One of the big buzzwords tossed around these days is “identity politics.” Something I’ve noticed is that these words essentially have two meanings and thus it can be an issue if someone discusses the topic while using one meaning but someone else is approaching it from the other side. To sum up, there is a deeper meaning and a shallow meaning, and although they are connected they are not the same. Hopefully by stressing the differences in definitions we can break through the miscommunication and get to working on creating change.
When certain people deride identity politics they are talking about the shallow definition of the concept. For those of us who see how ineffectual the Democratic Party is, they are the prime example of shallow identity politics. What does that mean? It means that they use people’s identities to manipulate them into voting Democratic even when the Democrats have no intention of actually changing anything. The Republicans also do this, but they don’t classify it as identity politics because their party’s identity is fairly homogenous, though it can also work as an excellent example. Regardless of which party is doing it, though, the point is that treating the idea of identity politics as a negative stems from this idea that it is manipulative and represents false pretenses.
The Democrats, for example, will give lip service to the issues of the black community to try to ensure that they continue to dominate the black vote; but in reality, they are doing little to nothing to actually help the black community. They may take small steps here or there, make little bits of progress here or there, but they could do so much more.
Reparations; abolish the private prison system; end the war on drugs that has been used largely to destroy black families for the last fifty plus years. There are so many things that they could be doing, yet they don’t; but because they know how to manipulate their constituents they don’t worry about losing their votes. They talk a good game about caring and will bring up certain buzz words but they haven’t followed through for decades.
Another prime example of the way in which shallow identity politics are used to manipulate voters is how the Democrats treat the LGBTQIA community. Think of marriage equality and how we got it; a conservative SCOTUS ruled that it was discrimination to not allow equality in marriage. It wasn’t because of the Democrats. The majority of major Democrats did not openly support marriage equality until it was inevitable and it became clear that they would lose support if they didn’t get on board; yet their lip service has made them out to be the party for the LGBTQIA community. Democrats can talk about the issues that affect various identities but they rarely if ever actually make any progress on the federal stage.
Although part of that is the nature of a split Congress, when you look at what Democrats advocate most strongly for and what they actually accomplish you’ll see a pattern of inability to follow through on the big changes needed to make society better. It begs the question, are they incompetent or are they doing it on purpose? I’ll let you decide for yourself, but that’s why both the Right and the Left disparage this shallow form of identity politics. When anyone uses the issues that people identify with as a manipulative means to get their votes without actually ever meaning to deal with those issues it is disingenuous and self-serving, and we need much less of these politicians in Congress to make real progress.
However, there is a deeper level to identity politics that can be summed up as this: politics are identity. What you believe in, who/what you follow, your affiliations, etc., all of it is tied up in your identity. Not just who you are but who you think you are. Deep identity politics is basically understanding the various kinds of identities that exist and working intersectionally to make life better for all. Progressives who cannot understand this risk alienating potential allies.
A lot of people do not seem to understand the immense role that identity plays in our everyday lives. Although modern science supports the idea that your identity is a malleable thing, as evidenced in one obvious way by some of us being able to actually change our minds, there is a lot of harm done in the name of identifying with one aspect of one’s self so rigidly that anything even remotely different is seen as a threat. I’m sure we can all think of examples. Meanwhile, on the opposite end are those who do not have a solid enough identity, especially those who are young, who are liable to follow anyone and any ideology that gives them something to hold onto.
The reason why these identities are important when it comes to politics is that they affect all of the decisions you make in regard to how you see politics and who you consider worthy of your vote. I, as a progressive Leftist, identify with policies that help people from a stance of social unity. I recognize the good that comes from being a part of a larger community and the ways that we can work together to build a better world. As such, I am only interested in politicians who not only express a similar world view but who back that up with action to support it. I do not shy away from the label socialist because I understand what it means and how class intertwines with other issues. This identity of mine dictates my politics.
Yet, there are many on the Left whose identities put them into the cohort of those more focused on class than anything else. This is fine if you get that someone else’s identity may put another issue on the front burner for them, but it is dangerous to the movement to discount the perspective of a potential ally purely because you cannot see life from their viewpoint.
Many of us focus on one or two issues in our activism — and there is nothing wrong with that — but we cannot ignore everyone else. We are all fighting for a better tomorrow. Do not discount or discredit someone just because they are not focused on the same exact things that you are. If you want to go deeper, then you must recognize that their identity forms their activism just as your identity forms yours and you should respect that their viewpoint will be different from yours.
This is what deeper identity politics is about and what we as progressives need to be cognizant of. We cannot get caught up in one issue or problem and pretend like no one else matters. While we deride the use of shallow identity politics to pull the wool over the eyes of others and trick them into voting against their interests, we need to utilize deeper identity politics to connect with our fellow activists and build bridges.
Learn to view things from outside of your own perspective (which I think as progressives we are already built to do), so that when someone is talking about a different topic your first thought isn’t to dismiss them for not “getting it,” but rather to try to understand where they’re coming from to see WHY they focus on that issue. We need more of us to be doing this in order to build the necessary coalition to fix society as a whole.