Hannah Arendt in the Age of Identity Politics

Elon Swartz, Princeton University

        Sometime last winter at the Princeton Center for Jewish Life, I was eavesdropping on a political conversation between two friends, one liberal and the other conservative. The liberal friend was questioning the conservative friend’s unqualified support for Israel. “If you live in America and enjoy the freedoms afforded to you by this country, how can you have unconditional loyalty to another country, even if the two countries’ interests usually align?”

I expected the conservative friend to say that the question was practically irrelevant because American and Israeli interests always align. However, much to my surprise, the conservative friend invoked a popular contemporary liberal phenomenon. “Mexican-Americans lobby for candidates who they think will support amnesty, reunite families split by the border, and foster better relations with Mexico. Arab-Americans lobby for candidates who they think will accept greater numbers of Arab refugees, stand up for the rights of Arab Palestinians, and foster better relations with the Arab world. Why can’t Jews lobby for candidates who they think will provide financial assistance, diplomatic backing, and greater security to the Jewish state and its people?”

Without assessing the obvious differences between national, ethnic, and religious communities, exploring the extent to which Jews comprise a distinct ethnic (or racial) group within America, or broaching the stark disparity in American investment in each of the aforementioned foreign-policy areas, I want to highlight an important component of my friend’s argument. Without agreeing or disagreeing with my friend, I simply want to address identity politics in contemporary America.

With the pressing need for immigration reform, the rise of social movements such as Black Lives Matter, and the emergence of safe spaces for particular racial, ethnic, or religious communities on college campuses, many Americans are increasingly frustrated with a cultural climate that they perceive to be un-American. In their estimation, many racial, ethnic, and religious minorities no longer wish to assimilate into a broader American culture but instead desire to cling unto their communal identities, even in the face of potential conflicts in loyalty. “Why should ‘Black Lives Matter’ when ‘All Lives Matter’ in America?” they ask. “Why should certain groups be afforded cultural echo chambers in spite of a longstanding American tradition of heated debate between individuals?” they wonder.

The Republican presidential candidate, Donald J. Trump, often voices these very concerns. He assures Americans that he has no qualms with minorities, but only with those who will not assimilate. “We…have to be honest about the fact that not everyone…will be able to successfully assimilate,” he recently told a crowd of supporters in Phoenix.[1] “It’s our right…to choose immigrants that we think are the likeliest to…love us.”[2]

In balancing their emphasis on assimilation with Constitutional protections, many Americans distinguish between individual religious expression, which they view as laudable, and communal political identification, which they claim is un-American. However, when they create this distinction, these Americans implicitly hold members of racial, ethnic, and religious communities to the standards of Protestant-Christian theology. In essence, “they insert Protestant-Christian structures into the different forms of religion and tradition that exist in our liberal-democratic societies.”[3] In fact, the historian Philip Hamburger traces these sentiments to nineteenth-century Protestant attitudes towards a Catholic minority that prided itself on communal identification. For many Protestants, Catholic “assertions of theological authority seemed incompatible with freedom,” with the “individual independence and personal authority that were increasingly felt to be at the core” of “American identity.”[4] When minorities in contemporary America align themselves with their racial, ethnic, or religious communities, they are often viewed as rejecting a tradition of American freedom to which individual independence and personal authority are central.

        While identity politics may present a great set of challenges to any liberal-democratic society, we cannot write off communal approaches to political identification. Not only is a disregard for identity politics narrowly sectarian in a way that disproportionately favors particular racial, ethnic, or religious groups; it also rests on unsubstantiated Enlightenment ideals that, when put into practice, have failed tragically. Hannah Arendt explains why such views are faulty.  

        Arendt was skeptical of political theories introduced by Enlightenment thinkers. “The Rights of Man were…regarded as being independent of history and the privileges which history had accorded certain strata of society.”[5] In Arendt’s estimation, such rights rested upon a “liberal misunderstanding which [held] that” freedom was “incompatible with…society…that freedom [was] the price the individual [had] to pay for security.”[6] In other words, because they understood human freedom as an apolitical ideal, Enlightenment thinkers viewed human rights as an ahistorical abstraction. The Enlightenment inaugurated “a state of affairs in which…freedom…[was] no longer experienced as a mode of being…but as a supreme gift which only man…received.”[7] Arendt thought that such a perspective distorted freedom by separating it from the realm of action in which it was “experienced as a mode of being.”

