Why Americans Can’t Avoid ‘Identity Politics’
We keep discussing our identities. With reference to the book ‘The Once and Future Liberal’.
Writing for the political moment shortly after Trump’s inauguration, Mark Lilla identified what he saw as a core problem: The rights and quality of life of certain identity groups are threatened by American conservatism. His solution: Liberals need to win elections, including local elections to create broad support to accomplish nationwide agendas, so they can restore rights to all citizens.
Just win. Focus on that first. The ends may justify the means.
Lilla said in The Once and Future Liberal that liberals needed to quit “identity politics” to gain sympathy, win political battles, and ultimately have the power to actually uphold rights for specific groups. The strategy was “top-down”: If we could just put good people in power (one imagines), they would manifest rights, representation, and inclusion for specific identity groups, and therefore all our energy should focus on putting good people in power.
Unfortunately, explicitly talking about these rights somehow (in Lilla’s view) was causing liberals to lose elections. And, when liberals lose elections, of course they lack political power to enact their principles. He made a pragmatic argument for liberals to stop self-sabotaging with what he saw as unwinnable strategies. He said that liberals should drop the emphasis on identity politics and instead develop a more inclusive, effective brand to attract more voters and accomplish their agenda. He argued that more broad-based appeals to the defense of individual rights, rooted in a shared identity of “citizenship,” should do the trick.
When the book was newly released — The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics was published in August 2017 — I disagreed with its overall thesis. I did appreciate some of its historical analysis, but not its disparagement of so-called “identity politics.”
Now, nearly four years later, there’s a big piece of evidence that undermines its theory.
What actually happened: Identity politics got louder on both sides. White nationalism grew, and the summer of 2020 was marked by the George Floyd protests.
And Joe Biden won the presidential election.
Everyone Talks About Identity, Including Republicans
The Republicans were playing their own identity games, Lilla acknowledged. They “have successfully persuaded much of the public that they are the party of Joe Sixpack and Democrats are the party of Jessica Yogamat” with the result that “certain federal laws and even constitutional protections are, practically speaking, a dead letter” in Republican areas.
But let’s stop here for a moment. “Joe Sixpack” is an identity as much as is “Jessica Yogamat.” This suggests that identity politics strengthens the political power of the right. That phenomenon undermines or at least complicates Lilla’s argument that identity politics is a poor strategy for strengthening the political power of the left. It can’t be inherently a poor strategy if it benefits someone. We can’t just jump to the conclusion that every time someone mentions “identity,” it’s a win for the Republicans. Maybe sometimes it is a win for the Democrats. Maybe the Democrats can increase those wins if they play the “identity” cards slightly differently, rather than hiding or dropping those cards altogether.
Good News! Everyone Has Expertise About Their Own Identity
Why is this so great? Because we get to learn from others.
Dangerous Identity Politics Currently Serve the Right Wing
The KKK, neo-Nazis, their media machines, and their lightly disguised policy aims are existential threats in response to which liberal movements have grown to shield people’s lives. Seen from this angle, the liberal version of identity politics doesn’t look so ridiculous, after all. To the contrary: Violent fascism is a threat, and we need to call out the absurdity of that political project.
American history to explain ‘How did we get here?’
Americans are ‘trapped in a cycle of self-mythology and atrocity,’ says Jared Yates Sexton
The Once and Future Liberal does not acknowledge the historical and present-day influence of white nationalism within the Republican Party. As the Trump campaign ramped up during the last two years of Obama’s presidency, the number of hate groups in the United States increased by 17 percent. On the day Lilla’s book was published, President Trump responded to an incident in Charlottesville, Va. where a neo-Nazi killed an anti-racist protester by saying there were “very fine people on both sides.” Behavior like this — the president’s refusal and inability to provide moral judgment and guidance for the nation on identity issues at a critical moment — creates the need for identity-based movements to promote social cohesion and protect individual lives. Of course, those efforts may sometimes be ineffective. But that does not mean that people should not try. It does not mean that looking the other way while muttering “we’re all Americans” will help us achieve solidarity. Americans are indeed American, but some Americans participate in hate groups and those hate groups target Americans who have certain other identities, so observing that we are all Americans isn’t capturing the problem nor presenting a solution.
