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What is identity politics? Despite the endless stream of books and articles on the subject published over the past several years, we’re no closer to converging on a definition. Some view identity politics as an illiberal and tribal distortion of politics, which elevates a divisive fixation on immutable characteristics like skin color and sexuality over a common commitment to objectivity and the public good. Others think political mobilization on the basis of identity is a vital form of solidarity and civic action in the face of historic injustices and inequality.
These incompatible visions of identity politics make it difficult to discuss the subject with any precision, which is why some commentators have attempted to provide a more neutral and inclusive definition. The American journalist Ezra Klein emphasizes the innumerable ways personal identity is stitched into our beliefs (often unconsciously), which leads him to the conclusion that “virtually all politics is identity politics.”
However, Klein proceeds to argue that Donald Trump’s election in 2016 was a consequence of resurgent “white identity politics: anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim…” Is Klein really suggesting that this sort of politics should be classified alongside, say, suburban voters demanding action on health care? The idea that all politics is identity politics obscures more than it illuminates, and as debates over race, gender, and sexuality become more politically salient, it’s important to discuss these issues directly.
«The idea that all politics is identity politics obscures more than it illuminates.»
Framing the debate
Some authors and intellectuals acknowledge the nuances of identity politics without defining it out of existence. In his 2018 book “Identity”, Francis Fukuyama describes identity politics as a way for citizens to “demand public recognition of their worth” and as a “natural and inevitable response to injustice.” But Fukuyama also contends that identity politics is “deeply problematic because it returns to understandings of identity based on fixed characteristics such as race, ethnicity, and religion, which had earlier been defeated at great cost.”
In his recent book “The Identity Trap”, political scientist Yascha Mounk highlights the tension between the legitimate grievances of marginalized groups and the negative consequences of what he calls the “identity synthesis” – an infatuation with oppression and victimhood on the basis of race, gender, and sexual orientation. This synthesis finds its intellectual roots to academic ideas such as postmodernism, postcolonialism, and critical race theory – ideas that have made their way from universities to the wider culture over the past decade and a half.
It’s possible to criticize identity politics while continuing to fight for equality and social justice on the basis of universal principles. The former is in vogue, as it’s perceived to be a more radical way to dismantle structures of oppression and exclusion. But the latter is the only way to build a broad-based social and political movement that will defend human rights for all.
Hostility toward universal values
Those who have built their politics and ethics around identity are suspicious of universal liberal values like free expression, humanism, and individual rights. Whenever these values ostensibly conflict with the need to protect a marginalized group, they must be cast aside.
This is why Robin DiAngelo, author of “White Fragility“ and “Nice Racism“, urges readers to abandon “Western ideologies” like “individualism and objectivity.” It’s why the idea that our species can someday transcend racial division is spurned by many of our most prominent public intellectuals. It’s why politicians who argue that voters should choose candidates on the basis of ideas and principles rather than identity invite outrage and righteous condemnation.
Fukuyama and Mounk both recognize that identity politics – particularly on the left, which is sometimes rebranded as “wokeism” or “social justice” – often stems from a genuine commitment to equality. However, this makes the illiberal tendencies among today’s social justice movement more difficult to combat. Many of the same people who condemn the toxic tribalism of old forms of identity politics (such as ethnic essentialism when it comes to, say, citizenship) view similar forms of prejudice as just and necessary as long as they’re directed at the right racial group. Reactionary and even racist ideas now have a veneer of moral superiority on much of the left.
The purveyors of left-wing identity politics benefit from the moral prestige of historic campaigns for social justice like the Civil Rights Movement. In a country like the United States with a ghastly history of racial oppression, it’s easy for many progressive-minded people to sympathize with a desire for racial solidarity and even separatism. But Mounk demonstrates that many of the intellectual architects of modern identity politics (such as the lawyer and academic Derrick Bell) were explicitly opposed to the universalism of the Civil Rights Movement.
Racially segregated pupils
Racial segregation was once an evil that progressives fought against, but by the year 2017 The New York Times wasn’t ashamed to publish essays with titles like this: “Can My Children Be Friends With White People?” Here’s how Ekow N. Yankah, a law professor at the University of Michigan, answered the question posed by his headline: “As against our gauzy national hopes, I will teach my boys to have profound doubts that friendship with white people is possible.”
It’s disturbing that a law professor at a major American university thinks it’s acceptable to tell his children to distance themselves from people on the basis of their skin color, but it’s even worse that this attitude is finding its way into primary school classrooms. Mounk highlights the ways in which crude and reductive identitarian thinking has spread to certain corners of the education system, writing that some schools even “split students into racially segregated affinity groups as early as the first grade” (this sort of thing is particularly widespread in elite private schools in the United States).
Whatever you want to call this phenomenon – identity politics, wokeism, etc. –, it’s a worldview that shouldn’t be normalized as just another form of politics.
Regressive, not progressive
There are still vast racial divides in socioeconomic status, education, incarceration, and many other areas, and efforts to close these gaps must be grounded in universal values like equality, individual rights, and social solidarity. Just as the organizers of the Civil Rights Movement like Martin Luther King Jr. and Bayard Rustin sought to build a large and inclusive tent for their movement, advocates for racial equality today should drop ugly and illiberal ideas about segregation and the permanence of identitarian conflict.
Campaigning for racial equality (as well as equality for other marginalized groups) doesn’t require identity politics. The people who want to silence and sideline certain voices because they check the wrong demographic boxes – or who indoctrinate children with narratives about inescapable and eternal racial conflict – are only undermining their own cause. This is the distinction between politics and identity politics: one seeks to build as much support and solidarity as possible, while the other divides people and slots them into narrower and narrower communities on the basis of stupid and arbitrary tribal markers like skin color. It isn’t difficult to see which of these approaches is genuinely progressive and which is inevitably regressive.