Media keep talking about “identity politics.” But what does it even mean anymore?
More than 40 years after the term was coined, “identity politics” has been reduced to buzzword status.
For nearly two years, Democrats have been desperate to understand the secret to President Donald Trump’s success. This week, Fox Business hosts Lou Dobbs and Trish Regan might have just figured it out.
From the October 15 edition of Trish Regan Primetime (emphasis added):
TRISH REGAN (HOST): You look at the Democrats right now, and they’re really clinging to this idea of identity politics. In your view, what are they missing?
LOU DOBBS: Well, group and identity politics are really the blueprint for the Democratic Party. It's no longer, as it once was, about the American worker. It's no longer about middle America or middle class Americans. For 20 years, they watched the middle class in this country shrink. It took none other than President Donald J. Trump to step up and say he is for the American worker, the American working family, for the middle class, and put America first. And with that he has driven, it seems to me, a stake into the heart of group and identity politics. Because remember, Trish, and I know you do, this is a president -- from the moment he began campaigning -- says he will be the president of all Americans. ... This is a president of possibility and an insistence upon dreaming, dreaming -- all America is dreaming. And, by the way, those dreams are being realized in 21 months this man has been in office.
REGAN: It’s amazing because in some ways, Lou, I think he's beating them at their own game. I mean, they used to be about middle class, working Americans, and then all of a sudden, as we saw in 2016 and the aftermath right up until today, things became about, say, the transgender population, which is 0.01 percent of the population. Now, I'm not saying there is anything wrong with that. However, they forgot, they forgot all these people out there going to work every day trying to make a living, trying to put food on the table, and consequently, Donald Trump stole their thunder.
Ah yes, identity politics! Like its rhetorical cousin “political correctness,” identity politics has become one of those catch-all terms that means whatever the person saying it wants it to mean at that particular moment. For the past several years, it’s been deployed derisively to dismiss concerns specific to any group outside of the ruling class. Marriage equality? Identity politics. Black Lives Matter? Definitely identity politics. Protecting the right to an abortion? Massive identity politics. And, well, you get the idea.
In the above discussion between Dobbs and Regan, Regan cited the Democratic Party’s focus on issues specific to trans people as part of its downfall. After all, if just 0.01 percent of the country is transgender and Democrats are really going all-in on policies and campaign promises that would solely benefit that community, that does seem like a foolish use of resources. Unfortunately for Regan, neither point is really true. Regan was off by a factor of 60 in her trans statistic -- the Williams Institute estimates that 1.4 million adults, or 0.6 percent of the population, identify as trans.
But to her second point: Yes, Democrats did include a few nods to the trans community in their 2016 party platform, such as supporting the passage of an LGBTQ-inclusive anti-discrimination bill and highlighting violence against trans people. But was that to the exclusion of anyone or anything else? No, not really. On the flip side, the Republican platform leaned into these issues hard, strongly opposing a recently implemented marriage equality ruling; pledging to stop using Title IX “to impose a social and cultural revolution upon the American people,” as they allege President Barack Obama had done with his “dear colleague” memo to schools saying bullying against trans students isn’t OK; championing the passage of the so-called First Amendment Defense Act, which would shield people from local and state statutes banning discrimination on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation so long as the person discriminating cites a strongly held religious belief; and support for discriminatory anti-trans policies in public space, such as North Carolina’s controversial, anti-trans HB 2 legislation.
Objectively speaking, on issues of LGBTQ rights, the Republican Party simply is more invested in identity politics. It shows in how the party has governed, too. According to the Human Rights Campaign, 129 anti-LGBTQ bills were introduced in state legislatures in 2017 -- overwhelmingly by Republicans. Democrats are left with the option to either push back against the anti-LGBTQ attacks (and be accused by media figures of playing identity politics) or simply roll over and let a socially conservative agenda pass without opposition. The reason the “Democrats must drop their obsession with identity politics” narrative has more or less become conventional wisdom in the aftermath of 2016 elections is that media -- both mainstream and partisan -- ignore the identity politics of the right.
Conservative identity politics are all around us, but we've been conditioned not to notice.
In a study titled “One Tribe to Bind Them All: How Our Social Group Attachments Strengthen Partisanship,” published earlier this year in the Advances in Political Psychology journal, researchers Lilliana Mason and Julie Wronski observed the ways in which our various identities shape -- and have always shaped -- our political beliefs and motivations, even if not consciously.
Mason and Wronski concluded that, currently, it’s actually Republicans who are more likely to respond to stimuli along identity-based lines. This is due, in part, to the fact that Republicans tend to be more demographically homogeneous -- that is, their two most consistent identities are that of being white and Christian -- whereas Democrats’ power, or lack thereof, relies on just a tenuous connection between varying racial, gender, sexual, and religious coalitions. They write:
Interestingly, in the realm of “identity politics,” it is generally the Democratic Party that is associated with the use of social identities for political gain. In fact, what we find here is that, if anything, Republicans are more responsive to the alignment of their party-associated groups. Among Republicans, the most cross‐cutting identities are more detrimental to in‐party allegiance than they are among Democrats. Grossman and Hopkins (2016) suggest that Democrats are the party of group interests and Republicans the party of ideological purity. What we find is that Republican “purity” applies to in‐party social homogeneity. A Republican who does not fit the White, Christian mold is far less attached to the Republican Party than one who does fit the mold. This effect is stronger among Republicans than among Democrats, who include significantly more individuals whose racial and religious identities do not match those of the average Democrat. The concept of a “deal‐breaker” identity among Republicans is more feasible than it is among Democrats, as Republicans are generally associated with fewer linked social groups. In this sense, Republicans are more reliant than Democrats on their social identities for constructing strong partisan attachments.
