Why Identity Politics Haven’t Run out of Steam

On the Right’s Strategic Capture of Identity and What it Means for us on the Left

Barbara Kruger (Identity Artist) x Kim Kardashian (Identity Entrepreneur)

Now is not the time to scrap identity. This is not the ‘death of identity politics.’ Far from it. What we have just observed was its rise and capture by the far-right.

Since the election, I have been seeing a a lot of online editorials proclaiming the ‘death of identity politics.’ Mark Lilla wrote for the New York Times that:

One of the many lessons of the recent presidential election campaign and its repugnant outcome is that the age of identity liberalism must be brought to an end.

Lilla, among many others, argue that identity politics have run out of steam. Done. Getan. Kaput. In their eyes, identity politics failed to reach out to the rural white working class. To them, this failure signifies the ineffectiveness of identity politics in the 21st century world. In other words, identity politics should be scrapped because its (presumed) insularity, intellectualism, and hive-mentality alienated white voters. Many on the left (including Bernie Sanders) agree.

A meme, critical of identity politics.

However, I think that the complete opposite is true. 2016 marks the beginning of a new identity politic for white people, and that it was the failure of the Clinton campaign to mobilize an effective identity politic that contributed to the failure of her campaign as well as the rise of white nationalism (an identity politic). Trump’s strategic use of identity politics caused him to win the election. In fact, identity might be the most salient political tool at our disposal… Let’s not hand it over to the right.

Of course, there are many critiques of identity to be made, and many have already been made. But this is not my concern today, which is mostly to describe the efficacy of (which is not the same as creating a judgement about) the political use of identity.

Identity politics are not dead. Identity politics built the political world in which we now live.

Think about all the times that Donald Trump begins his sentences with “I am.” Think about all the times that Donald Trump invoked personal anecdotes in response to Clinton’s invocations of policy and factoids. Think about how many times journalists narrated Trump as “giving a voice” to disenfranchised white people… is this not the interpellation of a new identity? Is this not the stupendous victory of identity politics?

Donald Trump’s pointing finger, hailing a ‘forgotten America’ of white people for whom he can speak

Let’s scale back a little bit. What even is identity politics? I think that part of the problem with criticisms of identity politics is that their differences from multiculturalism and the ‘New Left’ are rarely addressed. I do not have time here to tease out all of those distinctions, but I am going to give a quick and dirty definition of identity politics by turning to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Psychology.

The laden phrase “identity politics” has come to signify a wide range of political activity and theorizing founded in the shared experiences of injustice of members of certain social groups. 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.

Let’s break this down. Identity politics involve four major components, and the Trump campaign tapped into all of them:

  • based on shared experiences of members within a definable social group (the ‘forgotten silent majority of white America’).
  • not necessarily organized around a governing belief system or party affiliation (Trump’s challenge to the RNC orthodoxy).
  • aim to secure the autonomy of a specific constituency that views itself as marginalized within its larger context (the rise of alt-right organizations aiming to ‘protect white culture’ from demographic and cultural shifts).
  • members of an ‘identity community’ assert their distinctiveness from other groups with the goal of greater self-determination (the rise of ethno-nationalism as an attempt to protect the self-determination of white Americans).

Trump hailed an audience of white Americans who identified themselves in the bigoted narrative he used to address them. Trump effectively created an ‘identity community’ that desired to ‘Make America Great Again’ — to make America to, again, be as their collective memory attests it to have been. Trump did not need a set of self-consistent governing beliefs within his campaign. All he needed to do was narrate white America as though it was a marginalized community, speak to their distinctiveness from other groups, and promise them greater self-determination. Identity politics par excellence.

A nameless Trump supporter announcing his identity

I am certainly not the first to suggest that Trump has tapped into identity politics as a strategy to promote white nationalism. There have been many other articles on the topic. This really goes to show that identity politics, as a strategy, does not belong only to the left.

All groups have the potential to narrate themselves as a marginalized group, even (or, should I say, especially) groups that are not marginalized.

It is also important to remember that white nationalism and white supremacy pre-exist the Trump campaign, and that they had been already extant and consistent forces of marginalization for immigrants and communities of color for centuries. All that Trump did was give them some strategic re-branding. He turned white supremacy into an identity politic that could spread throughout the networked public sphere of 21st century America.

Another Trump supporter telling her story too

Trump turned networks into communities, and the mutual identifications among Trump’s supporters formed the foundation of the Trump campaign. This is identity politics.

Let’s not abandon identity because, as the success of the Trump campaign demonstrates, it might be the most effective form of political mobilization that we have. It is imperfect, but it is useful.

Identity politics have been resented since they were first defined as such… perhaps as an extension of the resentment toward people who deploy identity politics (women, POC, queer and disabled people usually). Perhaps this resentment came from a desire among right-wing Americans to capture identity politics from those communities… A resentment for the potency of identity and a desire to claim a marginalized identity without having to experience the burden of marginalization themselves. Rightist Americans noticed how effective identity politics have been since the 60s and how radically they had affected the ambient feeling of being in America (I might not agree this is the same as ‘progress,’ but I do confess that the efficacy of identity politics has been enormous). Noticing this, I think many white Americans wanted to capture identity and mobilize it for their own political ends. I think that this is what Trump empowered his base to do, and I speculate that if this did not decide the election, it (at the very least) played a major role.