Why Identity Politics Doesn’t Help
Identity politics refers to political positions based on the interests and perspectives of social groups with which people identify. Identity politics includes the ways in which people’s politics are shaped by aspects of their identity through loosely correlated social organizations. Examples include social organizations based on age, religion, social class, culture, dialect, disability, education, ethnicity, language, sex, gender, generation, race, political party and sexual orientation. In essence, one’s identity becomes the lenses she looks through and which colors how she views polity and expression. At best, it gives a powerful voice to minority groups who feel poorly represented or suppressed. At worse, it emboldens tribalism and pits social groups against one another, as each group demands that their identity get the recognition it deserves. Given its nascent rise in in the civic sphere, it is an issue that needs to be considered thoughtfully and rationally. My approach will be to offer a better strategy than what identity politics proffers and then lay out 6 arguments that shed light on its futility.
My contention is that we ought to, instead, build our arguments for freedom and liberty based on our collective identity as American citizens. As a collective whole, our ability to articulate a cohesive national identity is the only way for us to make progress and pass laws that ensure our freedom. Citizenship, the central concept of democratic politics, is a bond linking all members of a political society over time, regardless of our individual characteristics, giving us both rights and duties. We are enfranchised with unalienable rights that secure our opportunity to participate in the democratic process. We enjoy freedom of speech, religion, and the right to vote. But we also procure obligations within the democratic process to pay taxes, respect the rights of people, and respect property, all with the goal of a creating a freer and better society. And the only way to keep progressing is through movements that are mobilized by unified large groups of people who argue from a position of shared humanity as American citizens.
If we want to continue to extend and expand our freedoms in this country, it will take large swaths of our population banding together for what is just and right. This is evidenced by the civil rights movement and the early feminist movements. Identity politics makes this impossible because it divides the country into a thousand different identities and voices. Gone are the days of a homogeneous voice that articulates a vision of America as a unified whole. Perhaps identity politics is not the best strategy.
Before I lay out my arguments, allow me to give one real life example of what identity politics looks like when it’s fully played out. On March 21, 2017, millions of people gathered in solidarity for women’s rights. Below the surface, however, tribal tensions lurked. The original name of the march was set to be, “Million Women March,” which was the name of the 1997 protest for black women’s unity. Black women quickly accused the organizations of appropriation, and then black women began protesting against a women’s rally for women’s rights. Not only did black women break off, but then you had the Left pushing pro-life issues which excluded the more Conservative women. The tribal tribalism resulted in the women on the Left not allowing the female religious pro-lifers to participate in the march. Thus, what was supposed to promote solidarity quickly escalated into a war of differing tribes based on different identities. In the end, women’s rights was forgotten as differing and opposing differentiated identities bolted ahead to the forefront of the conversation. The question remains: Why does identity politics fail to unite the country and procure legislation that expands our rights and liberties?
#1 Identity Politics Divides
First, identity politics cannot unify the country and bring reconciliation because it perpetually fractionates groups into sup-groups and those sub-groups into other sub-groups. I won’t belabor this point because I believe the example of the Women’s March debacle highlights this very premise. But what we see today are groups fragmented among groups based on who has been oppressed the most. Talk of the collective whole today and solidarity is silenced when every group and sub-group in this country is pitted against each other in a war over who has suffered the most. This point also shares qualities with my next argument.
#2 Identity Politics is a Zero-Sum Competition
Identity politics results in a zero-sum competition. Simply ask yourself, who gets the rights and recognition their demanding with identity politics? Answer: no one. No one wins when ‘The Oppressed’ is trying to out-oppress the last ‘Oppressed’. Thus, everyone becomes the victim in a kind of ‘Oppression Olympics’ resulting in groups crying wolf while everyone else simply rolls their eyes. During a Black Lives Matter protest at the DNC held in Philadelphia in July 2016, a protest leader announced that “this is a black and brown resistance march”, asking white allies to “appropriately take [their] place in the back of this march (Amy Chua, Identity Politics).” As you can imagine, the white people simply left the protest. Again, no one wins.
#3 Identity Politics Fosters Narcissism
Instead of heeding John F. Kennedy’s call of solidarity when he affirmed, “What can I do for my country?”, identity politics demands, “what does my country owe me by virtue of my identity?” Today, the focus of attention is now less on the relation between our identification with the United States as democratic citizens than our identification with different social groups within it. If we look back in history, the civil rights movement had more in common with the struggles of earlier religious and ethnic minority groups, which were about have their equality and dignity as citizens recognized. As I mentioned earlier, the civil rights movement and the first and second wave of feminism were movements that had to do with having their equality and dignity as citizens recognized with the collective whole. As Mark Lilla points out, during the 1970s and 1980s a shift began. The focus of attention is now less on the relation between our identification with the United States as democratic citizens and our identification with different social groups. Citizenship has dropped out of the picture. “People now speak instead of their personal identities in terms of their inner homunculus, a unique little thing composed of parts tinted by race, sex, and gender (Mark Lilla, The Once and Future Liberal).” The only meaningful question now is a deeply personal one: what does my country owe me by virtue of my identity?
