemporary progressivism as simply the truth are reluctant to name it as a specific position and turn it into an “ism”.

Yascha Mounk at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, August 2018. Roberto Ricciuti/Getty Images

Read more: Where 'woke' came from and why marketers should think twice before jumping on the social activism bandwagon

Core themes

Capturing a nestled group of moral commitments, political views, theoretical bases, activist strategies and online practices, Mounk distils the identity synthesis into seven core themes.

  1. Scepticism about objective truth: a postmodern wariness about “grand narratives” that extends to scepticism about scientific claims and universal values.

  2. Discourse analysis for political ends: a critique of speech and language to overcome oppressive structures.

  3. Doubling down on identity: a strategy of embracing rather than dismantling identities.

  4. Proud pessimism: the view that no genuine civil rights progress has been made, and that oppressive structures will always exist.

  5. Identity-sensitive legislation: the failure of “equal treatment” requires policies that explicitly favour marginalised groups.

  6. The imperative of intersectionality: effectively acting against one form of oppression requires responding to all its forms.

  7. Standpoint theory: marginalised groups have access to truths that cannot be communicated to outsiders.

There is always a worry when commentators take it upon themselves to outline an opposing view. There are dangers of misunderstanding and simplification, and of caricature and straw-man arguments. But Mounk does his best to document the prevalence of these themes.

Setting out core concepts might also prove useful in allowing progressives to clarify where they depart from his characterisation.

Read more: Do universal values exist? A philosopher says yes, and takes aim at identity politics – but not all of his arguments are convincing

The ‘Black’ classroom

Many people are committed to the identity synthesis. Many of them wield considerable power. How did this happen?

Mounk explains how the identity synthesis grew out of scholarly theories taught at many US universities. Graduates of these elite institutions have carried their social justice commitments – and the determination to stand up for them – into the corporations, media, NGOs and public service organisations that hired them. The result has been the spread of a wide array of identity-focused practices and policies.

Mounk details many of these practices. His opening anecdote tells the story of a shocked Black mother in Atlanta being told her son must be placed in the “Black” classroom. He sees the incident as part of a wider trend, whereby “educators who believe themselves to be fighting for racial justice are separating children from each other on the basis of their skin color”. Universalism, he argues, is being rejected in the name of “progressive separatism”.

As an ethicist, to me the most shocking of Mounk’s stories was the decision-making at the US Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP). A public health expert from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) argued against the life-saving policy of giving the elderly priority access to COVID vaccines. In the US, the aged are more likely to be white, meaning such prioritisation would disproportionately benefit whites.

The “ethics” of the policy protecting the elderly was therefore given the lowest score. This was despite the fact that the alternative (and initially selected) policy would not only cost more lives overall, but more Black lives. As the CDC knew, elderly Black people were vastly more likely to die from COVID than young Black essential workers.

These accounts provoke in the reader (or in this reader, at least) a sense that this can’t be right. How could things possibly have come to this?

Genuine insights

Mounk provides a detailed and powerful critique of the identity synthesis. Yet his analysis is not entirely unsympathetic. A recurring theme is the way the identity synthesis stemmed from scholarly research that has delivered genuine insights.

For example, Harvard law professor Derrick Bell was right to realise that legally enforced school integration had done little to improve Black educational outcomes. And he was insightful in drawing attention to structural racism. Institutions could continue and even exacerbate the effects of historical injustice, despite people’s good intentions.

Similarly, the legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw, who coined the term “critical race theory”, was correct to observe that Black women could be subject to discrimination that neither white women or Black men endured. She termed this phenomenon “intersectionality”.

Black Lives Matter protest, Washington DC, June 2020. Clay Banks/Unsplash

These important findings were, however, taken in worrying directions. Rather than concluding there were two types of racism – direct, intentional racism and structural racism – the latter became understood as the only type of racism. This implausibly tied racism exclusively to oppressive structures, making it impossible to make sense of (for example) hate crimes performed on one marginalised minority by another marginalised minority.

