The 1996 Article Every Millennial Should Read
Savannah L. Barker

The rise of identity politics in America was a tragic necessity. No one can deny the legitimacy or urgency of the need felt by women and minorities to have equality on their own terms, to reject the assumption that full participation in society required acceptance of the norms set by straight white males. Yet even as the public sphere grew more inclusive, the boundaries of permissible debate were narrowing. Critiques of concentrated power, imperial or plutocratic, became less common. Indeed, the preoccupation with racial and gender identity has hollowed out political language, the void filled by an apparently apolitical alternative – the neoliberal discourse of antiseptic intervention abroad and efficient productivity at home.

“The hollowing out culminated in the Obama administration, which represents ‘the triumph of identity as content’, as Adolph Reed wrote last year in Harper’s. According to Reed, Obama embodies race as ‘an abstraction, a feel-good evocation severed from history and social relations’. And few on the left or centre-left want to spoil those good feelings by making the sharp criticisms that Obama deserves. So we are reduced, in Reed’s words, to ‘a desiccated leftism’ preoccupied with ‘making up “Just So” stories about dispossession and exploitation recast in the evocative but politically sterile language of disparity and diversity’. The chief electoral alternative to the Republicans’ free market fundamentalism and imperial grandiosity is the Democratic Party’s mixture of technocratic slogans and gestures to identity-based interest groups (gay marriage, abortion rights, immigration reform), topped off by the Democrats’ own version of imperial grandiosity.

“The intellectual bankruptcy of the Democratic Party is nowhere more evident than in the looming presidential candidacy of Hillary Rodham Clinton. Assumptions of the inevitability of her candidacy tend to ignore policy matters, focusing instead on her gender and her twenty years as a Washington insider. Many usually thoughtful people can find nothing more substantial to say in her favour than ‘it’s her turn.’ This points to the problem with identity politics: it suggests that this woman deserves the presidency because she has paid her dues, first by enduring public humiliation at the hands of her philandering husband, then by losing the 2008 primaries to the messianic Obama. However empty his promises proved to be, Americans can congratulate themselves on having elected a black man; now, in the feel-good world of identity politics, it’s time to elect a woman. Who else but Hillary Clinton?” — Jackson Lears

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