Why Identity Politics Doesn’t Help

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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.

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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.

gytvuyg#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.

hbuhj#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.

.jknluihb#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.

,m nkjn#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.

Closing Words

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.

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5 Demands for the Left

This essay is an attempt to articulate five demands directed at the American Liberal Left. The demands highlight the weakness and deficiencies in a Leftist group that is currently impotent, ignorant, and crippled beyond belief. Mired in pessimism and negativity, the Left can be found either bemoaning the current President while offering no solutions, or they’re curled up in the corner sulking because of a recent micro-aggression against their identity, or even worse, you’ll find them denigrating and castigating Republicans using mindless name-calling. What’s been lost in the sclerotic rhetoric is an attempt to look forward at what America could be within the confines of a cooperative and collaborative dialogue. What’s been lost is an attempt to articulate what America should look like, and then a concerted effort that follows which seeks to make it actually happen. In the end, America is a project; it’s our project.

I have a deep belief in the capacity for human minds to work things out for themselves if they don’t have to live in fear. – Yanis Varoufakis

Demand #1 : Stop with the pessimism

The pessimism that’s endemic with the Left will make us more spectatorial, disgusted, and politically inactive. From my perspective, it seems that the Left can only feel complete and fulfilled if they are able to complain about our current president – without offering any solutions of course. I am willing to bet that at the end of a rainbow, you’ll find two liberals sharing their frustrations about Trump. But l don’t want to oversimplify. Perhaps the pessimism is due in part to such concerns as the pervasive effect of economic inequality, racial tension, gender inequality and angst over the threat of terrorism. I’m sure there are more examples, but there is an overarching cloud of declinism, which resigns the Left to the perspective that the sky is literally falling down upon us. But what’s wrong with pessimism? Well, pessimism fosters a do-nothingness attitude, simply because, well, everything is going to Hell in a hand-basket anyways.

I am continually awestruck at the Left’s unwillingness or blindness to articulate, and provide a strategy for, future hopes. Rather, there is an incessant desire to talk about how progress is now going backwards, rapacious government who cares little about the common American, or how the world is headed toward either environmental or nuclear disaster. Catastrophizing the world seems to the default rather than persuasive arguments that offer solutions or effective strategies. A better solution is to see America as a project; a project that views America as a bastion for the continued cultivation of freedom, liberty and justice. It’s a forward-looking perspective that relies on hope, open dialogue, and democracy to achieve a better world. If you think I sound too utopian, then simply look across the ocean at Germany, and ask yourself: how did a country, so embroiled in a barbaric past socially, and fiscally strapped economically, rebound to a strong economic powerhouse that is more inclusive and optimistic than ever? I guarantee you that pessimism wasn’t their strategy.

Demand #2 : Stop focusing on sins

The Left has become overly moralizing in its self-loathing of America’s genocidal and racist history, and the result is paralysis. We can’t demand that everyone apologize for the sins committed hundreds of years ago. I can’t apologize simply because I have never enslaved people or participated in Christopher Columbus’s genocidal campaign against the native Americans. The perpetual tendency of the Left is to moralize the past to such an extent that it normalizes guilt, self-hate and self-disgust. So crippling are the effects of the Left’s consensual self-loathing that any specter of hope or future ideal is rarely articulated. Why? Because we cannot talk about the future when it’s been dictated and imposed that we are all complicit in, for example, two World Wars and Vietnam.

Perhaps a better solution is to frame the historical past into ‘What we can learn from this?’ and juxtapose the answer to that question with ‘What kind of future should we create in order to ensure that those injustices do not reoccur?’. Likewise, when it comes to confederate statues that stand in the middle of a southern city, why not leave them up, and put up educational signs which explain to onlookers what subjugation, oppression, and dehumanization looked like in the old South (*Richmond, Virginia is doing this, and is the idea of an African-American history professor). The Left suffers from what’s called ‘presentism’ which fosters the tendency to interpret past events (e.g. sins) in terms of modern [present] values and concepts. The past has its own unique context that we can never fully step into and critique in a pure and uncontaminated way. Any of us would have easily been slaughterers if that ‘world’ was all we new and was enculturated into our personal worldview. And for that reason, we should focus on what we can learn from history’s brutal past, rather than moralizing it for the purposes of advancing a present agenda.

Simply put: we are not sinful because of our past. This thinking leads to passivity. We must have some type of pride for our future, if we are to work towards that kind of future.

Demand #3 : Stop assuming that national pride is white chauvinism

National Pride is not white chauvinism. Instead, national pride is what self-respect is to an individual; a necessary condition for self-improvement. If you have too much of it, you get hostility and imperialism, just as excessive self-respect can produce arrogance. Too little self-respect makes it too difficult to show moral courage. Thus, a lack of national pride makes effective energetic talk about change, unlikely.

National pride is a shorthand for a conception of what it is to be human. National pride illuminates such noble attributes like values, decency, virtue, dignity. National pride is a compass that points us in the direction of what we love and hope for in a society.

So what’s the point of national pride? National pride engenders unity that brings us together, along with a vision of what that looks like. When unity and vision conjoin, then there is something to be ambitious for and achieve. Both John Dewey and Walt Whitman, two 19th century major social thinkers, viewed the United States as an opportunity to see ultimate significance in a finite human historical project rather than in something eternal and non-human. They both hoped that America would be the place where a religion of love would replace a religion of fear. They wanted to put hope for a classless and casteless society in the place most commonly occupied by knowledge of the will of God. They wanted the struggle for justice to be the animating principle, the nation’s soul. For Dewey and Whitman, national pride was a cooperative project that utilized freely achieved consensus (democracy) to elevate justice, hope, and freedom.

