A Brief Overview of Identity Politics: A Liberal Struggles for Perspective

A follow-up to “How the rise of identity politics indicates the decline of religion”

I recently wrote a polemical on identity politics, specifically to criticize the motives behind the spate of campus protests occurring over the last few years. Many took me to be flippantly disregarding the goals of identity politics or blatantly mischaracterizing it. As with any polemical, my goal was to present a coherent, singular vision for a critique of identity politics, without necessarily engaging in balancing acts required by demands of objectivity. Polemics are useful nonetheless, I think, for opening space in discourses where no space is given. Many readers assumed I wasn’t a liberal, for instance. It seems, yet, there still is no space for questioning identity politics.

There are many more issues with identity politics that I don’t have the space to outline here, especially in its delegitimizing of the individual, championing of authoritarian tactics, and anti-free speech elements. In my follow-up article, on the Christian insight that it disregards, I will address these issues more fully. Here I plan to look at identity politics in general, outline what it’s about, and offer more critiques from my point of view as a liberal.

What Is Identity Politics?

Identity politics, recently becoming a buzzword after the infamous Google Memos and Charlottesville,[1] has been blamed for many sins and praised for at least an equal number of blessings. What is it exactly? The best definition I have found is in Stanford’s Encyclopedia of Philosophy: “Rather than organizing solely around belief systems, programmatic manifestos, or party affiliation, identity political formations typically aim to secure the political freedom of a specific constituency marginalized within its larger context. Members of that constituency assert or reclaim ways of understanding their distinctiveness that challenge dominant oppressive characterizations, with the goal of greater self-determination.”

As some like Rob Hoffman from Politico would argue: identity politics created Trump; whereas others like Michael Darer, writing for the Huffington Post, would claim “identity politics,” rather than a legitimate description of a distinct way of doing politics, is a term used by racists wearing masks of civility:

‘‘identity politics’ is a dismissive and euphemistic way to address a political agenda that emphasizes and values the identities of non-white, non-male, non-straight, non-cisgender voters….it’s little more than a term that allows white males to denounce political agendas that focus heavily on civil rights advances without appearing to be bigots.

The argument, as Darer gives it, is that when people criticize identity politics, they’re necessarily criticizing the idea that political discourse should take place in a non-white-centric universe. He continues:

More or less, it’s the smarmy pseudo-intellectual sibling of complaining about black Americans making everything about race, employing transparently condescending rhetoric about fighting division and coming together as one body, where that one body is organized around the agenda and the voice with which its white wranglers are most comfortable.

I quote Darer at length, perhaps the most cynical and least sophisticated apologist for identity politics I have read, because similar sentiments from many on the left are given in various think pieces and lectures, and he encapsulates the general mood of advocates well. This isn’t to say people like Darer don’t understand something fundamentally true about our political climate or don’t in fact make sense in their judgements of white privilege. There are many who see identity politics in the way he describes, and not without reason.

Other apologists wouldn’t see identity politics in quite the same anti-white, anti-male, anti-straight, anti-cis terms as Darer, who is ironically a white man himself.[2] Joan E. Dowlin, also writing for the HuffPost, says all politics are identity politics:

Identity politics is not new and the truth is that all politics are identity politics. Name me any politician and I will tell you their identity and the subsequent group of voters they may attract. It doesn’t matter if they are right, left, centrist, or from outer space, all candidates practice Identity Politics.

The main thrust of her argument is that identity is based on interest, and everyone votes, and should vote, based on their interests; therefore nothing new or controversial has come about as a consequence of identity politics. This understanding seems innocuous enough, even if it might redefine the terms.

3 Levels of Analysis

From what I’ve read, there seems to be at least 3 ways of defining identity politics, from the most specific to the most general. And I think they all begin from different traditions of thought.

(1) Identity politics is a movement meant to empower marginalized groups, pronouncing and representing their interests to the public, moving toward equality and justice for these groups specifically on terms that these groups provide.

(2) Identity politics is a way of doing politics that emphasizes group identity and interest as opposed to the commonalities between groups and the achievement of mutually beneficial goals.

(3) Identity politics is the way politics has always been done. Group interest is, and has always been, the central concern of political movements. We just don’t default to a white-centric interest any longer.

I think these levels of analysis are typically associated with specific traditions of politics. Level (1) belongs to feminist and civil rights movements; (2) belongs to classical liberalism; and (3) belongs to libertarians. These are generalizations, of course, and don’t necessarily represent the viewpoints of every person in each tradition. They can all be held by the same person at once without contradiction, because they are different levels of analysis. I’ve found it a helpful heuristic for navigating the very different perspective on identity politics. And this helps me understand why people think about the criticisms of identity politics differently.

