Identify With This

This morning I want to re-visit “identity politics” and why I hate it. But first, I want to clarify again what I mean by the term.

The Wiki definition of “identity politics” is “political action to advance the interests of members of a group supposed to be oppressed by virtue of a shared and marginalized identity (such as race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or neurological wiring).” That’s fine as far as it goes, but there’s a critical aspect of IP that this definition leaves out. And that is the tendency of IP activists to care and work passionately only on behalf of the marginalized group with which they share identity (hence the name, “identity politics”).

Why is this a problem? It’s a problem because the end result is a balkanization of advocacy groups that compete with each other for donations and attention and sometimes even work against each other. And that end result is one of the reasons the Right has been able to dominate American political discourse for the past quarter century or so.

I witnessed this splintering in the 1970s. Back then what was left of the old New Deal coalition broke apart, partly under pressure from the antiwar and various “New Left” liberation movements and partly because large numbers of whites allowed themselves to be race-baited into voting Republican.

The New Deal coalition had sustained the Democratic Party and constituted its soul for four decades. It was a broad, if flawed, coalition that successfully promoted progressive policies (see, for example, the Great Compression). Granted, by the early 1970s this coalition had gotten rigid and old and was not responding well to the challenges of the times. The time was ripe for a political realignment, in particular one that included minorities and women.

But when the New Deal coalition broke up, it left a huge vacuum within the Democratic Party, and the antiwar and various liberation movements did not form a new coalition to step in to fill that vacuum. Instead, young activists all too often remained in self-absorbed Identity Politics enclaves.

And divided, we were conquered.

In the 1970s, as the New Deal coalition was crumbling, a number of wealthy conservatives like Richard Mellon Scaife began to build the media and political infrastructures that have dominated U.S. politics since the 1980s. While too many progressive activists remained on street corners handing out xeroxed fliers for a narrowly focused cause du jour, a new right-wing coalition came together to dominate mass media and to drive their issues relentlessly.

And with no big coalition to support it, the Democratic Party had to turn to moneyed interests and corporate donors to get the funds to win elections. More and more, the Dems became indistinguishable from the Republicans. Progressives effectively were banned from power.

Fast forward to the 1990s. Bill Clinton won two elections not by challenging the Republican Power Machine but by finessing it. It was a remarkable personal performance that left the right-wing power infrastructure intact and did nothing to restore the Democratic Party’s lost soul.

I don’t fault him for that, because at the time Clinton was up against something that was, in its way, a lot more powerful than the presidency. Given the political culture and circumstances of the 1990s, his popularity and effectiveness were powerful testimony to his unique political skills.

But, ultimately, if we’re going to create a society and government that genuinely are open to progressive ideas and policies, the political culture has got to change and the right-wing power infrastructure has got to be pushed back hard. I don’t believe that was possible in the 1990s. Now, I think it is possible. Thanks to the colossal failures of the Bush Administration, and the new progressive infrastructure made possible by the Internet, we have an opportunity to effect broad, systemic change in American politics that will help all progressive causes.

This is an opportunity that must be seized now. A door is open now that might be closed to us by the next election.

Today, many of us are catching our breath hoping the Dem nomination battle really is over so that the general election fight can begin. But these past few months I’ve been dismayed at how quickly so many of us fell back into the old Identity Politics, equality for Me but not for Thee, patterns. Once again, we’re forming circular firing squads.

As a generic choice I don’t much care whether the First President Who Is Not a White Man turns out to be a black man or a white woman, or for that matter a woman of color were one running this year. When I look at senators Clinton and Obama, my questions are which one of these two gets it? Which one sees the possibility of creating a new political culture friendly to progressivism? Which one is more likely to walk through that door?

And the answer I come up with is Obama. I cannot say whether he will succeed. He is human and imperfect, not political Jesus. But his words and background and the way he has run his campaign tell me he sees the opportunity that I see and will, at least, try.

However, I don’t believe Senator Clinton sees the opportunity. My belief is based in part on her performance in the Senate, which on the whole has been disappointing, and on the way she has run her campaign, which has been the same old “finesse (but don’t challenge) the Right and divide the Left” politics. All her formidable political skills mean nothing if she doesn’t see that open door.

Yes, electing Hillary Clinton would make a grand statement for feminism. But then we’d sweep up the popped balloons and confetti and go back to Old Politics Business as Usual. And nothing substantive would change. Maybe I’m wrong, but that’s how I see it.

Michelle Goldberg has a article at The New Republic called “3 A.M. for Feminism.” You should read the whole thing, but here’s a snip:

Hillary Clinton has lost the nomination, but some of her most ardent female backers seem unwilling to accept it. A strange narrative has developed, abetted by Clinton and some of the mainstream feminist organizations. In it, the will of the voters was thwarted by chauvinistic party leaders in concert with a servile media, and Obama’s victory represents a repeat of George W. Bush’s in 2000. It’s a story in which Obama becomes every arrogant young man who has ever edged out a more deserving middle-aged woman, and Clinton, hanging on until the bitter end, is not a spoiler but a feminist martyr.