Demand #4 : Stop with identity politics

The Left needs to stop focusing on identity politics and focus on solidarity. In America today, every group feels threatened to some extent. Whites and blacks, Latinos and Asians, men and women, Christians, Jews, and Muslims, straight people and gay people, liberals and conservatives – all feel their groups are being attacked, bullied, persecuted, discriminated against. What identity politics does is separate all groups into exclusive segments, which inevitably pits them against one another for a kind of “Oppression Olympics” to see who has suffered the most.

Fifty years ago, the rhetoric of pro–civil rights, Great Society liberals was, in its dominant voices, expressly group transcending, framed in the language of national unity and equal opportunity. The Left, however, has changed its tone. Now out-group members cannot share in the knowledge possessed by in-group members (“You can’t understand X because you are white”; “You can’t understand Y because you’re not a woman”; “You can’t speak about Z because you’re not queer”). The idea of “cultural appropriation” insists, among other things, these are our group’s symbols, traditions, patrimony, and out-group members have no right to them.

Rather than standing up for America, people are standing up for their particular sub-group. Rather than standing up for democracy, equality, and justice, the Left stands up against Beyoncé wearing an Indian bridal outfit, or white restaurateurs who build a business cooking authentic Mexican food, or if a white author writes a novel based on the experiences of a Chinese girl. When liberal icon Bernie Sanders told supporters, “It’s not good enough for somebody to say, ‘Hey, I’m a Latina, vote for me,’ ” Quentin James, a leader of Hillary Clinton’s outreach efforts to people of color, retorted that Sanders’s “comments regarding identity politics suggest he may be a white supremacist, too”. Really?

Identity politics fosters division and exclusion, while weaponizing each sub-group with an arsenal ready for battle. Unfortunately, the Left has cried wolf too many times. If the Left is offended by somebody saying, “All lives matter” rather than, “Black lives matter,” then how can we face the real trauma of, say, 44 million Americans (of all identities) having no health insurance?

Demand #5 : Stop having street parties as a guise for protests

Change in society comes by appealing to conscience, not by today’s so-called “protests”, or by blocking highways with marchers, or condemning segments of society as impure or sinful. Today’s protests are absent of any strategy to make actual changes to law – unlike the 60s. What even counts as a protest? Civil rights protests of the 60s involved an appeal to conscious. You forced people to confront the horrible things going on, and there were specific demands being made and they were directly made to an appeal to conscious, e.g. we should not be made to sit in the back of the bus. Today, what we call “protests” are really inconvenient street parties. What specific Occupy Wall Street demand do you remember? And think about how the Left handled a call for women’s rights in 2017. The solution was a nationwide block party of women (and men) donning pink p*ssy hats with their BFF’s and a Starbucks latte in hand. Do you think Capitol Hill was seriously nervous over millions of Leftist’s protesting with their goofy pink hats? Or do you think that shutting down a highway and frustrating the motorists in your city will force the police to be more just? If so, you’re being naïve. In contrast, when you had a sit down in factories or rallies against the Vietnam War in the 60s, it was actually part of a negotiation tactic that fomented change.

Protests can’t be a giant “F You!”. It can’t be that certain segments of society are deplorable and we demand in some vague way that they change. We have to operate within the system, the discursive fabric, which means you have to have some type of power that’s not a type of pseudo authority from on high, you have to appeal to conscious, or you have to persuade, or as with the workers you have to have a relationship with the people you’re trying to get to reach demands.

A protest that realizes this vision, is not simply a protest that condemns, or says America is bad because of all these atrocities. It says we all can work together for this possible future, and we’re all worthy of it, and we’re all capable of it.

Given the present tactics are not working, philosopher Richard Rorty suggested an appeal to conscience and persuasive arguments which gain sympathizers for a worthy cause. We see such tactics when we look back to political shifts like the civil rights movement and gender equality. With civil rights and gender equality, there is a stark difference in rights, or lack thereof, when you compare, say, 1910 with 2010. The reasons for the shift were persuasive arguments that appealed to the conscience of American society. It wasn’t name calling and violence in the street that united both sides, rather, it was people like Martin Luther King and feminist icon Betty Frieden who used their passion and mind to not only change minds but also change legislation. You simply can’t win people over by shutting down the highway for a march or castigating people who think differently.

The iconoclasts of the past that garnered tectonic change in society had one thing in common: they had a hope for a better future. As opposed to pessimism, talk that expresses hope of a future is what can catalyze change and spread like a contagion.

Final Words …

If I had a #6 demand, it would be, stop insisting we let everyone into our country. This #6 highlights a deeper thought that is weaved into my initial 5 demands, and it’s this: there is always a middle between two extremes. When feeling threatened, it’s consoling to gravitate to the extremes and hunker down. However, most often, cooperation and the collaborative process remains in the middle between the extremes. Just as we shouldn’t let everyone into the country, we should not give everyone a gun. The answer to our current vexing dilemmas lie in the shared democracy that takes place in the middle.

Christopher Hitchens once said, “the first step towards being stupid is being partisan.” In other words, we all become stupid when we hunker down with our tribe, and only our tribe. I listed my 5 demands because the Left has become so partisan, that a collective anxiety has taken over. This pervasive angst is paralyzing the Left making political action a distant option. Unlike most of the Left, in no way do I think the sky is falling, and I refuse to. It’s in my refusal, that hope, dignity and opportunity can remain viable pursuits for the America I want.

Insanity in individuals is something rare – but in groups . . . it is the rule. – Friedrich Nietzsche