        Arendt argued that one could not conceive of freedom outside of the public realm. She wrote:

“Without a politically guaranteed public realm, freedom lacks the worldly space to make its appearance…It may still dwell in men’s hearts as…will…but the human heart, as we all know, is a very dark space and whatever goes on in its obscurity can hardly be called a demonstrable fact.”[8]

For Arendt, that which manifested itself in “worldly space” constituted genuine freedom. However, that which was attributed to freedom of the will was clouded in “obscurity” because the will’s autonomy was anything but “demonstrable.” Arendt thought that “an act which was undertaken under the assumption of our being a free agent” came “under the sway of two kinds of causality,” the “causality of inner motivation,” and the “causal principle which rules the outer world.”[9] In other words, Arendt did not speak of freedom as freedom of the will because, in her view, the will was entangled within a series of causal webs.

According to Arendt, the conflation of genuine freedom with freedom of the will accounted for the rise of ethnocentric nationalism. Because “our political life rests on the assumption that we can produce equality through organization,” we “insist on ethnic homogeneity…to eliminate…always present differences…which by themselves…indicate all too clearly those spheres where men cannot act.”[10] When the Western citizen began to understand that causal entanglements stripped her of autonomy, and declared that her equality vis-à-vis others was unfounded, she turned to ethnocentrism. Ethnic homogeneity became the tool whereby the Western citizens removed all outward signs of difference in an effort to retain the impression of equality. By exiling the heterogeneous from the political sphere, she feigned equality and thus assured herself of the universal autonomy of the will.

Despite the failings of the European nation-state Arendt didn’t lost hope entirely. She believed America could prove to be the body politic in which freedom was not synonymous forced to conform to a universal will. As Hans Jonas, Arendt’s longtime friend, noted:

“It was the experience of the Republic here which…shaped her political thinking…America taught her a way beyond the hardened alternatives of left and right from which she had escaped; and the idea of the Republic, as the realistic chance for freedom, remained dear to her even in its darkening days.”[11]

In contrast to the failed freedom of European nation-states from “left and right,” America was, for Arendt, the “chance” for “freedom” to manifest itself as communal expression. It was the “Republic” in which freedom did not assume a superficial equality, the place to which the ethnically heterogeneous could “escape.”

        I am not equating American disdain for the communal expression with proto-fascism. I recognize that identity politics sometimes pose thorny threats to Constitutional liberties and national security. Administrators on college campuses must find ways both to provide spaces for communal expression and to protect the liberties of all students. Racial, ethnic, and religious groups must figure out how both to ensure genuine cultural expression and to promote the welfare and safety of every citizen in this country. As many pro-Israel and religiously observant Jews who take seriously their civic duties as Americans already know, such navigation is never an easy task. Nevertheless, if we are to remain a country in which members of all groups can flourish, we must first embrace the legitimacy of identity politics.


[1] “Fact Check: Donald Trump’s Speech On Immigration.” NPR. August 31, 2016. Accessed September 05, 2016. http://www.npr.org/2016/08/31/492096565/fact-check-donald-trumps-speech-on-immigration.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Jakob de Roover, “Secular Law and the Realm of False Religion,” in After Secular Law, eds. Winnifred Fallers Sullivan, Robert A. Yelle, and Mateo Taussig-Rubbo (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 13.

[4] Philip Hamburger, Separation of Church and State (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002), 194.

[5] Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, 298.

[6] Arendt, “Freedom and Politics: A Lecture,” 46.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Arendt, “Freedom and Politics: A Lecture,” 30.

[9] Arendt, “What is Freedom?” 144.

[10] Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (Orlando: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1973) 301.

[11] Richard King, Arendt and America (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2015), 1.