Distinctions That Define and Divide   /   Summer 2021   /    Thematic Essays

Identity Tethering in an Age of Symbolic Politics

How cultural behavior supplanted common action.

Mark Dunbar

Illustration by Eiko Ojala; used by permission of the artist.

Identities are dangerous and paradoxical things. They are the beginning and the end of the self. They are how we define ourselves and how we are defined by others. One is a “nerd” or a “jock” or a “know-it-all.” One is “liberal” or “conservative,” “religious” or “secular,” “white” or “black.” Identities are the means of escape and the ties that bind. They direct our thoughts. They are modes of being. They are an ingredient of the self—along with relationships, memories, and role models—and they can also destroy the self. Consume it. The Jungians are right when they say people don’t have identities, identities have people. And the Lacanians are righter still when they say that our very selves—our wishes, desires, thoughts—are constituted by other people’s wishes, desires, and thoughts. Yes, identities are dangerous and paradoxical things. They are expressions of inner selves, and a way the outside gets in.

Our contemporary politics is diseased—that much is widely acknowledged—and the problem of identity is often implicated in its pathology, mostly for the wrong reasons. When it comes to its role in our politics, identity is the chief means by which we substitute behavior for action, disposition for conviction. Everything is rendered political—from the cars we drive to the beer we drink—and this rendering lays bare a political order lacking in democratic vitality. There is an inverse relationship between the rise of identity signaling and the decline of democracy. The less power people have to influence political outcomes, the more emphasis they will put on signifying their political desires. The less politics effects change, the more politics will affect mood.

Dozens of books (and hundreds of articles and essays) have been written about the rising threat of tribalism and group thinking, identity politics, and the politics of resentment. These books vary in their levels of sophistication and concern, but all agree that we are in the midst of a crisis. That we are a divided nation. Brother is turned against brother. Neighbor against neighbor. And not even neighbor against neighbor, because we are now balkanized into “lifestyle enclaves.”

All of these books give some explanation for why this crisis is happening. Social media. Demographic change. Postmodernism. Economic precarity. Globalization. Divide-and-rule. All of the above. Francis Fukuyama, in his book Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment, argues that this kind of politics is so widespread because, at least in the short run, it is simply the path of least resistance. “It’s easier,” he writes, “to argue over cultural issues within the confines of elite institutions than it is to appropriate money or convince skeptical legislatures to change policies.”11xFrancis Fukuyama, Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment (New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018), 115.

But what are the alternatives? Ideological or principle-based politics? Aren’t one’s principles part of one’s identity? Materialist or interest-based politics? Isn’t there an element of self-interest in one’s identity? Ezra Klein, in Why We’re Polarized, writes, “All politics is influenced by identity.”22xEzra Klein, Why We’re Polarized (New York, NY: Avid Reader Press/Simon & Schuster, 2020), 7. Klein argues that we are a stack of identities (“white,” “gun-owning,” “female,” “dental hygienist,” “mother,” etc.), and that the identities we put closest to the top are the ones that determine our politics. The crisis, in that case, isn’t identity-based politics per se, but which identities are prioritized. The white employee who prioritizes “being an employee” over “being white” is engaging in one kind of politics; when she prioritizes “being white” over “being an employee,” she is engaging in another, very different kind of politics.

In addition to identity stacking, Klein also talks about identity sorting. Political identities have come to “encompass and amplify”our nonpolitical identities.33xIbid. Political identities—like all the other crisis writers, Klein only uses the categories conservative and liberal—now cultivate and contain all sorts of nonpolitical traits and preferences. To know someone is “liberal” or “conservative” is to know where she buys groceries (Whole Foods vs. Walmart), where she dines (independent ethnic restaurants vs. American chains), the car she drives (hatchback vs. pickup), and the TV shows she watches (Lovecraft Country vs. Homeland). These political divides happen even within consumer identities. Conservative superhero film fans like DC movies; liberal superhero fans like Marvel movies.

Political reporter David Wasserman found that Democrats win a majority of counties that have a Whole Foods Market, while Republicans win a majority of counties with a Cracker Barrel restaurant. Probably not quite what John Dos Passos had in mind when he wrote, in his 1936 novel The Big Money, “all right we are two nations.”