Lilla may take it for granted that right-wing extremism is bad, but I’m not sure all of his readers make the same assumption. Probably some conservatives read his characterization of left-wing strategic ineptitude and simply point and laugh at Democrats for losing elections, not seeing how the right wing shares responsibility for the problem of American political dysfunction.
We can all get on board with the idea that Americans should support each other’s basic rights — whether for the “positive” reason of our shared American identity or for the “negative” reason that our more specific identities should not matter when it comes to basic human rights. This is not just an agenda for liberals or Democrats; this should be an “everybody” agenda. It’s an ethical prescription. There should be no political debate over whether Americans should support each others’ rights. So, just imagine if the Republican Party were to embrace this simple notion, too — really embrace it. What would it imply for their endorsed policies? How would they change if they really believed in upholding human rights?
Who are we asking to change, and why?
Advocating For Specific Rights Need Not Hurt the Larger Group Goals
You can ask a subgroup to drop its demands and help the rest of the group pursue larger goals. But there are problems. It isn’t easy for someone to drop their own political agenda in response to a vague promise that We’ll give you what you want if you’ll just shut up about it. That is never how it actually works; being quiet does not get you what you want, particularly if you lack basic rights that you ought to already have without asking for them. If you’re marginalized or oppressed, the system likely has its reason for keeping you that way, and so you do have to raise your voice. Nor should you be quiet just for the primness of it; there’s no morality of being silent about your needs, especially in a system that is supposed to be a representative democracy and thus ought to encourage you to speak.
If a group’s rights are violated, they will advocate for redress. They cannot drop that self-advocacy, even temporarily, every time someone suggests that they are more likely to get what they want if they are quiet. That promise is usually empty.
Someone may tell them that their particular complaint is small potatoes and that there are bigger fish to fry. The recommendation may be that they should quietly focus on the prize of the fish that is “for everyone” and wait for the “long game” to be won so that their personal potatoes can be handed to them.
But the recommendation misses the mark. It does not attempt to comprehend or empathize with the oppressed group’s situation, and so it fails to see that
(a) they are starving and need these potatoes right now
(b) they have wanted these potatoes for five — or fifty — or two hundred and fifty years of unfulfilled promises, and they have no reason to believe that this time the promise is sincere
(c) they can receive potatoes even if they (or others) still have no fish
(d) asking for potatoes doesn’t delay the fish
There is no reason to assume a scarcity model when we are talking about political rights. Speaking directly and granting rights and benefits to those who need it now does not compete with the needs and expectations of others.
A Critique of ‘Identity Politics’ Can Perpetuate Identity-Based Discourse
Lilla understands that Americans are diverse and that many constituencies are treated unjustly and need political solutions which should not be considered “special interests” but are rather simply part of what all “citizens” are owed. Unfortunately, not everyone perceives the citizenry as the sum of its parts, so, when Lilla gives people permission to stop talking about the parts, he is giving them permission to forget that the country is diverse and that “all citizens” have varying needs.
He suggests that “identity politics” look, and actually are, ridiculous, but he doesn’t offer a replacement. And we know we can’t go in an “All Lives Matter” direction. (For those who don’t recognize the slogan “All Lives Matter,” it is a pointed dismissal of Black concerns and thus is an anti-Black statement that lightly pretends to sound universal and reconciliatory.) A slogan like “We’re All Americans” is a warmed-over substitute for “All Lives Matter” if we can’t get granular about who is a citizen and what we have to do for certain identity groups to ensure that their lives are counted.
‘Conservative’ and ‘Liberal’ Are Modern American Identities
In today’s American political landscape, “liberal” and “conservative” aren’t policy preferences so much as they are identities. Thus this book, The Once and Future Liberal, is also practicing a form of identity politics: the liberal vs. conservative kind.