For instance, if you are criticizing identity politics for its focus on group interests, and a person from (1) picks up on it, they’ll likely think you’re against the interests of marginalized groups; and a person from (2) will likely take as the implication that you’re probably going to argue for the primacy of common interests and not specific group interests as the language of political discourse; and a person from (3) will think you haven’t really understood what has historically driven political movements, because they’re all about the interests of individuals that eventually form to create group interest.

I know it’s somewhat convoluted, but this analysis has made sense of the literature I’ve come across. We’ve heard viewpoints from (1) and (3), now I want to turn to (2) and put it in dialogue with the rest. This clashing viewpoints of (1) and (2) is a prevailing conflict within the left.

The 2nd Analysis

I think Mark Lillanov represents a critique from the second level of analysis,[3] faulting identity politics for its divisiveness:

But it is at the level of electoral politics that identity liberalism has failed most spectacularly, as we have just seen. National politics in healthy periods is not about “difference,” it is about commonality. And it will be dominated by whoever best captures Americans’ imaginations about our shared destiny. Ronald Reagan did that very skillfully, whatever one may think of his vision. So did Bill Clinton, who took a page from Reagan’s playbook. He seized the Democratic Party away from its identity-conscious wing, concentrated his energies on domestic programs that would benefit everyone (like national health insurance) and defined America’s role in the post-1989 world. By remaining in office for two terms, he was then able to accomplish much for different groups in the Democratic coalition. Identity politics, by contrast, is largely expressive, not persuasive. Which is why it never wins elections — but can lose them.

When I read that, I could hear Michael Darer respond, “the notion that we should keep having to reframe equality so that it appeals to the sensibilities and desires of the majority is absurd.” And Molly Roberts in her article for the Washington Post “Stop Blaming Charlottesville on Identity Politics,” further critiques this position, and the idea that identity politics is the politics of white supremacists but in different terms:

White supremacy is not a response to identity politics; identity politics are a response to white supremacy. They’re a response to life in a country that built itself on the theory that “all men are created equal” but a reality where the opposite was true. And they’re a response not just to the outright racism that survives on websites such as Stormfront and at Confederate flag rallies but also to the stubborn structural barriers that still hold back people with darker skin.

As many have pointed out, whites have identity politics, too. We just call it “politics.”

And this seems exactly right, in many ways. In what was a sort-of eye-opening article for me, Laila Lalami points out that white people have played identity politics, but they’ve just called it “politics,” and the rise of movements that are ostensibly driven by group identity is just indicative of the fact that the political power and unity of white demographics is simply waning, and no longer a political default:

If whiteness is no longer the default and is to be treated as an identity — even, soon, a “minority” — then perhaps it is time white people considered the disadvantages of being a race. The next time a white man bombs an abortion clinic or goes on a shooting rampage on a college campus, white people might have to be lectured on religious tolerance and called upon to denounce the violent extremists in their midst. The opioid epidemic in today’s white communities could be treated the way we once treated the crack epidemic in black ones — not as a failure of the government to take care of its people but as a failure of the race. The fact that this has not happened, nor is it likely to, only serves as evidence that white Americans can still escape race.

This is, in my mind, a devastating critique and an accurate reversal of historical norms. It’s a truthful examination as far as I can see. But I do struggle at this point. Lalami’s indictment of whiteness at the societal level is true, but does it follow that those who practice identity politics can as a result confer intentionality grounded in this whiteness to individual white persons? Have my discussions revolving around liberty and justice for all been unconsciously motivated by a desire to secure whiteness? Has my silence on “whiteness,” in both my thoughts and actions, contributed to its presence, pervasiveness, and power in my life? I cannot say yet, because I’m not sure what it would look like, or even if it’s legitimate to think about the construct of race in such a way — as an invisible motivating force like an instinct but nefarious, totalizing, and hegemonic. This isn’t self-evident to me and it doesn’t make sense philosophically or, from what I’ve read of the literature, scientifically. But if I’m wrong, I’d certainly like to know how. And if I’m wrong, this of course has earth-shattering political implications.

A Rudimentary Evaluation

Against Darer, the goal of the second level of analysis, at least as I understand it, is not to replace identity politics, what can be understood as a politics from the perspective of the marginalized, with majoritarian politics, or politics from the perspective of the greatest number. The import of the classical liberal critique is in the terms we use to further political agendas. The strongest criticism one levels in identity politics is to position opponents as racist, sexist, misogynist, homophobic, and the like: as anti- x-group. For me, the failure to perceive these issues as anti-equality, anti-liberty, and anti-justice is indicative of the larger issue of identity politics. It seems to equivocate between (1) the moral good with (2) who benefits from a moral decision.