Oddly enough, of the two Cracker Barrels nearest my house, one is in a black working-class part of the city and another is in a mostly white, wealthy (if not the wealthiest) suburb. The former locale votes Democratic, the latter, not so much. That’s because, as political scientists Marc Hetherington and Jonathan Weiler point out in their book Prius or Pickup: How the Answers to Four Simple Questions Explain America’s Great Divide, this identity sorting is almost entirely a white phenomenon.44xMarc Hetherington and Jonathan Weiler, Prius or Pickup: How the Answers to Four Simple Questions Explain America’s Great Divide (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018). Most of us know this firsthand. A black man I know drives a truck and wears camouflage hats and won’t shut up about fishing (all culturally coded as “conservative”) but is also liberal in his politics. At the same time, a Sikh friend and I spend most of our time talking about boxing and mixed martial arts (again, culturally coded as “conservative”), and he, too, is liberal in his politics.


Why is this? Why are most black and brown Americans seemingly immune to identity sorting? Hetherington and Weiler say identity sorting happens because, for white Americans, consumer choices and cultural affectations are expressions of their worldviews. Liberals are open to new experiences. So they like trying new foods. Conservatives are more orderly. So they prefer eating at the same restaurants and ordering the same meals. Klein gives a similar explanation. “Our politics map onto our deeper preferences,” he writes, “and those deeper preferences drive much more than just our politics.”55xKlein, Why We’re Polarized, 35.

But neither Hetherington and Weiler nor Klein says why these particular traits and preferences are tethered to particular political identities. At most, there is a sleight of hand: An association of traits and preferences is called “conservative” or “liberal,” and then that association of traits and preferences—symbolic capital—is grafted onto a set of policies without any connective tissue. One can see the thought process behind connecting gastronomic conformity with (say) gender conformity. But how is conformity connected to wealth inequality or capitalist hierarchy or an inactive government? And again, why is this only a white phenomenon?

The answers to both of these questions are, I suspect, linked. Identity tethering isn’t an issue for black and brown Americans because the identities they prioritize (i.e., the identities that most determine their politics) are imposed on them rather than selected by them. Theodor Adorno called these “negative identities.”66xEric Oberle, Theodor Adorno and the Century of Negative Identity (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2018). With negative identities, whatever else one is, one is first and foremost that. One might be black, middle class, golf loving, and psychologically conservative. But those other markers of identity won’t stop the appraiser from shorting the value of your house or the car dealer from adding a quarter percentage point to your interest rate or the police officer from pulling you over. Stigmatized identities are foregrounded identities.

If identity tethering is so bad, then why is it so prevalent among white Americans? It is here that we approach a familiar problem in social criticism. That is, we encounter people who cultivate identities that, by many accounts, are detrimental to their own interests. It is not enough, for example, to say that powerful people—like managerial elites and politicians—stand to benefit from the enervation of our democratic systems. That much is undoubtedly true; it is just that it does not explain anything.

The reality is that identity tethering is a type of cultural work that we all engage in; it operates along multiple social scales, from the more pedestrian level of consumer advertising to the more transcendent level of imagined communities. And like many successful social phenomena, it is meaningful to different people for different reasons. Symbolic behaviors like driving a pickup truck and refusing to wear a mask at the grocery store compound into a potent if unstable formation of symbolic capital. We engage in this cultural work of accruing symbolic capital because, like financial capital, it is valuable to us. It can help us cope; it grants admission to social cliques or professional advancement; it offers membership in communities of patriots or the faithful or the “reality-based community” (to use a term from the George W. Bush years). That symbolic capital is something we all more or less create or cocreate is the surest sign that it has something to offer everybody. Its pervasiveness, however, is also the reason it is vulnerable to culture war dynamics and to those who have something to gain from producing a steady diet of what used to be called propaganda.

It is hard to get people to defend the powerful, but it is easy to get people to defend themselves. This is one way identity tethering works. You tether people’s identity to a political and economic order. That order may have very little to do with the traits and preferences that make up one’s symbolic capital, but through persuasion, marketing, and propaganda they are made to seem in alignment. This is accomplished by corrupting positive values—for example, exploiting patriotism to promote warmongering or manipulating compassion to justify legalizing extortionate moneylending. The problem with most of the books about politics and identity is that their authors look at what is happening and conclude that everyone with particular traits and preferences is defending a particular political and economic order. The authors then draw the mistaken conclusion that these traits and preferences are all linked in some magical way.

