from Diamonstein-Spielvogel Project on the Future of Democracy

The Identity Trap

A Story of Ideas and Power in Our Time 

One of our leading public intellectuals traces the origin of a set of ideas about identity and social justice that is rapidly transforming America—and explains why it will fail to accomplish its noble goals.

Book
Foreign policy analyses written by CFR fellows and published by the trade presses, academic presses, or the Council on Foreign Relations Press.

For much of history, societies have violently oppressed ethnic, religious, and sexual minorities. It is no surprise that many who passionately believe in social justice came to believe that members of marginalized groups need to take pride in their identity to resist injustice.

But over the past decades, a healthy appreciation for the culture and heritage of minority groups has transformed into a counterproductive obsession with group identity in all its forms. A new ideology aiming to place each person’s matrix of identities at the center of social, cultural, and political life has quickly become highly influential. It stifles discourse, vilifies mutual influence as cultural appropriation, denies that members of different groups can truly understand one another, and insists that the way governments treat their citizens should depend on the color of their skin.

This, Yascha Mounk argues, is the identity trap. Though those who battle for these ideas are full of good intentions, they will ultimately make it harder to achieve progress toward the genuine equality we desperately need. Mounk has built his acclaimed scholarly career on being one of the first to warn of the risks right-wing populists pose to American democracy. But, he shows, those on the left and center who are stuck in the identity trap are now inadvertent allies to the MAGA movement.

In The Identity Trap, Mounk provides the most ambitious and comprehensive account to date of the origins, consequences, and limitations of so-called “wokeness.” He is the first to show how postmodernism, postcolonialism, and critical race theory forged the “identity synthesis” that conquered many college campuses by 2010. He lays out how a relatively marginal set of ideas came to gain tremendous influence in business, media, and government by 2020. He makes a nuanced philosophical case for why the application of these ideas to areas from education to public policy is proving to be so deeply counterproductive—and why universal, humanist values can best serve the vital goal of true equality. In explaining the huge political and cultural transformations of the past decade, The Identity Trap provides truth and clarity where they are needed most.

More on:

Civil Society

United States

More on:

Civil Society

United States

Reviews and Endorsements

America’s academic, cultural, and political institutions went insane beginning around 2014, and I’ve been trying to figure out why ever since. In The Identity Trap, Yascha Mounk explains how a few powerfully bad ideas, propelled through institutions by people with good intentions, are causing systemic dysfunction and dangerous polarization. This is among the most insightful and important books written in the last decade on American democracy and its current torments, because it also shows us a way out of the trap.

Jonathan Haidt, Thomas Cooley Professor of Ethical Leadership, New York University Stern School of Business, author of The Righteous Mind, co-author of The Coddling of the American Mind 

Yascha Mounk and I don’t agree on everything, inevitably, but I very much admire his aim to take seriously a set of ideas that have been subject to much more heat than light.  The question of who speaks for the group is one that yields no easy answers.  Social identities connect us in multiple and overlapping ways; they are not protected but betrayed when we turn them into silos with sentries. The Identity Trap brings vital context to some of the most fraught and divisive debates of our time.

Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Alphonse Fletcher University Professor, Harvard University, and author of Stony the Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow 

In his indispensable book, Yascha Mounk proposes an alternative to the ceaseless combat between ‘woke’ and ‘anti-woke’ extremes—one that takes seriously the enduring malignant legacy of systemic discrimination yet correctly identifies that universal values, not group solidarity, offer the surest path to justice, fairness, and enduring social peace. The Identity Trap is necessary reading for understanding both the appeal and profound limits of identity based politics while offering a compelling alternative rooted in the highest ideals of liberal democracy.

David French, New York Times columnist

Yascha Mounk explains the intellectual roots of our current focus on identity, what’s wrong with it, and how we can get back to belief in a shared humanity in an erudite yet easy-to-read account.

Francis Fukuyama, author of Liberalism and Its Discontents 

Why are so many people embracing simplistic notions of ‘identity,’ in the guise of social justice, to substitute for reasoning, empathy, and even fairness? The Identity Trap is a smart tutorial on how we got to this point and how we get back to elevating logic over performance art to function as a mature society.

John McWhorter, Columbia University and the New York Times

Yascha Mounk has written another powerful, timely book, seeking to understand the origins and impact of the ideas that rightly or wrongly constitute ‘identity politics’—where they come from, what effect they have, where they could lead. His book is both an excellent analysis and an eloquent plea for the recovery of shared values, the ideas that link us instead of dividing us.

Anne Applebaum, author of Twilight of Democracy

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