#4 Identity Politics is Built on Romanticism Rather Than Political Realism
Identity politics is built on romanticism rather than political realism, which means emotions and feeling are elevated over facts. Romantics are known to place a higher value on feelings rather than facts. Romantics, like the political identitarians, see society itself as somewhat dubious, an imposed artifice that alienates the individual self from itself, drawing arbitrary lines, creating enclosures, and forcing us into costumes that are not of our own making. The Romantic wants the answers to the questions, “Who am I?” and “What are we?”, to have the same exact answers. The political identitarians take the Romantic notion a narcissistic step further when assuming her victimology will result in America singing kumbaya in unison. What she doesn’t realize, though, is that there are numerous other groups playing the same victim card.
Political realism, on the other hand, shows that many identities living among one another breeds distrust and chaos. Homogeneity is better for social cohesion. (*as a reference for this controversial claim, please see Alberto Alesina and Eliana La Ferrara, “Who Trusts Others?” in the Journal of Public Economics) The facts show that homogeneous cultures result in more solidarity and social cohesion for the betterment of the collective whole. Japan and South Korea are excellent examples of how one identity – a national one – can unite an entire population to the citizenship of that country. South Korea amazed every economics department in the world when it bounced back so quickly form the 2009 financial crisis. South Koreans banded together, donating jewelry and valuables in a collective effort to help their beloved country persevere through the crisis. This astonishing act of national pride would have been impossible if identity politics had fractioned the country into a plethora of identities each warring for recognition.
On a personal level, it can be advantageous to yearn for an inner search of meaning and identity as Romantics do. However, in the public domain, we need to be more pragmatic. Putting all our eggs in the basket of single issues like Black Lives Matters or LGBTQ misses the opportunity to speak about the collective rights that are deserved for each American citizen. Why can’t we argue for the rights of blacks, immigrants, women and whoever else by appealing to the fact that everyone American citizen is deserving of protection, freedom, and liberties under the Constitution? So yes, All Lives Matter.
#5 Identity Politics Gives Each Identity Their Own Epistemology
Identity politics gives everyone their own epistemology, whereby people can speak from their own privileged positions and the winner of the argument will be whoever has invoked the morally superior identity and displays the most outrage at being questioned. Side note, epistemology involves how one knows what they know. Identity politics, therefore, gives every identity their own personal ivory tower to speak their knowledge. Here is the disastrous logic: when person X is the only one who can speak on X-ness, then there is no room for dialogue; and if you question X, then it’s assumed that must hate X and X-ness. I hope you can see the inherent divisiveness of this logic. It sets up walls against questions, which, by definition, come from a non-X perspective. And it turns the encounter into a power relation.
#6 Identity Politics Does Not Appeal to Legislation
Identity politics is futile without an appeal to legislation, and to get legislation, you need a movement, not a thousand different voices each with its own demand. Martin Luther King Jr. was the greatest movement leader in American history. His efforts, however, would have been futile without those of the machine politician Lyndon Johnson, a seasoned congressional deal maker willing to sign any pact with the devil to get the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act passed. As I said earlier, the civil rights movement and the first two waves of the feminism changed laws because they appealed to legislation. Today’s protests do the exact opposite. The Occupy movement, Black Lives Matters, and women’s marches all fizzled out because there was never a concerted effort to sign laws for an extension of rights. Instead, these protests are better labeled as: inconvenient street parties.
A further point can be made that legislation will not be made when the voices demanding rights are coming from a thousand different groups of identities. The civil rights movement was a collective movement that didn’t focus on identity, rather, it focused on the rights deserved as American citizens. Martin Luther King Jr. could have played the race card, but he didn’t. In his words, “My dream is of a country where you are judged not by the color of your skin, but by the content of your character.” Perhaps the best strategy for illuminating the ignorant is by transcending identity politics and showing how we are united under the common banner of citizens who are deserving of decency and basic human rights.
The goal of this essay is not to say that identity politics is wrong, rather, it is to say that it is a strategy that is not working. In my introduction, I attempted to propose a better solution by building our arguments for freedom and liberty based on our collective identity as American citizens. My concern is that our country is becoming more divisive with every new identity that sprouts up. With every voice crying wolf and demanding recognition it makes it almost impossible to unify as a country to address, for example, the 44 million citizens without adequate healthcare or fight for Citizens United that seeks to make elections more democratic. In the end, my arguments are an attempt to seek a strategy that unites rather divides; and makes freedom and liberties more tenable, rather than a tribal Armageddon.