In The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt identified this modern substitution of cultural conflict for real politics, though she used different terminology. Instead of “democracy,” she said “modernity.” Instead of a culture war, she talked about the “private realm” taking over the “public realm.” Still, she was referring to the same phenomenon: “the substitution of behavior for action,”as she poignantly put it.77xHannah Arendt, The Human Condition, 2nd ed. (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2018), 61. First published 1958. Before most others, Arendt saw that the politicization of everything went hand in hand with the depoliticization of politics.88xIbid., 45.

Political scientist Eitan D. Hersh’s recent book Politics Is for Power: How to Move Beyond Political Hobbyism, Take Action, and Make Real Change is fundamentally Arendtian.99xEitan D. Hersh, Politics Is for Power: How to Move Beyond Political Hobbyism, Take Action, and Make Real Change (New York, NY: Scribner, 2020). Hersh talks about political hobbyists—obsessive followers of our never-ending political commentary, whom he characterizes as the consumers of the culture war industry. What Hersh finds most fascinating about political hobbyists is how little they know about and engage in actual politics. It turns out that following the culture war issue of the day on social media—licentious music performances, blasphemous art exhibits, political sex scandals—is not a very effective way of acquiring knowledge or effecting change.

Hersh doesn’t talk about how the “culturifying” of politics—the substitution of behavior for action, and personal disposition for political conviction—is an antidemocratic force in the world. Neither does Klein, at least not explicitly. Klein does talk about the general psychological effects of identity tethering. “The more your identities converge on a single point,” he writes, “the more your identities can be threatened simultaneously, and that makes conflict much more threatening.”1010xKlein, Why We’re Polarized, 50. But he doesn’t address the political function of identity tethering, which is to turn ordinary people into human shields for the powerful.

Take a concrete example like masculinity and conservatism. There is supposed to be a psychological, even biological, connection between the two. Political pundit Chris Matthews once described the Republican Party as the “Daddy Party” and the Democratic Party as the “Mommy Party.” Clinical psychologist Hector A. Garcia, in his book Sex, Power, and Partisanship: How Evolutionary Science Makes Sense of Our Political Divide, says that male physical fitness and conservative personality traits are genetically associated. Garcia also says that “masculine” men and women vote Republican, while “feminine” men and women vote Democratic. He goes so far as to say that political differences are rooted in competing primordial mating strategies. “Male competition for women,” Garcia writes, “turns out to be the core driving force behind contentious political issues as wide-ranging as affirmative action, social welfare, gender equality, contraception, abortion, taxes, criminal law, and foreign policy.”1111xHector A. Garcia, Sex, Power, and Partisanship: How Evolutionary Science Makes Sense of Our Political Divide (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus, 2019), 14.

According to this “gendered political brain hypothesis,”my desire for, say, employee-elected boards of directors or a Tennessee Valley Authority for every region is not based on material self-interest or moral conviction but on whether I (or my genes—Garcia thinks that 30 to 60 percent of one’s politics is genetically determined) believe it will help me attract women (or certain kinds of women).1212xIbid., 84. I suppose that is as convincing as the hypothesis that I want these things because I like to try new foods.

But when I think about it, I don’t really like to try new foods. And that is not the only way in which I fit poorly in the conservative-liberal identity matrix. I suppose I am open to new experiences, but it depends on what the experiences are. (I fail to see how doing one’s weekly shopping at Whole Foods rather than Walmart constitutes being open to new things.) In my personal tastes, I am much more conformist than open to new things. My favorite restaurant is Chili’s. I like to lift weights and train in mixed martial arts. My favorite baseball cap is camouflage patterned, I would drive a truck if I could afford one, and one of the photos on my Tinder profile showed me shooting a gun. (My wife, whom I met on Tinder, said that one of her rules was “no guys with gun pictures,” but she gave me a pass because I quoted Gertrude Stein in my profile.)

I suspect that most political psychologists would write me off as an outlier, a lonely dot on an otherwise linear graph. Garcia, however, has an explanation for people like me. “The extreme politically left citizen,” he writes, “can be better understood as the gendered psychological right.”1313xIbid., 106. So our political divide isn’t binary, but tripartite. The “extreme left” thinks the same way as the right—both think in terms of dominance and hierarchy, order and status. But I was told there was a connective tissue between disposition and policy. Now I am being told there isn’t. Or, rather, I’m being told that at the “evolutionary base,”1414xIbid., 103. the right and “extreme left” are psychologically indistinguishable.