This could help to explain why media’s identity-based messaging -- such as Fox News’ Laura Ingraham warning her viewers that if they don’t vote Republican, they will be “replace[d] … with newly amnestied citizens and an ever increasing number of chain migrants,” or conservative sites like Breitbart spending years accusing Democrats of waging a “war on Christians” -- tends to resonate with white conservative Americans. It’s why reminding white voters that they may soon be a racial minority in the U.S. is a tried and true way to shift politically unaffiliated white voters to more conservative positions. In July, The Washington Post published the story of a white woman experiencing “demographic anxiety” while trying to fit in with non-English-speaking co-workers, explaining the idea that whites no longer comprising a majority in the country played a role in driving white voters to adopt anti-immigration viewpoints and align more closely with Republicans.
This still doesn’t explain why a Republican suggesting that Democrats are a threat to the right to practice Christianity is not typically viewed through the lens of “identity politics,” but a Democrat arguing that Republicans are a threat to reproductive rights is. Perhaps this is the result of in-group bias, with U.S. newsrooms still disproportionately white and male. It seems as logical an explanation as any. Mason and Wronski refer to whiteness and Christianity as “the ‘correct’ alignment of social identities,” which is to say that people, including media figures, are conditioned to see this as the default.
The outcry against “identity politics” is, itself, deeply rooted in identity politics.
Sometimes, trying to avoid the “identity politics” smear means explicit exclusion of people … on the basis of identity. For instance, after Democrats nominated an especially diverse slate of candidates in local and state primaries this year, some even called that an example of identity politics, suggesting that there’s no reason anybody other than a straight, white, cisgender man should consider running for office lest it be considered an identity-based stunt. PJ Media’s Tyler O’Neil wrote, “Democrats in various states took up the identity politics banner, pushing candidates who fit the minority mold. The August 14 primaries elevated transgender, Muslim, black, and socialist candidates, further cementing the Democratic Party's national radical identity politics brand.”
At other times, avoiding the charge of playing “identity politics” means abandoning your ideological principles, as self-described liberal Mark Lilla wrote in The New York Times after the 2016 election. Democrats’ “obsession with diversity has encouraged white, rural, religious Americans to think of themselves as a disadvantaged group whose identity is being threatened or ignored,” he wrote. Lilla’s advice was for Democrats to adopt “a post-identity liberalism” and refocus on the issues that affect the “vast majority,” rather than on things like LGBTQ rights or abortion. In other words, he thinks the answer is to focus on issues that also affect the “angry white male,” whom he describes without a hint of irony as a “maligned, and previously ignored, figure.”
As I illustrated earlier in this piece, contra Lilla, there’s not really a way to sidestep identity-based battles with a truce of neutrality. The culture war, itself another description of identity politics in this current usage, will rage on regardless. The only question that remains is whether in the name of abandoning “identity politics,” people like Lilla think it’s worth letting the most marginalized groups in society see their rights stripped away bit by bit, all for a political gamble that may not even pay off.
Telling a group -- whether it’s Democrats, Republicans, people of color, LGBTQ people, the religious, the non-religious -- to abandon identity politics doesn’t actually mean anything. It’s just a buzzword, and journalists owe it to the public to stop using it that way.
But “identity politics” in its original use is totally different from the way it’s used today.
Up until this point, I’ve been using the term as it is used most commonly by media covering politics. However, the original definition, which originated in “The Combahee River Collective Statement,” a 1977 missive on the path forward for Black feminism, means almost the exact opposite. Reading the statement, you wouldn’t get the sense that four decades later, people would be using the term to refer to the siloing of identities and exclusion. Here’s one salient passage:
We have arrived at the necessity for developing an understanding of class relationships that takes into account the specific class position of Black women who are generally marginal in the labor force, while at this particular time some of us are temporarily viewed as doubly desirable tokens at white-collar and professional levels. We need to articulate the real class situation of persons who are not merely raceless, sexless workers, but for whom racial and sexual oppression are significant determinants in their working/economic lives.
In short, the statement argues that to fight for the rights, treatment, and protection of all, we need to actually hear from all. People need to be able to advocate on their own behalf, but they also need to build coalitions with like-minded individuals. Pretending that differences don’t exist and ignoring the role racism, sexism, homophobia, and general intolerance play in society doesn’t actually address any of those issues. They don’t simply go away on their own.
“To be recognized as human, levelly human, is enough,” reads another pertinent line. The suggestion that identity politics means progress for some at the expense of others is a perversion of the term’s defining document.
In a January Twitter thread responding to a David Brooks New York Times column about identity politics, Barbara Smith, one of the Combahee River Collective Statement authors, set the record straight, writing, “Once again Brooks gets identity politics totally wrong!” She continued:
I can confirm that identity politics means nothing remotely like what Brooks and others like Mark Lilla say. There have been systems of institutionalized oppression in the U. S. like white supremacy, capitalism, misogyny, homophobia, and transphobia which predate the term identity politics by several centuries. The political theory and practice of identity politics has been most useful for building coalitions with people of various identities who are committed to working together to eradicate these systems and not for creating enemies lists.
Whether it’s time to retire any particular political strategy is an issue that’s not for me to decide. What I can suggest, however, is that media start focusing on how the term “identity politics” -- in its modern use -- applies to Republican strategy just as much as Democratic efforts, if not more. Better yet, maybe we can just phase out usage of the term as rhetorical empty calories and instead be specific about what we mean.