College, Identity Politics, and the 2020 Election: How the culture of U.S. colleges and universities divides our country

Will Poplawski ‘20
Guest Contributor

Photo courtesy of CBS Austin
College students at the University of Texas erupt in protest after the Presidential inauguration in 2017.

A public servant of forty years now stands as the only option to defeat President Donald Trump. Honorable in tone and moderate in nature, his career has primarily pleased his state and constituents. To his credit, Vice President Joe Biden is currently leading most polls. 

Critics of the former Vice President point to his increasingly senile behavior, arguing that any election in the past fifty years – regardless of party – would have doubted any chance for success. That would not have been the Vice President’s fault. Instead, it is the reality of life. He has already outlasted the average age of death in this country.

I can’t help but to understand critics’ fears and ask why Vice President Biden was the nominee. Shouldn’t a major political party have someone younger? I still scratch my head entertaining these thoughts, sitting in quarantine as my father’s dehumidifier rumbles in the background of our basement. Maybe my four years at Holy Cross have given me the slightest insight into how and why this could happen. Perhaps my refusal to publicly write until April of 2020 validates my sincere discernment of this topic.

Photo courtesy of Mandel Ngan/Getty
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi rips up a copy of President Trump’s State of the Union speech in February 2020.

In Jesuit fashion, I followed-up my original question with a series of others; What am I missing?  Why are our choices for President two individuals in their seventies? How do we, as college students, knowingly or unknowingly contribute to our country’s partisanship? Now, there’s the question I can answer.

For better or worse, there is a large part of America that seeks to put an end to political correctness. President Trump won in 2016 by hammering an establishment that was built on a form of political correctness, identity politics. Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines identity politics as “politics in which groups of people having a particular racial, religious, ethnic, social, or cultural identity tend to promote their own specific interests or concerns without regard to the interests or concerns of any larger political group.”

Perhaps that’s why the Democratic establishment failed to nominate a candidate that is recognized by these narratives. It’s too messy for a broad voter base. Rather than continue the norm, the Democrats placed their chips on a 78-year old moderate who can barely finish a 10-minute TV interview. Democrats maintain hope that Biden can relate to Americans who reject identity politics in the spirit of the larger political group: particularly the 70,000 voters who swung the 2016 election in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. 

Yet, why is that so surprising to us college students who view identity politics as a key method to structure a more just society? 

The most bold claim that I will make for this audience is that elite colleges and universities (yes, even Holy Cross at times) have tarnished a tremendous intellectual culture. The transition of our intellectual culture from culture of reason to one of competing identities ruptures our governing institutions and is to blame for today’s heightened partisanship. 

Reason is innate. Identities are subjective and ever changing. Ask Holy Cross’ cherished Irish ancestors, who were identified as a different race no less than 150 years ago. Problems arise when people assume subjective realities are objective fact. This results in hyper-partisanship, when competing factions believe they present facts, while they both actually rely on the false narrative of identity politics to bolster their claims. When two of these competing ‘facts’ collide, there is no room for compromise.  

Holy Cross, as an institutional actor, chooses to perpetuate identity politics. Just ask the Admissions Office: what are the chances a female from Massachusetts is accepted, compared to me, a male from Michigan? Lucky me. Yet, is it unjust that Holy Cross desires geographical diversity and fifty-fifty gender composition in its ranks? No one questions if justice was served in this scenario.

Apply this standard when considering the acceptance of a certain race or religious group on campus. It follows a similar logic, although the social and political pressure becomes intensified. Suddenly the sense of justice is shifted and more poignant.

As you can see, identity politics are vague and subjective. It becomes increasingly problematic and hypocritical when applied to individual groups at different times or for different reasons.   

The real problem arises when this logic pervades the college campus. For an example of identity politics at work, place yourself at a mandatory fishbowl discussion propagated by the college administration. How awkward is it when students refuse to address a topic as simple as race? Of course there’s major historical complications in race relations. Why are we afraid to just say it?

The awkwardness arises because the topic is cloaked in a subjective hierarchical standard of identities. No rational person from a ‘majority’ group would seek to diminish the standing of a ‘minority’ group. It’s better to sit it out, rather than risk hurting someone. Our capacity for good stops us from the thought of hurting others. However, if you pull back the subjective cloak of hierarchical identities, suddenly you are in the pursuit of objective truth. You feel free to present competing ideas. No one is being hurt. 

St. Ignatius teaches us that our rightly centered emotions can help guide us to truth. The unnatural feelings of second hand embarrassment with a topic as simple as race suggests that we are being led by a false ideology. If identity politics control the narrative, then a student’s parents, job, skin color, hometown, sex, and citizenship could stand in the way of pursuing truth.