This conviction, that sexism cost Clinton the nomination, is likely to be one of the more toxic legacies of this primary season. It is leaving her supporters feeling not just disappointed but victimized, many convinced that Obama’s win is illegitimate. Taylor Marsh, a blogger and radio host whose website has become a hub for Clinton fans, says she gets hundreds of e-mails from angry Democrats pledging not to vote for Obama. She’s started running posts from such readers under the headline DEMOCRATIC STORM WARNINGS. “I’m not saying that this is a huge voting bloc,” she says. “I’m just saying that there is a huge amount of talk and I’m convinced it’s a reality that needs to be addressed.”

Taylor — and let me say I’ve met Taylor and like her very much, in spite of, well, recent events — responded:

Michelle Goldberg’s subtitle couldn’t be more insulting: “Clinton dead-enders and the crisis in the women’s movement.” There’s enough anger and rancor. It doesn’t help. But not even progressives get it.

People just do not understand the rage.

I don’t understand the rage, and I’ve been as held back by sexism as much as most women my age, which is close to Taylor’s and Hillary’s age.

I’ve faced the harassment and double standards. I’ve watched incompetent men sail effortlessly up the management ladder while exceptionally competent women remained stuck in entry-level positions for year after year. I’ve had to train men to manage me who had half my experience. I spent years struggling with unequal pay while raising two kids by myself. I certainly understand being angry about that.

But, y’know what? People get shafted lots of ways. Lots of people other than women have good reason to be angry at the status quo. If we’re going to change the status quo, we need to stop shoving each other out of the way just to make statements. I’m done with making statements. I want change.

As I wrote a couple of days ago, equality by definition has no preferences. If you are fighting for equality only for your particular slice of the demographic pie, then you aren’t fighting for equality but for favoritism.

If we’re going to turn the nation in a more progressive direction, we must jettison Identity Politics and come together to work for Progressive Politics.

I know Senator Clinton complains that she’s been shoved out of the race. But in spite of a strong finish, she was mathematically out of the race weeks ago, and her “kitchen sink” dirty campaigning was only poisoning the water without changing the inevitable outcome. Further, the Florida-Michigan issue was nothing but a slick attempt by Clinton to pick up cheap votes, and the fact that Clinton supporters willfully fail to see this tells me they’ve got their eyes shut to reality.

You know what we’re really up against? Read carefully this opinion piece by Daniel Henninger at The Wall Street Journal.

The irony too bitter to swallow is that Barack Obama’s identity politics trumped Hillary Clinton’s identity politics. Put differently, what goes around comes around. …

… The hard version [of identity politics] introduced people, mostly college students, to an America partitioned into categories of race, gender, ethnicity and sexuality. The softer version has flown for 30 years under all sorts of euphemized banners – diversity, multiculturalism, celebrating our differences. Only one campaign is celebrating our differences this week. …

… After South Carolina, the campaigns accused each other of playing the race or gender card. Obama deflected this charge. “I don’t want to deny the role of race and gender in our society,” Obama said. “They’re there, and they’re powerful. But I don’t think it’s productive.”

I’m not convinced. I think Barack Obama is more inclined to interpret American life in the formal categories of identity politics than is generally thought, or even than would older “conventional liberals” like Al Gore or John Kerry. Legal theorists have been a main source of its ideas; it’s hard to imagine that Barack and Michelle Obama didn’t hear a lot about “marginalized constituencies” at Harvard Law School. Sen. Obama may not be so conventional after all.

Speaking last July about picking Supreme Court nominees, he said: “We need someone who’s got the heart . . . the empathy to understand what it’s like to be poor or African-American or gay or disabled or old – and that’s the criteria by which I’ll be selecting my judges.” This is the language of identity politics. It’s not just talk. It’s an ideology designed to produce . . . change. …

… John McCain by instinct, biography and upbringing is prone to see America as a common civic culture. The vocabulary of “unjust” class distinctions familiar to Obama is alien to the McCain worldview. Sen. McCain should think about this and figure out a way to talk about it. If Americans are going to affirm a president making appointments on the basis of race, gender, class and sexuality, they should know it in 2008, rather than 2009-2012.

To Henninger, any political activism that addresses the concerns of any demographic other than White Upper-Class Male is, by default, “Identity Politics.” White Upper-Class Male is the default norm that constitutes what Henninger sees as a “common civic culture,” never mind lots of us have been disowned by that “common” culture.

And as long as we keep ourselves divided into demographic splinter groups, and allow indulgent, self-centered anger to blind us to the bigger picture, Henninger wins.

[Update: I watched Senator Clinton’s speech this afternoon and thought it very classy. She did a lot to rehabilitate her reputation, and I hope the majority of her supporters can take her advice and support Barack Obama for President.]

23 thoughts on “Identify With This

  1. I will acknowledge the disappointment of some “feminists” on Clinton not getting the nomination, but still trying to figure out this aversion for Obama displayed by some of them. I have even been more amazed at some of the names that the Obama family has been called by some of the bloggers on the so-called left.

