Identity politics has been steadily growing in influence. Until recently, however, the promoters of identity politics tended to deny that they were adhering to an identitarian perspective. They often argued that ‘identity politics’ was an invention of the right – usually of white males who were desperately clinging on to their unearned privileges. Some of them went so far as to claim that it was actually the critics of identity politics who were most wedded to the identitarian worldview.
More recently, that old defensive tone with which activists downplayed their embrace of identity politics has given way to a more confident, even aggressive stance. It seems identity politics is gradually becoming more conscious of itself as a coherent and influential worldview. One of the clearest expressions of this newfound arrogance can be seen in an essay by the US Democratic politician, Stacey Abrams. Abrams, an African-American woman, was chosen by Democratic leaders to respond to Donald Trumps’s State of the Union speech. And she seized the opportunity to extol the ethos of identity.
Strikingly, in her follow-up essay, she also took a swipe at those people who are still wedded to the politics of class. In her piece in Foreign Affairs, Abrams criticised those who ‘focus solely on class’ and who apparently ignore the needs of different identity groups. She boasted that, in her campaigns, she ‘intentionally and vigorously highlighted communities of colour and other marginalised groups’. Her explicit, in-your-face advocacy of identity politics is not just her individual view — rather, it resonates with a wider cultural current that now views appeals to identity as morally superior to appeals to humanity. This is why more and more people, when they make a public statement, draw attention to their identity. Just think of the number of times you hear people declare ‘As a gay man’, or ‘As a woman’, or ‘As a man of colour’. The studied manner in which they proclaim their identity suggests they think their identity is more important than the content of their statement itself.
The Abrams outlook is also vigorously promoted by the so-called Justice Democrats, a movement devoted to transforming the Democratic Party into an organisation more wedded to identity politics. One of its key objectives is to replace many of the party’s white male congressmen and senators with individuals who hail from currently fashionable identity backgrounds. This approach was systematically advanced in a recent article by Ruben Navarrette, a columnist for USA Today. Navarrette made an uncompromising defence of identity politics and argued that the obstacle to progress is old white men, who are apparently hostile to positive change. He complained that in both the Republican and Democratic parties, ‘a lot of white people — and white males in particular — are beefing with identity politics’. Increasingly, white men, particularly older white men, are portrayed as an irredeemable identity group, as the principal barrier to making a better, fairer society.
Although Justice Democrats and other identitarians claim to support the ideal of justice, in truth what matters most to them is the colour of a person’s skin and also his or her gender and sexuality. Poor old Bernie Sanders has discovered that the moral authority he previously enjoyed over the left wing of the Democratic Party is fast evaporating. When he announced his intention to run for president in 2020, an interviewer for Vermont Public Radio asked him how he would manage to make headway against such a diverse group of candidates for the Democratic nomination. Sanders gave a reply that would have convinced his radical supporters just a couple of years ago but which now goes against the grain of the identitarian outlook of Abrams and others. He said: ‘We have got to look at candidates, you know, not by the colour of their skin, not by their sexual orientation or their gender, and not by their age… I think we have got to try to move us toward a non-discriminatory society which looks at people based on their abilities, based on what they stand for.’
Sanders’ old-fashioned conviction is that it is your ability and what you stand for that really matters — but this directly contradicts the fundamental tenets of identity politics. So it is unsurprising that much of the response to Sanders was sardonic, cynical and hostile. ‘This is usually an argument made by people who don’t enjoy outsized respect and credibility because of their race, gender, age and sexual orientation’, said Jess McIntosh, a former Hillary Clinton aide. Sneering at Sanders, the LGBT magazine Out ran with the sarcastic headline: ‘Bernie Sanders Bravely Asks Us to Consider a Straight President.’
Neera Tanden of the Center for American Progress let rip on Twitter: ‘At a time [when] folks feel under attack because of who they are, saying race or gender or sexual orientation or identity doesn’t matter is not off, it’s simply wrong.’ Television host and comedian Stephen Colbert did a Sanders impersonation. He had Bernie saying: ‘Yes, like [Martin Luther] King, I have a dream – a dream where this diverse nation can come together and be led by an old white guy.’ Taking cheap shots at old white guys has become the stock-in-trade of unimaginative comedians seeking the approval of their identity-obsessed fans.
Unfortunately, contrary to Sanders’ hopes, people are increasingly judged, once again, by the colour of their skin, or their gender, or their sexual orientation. In the US, and increasingly on this side of the Atlantic, too, politicians are assessed by their identity attributes. Worse, it isn’t only who you are that matters, but also whether you obediently live your life according to the identitarian logic. It is not enough that your sexual orientation is homosexual, for example — no, you must also live the LGBT lifestyle. If you make your claim to political office on the grounds of your skin colour, then you have to be blacker than black. Take the case of Kamala Harris, a Democratic senator from California and aspiring presidential candidate for 2020. She plays by the identity-politics rulebook. No sooner had she announced her presidential bid than she had set off to Harlem to have lunch with Reverend Al Sharpton. Winning Sharpton’s blessing is seen as a precondition for being taken seriously in certain sections of the African-American electorate.