Like the theories of other political psychologists, Garcia’s thesis proposes that psychology determines politics. He then says that the “extreme left” and the “extreme right” think the same way, which is why communist countries resemble fascist countries: Their rulers are psychologically similar.

This gets exactly to the point while also completely missing it. Why did the Soviet Union begin with Lenin denouncing anti-Semitism as a capitalist bait and switch and Stalinism end in anti-Semitic fantasies? Why was homosexuality punishable by death in China even after Mao’s Cultural Revolution? Why is today’s North Korea so reactionary and racist? The answer lies not in the psychology of rulers but in the relationship between the rulers and the ruled. The less democratic a country, the more cultural its politics. This sublimation of politics into culture promotes destructive feedback loops. The more politics fail to provide solutions, the more it must turn the “other” into a problem. In this way, symbolic identities—or what Erik Erikson called “pseudo-identities”—are coping mechanisms.1515xErik H. Erikson, Childhood and Society (New York, NY: W.W. Norton, 1993), 413. First published 1950. They make sense of the world for us. They both disturb and comfort: They confirm our fear that things are seriously wrong but diminish our fear that things must seriously change if those wrongs are to be righted. Symbolic identities replace the flimsy self—what Carl Jung called the “plaything of circumstance and general expectations”—with a wholesale, symbolic identity.1616xCarl Jung, The Basic Writings of Carl Jung (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2021), 279. First published in 1959 as The Collected Works of C.G. Jung.

These identities are like cases of demonic possession. This is painfully obvious to anyone who’s seen such a possession firsthand, as I have with a close family member. Once one of Jung’s untyped, un–self-defined individuals—a plaything of circumstance and general expectations—he was just trying to get along. At some point, though, like all of us, he had to reconcile his convictions with his circumstances. He adopted the conservative identity. Once a cheerleader at a private high school, he acquired salt-of-the-earth machismo, driving a truck and decorating his home bar with military paraphernalia. He now complains on our family’s group chat about “participation trophies” and how “men used to be men.”

This is sad, and not because the conservative identity is any more factitious than other symbolic political identities. It is sad because our politics has shrunken to a competition between different modes of symbolic display.

We are surrounded by politicized identities marked by various symbolic markers. The historian Rick Perlstein wrote about one in a 2017 Baffler essay, “Outsmarted.”1717xRick Perlstein, “Outsmarted,” The Baffler, March 2017, https://thebaffler.com/salvos/outsmarted-perlstein. “Smart” is an important trait for liberals. It’s an adjective they lean on to define themselves. Liberal social policies and liberal cultural affectations are “smart.” Therefore, to be “smart” is to affect liberal cultural attitudes and embrace liberal social policies. This identification of intelligence with liberalism, Perlstein notes, leads to the comforting delusion that our problems will be solved with more education. With more “smart” people.

“Law-abiding” works the same way for conservatives. I know a conservative who is obsessed with law and order. It is how he justifies the police murder of Breonna Taylor. Don’t break the law, he says, and you won’t get your door kicked in. But my conservative friend breaks the law all the time, and not just in the frivolous ways we all break frivolous laws. He has cheated on his taxes and bought firearms illegally. Yet he still considers himself “law-abiding.” How? In the same self-deluding way the liberal considers herself “smart.” For both, identities are comforting illusions, not modes of being. Emotional attitudes, not social facts. They rely on circular reasoning or hypocritical articles of faith. So when I told my friend that, according to his own thinking, the police had every right to kick down his door in the middle of the night and murder him in front of his wife and kids (or even murder his wife and kids), he had nothing to say—but neither did what I said change his mind. G.K. Chesterton was right when he wrote, “Curing a madman is not arguing with a philosopher; it is casting out a devil.”1818xG.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1995), 31. First published 1908.

Theodor Adorno is criticized for psychologizing politics in his book The Authoritarian Personality. Actually, he did the opposite. Or, rather, he turned the psychologizing of politics on its head. He understood that political identities (or personalities) are just as much effects as they are causes. For him, the authoritarian personality was as much a result of existing authoritarianism as it was the moving spirit of a potential authoritarianism. His answer, then, for why authoritarian personalities exist in democracies was that authoritarian relationships exist in democracies. Anyone who has worked a job in which the boss got to decide when (or if) you took a lunch break knows what Adorno meant. Neurotic political identities, Adorno wrote, are “the products of the total organization of society and are to be changed only as that society is changed.”1919xTheodor Adorno, et al., The Authoritarian Personality (Brooklyn, NY: Verso, 2019), 975. First published 1951. In other words, Adorno understood that identities are made in relation to the world. They are grooves we fit into as much as grooves we inscribe. He understood this better than our political psychologists, who seem not to understand it at all.