The pragmatic implications of identity politics on college campuses means that our most talented individuals give up pursuing careers of public service for careers centered on monetary gain. Finance and business do not rely on a false dichotomy. Merit is earned regardless of identity. The reluctance of intelligent people forces them to withdraw from political engagement and pursue the next best. They would rather shy away from identity politics, an ideology they know is subjective and illogical. They think to themselves, “Let the Gender Studies majors solve the problems they created. I can’t change their minds.”

The allure of Wall Street stems from the social, academic, and economic benefits of non-engagement with identity politics. As a consequence, many in the business community fail to recognize a joint American purpose. For instance, Wall Street steadily maintains vested and pointed financial interests in communist China. If our own citizens sell American companies to this communist regime, our government is severely undermined when attempting to hold China accountable for its human rights abuses. We as a people are speaking with two contradicting voices, thus speaking with no voice at all.  

Evidently, identity politics causes the governing and political fabric of our nation to deteriorate. The steady degradation originated at the hands of a small segment of society that educates students at our most esteemed universities. More often than not, those who propel these ideologies are not professors, but rather they are college bureaucrats that we rarely know or interact with. Unfortunately, some students today leave college with a false underlying framework. These educators implicitly taught students that the necessity to rectify certain social groups runs exclusive to serving the needs of the aggregate. On the other hand, most students leave with no desire to engage at all. 

What I’ve learned most about the United States while at Holy Cross is that our country maintains an everlasting commitment to uphold natural rights, alongside the pursuit of a more perfect society. Both these endeavors are lost if formats to pursue a just society limits the flow of ideas, intentionally or unintentionally.  Identity politics transcribes our ideals reactively, assuming character is drawn from our country’s worst sins, rather than the settled-truth decided at our country’s foundation. 

When the study of the perceived victimhood of groups within society overcomes the pursuit of truth in the larger group, serious inquiry is lost. Citizens choose not to engage, free discourse falls, and partisanship erupts surrounding subjective ideas that are cloaked in objectivity. The only way to combat identity politics is to use reason.

If reason is practiced again, then professors, students, and administrators will need to jump over a fundamental hurdle and assume that people do not intend to harm others with their ideas. In the off chance they do harm others, they need to jump over another fundamental hurdle, and not let it bother them. If hurt, they can again say to themselves, while embodying the Christian virtue that Martin Luther King extolled in his crusade, “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.” When this change in attitude occurs, many college bureaucrats will become irrelevant. Happily, tuition will be lowered and more Americans can afford college. 

How will this happen? 

We know identity politics will inevitably fail. Its logic does not work; consistent subjectivity erodes itself into an oblivion. Maybe the election of President Trump represents the beginning of a cultural paradigm that defeats identity politics. Perhaps this shift will bolster the reunion of the smartest actors in business and government. This will benefit all Americans objectively, while some may sadly still allow subjective realities to keep them down.

So back to the 2020 election. Who will win? President Trump. How does this relate to college and identity politics? Joe Biden will still struggle to communicate with the large sectors of the political party he represents because it is still dominated by identity politics. Perhaps the reason that we – college students, professors, and administrators – fail to understand the successful rise of President Trump, is because we do not fully understand ourselves. 

If the perpetuation of identity politics continues at American universities, we should not be surprised that our political choices are two individuals in their 70’s, who largely reject a narrative that our beloved schools have followed. Rational Americans dismiss identity politics because it’s divisive and its logic doesn’t work. Yet, universities fail to follow suit. If post-secondary institutions cannot grasp reality, we should not be surprised that our generation is becoming further polarized or has become disengaged all together. 

This story was adapted from a larger essay that will appear in the May edition of the Fenwick Review.

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  1. Identity Politics occurs when politicians, political commentators, etc. see you not as a unique individual but rather as a member of a number of groups of individuals. For example, the group of males, the group of African Americans, the group of Whites, the group of the poor, the group of the rich, the group of college graduates, that group of employees, the group of teachers, the group of immigrants, the group of Social Security recipients, the group of individuals with no health insurance, the group of Dems, the group of Repubs, the group of unemployed persons, etc., etc. This approach tends to assume that all the members of a group are alike. For example, all rich people vote Repub, all teachers vote Dem, all African Americans vote Dem, all Repubs uphold gun rights, all Dems protect voluntary abortions, all Dems are secularists, all Evangelicals vote Repub, etc., etc. This approach tends to such stereotyping. While there is some basis in reality for stereotypes, the danger is when stereotyping crowds out the realization that all individuals are unique. One can add up all the groups of which an individual is a member, but the sum does not equal the totality of the each individual. Socialist planners must stereotype in creating their social policies because it is their only practical approach. Over time, the concept of the Individual, the value of Individualism is lost, the Freedom of the Individual is lost. The USA was founded with the Freedom of the Individual being an ultimate value. Identity Politics tends to undermine our Freedom of the Individual. That’s why Identity Politics is so dangerous–if you value Freedom of the Individual.


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