Harris herself is black, but she soon discovered that there is black and then there is black. Earlier this month she was confronted on the New York hip-hop radio show The Breakfast Club over an issue that had been circulating on social media: ‘Why did you marry a white man?’ The implication is that there is a question mark over whether Harris is black enough. Harris did not evade the question. She said she chose to marry her husband because he loves her and she loves him. However, the very fact that a politician’s choice of a white marriage partner could become a matter of debate, and of contention, confirms that for far too many people these days identity politics has become everything.
The identity wars
Advocates of identity politics often claim to be building a united coalition of various groups of hitherto marginalised peoples. There is some evidence that, as with the Momentum group inside the UK Labour Party, the Justice Democrats in the US have successfully secured a measure of unity between different identity interests. In this respect they resemble the pork-barrel politics of the 19th and 20th centuries, when different ethnic groups worked together to divide up the resources that came with political office. Pork-barrel politicians relied on the mobilisation of ethnic constituencies. These coalitions of pragmatic politicians were not held together by any principled sense of unity. Which is why, time and again, such coalitions became strained and soon enough pragmatic unity would give way to ethnic tension.
Identity politics is in many ways the lowest form of pork-barrel politics. Why? Because at least old-fashioned machine politicians who engaged in pork-barrel tactics did not myopically obsess over their own and other people’s ethnicities. On the contrary, some of them promoted a broader political and social vision to their constituencies and, perhaps for pragmatic reasons, affirmed their desire to assimilate ethnic groups into the wider community so that they would have greater access to resources and influence.
In contrast, today’s identity activists jealously guard their patch. They are unwilling to share their territory. Another Democratic presidential candidate — Elizabeth Warren — discovered this recently. Warren took the calculated decision to enhance her identity appeal by publicly claiming to be part Cherokee. She clearly believed that her association with a Native American identity would prove to be a vital political asset and might widen her support within the Democratic Party. To demonstrate her identity, she published a DNA test that suggested she may have had some genetic links with the Cherokee nation.
Unfortunately for Warren, this provoked an immediate backlash from Native Americans. They were not prepared to accept this white woman as one of their own. Chuck Hoskin, secretary of state for the Cherokee Nation, reminded Warren that it is the tribal authorities, not a DNA test, who get to decide who can claim to be part of the Cherokee Nation. He denounced the carpetbaggers who try to hijack the Cherokee identity for their own benefit. He wrote that, ‘[Every day] people make claims of native heritage and Cherokee ancestry’. These claims, ‘made for personal advancements by profiteers’, are like ‘a guest at my table saying they’ve had a seat there all along’, he said. Predictably, Warren issued a grovelling apology for her behaviour.
Hoskin’s response to Warren illustrates the absence of the generosity of the human spirit in identity politics. Identity works as form of private possession; a ‘Keep Out’ sign greets any unwelcome visitor who tries to claim a piece of the action.
The possessiveness of identitarianism is paralleled by a disposition towards cultural tribalism. One feature of identity politics that is often overlooked is that not all identities are seen as worthy of celebration. In the US, the identity of white men, especially older, heterosexual white men, is regarded with disdain. According to the prevailing ideology of identity politics, white men must defer to the sensibilities of other identity groups and must always ‘check their privilege’. From this perspective, white men should be seen but not heard.
In recent years, Asian-Americans and white females have lost some of the prestige that was once attached to their identity status. Jewish identity is just about acceptable, so long as people with this identity loudly distance themselves from any kind of support for Israel. Australian identity has also lost out in the identity stakes. Australians’ key role now is to apologise constantly for the misdeeds of their ancestors.
Right now, the trans identity holds the top spot in the world of identitarianism. With remarkable speed it has established itself at the top of the hierarchy of virtue. It has even succeeded in silencing certain feminists — those who question or criticise the idea of gender self-identification. Take the case of Martina Navratilova, one of the greatest tennis players of recent times. Despite her well-known reputation for defending gay rights and advocating lesbian causes, she has been widely vilified for saying it is not fair that trans-women (that is, born men) can compete in women’s sports. For saying this, she was dropped as an ambassador for the LGBT sports body, Athlete Ally. Sections of the media were at a loss over who to support in this conflict: Navratilova, a well-known gay-rights advocate, or the vociferous proponents of trans rights who were condemning her. Many people who secretly know that Navratilova was making a very important point opted to censor themselves. That’s because anyone who challenges the trans worldview faces the censorious wrath of trans activists and some of the media too.
