Understanding Identity Politics

If you’ve heard the phrase “identity politics” and think maybe liberals and progressives engage in it too often, this long article by Sarah Churchwell, a professor at the University of London, will put your mind at ease. She shows how identity has been key to American politics since colonial times:

We hear a great deal these days about how the right’s hostility to “identity politics” . . . enabled the rise of Donald Trump. In this framing, the election of 2016 was a populist backlash of ordinary voters against an increasingly aberrant left that has allowed itself to be distracted by narrow questions about groups whose niche concerns do not rightly pertain to the proper functioning of democracy. Their identity-based complaints are marginalizing the left, leaving it out of touch with the troubles of Middle Americans, who primarily worry about how to pay the bills….

This argument is made not only on the right. Liberal academics . . . have recently chided progressives for championing causes like Black Lives Matter and transgender rights, thus provoking . . . the “left-behind” Trump voters. The counterblast from these left-behind Americans will, they argue, defeat progressivism, which needs to get practical and focus on regaining power through calls to commonality, rather than difference . . . because identity politics “absolves liberals of not recognizing how their own obsession with diversity has encouraged white, rural, religious Americans to think of themselves as a disadvantaged group whose identity is being threatened or ignored…. they are reacting against the omnipresent rhetoric of identity, which is what they mean by ‘political correctness’. . .”

The good news for anyone feeling perturbed is that it simply isn’t true that identity politics represents the end of America or of liberal democracy. Nor is it true that identity politics began on the left … The United States was founded on identity politics, per The Economist’s description: political positions based on ethnicity, race, sexuality, and religion. There are no pre-identity politics, just as there are no pre-identity economics, in a country in which political, economic, and legal rights were only ever granted to some identity groups and not to others. The only thing new about “the omnipresent rhetoric of identity” is the voices that have been added to it, reshaping it in ways that alarm and affront those who used to be its sole authors. But it was always omnipresent.

Virtually every major event in the long and troubled history of the United States was a direct consequence of identity politics. Start whenever you think America begins, and power struggles based on identity will be staring you in the face, starting with the genocide and forced resettlement of indigenous peoples by European migrants. A handful of those migrants, traveling on the Mayflower, called themselves “Separatists” and decided to start a new society based on their religious beliefs, in which church membership would be a requirement of political representation. That’s identity politics.

Black people were enslaved, white people were free: it takes a colossal set of blinders to keep from seeing that as identity politics. Political judgments and legal decisions based on identity underwrote white supremacy from the start: measuring African Americans as three-fifths of a human is identity politics, a logic that led to the one-drop rule, the Dred Scott decision, Jim Crow segregation, and the Birther movement, to name just a few of the most consequential instances. Electoral colleges were established in order to solve the “problem of the Negroes,” as James Madison put it, rigging the number of electors a state received in order to put a white supremacist thumb on the constitutional scale. Insofar as identity politics helped elect Donald Trump, electoral colleges seem a more proximate cause than debates over gender-neutral bathrooms.

That The Economist did not even notice that its checklist of identity politics skipped gender altogether is both ironic and typical. In 1776, Abigail Adams famously pleaded with her husband to “Remember the Ladies” in drafting the nation’s new code of laws. [She warned him] against putting “unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands” because “all Men would be tyrants if they could”…. John Adams replied by telling her thanks, but he preferred male privilege: “We know better than to repeal our masculine systems.” The masculine systems established by the framers meant that women didn’t get the vote until 1920, still earn a fraction of what men earn, and remain subject to a state asserting control over their bodies that it doesn’t assert over male bodies. That is identity politics.

Prof. Churchwell goes on to examine the history of populism and anti-elitism in America, and the notion of the “common man”:

From Jefferson’s ideal of the yeoman farmer to Jackson’s resourceful frontiersman, from the rugged individualist cowboy to the blue-collar steel worker, this was the nation’s backbone, the salt of the earth: national identity forged through a mythic conceptualization of the “common man” as a “real American” who lived in the “heartland” or, as time went on, “Middle America.” These rhetorical associations continually cemented the idea that there was something central to American life about this particular identity, while other identities were marginal, fringe, extreme, or alien.

By the twenty-first century, . . . [two Republican] candidates in a row were elected in part because they successfully deployed the populist stylings and demeanor of the “common man,” despite their inherited wealth and elite education.

Her conclusion:

Difference is a fact of life, to which divisiveness is only one response. Inclusiveness is another: not just tolerating but celebrating difference, fighting for the rights of all, not just the few. To be a truly representative democracy, America will need to stop thinking in terms of the representative common man.

She recommends thinking in terms of common decency instead.