I had to get slightly buzzed at a pub with a friend I’ve known since elementary school to finally feel comfortable enough to say out loud what I’ve been thinking recently: “Identity politics is bullshit.” Even then I half-whispered it, despite being in a room full of people who were too drunk to care. In progressive circles, individual experience is sacrosanct. We value the voices of marginalized people, and try to lift them up as important and valuable. Academia has made great strides in allowing the stories of people of color and women to be heard. Media representation of different groups has also improved, as black and brown people and women have had more opportunities to tell their stories. I’m very happy that the central importance of identity is being discussed in our media and our history. I’m decidedly less happy that it’s become so intrinsic to our politics.
Building political coalitions around identity is not an effective strategy for a simple reason: people have multiple identities, and those identities clash and compete within individuals and groups. That sounds obvious, but smart people have made serious decisions based on the idea that millions of people would vote a certain way based solely (with some historical context, to be fair) on one aspect of themselves, whether it’s race, gender, sexual orientation, or any other single feature. But no one is only black, no one is only a woman, and no one keeps the importance of their various identities static. If the assumption is that people vote based on their identities, then here’s a sobering thought- 53% of white women put aside their identity as women when they voted for Donald Trump. Democrats bet on their womanhood being their primary motivator to vote. It wasn’t, at least not on November 8th.
Some may point out that identity politics should have worked, that more people voted for Hillary Clinton than Donald Trump and the oddness of our electoral system led to the current political climate. I counter that with two arguments- first, that identity politics clearly doesn’t work precisely because it cannot grapple with the realities of the Electoral College, and second, it cannot grapple with the realities of the federal system which allows lily-white states like Maine, Vermont and Idaho to have the same Senate representation as New York, California and North Carolina. Remember, it’s not just that Donald Trump is President; Republicans control the House and the Senate as well (and, perhaps not coincidentally, both institutions are led by men from overwhelmingly white states).
Here’s the thing about identity politics- it favors the identity with the largest number. Right now, that’s white people. In fifty years, that will still be white people. Despite the breathless reporting about whites becoming a minority in the United States within thirty years, whites will still be the single largest racial group in the country until the 2060’s. The “majority” that will exist in the 2040’s consists of racial and ethnic groups from all over the world that, as discreet groups, will come nowhere near rivaling the numbers of the white plurality. For example, African Americans were 13% of the United State’s population in 1860. Nearly 160 year later, that number has remained relatively static. Suffice to say, there will never be enough black people in the United States to meaningfully change the political and social climate through our identity alone. We need buy-in and support from Latinos, Asians, and yes, whites too. Organizing around identity makes that work much more difficult.
We’re living with the results of that now. With the political left unable to build electoral coalitions, the right swept into power and claimed control of the government. The degradation of big-tent leftist politics was not a sudden groundswell that occurred last November though. The Republicans gained control of the House of Representatives in 2010, and the Senate in 2014. 2016 was the culmination of a Republican wave which slowly overtook state houses, governorships and federal elections over the last ten years. Think about it- we saw protections extended for marginalized groups by the Obama administration, but those were through executive orders and court decisions, not legislation. And now we’re seeing those protections rolled back because we couldn’t build strong enough coalitions to enshrine them in law.
Identity is important, and it’s important for us to continue to empower marginalized people to speak up and be heard. Yet we need to rethink our reliance on identity as the basis for political action. Unless you have the numbers (and no one does except for white people), it’s a terrible starting point for building broad-based political and social coalitions. The point is not to cow tow to whites or other racial groups for their support, but instead to realize that one of the organizational pillars of the modern left is failing. How many more elections do we have to lose before we take a serious look at the inconsistency of identity?