The Power and Perils of Identity Politics

by Kathryne Cui, Johns Hopkins University:

Critics of the current state of the American Left have attributed the decay of its political discourse to ‘identity politics’ with heightened ferocity since the 2016 Presidential election. The Democratic Party, critics argue, has lost its working class base by appealing to too many niche groups, including women, black and Latino Americans, and the LGBT community. (This is, of course, in spite of the fact that people of color are projected to make up a majority of the American working class by 2032.)

Only the most naive – or knowing and malicious – would assert that identity is purely cosmetic or cheaply political, and therefore that a politics that takes these needs into account is needlessly divisive. A survey of the recent history of political organizing inflected by what might today be criticized as identity politics has much to inform the present-day citizen about the place of identity in politics. But there are signs, too, that another kind of identity politics – manipulated by the forces of Trumpism – has hijacked the tactics and rhetorical power of past movements to devastating effect.

Of course, there is legitimate basis for criticism. Hyperfocusing on identity-based navel-gazing at the expense of coalition building cannot hope to win elections, per se. Bland sloganeering about the gender of a candidate buffs the surface of a campaign but cannot alone carry it to victory. Relying on existing demographic trends rather than genuine political vigor is lazy and, since it offers no substantive alternatives to the status quo, opens up spaces for the mainstream legitimation of right-wing populism.

But political consciousnesses that developed around identity, be they black or Native American or Asian American or Latinx or LGBTQ identities, have raised, not dampened, the energy of political debate in this country. Lowercase-p politics is fundamentally about identity. To become a political being is to cast off primal individualism and actively claim commonality with other political beings, to think of oneself as a social creature. Both conservatives and liberals, and everyone between and beside, claim shared values, traditions, culture, material interests – identity.

Black Power in the 1970s represented a breakthrough in black Americans’ understanding and celebration of their common culture, history, and struggle. When Americans adopted terms like Asian American they were renouncing the old term ‘Oriental,’ one not of their choosing, and deciding that as different as Japanese, Filipino, and Chinese Americans might be, there was grounds between them for political identification and mutual support. When Americans called themselves black or Chicano they were not merely saying ‘we look alike,’ or ‘we share common biological ancestry.’ What this meant was – instead of roughing it out as individuals for individual attainment in a society dominated by white Americans, they chose to embed their destinies into a lot with the destinies of other marginalized people.

Kimberlé Crenshaw, originator of ‘intersectionality,’ a term lately abused and misused into non-meaning, puts forth a cogent argument for why ‘identity’ is important. The aim of considering identity is not to conflate as many experiences under one umbrella as possible but to understand how dimensions of identity are inextricable from each other. They are not layers slapped upon each other that may be peeled back and considered separately, i.e. one is not a poor woman of color whose race, class, and gender experiences are separate and furiously contradictory, competing concerns – her concerns are that of a poor woman of color.

There is no ‘moving beyond’ identity politics – that is a luxury for those who have not built their identities out of a history of struggle. A real leftist conception of identity seeks to free all people, from all of society’s injustices. This is a universalist, not an exclusionary objective.

Identity is viscerally powerful. Why else would nascent nations invest so much in cultivating national identity, ideas of citizenship and belonging? History also shows, however, that such a power is easily tapped into, to any end, by both liberatory and oppressive forces. In the 2016 election, identity politics have manifested in a most sinister form on the Right.

Consider — how many devastated coal mining or industrial manufacturing communities exist in the United States? Enough to immiserate those who live within them. But on what basis does the idealized white working-class blue-collar middle American man share common identity with white Wall Street brokers or Donald Trump or even your average middle-income white suburban family? If the political impetus here is the economic devastation wreaked by trade policy, mechanization, and shifts in energy use, what policies do the Republican party offer both traditional white Republican voters and the rhetorical blue-collar male voter, such that they decide to cast their lots together as a ‘bloc’? The commonality is their white ethnic identity.

This fully-formed white bloc is built on fear and anxiety. It is built also on a fabricated shared identity – as white identity politics have always been. ‘White,’ itself, is a fabrication, as are all political identities. But ‘white’ identity is one whose aim is not the celebration of marginalized identity and unified struggle but one that, in its history of shifting boundaries and cynical deployment by those in power, documents the process of racial domination.

The other difference is that effective identity-colored politics on the Left was not so narcissistic, so myopic, so insular. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called upon white workers, who, he argued, shared not only a country but a struggle with black and all other Americans, to join in his movement. The power of Reconstruction-era populism, King argued at the conclusion of the Selma to Montgomery march, was founded on the unity of the “poor white masses and the former Negro slaves.” The radical upwelling of the 1960s and 1970s brought together Marxist organizations of all colors, including white; feminist and LGBT organizations; and anti-imperialist and Third World solidarity groups.
Trumpian white identity politics’ use of its relatable White Blue Collar Man as a stand-in for all white Americans is as political a ploy as presidential candidate McCain’s Joe the Plumber, with less blatant sloganeering and more intimations of the existential race crisis that is apparently upon us. Conservative politicians want to appropriate such abstractions as ‘working class’ and ‘Appalachia’ and ‘coal miners’ as right-wing symbols. In spite of their (and the media’s) efforts to depict their constructed hypothetical communities as naturally inclined toward falling lazily into reactionary politics, the history of the region shows us that politics are as contestable as they are anywhere else – perhaps moreso.

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