    A friend recently observed that the Ferraros see themselves as benefactors of people of color, as long as they knew their place. She even related this to HRC comment about Johnson and King.

    Your erudite analysis of identity politics and organization is as usual spot-on.
    Again, thank you.

  2. Spot on!

    Will or is Hillary capable of reuniting the left or will she continue to stoke the flames of derision and division?

    Why can’t Taylor Marsh et al see the eminent danger of giving the right wing a bigger slice of the Supreme Court?

  3. Awesome, just awesome. Took the thoughts right out of my head and made them much prettier. There is hope for us yet.

    It is very edifying, to me at least, after reading so many opinions from the left, that seem to be completely alien to my way of thinking, so see someone express so clearly what I think has been wrong with their framework. It make you feel less alone.

  4. Easily one of the best blog posts I’ve read anywhere so far this election cycle. Brava.

  5. Thank you for always making me think. I truly appreciate the experience/historical perspective, critical thinking, and clear writing you bring to this blog.

  6. Good post, but I write because I think there might be some weird technical issue with your blog.

    When I start up my browser and type your URL, or google for “mahablog” and click on the Mahablog’s link, I get take to a completely different page that might be a phishing or malware site. But when I click on a link to the Mahablog on someone else’s blogroll, I get taken here just fine, and after that, until the next time I close my browser, I can get here without trouble in every other way (google etc.) too. (I use Firefox and have it set so that all my personal data are deleted when I close it.)

  7. Maha: I agree totally with you. We need a LEADER with a vision and I believe Obama has a vision that can turn this country around and I also believe the time is now. We cannot afford to wait. However, he cannot do it by himself and I truly believe the thoughts, prayers and actions of all of us are essential.

    Some observations on Clinton’s speech. She talked too much about a woman as president. As my daughter observed, whenever she was talking about herself, there was a big smile on her face but when she was talking about endorsing Obama, the smile was gone. Yes, she said the right things but I don’t feel her heart was in it.

  8. One of my favorite lines from West Wing show was when the president was reminding someone that to be an American was to engage in “advanced citizenry”. The implication being that one needed to shed the past connections with their individual “home countries” and take on the mantle of American citizen with all of it’s rights and responsibilities.
    Cannot agree more.

  9. Raphael — I haven’t heard that anyone else is having a problem with my URL, and I don’t have that problem. I don’t quite understand how these things work, but maybe the problem is some kind of spyware on your computer. If anyone else is having a problem with the Mahablog URL, please speak up.

  10. I’ve long decried identify politics for the reasons you so eloquently describe. I once read Nixon supported affirmative action because he saw its potential to fractionalize we-the-people, and how that would turn the natural majority (working/middle class) into conquerable minorities. One reason I support Obama is because he seems to see this and is trying to bring us back together.

  11. Marcus,
    What do you suggest American Indians do regarding shedding the past connections to our home country?????

    I agree with Creature. It’s nice to find a place where sanity reigns. Also, it seems I am a mastermind, too.

  12. It would be an honor to vote for you at any high office you might ever seek, Barbara and should you shun that peculiar form of masochism, to vote for you as a good friend, good neighbor or wise being. Good journanimalist and edi-toreador, too, the latter for excellence at defeating the bull.

  13. If you want to keep track of identity politics by blog readership, use this Wikio site.

    It’s scary that Malkin is more “popular” than the likes of Josh Marshall. Maha has fallen to 88. Also for the reader who’s having trouble, this list is an easy way to click around without worrying about dead links.

    (Yikes ! LGFs is up 19 places to #79)

  14. My ninety-eight-year-old mother says that women, especially the rather rabid among them, who support Hillary do so because they identify with her as a victim of a man – in H.’s case a philandering husband. (Interesting to hear the views of a woman born before women had the vote.)

    That said, I’ve read that for years Republicans have practiced what I think (?) is called transformational politics. Simply put, they create a ‘message’ and then convince the electorate that they need to adopt it. Dems, on the other hand, do just the opposite by forming their ‘message’ around what the electorate wants.

  15. Good example, SteveG. Over two years without asking a question from the bench…makes me wonder. Either you are all knowing, or not to bright.

  16. “Marcus,
    What do you suggest American Indians do regarding shedding the past connections to our home country?????”

    The same thing that anyone does when they decide to engage in this nation and not just stand by and throw things. Advanced citizenry means exactly that. You must be able to let go of the horrors that were manifest not only here, but elsewhere in the world. What does one say to the Chinese? Or the Irish? Or the Blacks, Jews, every group who came after. All of whom were treated as if they were less than dogs by the very same people who created Manifest Destiny. I cannot undo the atrocities that were done here any more than I can undo the atrocities committed by my people against the Picts and the Celts.
    That’s the point.
    Identity politics is a dead end and no good will come of it. This does not mean one does not celebrate the beauty of one’s heritage. It means that we all accept the virtue, the fundamental goodness of the idea of America and move forward to create a world where that type of horror does not happen again. Ever.
    I’m willing, are you?

    None the less, identity politics is an anathema to the true nature of the American experiment.

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