Consider Jonathan Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.2020xJonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (New York, NY: Vintage, 2013). Haidt’s thesis is that morality rests on six foundations: care, fairness, loyalty, authority, sanctity, and liberty. Liberal morality is tall and narrow, standing, for the most part, on just two foundations: care and fairness. Conservative morality is more broadly based, standing on all six foundations.

A funny thing about Haidt’s book, and others like it, is just how immediately and obviously wrong much of the political psychology is. For example, Haidt repeats the standard political-psychology line that conservatives are more “germophobic” than liberals, apparently because conservatives value sanctity (or sacredness) more than liberals. How well has this biological truism—like Hector Garcia, Haidt believes that genetics largely determine one’s politics, though he pegs the percentage slightly lower, at 30 to 50 percent—held up during the COVID-19 pandemic? Or any pandemic in history, for that matter.

The problem with Haidt, and other political psychologists, is not that they prefer nature to nurture. Haidt is probably right when he says that genes predispose—rather than predetermine—a lot about ourselves. Our genes limit the pathways available to us; then we choose which of those pathways we will take. Haidt occasionally acknowledges that psychology and culture are often more effects than causes of the political and economic order. Toward the end of The Righteous Mind, he says that rising crime rates in the 1970s weren’t the result of a cultural failure, excessive permissiveness, but of an institutional failure, permitting lead to be an ingredient in gasoline and paint. Still, arguments are not judged by their hedges and concessions. Haidt’s blind spot, like those of most political psychologists, is power. Which is what politics is about. Or, more specifically, what politics is.

Whether prisoners have a right to vote—and if not, whether they should be counted, as slaves were, toward a state or district’s total population even though they can’t vote—is not a question of Haidt’s moral foundation of fairness versus cheating. It is both unfair and cheating. It is a question of power. People in rural counties, where prisons are, get more political power if prisoners cannot vote but are counted toward their total population. Similarly, southern states got more power when slaves could not vote but were counted toward their total population.

Haidt cites a study in which two questions were asked: “Should everyone pull their own weight?” and “Should employees who work the hardest be paid the most?” The study found that liberals were “ambivalent” about answering “yes” while conservatives endorsed both “enthusiastically.”2121xIbid., 213. But such questions are never asked in a vacuum. They are asked of people living under a particular economic order. The important part of these questions is not who gets what, but who decides who gets what. Should employees have the power to reward the hardest working among them, or does the employer get to decide? And who is pulling his or her own weight, the stay-at-home parent raising three kids or the dauphin of Walmart and Wall Street who makes money because he owns things? The former is objectively working harder than the latter, yet the former has no income while the latter has millions or even billions.

Haidt says his interest in political psychology started with a desire to help liberals persuade conservatives, but he fails to realize that political psychology is part of a system that mesmerizes and stupefies both.

Most crisis books on tribalism and group thinking end with a short list of possible solutions. The quality of these solutions varies with the books’ sophistication. Most call for nothing but a better understanding of those not like ourselves. They ask their readers to listen more to others with whom they disagree and not to see them as enemies. These books call for more debate and more openness, for turning down the temperature. But are these solutions not just another way of coping, for denying unpleasant truths—particularly the truth that, in order for the temperature to come down, political and economic institutions that primarily benefit from an ever more concentrated circle of “winners” must be opened up and made more truly and directly democratic, whether by reviving unions or moving toward employee-elected management or instituting truly proportional representation?

Worry about the growth in delusional thinking is a common feature of these crisis books. But delusional thinking increases when politics is emptied of speech and action. When people’s beliefs have no effect in the world, no consequences, they are inclined to believe nonsense. As Max Horkheimer wrote, the crisis of reason is the crisis of the individual.2222xMax Horkheimer, Eclipse of Reason (London, England: Bloomsbury, 2013), 91. And the crisis of the individual is a crisis of institutions. We cannot just ask (or beg) people to put more trust in insufficiently democratic institutions. We must make the institutions more trustworthy by making them more democratic.