“Polarization” is not a word that appears in the book, but it is popular in other contemporary discussions of partisanship in the United States. Other writers have pointed out that American politics today is polarized, not by political ideology or policy preferences, but simply by identity. (The identity in question can include party affiliation, thus making this political identity sorting partly circular or self-referential).
One reason for this type of polarization is that the average citizen, despite the democratic ideal of participatory self-government, doesn’t have the time or attention for nuanced political concepts. As a shortcut, people gravitate to political parties based on their personal identities. The voter then adopts the ideological viewpoints given to them by their party. (This process is described in Achen and Bartels’ Democracy for Realists.) It is not obvious that liberals are uniquely at fault here; conservatives, too, engage in this. Not only has the Republican Party long chosen to appeal primarily to white Americans, it has also driven out other types of Americans by dismissing their needs, interests, and dignity. Those people go to the only significant alternative: the Democratic Party.
If we want to know whether either American political party suffers a net loss of voters as a result of this self-sorting, we’d have to calculate it. The parties may believe that they benefit from the sorting (whether by increasing the sheer numbers of their members, or by fueling the loyalty and passion of whatever membership they do have), which would explain why they encourage their own forms of identity politics.
Political affiliation determined by personal identity may indeed indicate some kind of disinterest in ivory-tower political ideas, and so, from the ivory-tower perspective, identity movements may appear unprincipled or distracted— that is, concerned with the wrong things. Certainly, hyperpartisanship (including when it is based on personal identity) can have unpleasant and undesirable consequences, so it may be appropriate to practice partisanship in moderation. But identity-based movements and concerns aren’t bad at their core, and their causes and effects need to be explored more in depth before they are disregarded.
What Was the Near-Term Outcome?
In this book, Lilla did not lock up an argument that liberals alone should be responsible for fixing the insufficiencies of identity politics nor that their success in this endeavor would substantially sway their political fortunes.
The book was published months after Trump’s inauguration. Four years later, we can assess the real-world results.
Did Americans abandon political talk of identities during the Trump administration? To the contrary, liberals and conservatives talked about little else.
And did Trump win reelection? No.
Here’s a more subtle version of the story. On September 5, 2018, a senior official in the Trump administration anonymously published an op-ed in the New York Times warning that everyone who worked with the president was aware of his “amorality” and that the “adults in the room” were trying to constrain his agenda. “But the real difference will be made,” the writer assured us, “by everyday citizens rising above politics, reaching across the aisle and resolving to shed the labels in favor of a single one: Americans.” While vaguely suggesting that Americans’ personal and political identity labels contributed to the forces that put a amoral president in office and kept him proudly doubling down on his amorality, the writer did not explain how ordinary Americans would make the nation better simply by shedding their identity labels and reconciling with their political opponents, especially when even the President’s own Cabinet members couldn’t or wouldn’t meaningfully intervene to truly constrain the Amoral One. Two years later, shortly before the 2020 presidential election, Miles Taylor revealed himself as the author. He had been chief of staff to the Homeland Security Secretary. He had power. Yet he enabled oppressive policies. He said the ends justified the means, but they didn’t, because the ends weren’t even achieved. That wasn’t a failure of ordinary Americans emphasizing their marginalized identities at the expense of broad American solidarity; that was a deflection of responsibility from the top. It was a failure of the Trump administration. Everyone saw it. People drew a conclusion that the means are often as important as the ends. People heard identity-based arguments for why the era of Trumpism needed to end, and they admitted that this might be a good way of arguing. And a majority of Americans voted the Trump administration out.
My hypothesis: Americans looked at the way conservatives were doing identity politics and at the way liberals were doing it, and a majority of voters went liberal. If that’s the correct interpretation — that the liberal version of identity politics won the day — then we need to let go of the assumption that the solidarity of subgroups always fatally fragments a larger movement.