Rather than acknowledging that the law is a necessary but insufficient tool for social change, the conclusion drawn was that laws preferentially treating certain identity groups were necessary. Likewise, the concept of “intersectionality” has been used to justify many questionable claims, far removed from its initial meaning.

Division and difference

Mounk argues the identity synthesis is a “trap” because telling people to continually focus on their ascriptive identities prioritises difference, and unequal treatment only exacerbates divisions.

This is especially so when dominant groups, such as white people in the US, are encouraged to see themselves as white. Well established social science findings suggest humans are powerfully motivated to favour their own in-group, and there is a chilling capacity for cruelty against designated out-groups.

Recent controversies in parts of the US – especially in elite universities – in the wake of the Hamas attack of October 7 seem to back up Mounk’s concern.

Many people harbour grave and longstanding moral concerns about Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. There is clear reason to fear the harrowing civilian cost of the Israeli response.

Basic ethics says there can never be an excuse to celebrate an atrocity, to applaud the deliberate brutal murder of women and children, or to blame an entire ethnic or religious group for a government’s policy. Yet university students and professors have done all these things, invoking the language of postcolonialism and oppression.

Many Jewish progressives were shocked at universities’ reactions to the atrocity. University officials failed to strongly condemn the Hamas attack. An open letter from a coalition of student groups claimed Israel was entirely responsible for the violence, while other student organisations used a picture of the Hamas paraglider on their posters. One entry on the Sidechat app for Harvard read “LET EM COOK” next to a Palestinian flag emoji.

Mounk’s analysis suggests these outcomes are all too predictable. According to the identity synthesis, everything must be viewed through the lens of oppressive structures. Once it is decided that Palestinian people are the oppressed party, and Israelis the oppressors, even the deliberate murder of Jewish children can seem legitimate. Here, as elsewhere, ideology and in-group dynamics can so easily trump humanity.

Read more: Friday essay: Joanna Bourke, the NSW arts minister, and the unruly contradictions of cancel culture

Insight without ideology?

Mounk does not explore the possibility of an identity-focused progressivism that is detached from scholarly theories and the ideological commitments underpinning them.

This detachment would not be an odd phenomenon. After all, most classical liberals would, like Mounk, endorse John Stuart Mill’s arguments for free speech in On Liberty, but would not necessarily subscribe to Mill’s particular version of utilitarianism, which focuses on maximising “higher” forms of happiness.

John Stuart Mill (1806-1873). Public Domain

In a similar way, a progressive reader of Mounk’s work might be alarmed at some of the stated themes of the identity synthesis. For example, they might accept scientific facts regarding climate change and vaccine efficacy. They might retain their commitments to universal values such as human rights. They might care about democracy and the rule of law.

Yet they might still harbour enough concern for marginalised groups to support some identity-based practices, such as censoring offensive speech, calling out “white privilege” and cultural appropriation, and demanding race-sensitive policies.

Mounk does not explicitly address this possibility. But his arguments suggest the progressive view sketched above – which wants to be both humanist and identity-focused – is incoherent. He shows that, without the rationales of the identity synthesis, cancellation, censorship, moral intolerance and cynicism about liberal-democratic institutions are far harder to justify ethically.

It is inconsistent to have science when it suits and to decry it as oppressive when it doesn’t. It is hypocritical to uphold democracy, free speech and the rule of law against right-wing authoritarianism and simultaneously believe these principles are merely tools of white supremacy.

Worse still, it is self-defeating to embrace the divisiveness of identity separatism and to somehow expect the age-old problems of in-group tribalism not to emerge – with predictably devastating impacts on vulnerable minorities.

Mounk builds a powerful case that the identity synthesis is indeed a trap. Genuine insights, important realisations and progressive values lure the sympathetic. But too often those insights are developed in extreme and implausible ways, ultimately betraying the very goals they claim to value.

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