The mainstreaming of identity politics is vividly illustrated by the speed with which all the main party leaders in the UK — from the Tories to the Greens — have united to silence critics of gender self-ID. Female officials, activists and party members have been investigated, denounced and in some instances expelled for their supposed ‘bigotry’ on the question of trans people’s self-identification. Leading parliamentarians have adopted the intolerant language of campus culture warriors. A prominent member of the Liberal Democratic hierarchy, Baroness Lynne Featherstone, condemned critics of self-identification and warned them: ‘You are not feminists. Your views are not welcome in the Liberal Democrats.’
Identity politics also has a significant influence on the behaviour of businesses and public institutions. Recently, Katie Ghose, the popular CEO of the UK charity Women’s Aid, was forced to quit. It took a mere letter from the London Black Women’s Project to get her fired. Her crime? She addressed UKIP’s party conference in 2015.
The rhetoric of identity politics is not yet as prevalent in the UK as it is in the US. So it can sometimes feel surprising that the demands of various identity groups are so swiftly accepted and institutionalised by both Labour and Conservative politicians. The speed with which the trans ideology gained official acceptance by both national and local institutions illustrates this point. This rapid acceptance of identitarian claims is down to the highly centralised character of the UK’s political system right now. This system has successfully marginalised public opinion, which means that devotees of identitarianism enjoy considerable freedom to promote and institutionalise their ideologies.
Is the personal political?
One of the most corrosive elements of identity politics is its insistence that the personal is political. Identitarians argue that, since identity is what really matters, so people’s personal and private behaviour is of political import, in the same way that their actions in public life are. This means that people’s private behaviour becomes a legitimate target for public scrutiny and political criticism.
Savvy politicians now understand that a culturally insensitive or ‘inappropriate’ remark, even one they made in their youth, can come back to bite them. Consider the case of Tulsi Gabbard, a Democratic congresswoman from Hawaii who is a potential candidate for 2020. She is an Iraq War veteran and she made history in 2012 when she became the first Hindu elected to Congress. She is a powerful communicator who seems to tick all the right identity boxes. But her past has been weaponised by identitarians. She has had to apologise for working with her father in his anti-gay rights organisation when she was a teenager.
Identity activists are not prepared to forgive youthful misbehaviour. On the contrary they regard the sins of youth as a legitimate target for political condemnation. In the US there is a growing number of political operatives who specialise in digging up the youthful indiscretions of public figures. Many ambitious politicians are reviewing their school yearbooks and their old social-media profiles in order to contain any potential risk to their reputation. Ralph Northam, the Democratic governor of Virginia, should have known what to expect. He is facing calls for his resignation after a photo of him sporting blackface at a college party went viral.
People’s entire lives can be turned upside down when the personal becomes political. The mere allegation of personal impropriety can have devastating consequences for the individual concerned. Carl Sargeant, the Welsh communities secretary, committed suicide after he was suspended from the Labour Party over allegations of improper personal conduct. Because they are based on the assumption that there is no smoke without fire, allegations of personal impropriety can unleash a chain of events that end in tragedy.
Far too many politicians are embracing and legitimising the politics of identity. Some actually believe there is something positive in the politicisation of identity. Unfortunately, they are confusing the positive struggles for equality by feminists and civil-rights activists in the past with the narrow-minded and destructive worldview of identitarians today.
Identity activists constantly claim to be fighting for justice, but in truth they devote most of their energy to the cause of gaining greater and greater cultural authority. Where previously activists campaigned against racism, today they are in the business of discrediting and marginalising ‘whiteness’. Just being white or displaying so-called ‘white attitudes’ is now treated as the secular equivalent of original sin. Similarly, the ideal of winning women’s equality has been displaced by a campaign against masculinity. Attacks on whiteness, masculinity or heteronormativity have little to do with justice. Rather, this is about undermining the attitudes and values of identity groups that so-called social-justice advocates despise. (We should note here that the term ‘social-justice warrior’ is actually a misnomer. Any review of the causes promoted by these activists will confirm that they are focused around cultural issues rather than social ones.)
For identity politics to triumph it needs to delegitimise and isolate the values traditionally associated with the Enlightenment outlook. It is not an accident that identity ideologues despise the idea of moral autonomy, regard freedom of speech as dangerous, and continually downsize the importance of tolerance — it is because they stand in opposition to Enlightenment values.
The political and cultural establishments’ loss of genuine belief in Enlightenment values has created the conditions for the flourishing of identity politics. No doubt there are many sensible political figures who are disturbed by the identitarian development. But they seem to have opted to keep their opinions to themselves, perhaps in the hope that identity politics will eventually go away. It won’t. The dehumanising culture promoted by identity politics exercises a huge influence over public life. If this politicisation of identity is not actively challenged, we should prepare for a perpetual war of identities.