The Defenses and Offenses of Identity Politics

 The left and right of identity politics.

February 18, 2019

Jamelle Bouie of The New York Times wrote a compelling piece about progressive identity politics that resonates strongly with me.

He claims that having Stacey Abrams give the official Democratic Party rebuttal to Donald Trump’s State of the Union address offered the triple package: good politics, inspiring multicultural symbolism and substantive policy proposals. Furthermore, they were all connected. Abrams made the point that her progressive policy proposals around health care were specifically linked to caring about particular identities (Bouie highlights medical issues faced by black women), which would in turn encourage those populations to go to the polls. What this adds up to for Bouie is an encouragement to Democrats and other progressives to keep identity at the center of their politics.

I wonder, then, what Bouie thinks about Donald Trump’s National Prayer Breakfast address, where he played the same triple-package on identity politics, the only difference was that it was the sort that is common on the conservative side.

“I will never let you down. I can say that. Never,” he told an audience with no small number of conservative white Evangelicals, otherwise known as his base. And just as there are electoral strategies and policy proposals that accompany progressive identity politics, so are there electoral strategies and policy dimensions to conservative identity politics, ranging from appointing pro-life judges to supporting anti same sex marriage adoption agencies.

The key argument for identity politics on the progressive side is redress of historical marginalization. In other words, because so many groups in American history were excluded because of their identity (blacks, women, gays, immigrants), it is high time that we create both cultural and policy solutions that tip the scales in their favor.

The key argument for identity politics on the conservative side is that religion shapes the lives and communities of traditionally-minded Christians in ways that ought to be protected by a nation that has a Constitutional guarantee of Freedom of Religion. It is noteworthy that significant numbers of traditionally-minded Muslims and Jews have found a home in conservative identity politics, although that has been complicated by the overt bigotry of Trump.

Progressives, of course, can also play the ‘support distinctive communities’ game, and conservatives are increasingly adept at highlighting the ways that they are marginalized and therefore requiring of protection.

In my view, there is legitimacy across the aisle here. It makes no sense to say that race and gender are wonderful reasons to support certain candidates and policies for me, but religion is an illegitimate basis for identity politics for you. I don’t get to tell you what identities matter to you, or how to interpret those identities into political positions, especially if I am the one making the case that identities matter in politics.

Does this set up conflict? Absolutely it does. We shouldn’t be surprised when women, based on their gender, support pro-choice politics, and Christians, based on their religion, support pro-life politics. That is all entirely legitimate. And so are the women who say they are pro-life because they are women, and those who say they are pro-choice, because they are Christian.

This is the rough and tumble of living in a diverse democracy, that most remarkable form of human society where we are constantly faced with the differences we like, and the differences we don’t. 



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