Our Definition of "Identity Politics" is Bullshit.
No term seems to get political people more riled up since the 2016 election than “identity politics.” I’ve written about the way those discussions seems to happen (again and again and again and again and again) but I sometimes feel like I’m speaking at cross purposes with those who don’t fully understand my objection to the way the term is used.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines the term as follows:
“A tendency for people of a particular religion, race, social background, etc., to form exclusive political alliances, moving away from traditional broad-based party politics.”
As someone who believes that identity is a crucial component in addressing social problems, but also believes that there is a point at which it becomes less productive, even counter-productive, this entire definition turns on the word “exclusive.” When pundits began to lament “identity politics” on the left (years ago), they were mostly talking about the tendency in the campus far left to focus on speech codes, safe spaces, and equating (genuinely or otherwise) offensive or dangerous speech as actual violence. In some situations, this tendency crosses a line into being restrictive of free speech. It serves to exclude potential allies whose understanding of the issues might not be the same even though they would advocate the same outcomes.
In the wake of the 2016 election, the consensus amongst pundits and analysts was to attribute Hillary Clinton’s loss to her inability to appeal to the white working class voters that Trump turned out by the bushel. That Hillary Clinton’s focus on issues with specific appeal to her base (women and voters of color) like mass incarceration, the wage gap, economic inequality, health care, and reproductive rights alienated white working class voters. That case has been articulated by numerous journalists and political thinkers like George Packer, Mark Lilla, and the entire New York Times opinion page. It’s probably even true, but the problem lies in defining that kind of politics as “identity politics.”
Hillary Clinton’s campaign may not have appealed explicitly to white voters like those of Richard Nixon (law and order), Jimmy Carter (neighborhood integration), Ronald Reagan (Philadelphia, Mississippi, the "young buck," and the welfare queen), George H. W. Bush (Willie Horton), Bill Clinton (Ricky Ray Rector and Sister Souljah), George W. Bush (radical islam in 2004), John McCain (Joe the Plumber and “palin’ around with terrorists”), Mitt Romney (makers and takers), and Donald Trump (where to start …), but it was not a campaign exclusive to voters of color. Men and women of any class or color who wanted a more just and equitable world felt perfectly welcome in her coalition (I can attest to that).
When we use the term “identity politics” to describe policies that are not divisive and exclusive but simply address inequalities or major issues that affect some segments of the population more than others, we assign the term a meaning that is so broad as to render it meaningless. Jobs for coal-miners? Identity politics. Drug treatment for opioid ravaged rural communities? Identity politics. Job training for deindustrialized communities? Identity politics. But meaningless is not the same thing as useless.
When a term can be applied to almost any scenario, then its application becomes a matter of discretion and therein lies the real problem. We never think of “religious freedom” legislation as identity politics for largely white evangelicals. We never use the term to apply to legislation that helps largely white Appalachian communities stay out of poverty. We never dismiss the needs of jobless midwestern manufacturing workers as “divisive.” We save that derision and scorn for the needs of black communities, immigrants and ethnic minorities, and women. We use the term “identity politics” as an effective means of dismissing the concerns of women and voters of color as obscure and exclusive niche concerns, while creating for those of white voters an assumption of universality. In the context of the movement progressives claim as their own, this demonstrates an ignorance of the history of their own ideas in America.
In 1965, following the passage of the bulk of civil rights legislation, Lyndon Johnson delivered perhaps the most famous speech of his career at Howard University’s commencement. In it he stated that:
“We seek not just freedom but opportunity. We seek not just legal equity but human ability, not just equality as a right and a theory but equality as a fact and equality as a result.”
To this end, he draws a conclusion that cuts against everything conservatives and class-oriented progressives would have us believe about the “Great Society” and “New Deal” liberalism that they laud (at least in the case of the progressives) at the back end of their scorn for “Identity Liberalism.” Johnson states, quite simply, that “negro poverty is not white poverty.”
Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” and war on poverty were built on the assumption that the color blind New Deal had failed to lift Black Americans out of poverty and had, in reality, only widened the gulf separating them from their white counterparts (fifty years of subsequent research prove him correct). Johnson’s vision was a war on poverty that fought this racial inequality directly, based upon a criticism of color-blind policies that allowed for profound discrimination and inequality.
Of course the inequality of Black Americans occupies a unique place in the American conscience, but the consideration of intractable poverty as something with variable impacts that need to be addressed explicitly is applicable in the fight against almost any social problem.
When conservatives term such a solution as “identity politics,” they are expressing their fundamental disagreement with the concept Johnson articulates. That is what it is. When progressives dismiss such a solution as divisive or stamp it as “identity politics” and relegate it to the echo chamber of the campus left, they both misapply the term, and lay bear a fundamental misunderstanding of the history of the more class-based policies they claim to advocate. At that point, the term “identity politics” no longer means anything useful. It serves only to marginalize those whose needs and priorities are inconvenient. And as long as we insist on using the term “identity politics” to describe any policy that acknowledges the variable impact of social and economic problems on different groups of people, I’m all for them.