Progressives, Identity Politics, and Chickenshit (part two)

      Bernie Sanders recently condemned the Democratic Party’s focus on “identity politics.”  He addressed all sorts of identity related issues in one breath and condemned “identity politics” in the next, claiming that “it is not good enough for someone to say, ‘I’m a woman!  Vote for me!’”

His comments are representative of an attitude that is pervasive among progressive liberals in the aftermath of this election.  His record of public statements shows thorough and authentic support for marginalized people, but also reticence to prioritize their issues explicitly in his economic agenda and a tendency to misrepresent those who do.

While he takes for granted that his focus on class does not make him insensitive to race or gender, this statement implies that people who emphasize gender (and racial, ethnic, etc) equality do so in only in the most superficial and cynical way and at the expense of economic justice. This is largely an issue of context (and probably tact), but the further implications of his statement are somewhat more subtle and have an impact on the way we talk about issues generally and “identity politics” in particular.

For the myriad ways the phrase is strewn about political conversations, most written definitions are fairly consistent.  A definition of “identity politics” from is quite representative of the way that the term is often used and the way that Sanders seems to be using it here:

“Political activity or movements based on or catering to the cultural, ethnic, gender, racial, religious, or social interests that characterize a group identity.”

Progressives often consider gender, race, ethnicity, gender identity, and orientation to be aspects of “identity” and policies that prioritize the issues that relate to those aspects of a person’s identity to constitute a cheap version of “identity politics.”  We do not, however, consider class to be a part of one’s identity.  We often take for granted that a strictly class-based approach to economic policy is one that transcends identity when, in reality, it’s simply another form of “identity politics.”  If we include any sort of policy that favors a particular identity group or interest directly, then there isn’t really anything wrong with “identity politics.”  In fact, almost everything qualifies to some degree or another.

Furthermore our policy priorities generally do cater to one group's needs over another. Policy almost always benefits one group more directly than others even when we acknowledge that it’s a more far-reaching public good.  

The issue is not that Democrats spent the election paying specific attention to some groups over others.  It's that they chose to prioritize policies that more explicitly benefit groups other than white men (equal pay, paid family leave, and defending Planned Parenthood's public funding are more directly beneficial to younger women, for one example) and asked white men to trust that those things would be beneficial for the economy as a whole (more tax revenue, wider workforce participation, alleviating poverty, etc).  Typically, however, women, people of color, and other marginalized groups are those we ask to accept that the policy priorities of others will be to their benefit as well.  The way that we typically use the term "identity politics" really refers to this phenomenon: a shift from an agenda that focuses on white male swing voters to an agenda that focuses elsewhere. 

I put the phrase "identity politics" repeatedly inside quotation marks because the way we use it in political analysis is often disingenuous.  Our definition fluctuates so that we can apply it, along with its negative connotations, to politics that are tailored to interests other than our own.  It poses as political analysis while making value judgements about the policies to which it is applied.  It's misleading to imply, for example, that grappling with issues that affect the lives of marginalized people aren't wide-reaching and broadly useful policy goals.   It’s also misleading to imply that purely class-based policies are more desirable simply because they are race (gender, ethnicity, etc) neutral.  It’s even further misleading to imply that policies that directly benefit white working class swing voters have nothing to do with cultural identity and are unequivocally good for the rest of the country.

We're always prioritizing our policy goals based on identity.  How we separate legitimate policy debate from cheap “identity politics” really just seems to be an issue of which identities we are more politically comfortable with prioritizing.