The recent events in Charlottesville, Virginia, and what I have seen following the election of Donald Trump are evidence of the rise of populist fervor and, more importantly, identity politics in this nation. This has led me to question where we are headed in this country. This nation was based on ideas, not identity. The idea that makes us Americans was beautifully laid out by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence.
In a recent editorial, George Mitchell sought to espouse that idea, but then reverted to the notion that diversity is what defines us, falling into the trap that is laid by identity politics. That would mean we are defined by our race, gender, sexual orientation, etc., and not the universal truth set forth by Jefferson and later reiterated by Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr.
Historical attempts at unity have been made by many religions, classes, races, etc., and all have failed when those identities supplanted the ideals. Unity around religious ideas only worked when the ideal was above ethnic, class or political identity. The Bible says: “There is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female.” When Christians placed race or ethnicity above this ideal, unity failed, and they killed each other for centuries, culminating in two world wars.
Historical attempts at unity have all failed when those identities supplanted ideals. The Marxist ideology based on class failed to unite people because this was the epitome of identity politics. Marx attempted to unite people on identity alone and preached that history was nothing more than a class struggle.
In America, the proposition of equality and the right to pursue one’s happiness has remained an ideal that defined and united Americans. If at times in our history we failed to live up to these ideals, we always found ourselves eventually returning to them.
When women met at Seneca Falls in the 19th century, they sought to write their own declaration, which was, essentially, a mirror of Jefferson’s, but adding the word “woman” to man. Those women sought not to be defined by their gender, but rather their demand that Jefferson’s ideal be fully recognized to include them.
When Lincoln gave his Gettysburg Address, he stated that we were formed on Jefferson’s proposition and that the Civil War was a challenge to see if such a nation could endure.
A hundred years later, Martin Luther King Jr., in his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, echoes the American dream by quoting Jefferson and asking the nation to live out its creed. He then destroys the politics of race by saying he looked forward to the day when people would be “judged by the content of their character, not the color of their skin.”
Jefferson’s words stand there to remind us of how we were. Today, populism coupled with identity politics has set us on a course for a new tribalization, not one based on ideas, but based on race, religion, gender or sexual identity. That, coupled with what is a profound ignorance among the population for our history, and politicians seizing on sound bites and tweets, is bringing a new danger of disunion to this country.
If you believe we are defined by our identities, how does one explain Dwight Eisenhower? After all, he was German, the same as Adolf Hitler, who preached a unity based on race and ethnicity, not on ideas of equality. By that rationale, Eisenhower should have been leading the German army, not the American army against Germany.
Veterans from all ethnic and racial backgrounds, genders or sexual preferences have fought and died, not for those identities, but for the idea set forth by Jefferson. That is the core of what made us a united country.
Like it or not, those who espouse identity politics have more in common with Hitler than America, and that goes for all who espouse it — on the left or the right. And during this period of populist realignment, they are whipping up tribal identities, not American ideals, and the nature of that cultural attack will unite no one and devour those who preach it.
America has been an exceptional nation because we united around the ideas of our founders. To replace that unity with political identities could spell the end of that exceptionalism.
At times like this, we need to heed the prophetic words of Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
Rep. Lance Harvell of Farmington represents District 113 in the Maine House of Representatives, which includes Farmington and New Sharon.