In his end-of-the-book essay in the latest issue of the Claremont Review of Books, Mark Helprin neatly identifies one of the curious paradoxes of twenty-first-century progressivism.
The two terms of the paradox are: a relentless mantra of diversity and group identity; and an oppressive and vigilant non-diversity of opinion that is maintained by central authorities in government and culture. On the one hand we have the (supposed) pluralism of races, genders, sexualities, ethnicities, and nationalities; on the other, a stifling uniformity of respectable belief.
Helprin describes the second term of the paradox as a process of centralization of government and media:
Progressive opposition to the embedded separation of powers in tripartite government and the structure of the electoral college, the Senate, and the states themselves, has as its best ally the homogenization of America by mass media, commercial standardization, and headlong administrative expansion.
The progressive opposition Helprin has in mind, we assume, ranges from the arrogation of power by the executive branch (through czars and regulators) to activist judges who overturn the will of the people in the states (for instance, in Obergefell). It is a stroke of insight to tie this reduction of federalism and popular sovereignty to mass culture. As government becomes less dispersed and diverse, mass culture becomes insistently narrow in matters of social opinion.
But what about multiculturalism? Don’t progressives hail diversity? Helprin discounts this:
That to forge a ruling coalition progressives are engaged in fractionalizing the population into as many aggrieved groups as possible does not contradict their urge to centralize.
That is, while progressives are happy to recognize this or that identity, provided that doing so demonstrates their pluralistic instincts, in truth the divisions among these “aggrieved groups” only conduce to centralization. This is because identity groups, unlike the states, have no constitutional standing. Whereas a genuine diversity is achieved when we maintain the distinctive powers of the separate states that make up America, breaking up the population into identity groups does no such thing:
For unlike the states, the elements of such a coalition have no enumerated or constitutional powers, and are raised or dismissed at will in the winds of propaganda.
At one time, this identity group may serve the purpose of centralization; at another time, that one may. Identity politics doesn't give us a richer, more diverse culture and polity. The more we talk about diversity in terms of aggrieved groups, the more we settle into a vapid and narrow—but binding—etiquette of opinion and propriety.
A diversity of states gives us a genuine multiculturalism: different climates, histories, customs, and laws. A diversity of identity groups gives us a . . . a diversity of identity groups, all of them under the commonplace and empty banner of . . . diversity.
Mark Bauerlein is senior editor of First Things.