From my conversations with liberals, my own self-understanding, and the literature I’ve read, it appears that many of the political choices on the left are motivated by altruism, whereas those on the right are motivated by individualism. This of course is a generalization, again, but it’s a helpful tool for understanding the perspectival differences between the two. One issue with a completely altruistic understanding of morality, especially when it begins to infiltrate our political discourses, is that an action is moral so far as it involves self-sacrifice for the benefit of another person. There is no conception of a moral individual, left alone to pursue his or her own aims. Rather, a person is a moral individual so long as he or she improves the situation of others, without regard for self.

This is a problem because the rhetoric of dehumanization is the logical extension for people who oppose the interests of the group you identify with: by extension, these people are unwilling to give up their privilege, to help out other people. They are not moral human beings, cannot be, and therefore are non-human. This explains Twitter callout culture that has developed within the identity politics movement, and the incessant charges of racism, misogyny, homophobia, etc., of opponents of identity politics causes: not just the general aims, but the specific solutions they seek. Consider the labeling of James Damore’s now infamous Google Memo as “anti-diversity” because he sought to understand the differences in job representation between genders by reference to “population level differences.” Is asking whether there are biological roots to the reasons men and women choose different jobs or are represented differently in different industries a sexist, anti-diversity question? It would appear so.

Another problem with altruism in the political realm is it relativizes values. Which group should one self-sacrifice for? Is it possible for white lower class workers to be oppressed? Or does an arbitrary race heuristic label every white person as oppressor, as benefiting from white privilege?

A typical argument I’ve heard from people on the far left is we have a moral obligation to balance the scales of justice in favor of the marginalized because of the reality of historical injustice — not only injustice that occurred in the past, but injustice that has endured from the past into the present. Therefore policies that rightfully rid the world of benefits people receive based on protected classes like race is not the goal of identity politics. Just the opposite: identity politics aims to administer new benefits, but this time to historically marginalized groups. I think this is a problem. The idea of balancing the scales of justice has lost its grounding as a metaphor. Lady Justice is blind to signify impartiality. Ideally, under law everyone is treated equally, no matter status, wealth, race, religion, etc. The scales are balanced when everyone is playing by the same rules, when the form of political argument is the same among various groups, though the content of the claims may differ. Balancing the scales by introducing a new form of political argument — the primacy of group identity and interest — introduces a factor of group arbitrariness and hegemony as a legitimate political enterprise. This is exactly what impartiality is established to protect against. The ideal of impartiality is not about the outcomes of political movements. Indeed, some movements are more just than others. The notion of impartiality is about a way of proceeding, a way of doing law and politics. If the law is partial, then the reasons for implementing any change will necessarily be arbitrary (by definition). The function of the ideal of impartiality is to establish a way of doing politics that bridges differences between groups of people to find common ground in unifying ideals because everyone must work according to the same rules of procedure that are general enough by design to be the grounds on which any political movement can be based while at the same time benefiting the common good.

The balancing of the scales I am speaking of here has been discussed in terms of the differences between equality of outcome and equality of opportunity. If our aim is to achieve a 50%-%50 ratio of male to female in jobs, for instance, then we are aiming for equality of outcome, and, ironically, must work against discrimination with discriminatory logic. If we are aiming for no obstacles to be placed in front of anyone because of their race, gender, religion, etc., then we are aiming at equality of opportunity.

In my estimation, political policies should aim at equality of opportunity. And, by extension, those who have been disadvantaged because of their race or gender should have the obstacles of injustice removed from their paths. Let us strive for equality because that is the best way to relate to one another. Let us do it because it is in the interest of everyone, for injustice to one person is injustice to all. And let us fight alongside the marginalized to achieve it.

Doing so in the name of a specific group interest is no way to do politics; and doing so to advantage one group over another will not make the common causes of holding millionaires and billionaires responsible for tax evasion, increasing minimum wage, fighting gerrymandering, saving the planet from oil mongols, and the like. Our only argument cannot be “because it is in the interest of x group or y group.”

For political change, we must construct rigorous arguments in the name of and for the sake of equality and justice, not in the name of or for the sake of any specific group of people.


[1] Though the term has been used since at least the 1970s.

[2] To be fair, Darer uses the terms “non-white, non-male, non-straight, non-cis…” but the dismissive and cynical tone used to characterize detractors makes me suspicious his idea of identity politics isn’t entirely neutrally “non-anything.” I could be wrong. But the army of white, heterosexual males who specifically couch the terms of identity politics in anti-white, heterosexual male terms is an interesting phenomena that I do not claim to understand.

[3] See the view represented in its entirety by Mark Lilla on Slate: http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/interrogation/2017/08/mark_lilla_thinks_identity_politics_are_destroying_the_democratic_party.html