The Essence of American Greatness and The Threat of Identity Politics

April 12, 2019 Updated: April 12, 2019


Eric Holder, the U.S. attorney general under President Barack Obama, recently asked the rhetorical question, “When exactly did you think America was great?” Several people, including Vice President Mike Pence, responded to this question by pointing to several remarkable moments in U.S. history, such as the 1969 lunar landing.

Nonetheless, a defense of America’s greatness based on illustrious deeds done in the past is a trap. If America is great because of certain good deeds, then one could say the opposite is true because of certain misdeeds.

This is the logic behind the argument for exacting reparations for slavery: America can’t be great until its past evil deeds are undone.

Certainly, the United States has accomplished great things in its history, but they are not the essence of American greatness.

What makes America great is its initial articulation of, and its subsequent striving to hold to, the great truth “that all men are created equal.” That idea justifies its form of popular government and holds up to it a moral standard by which citizens can assess the justness of its laws.

The measure of America’s greatness throughout history has waxed and waned with the strength of our faith in that idea. Today, identity politics is a direct threat to that greatness, to fidelity to the truths our founders once held, and to the justification for popular government itself.

The Central Idea of American Greatness

Abraham Lincoln once said that public opinion “always has a ‘central idea’ from which all its minor thoughts radiate. That ‘central idea’ in our political public opinion, at the beginning was, and until recently has continued to be, ‘the equality of men.’”

By this central idea, popular, republican government is justified. This central idea functions also as an objective moral standard by which the founders judged the rectitude of their laws. For this reason, Revolutionary War veteran and southern slaveholder John Taylor of Caroline articulated the common belief at the founding that slavery “is an evil which the United States must look in the face. To whine over it, is cowardly; to aggravate it, criminal; and to forbear to alleviate it, because it cannot be wholly cured, foolish.”

In the decades leading up to the Civil War, southern slaveholders abandoned this belief and adopted a new one. The vice president of the Confederacy declared the founders’ ideas “fundamentally wrong” because “they rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error.”

The Confederacy, however, rested its foundation on the “cornerstone” of “the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.”

The Confederacy exchanged the idea that “all men are created equal” for the belief that individual members of racial groups are equal to one another, but that racial groups themselves are unequal. According to this belief, the superior race can justly rule inferior races as a man can justly rule a horse.

The Central Idea of Identity Politics

There is an eerie resemblance between the underlying assumptions the slaveholders adopted and those that many on the political left today hold to justify identity politics.

The “Oxford English Dictionary” defines identity politics as “a tendency of people sharing a particular racial, religious, ethnic, social, or cultural identity to form exclusive political alliances, instead of engaging in traditional broad-based party politics.” This tendency differs from the exercise of freedom of association in that it involves seeking some official privileged political or legal status.

In 1857, Chief Justice Roger Taney wrote in his opinion in Dred Scott v. Sandford that the founders meant by the statement “all men are created equal” only that all whites are equal and that blacks are “so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”

Lincoln denounced Taney’s opinion. He noted that the founders “defined with tolerable distinctness, in what respects they did consider all men created equal—equal in ‘certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’ This they said, and this meant.”

Lincoln described exactly how this belief functions as the key to America’s greatness. The founders, he wrote, “meant to set up a standard maxim for free society, which should be familiar to all, and revered by all; constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of all colors everywhere.”

This is the source of our greatness, if we’ll keep it, if we’ll revere it.

The goal we should all yearn for is civic friendship among all citizens. Like the truths in the Declaration, it’s a goal we will never fully realize, but it serves the vital function of giving direction to all our efforts. We are great insofar as we pursue this goal, and our great accomplishments throughout history are a testament to our striving to overcome our differences and to attain friendship.

Identity politics, however, fosters enmity between citizens by its goal of raising the consciousness of the skin-deep differences between identity groups and the perceived historical grievances between them. Members of historically oppressed groups must be empowered, and members of historically oppressor groups must be disempowered, regardless of the merits of the individuals alive today.

The intended effect of the neo-Marxist dialectic of identity politics is one-sided war and endless revolution. The intended result of the founders’ understanding of equality is, as Martin Luther King Jr. put it, “to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.”

The United States has always been imperfect when held against the standard of perfect justice. But it is uniquely great because its founding beliefs encourage civic friendship, and friendship, as Aristotle said, seems “to hold states together,” and “when men are friends they have no need of justice.”

Let us not, then, be seduced by the fratricidal calls for faction, but hold fast to the truths our founders held and the goal of peaceful greatness they sought.

Clifford Humphrey is originally from Warm Springs, Georgia. Currently, he is a doctoral candidate in politics at Hillsdale College in Michigan. Follow him on Twitter @cphumphrey.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.