Tribal identity politics: When everyone is a victim, it's everyone who loses

Victim status has become a competition, and it's ruining our ability to solve the problems we face together.

Bill Doherty: We live in a very interesting time where we have, I think, a combination of what’s called expressive individualism, which is about the importance of me, my experience, what makes me happy.

What we now have is something additional and that is identity and tribal identifications where we have—and I want to say there’s a good part of this, for one thing—that we have historically marginalized groups, women certainly in the workforce, in the public sphere, gay people, African-Americans, other minorities, we’ve had a lot of folks who have been in the margins of power in our society who have said uh-uh this isn’t working anymore. So these movements towards individual and group liberation have, in net, been very positive for our country. But we always tend to turn things towards a kind of individualistic focus. Now we have a culture in which there is competition for victimhood and white men now, many white men are calling themselves victims; victims of affirmative action, victims of the liberal left. And you have religious groups that have tens of millions of people in this country who are victims of outsiders who want to destroy them. 

So what’s happened then is, I think, this expressive individualism has been combined with sort of the benefits of being in an oppressed group, you know, the moral high ground that comes with that and the strong identification that comes with being in a victimized group. And now, everybody is in a victimized group. After the great recession in 2007/2008, bankers were the new victimized group.

And so there’s an unhealthy trend towards tribal competition for victim status in our country and I want to go back and again say, there is something to the victim, there is something to it. This is hard to talk about without saying: okay everybody should just get along and stop complaining. I'm not saying that at all. But there is something unhealthy, and what it keeps us from doing—this is my main problem with it —it keeps us from working across identity groups to solve the problems that we have together.

Because all of our major problems related to poverty, to education, to healthcare, to the environment—just take any of our problems—they require cross-identity group coalitions to work on together. And when we divide into identity groups we can’t work across coalitions. Martin Luther King, just before he died, was working on poverty on a cross-racial coalition. He knew that the civil rights laws needed to be changed and it had to be a black leadership to change those Jim Crow laws. The next step was poverty and poverty is not just racial. And he knew that you needed to have a broad coalition. That’s going to be hard nowadays. Some are trying it, but that is much harder to do in an identity-based society.

Just saying the words 'identity politics' can cause an orchestra of eye rolls, but historically these tribal movements have been a net good for the country, helping to elevate marginalized groups such as African Americans, women in the workforce and LGBTQ people. However, there's an unhealthy trend emerging, says Professor Bill Doherty. You can somehow be in the majority and be a victim of an oppressed minority. "Now we have a culture in which there is competition for victimhood and white men—now many white men are calling themselves victims; victims of affirmative action, victims of the liberal left," says Doherty. Everyone from major religious groups to bankers on Wall Street are competing to be the biggest victims. These warped identity politics don't serve anyone, says Doherty. What they do is make it impossible for groups to work together to solve the common problems we face, like poverty, education, healthcare, and environmental collapse. For the majority, victimhood is a short-term win with long-term costs. Bill Doherty is a senior fellow at Better Angels, a bipartisan nonprofit movement that aims to depolarize the United States. Find out more at better-angels.org.