Identity Politics: The Right-wing Perspective

Identity politics. It’s a word that has made its rounds on both the right and left. The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein is famous for his view about how linguistic misunderstandings define the scope of philosophical problems and ethical problems. If there is anyone who understands how communication between people goes wrong it’s definitely him. Wittgenstein writes:

“For a large class of cases — though not for all — in which we employ the wordmeaning” it can be defined thus: the meaning of a word is its use in the language.”

— Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophische Untersuchungen (Philosophical Investigations), Section 43

This is an important point as it shows that the meaning of a word is in the mouth of the speaker. With regard to “identity politics,” this phrase has both right-wing and left-wing speakers. But before our descent into dilemmas arising from politicized linguistic confusion, our first step will be to define our terms. The dictionary says:

So there we have it. Identity politics. It is loved and detested on both sides of the political spectrum. Hence, we must further breakdown how it is used on each side of the political spectrum. In this piece, we shall first start with the political right.

On his appearance with Bill Maher on Realtime (Overtime), Jordan Peterson said that the problem with the left is that they are too saturated with identity politics. Peterson is well-known for his dislike of identity politics. In a conversation with Dave Rubin on his book tour he said:

“The left plays identity games, the radical left. And the right plays collective identity games. The left’s game is guilt on the part of the majority and the right’s game is ‘well to hell with that; if we’re going to play identity politics then my damn group is gonna win’ and I think the whole game is reprehensible.”

So for Peterson it’s just a game played by both the left and the right. Interesting. How does the game start? Who has historically been winning the game? The answers to these questions are nowhere to be found or considered by Peterson. We’ll get to that later but first, let’s examine “identity politics” in light of the lexicographical description shown above.

So people are engaging in political movements according to their identity. This seems rather easy to understand. But let’s take apart these right-wing criticisms. Breitbart writer Neil Munro said in an article regarding Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s victory over Joe Crowley:

“Donald Trump was elected by mobilizing national opposition to this nation-changing identity-politics trend…”

So according the Breitbart article, Donald Trump was elected by mobilizing national opposition to this nation-changing trend of “political activity or movements…catering to the…interests that characterize a group identity”. Okay, got it. However, there is a word that sticks out for me in this regard, “catering”. What does it mean to cater? Isn’t all politics “catering” on some level? Let’s explore this a bit. Was the Civil Rights Act of 1964 “catering” or was it a huge step in the right direction for civil rights and US labor law in the United States which outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin? The implication is that identity politics is merely special interests among a populace. But a populace is a mass of people with different interests who live in different conditions, is it not?

The larger context of Munro’s piece is the titular claim that “Democrats’ Identity Politics Defeats Establishment Joe Crowley.” Munro notes that the demographic shift of New York’s 14th District — which is now half Latino/a — is what made Ocasio-Cortez win.

Her race-and-ethnicity pitch to Latino migrants was front-and-center on her Twitter account:
NY-14 (New York’s 14th District)

I guess it is not particularly surprising this was somewhat the case for Ocasio-Cortez given the demographics of her district, but is this really identity politics? If there are issues that disproportionately affect certain people would it not make sense for those people to organize around that? Ocasio-Cortez is Puerto Rican and supports the abolition of ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) — an organization involved in separating mostly Latin-American children from their families — but so does New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand who isn’t Latina. Clearly, this issue can share some common ground beyond those who would likely be affected by it. But it actually gets worse because Ocasio-Cortez did not just define her political outlook by “catering” to the interests of Latino/a people living in that district.

In the tweet below she is criticizing the violence on May 14 at the Gaza border in which over 60 Palestinians were killed and thousands more wounded:

It is clear that her political outlook goes beyond her identity. Is she “catering” to Palestinians or is she genuinely outraged at the grotesque violence exercised by the Israel Defense Forces? It’s hard to tell. However, if you are in a context where your identity has a role in framing the social experiences you are likely to have, why not vote along those lines? And what about the people who are not affected by those issues? Do we examine their tendency to vote in the opposite direction, largely ignoring issues that will likely not affect them? But that’s the thing; it is usually the minority groups whose integrity is questioned in this regard. The dominant group is taken to be the norm, voting outside the tribalism ascribed to the minority group. Without race, without sexual orientation, without gender, without identity, as if the members of said group maintain a political god’s eye view on politics and the very issues facing other people. Vox’s David Roberts has a very thought-provoking piece on this issue which I encourage you to read. But this, I must say, is another problem with the right-wing perspective on identity politics: the historical track-record of the societally dominant group and its aftermath are taken for granted, as normal and intrinsic. However, one can clearly see that tribalism easily subsumes the consciousness of the dominant group.

Below is the exit poll for the Alabama Senate race in 2017 in which Doug Jones won against Roy Moore:

Is it really an accident that 98% of Black women in Alabama voted against Moore? Are they playing identity politics? Or are they voting against the conditions that Roy Moore would create for them? Keep in mind that Roy Moore is a slavery-apologist and serial sexual offender. In light of these facts, does it really surprise anyone that Black women would have the lowest level of support for this man? Roy Moore thinks that homosexuality should be illegal. Without a doubt his support would be less than a percent among Black LGBT women living in Alabama. Is that identity politics? Many on the right simply use it as a slur to imply that those engaging in it— usually minorities — are simply voting as a tribe without any regard to policies. The reality is that female Black voters are resisting the identity politics of a racist and misogynistic sex offender. But beyond that, when compared to Roy Moore, Doug Jones’ policies are better for all Alabamians as a whole. The irrationality is on the part of the dominant group — in this case white Alabamian men — which wants to uphold its social status at the expense of that of other groups. This brings me to my main critique of the conservative understanding of identity politics:

The real identity politics is the identity politics of the oppression. All else is secondary.

When it comes to race in America, the real identity politics is the identity politics of redlining. It’s the identity politics of predatory lending. It’s the identity politics of racially motivated urban planning. Of lynching, slavery, scientific racism, Jim Crow, slave codes, stigmatizing Black women’s hair as sexual distraction, segregation, systemically impoverished neighborhoods, voter suppression, the Drug War, the destruction of Black Wall Street, human experimentation, and HUMAN ZOOS. These events have effects that still exist. However, do right-wingers acknowledge these realities? Barely, if at all. Often the benchmark for white identity politics is taken to be Richard Spencer, Jason Kessler, and David Duke. Everything short of that is just fine.

When right-wingers attack the left for using identity politics it’s nothing more than a talking point used to paint minorities as irrationally voting based on skin-color — or some arbitrary characteristic — rather than the policies that will disproportionately affect them in certain ways while simultaneously helping the society as a whole. For the right, it’s a pathetic attempt to preserve the status quō and keep people from realizing how society is already biased towards certain people. I believe that there do exist universal solutions to fixing a society that is biased against certain people. However, this is the main point: acknowledging that people have used — and continue to use — race, gender identity, and other characteristics to marginalize people is just a fact. And as we all know: facts don’t care about your feelings.

Now, it would be unfair for me to end the piece without acknowledging that such people exist in left circles. Yes, they do and such people should be condemned. However, it is not just these extremists. In the next piece I will talk about identity politics as it pertains to the left and the problems associated with narrow-focused voting. This will draw upon certain conversations that are currently taking place within left-wing circles. It should function as a way to craft a path forward for a more holistic and SANE left while still acknowledging the issues that affect certain people.