The Siren Song of Identity Politics

frank doyle
Feb 27, 2017 · 4 min read
By Jonathan Bacon from Marketing Week

The dynamic between the “Black Lives Matter” movement and the oft-heard counter-cry “All Lives Matter” is an interesting paradox, one that reflects some deeper problems for modern liberalism.

Taken on their own, without the greater political context surrounding them, it’s pretty obvious the correct response to both is simply “yes.” But, like with so many things in this world, it is context that gives this debate its depth.

The “Black Lives Matter” movement began from a simple idea: black Americans felt they were being mistreated and abused by the US justice system, and that the rest of the American public failed to adequately recognize and remedy those problems. However you might feel about the more controversial cases, and however you feel about the sometimes belligerent demonstrations that followed, there are enough clear-cut examples of police overstepping their authority to justify these concerns.

So why is there such a backlash against the “Black Lives Matter” movement?

Well, in many ways, cultural attention is a zero-sum game. The news can only push so many stories, politicians only have so much time and political capital to draft and pass legislation, and the public only has so much time to think about societal problems. For one group to get more attention, another must get less.

There are very real, very tangible problems for a lot of people across the United States. For example, the economy continues to benefit the wealthy at the expense of working Americans. To take another example, the opioid and heroin epidemic is only getting worse. It’s not hard to imagine why those affected might resent the idea that their problems are somehow less worthy of attention than someone else’s. This resentment is the foundation of the “All Lives Matter” movement. Why should a single demographic receive such focus when there are problems that affect everyone?

This clash, of course, is the classic paradox for minorities: as focus tends towards the needs of “everyone” it is inevitably the needs specific to minorities that get pushed out and, ultimately, ignored.

Our government must triage these problems, but it seems no course of action here would do justice to all those involved. With so many suffering, it seems monstrous to tell any that their problems aren’t the priority, however necessary it might be.

So far, for both sides of the political spectrum, the tendency has been to talk about this “political triage” in terms of who these problems affect.

It turns criminal justice reform into a “black people problem”. It turns Midwestern job loss to automation and outsourcing into a “white people problem”. It should surprise no one, then, when political parties are divided along racial lines depending on how they prioritize those issues.

Yet many progressives were (and remain) shocked when Donald Trump took the White House by recognizing and prioritizing issues that predominantly affected white voters.

What is the Democratic Party to do? What are progressives to do? Neither side seems willing to give, so how do we reconcile these seemingly irreconcilable ideas? I believe the solution lies not with how we prioritize our principles, but how we frame them.

Instead of focusing on who these issues affect, which is inherently divisive and a demonstrably losing proposition for the Democratic Party, we should instead bring the focus back to the issues themselves.

Instead of focusing on how blacks are suffering from police brutality, focus on how American citizens are being deprived of their fourth (probable cause for search and seizure) and eighth (cruel and unusual punishment) amendment rights. Instead of focusing on how Muslims are the target of an immigration ban, focus on how first (establishment clause) and fourteenth (equal protection for all persons) amendment rights are being violated. Instead of claiming that large states are underrepresented in the Electoral College and the House of Representatives, focus on how the basic premise of democracy is undermined when not all votes have equal weight. It is the principles that matter, not the demographic that they favor.

Certainly, “sticking to the issues” is not a novel idea. After all, how often do we praise politicians for avoiding empty rhetoric or pandering and citing hard policy ideals? It won Sanders a massive following, even among non-Democratic voters. Yet, as obvious as it may seem, the Democratic Party, and, indeed, many Democrats/liberals/progressives seem incapable of following through.

This is something that must change if we are to reverse the conservative dominance in government. Progressives must return the public focus to the universal validity of progressive policies and principles, not to the inherently divisive issue of who gets the most out of them. We should prioritize based on the significance of the ideal in its own right, not on the count or demographic of those it affects. This shift must take place at every level of the progressive movement, from the top of the Democratic Party down to the individuals working to improve relations with undecided and conservative voters.

We cannot afford to repeat the mistakes of this election. We cannot afford to alienate a massive demographic due to divisive rhetoric a second time. We cannot afford to give former Trump voters an easy way to dismiss us. And no, we cannot afford to give up our principles either. But we don’t have to; we just have to be a bit better at politics.

Let us know what you think in the comments!

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