The Challenge of Identity Politics
Posted on December 6, 2016
“Identity politics” refers to the creation of shared consciousness by an oppressed group as a means of organizing collective action against that oppression. Identity politics has been criticized by the right, left, and center.
The center-right critique is absurd, self-serving, and also an essential component of right-wing ideology. That critique is based on the assumption that we are a liberal society that, by and large, automatically grants deserved rights to individuals who ask for them. The critique follows a standard reactionary scheme identified by Alfred O. Hirschman in his “Rhetoric of Reaction,” namely:
1. Futility (“agitation doesn’t work because it just pisses everybody off”)
2. Perversity (“Agitation will rebound against you”)
3. Jeopardy (“you are destroying the civility needed for a decent and just society”).
The underlying assumption, of course is that existing patterns of oppression are actually just.
The leftwing critique is that identity politics tends to an extreme that singles out one form of oppression and downgrades all the others. (The Marxist critique of patriarchy theory is that it does exactly that.) An extreme of this would lead to “oppression Olympics,” where oppressed groups argue about whose oppression is greater.
In reality, it is very rare to see effective action against oppression not motivated by political agitation based on Identity politics. The political problem is to create a stable coalition of as many oppressed groups as possible while avoiding self-serving comparisons between different groups.
Progressivism is the glue that holds the coalition together. It does so based on an egalitarian ideology of ethics: oppression is always anti-egalitarian.
It’s helpful to acknowledge that “movement conservatives” and GOP operatives have successfully exploited an identity politics aimed at noncollge-educated whites, but most often run by college-educated whites. This groups has suffered real oppression: deprivation of the benefits of growth, downward wage pressure, and putting up with an attitude of superiority to them held by the post-college educated elites who have ignored their interests. These are legitimate issues that progressives have not successfully addressed. However they also feel oppressed by a loss of relative status, because they are being leaped over by women and minorities–a form of oppression that is very difficult for egalitarians to deal with, in so far as we have no developed theory of what I will refer here to as a “fair” status ordering.