Chris Hopson | Harvard University

Since Donald Trump’s surprise victory in the 2016 presidential election, a common refrain has come from political analysts of all ideological stripes: Democrats, and the American Left in general, were defeated by their allegiance to identity politics, which has run amok.  Just days after the election Mark Lilla wrote in The New York Times that American liberalism has become “distorted” by “a kind of moral panic about racial, gender, and sexual identity." In The Washington Post, George Will called the white nationalism of the alt-right “their version of the identity politics practiced by progressives." 

Many other commentators agree with these positions, and the central argument of Lilla has some merit: the rhetoric of identity politics alienates people who are not members of marginalized communities, leading them to politically revolt by, for example, voting for Donald Trump.  But I believe that such criticism of liberal identity politics is mistaken for three main reasons. Firstly, it implies that liberal identity politics is the only form of identity politics, which it is not. Secondly, it fails to recognize the success of identity politics as a tactic of political mobilization.  Finally, it opens the door to an embrace of ‘colorblindness’, which, while sometimes well-intentioned, will do nothing to alleviate identity-based injustices in American society today.

I fully agree with writers like Lilla that the 2016 presidential campaign saw a widespread use of identity politics as a mobilizing tactic.  But in my view, the campaign that used identity politics the most was the Trump campaign, in its explicit appeal to white identity. In his very first speech of the campaign, Trump detailed how American society was supposedly under threat from Mexican immigrants: a specific identity group.  

He later proposed to ban Muslims from entering the United States: another targeting of a specific identity group. Less than a year ago, he disparaged immigrants from Haiti and Nigeria using racial stereotypes, and called for more immigration from Norway: once again, allusions to specific identity groups.  These statements and many others from Trump (even from before his entrance into politics) share the common theme of portraying people of color as dangerous and bothersome while portraying white people as upstanding and under threat.

This is a tried-and-true political appeal. White identity politics has been around for a long time, and has proved remarkably effective.  From the propagation of slavery, to Southern secession, to the enforcement of Jim Crow laws, to the intentional segregation of America’s cities and the ghettoization of racial minorities, white government officials have long used state power to institutionalize white advantage, while white politicians have portrayed non-white people as threats to white identity and white safety to gain political support.  Consider the Civil War. A majority of Confederate soldiers did not personally own any slaves, yet they were willing to risk their lives in a treasonous battle against the American government to perpetuate the enslavement of black people. They were mobilized, in large part, because the system of slavery advantaged them by virtue of their being white. Now, consider the post-Civil Rights era.

One of the most striking shifts in the American political landscape has been how southern states have moved from reliably voting Democratic to reliably voting Republican.  This was accomplished through an intentional political program called the “Southern Strategy”, used first by the Nixon campaign to shore up the support of southern white voters. Lee Atwater, a Reagan advisor who spoke about the Southern Strategy in a 1981 interview, described it this way (as quoted in a 2012 article in The Nation): “You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘Nigger, nigger, nigger’.  By 1968 you can’t say ‘nigger’-that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract.  Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites”.  That is identity politics in its purest form, and it has worked well.

The examples of the Civil War and the Southern Strategy, and all the racial politics in between, show that identity politics has been around for a long time, and that it can, indeed, be very effective.  Some might interpret this evidence as merely suggesting that white identity politics is effective, but I don’t agree.  Without wanting to reduce the Civil Rights Movement to a campaign of ‘identity politics’, it’s clear that the Movement centered around identity.  Civil rights campaigners were arguing that the US government should give people of a specific identity group (black people) more rights, and constrain the ability of another specific identity group (white people) to infringe on those rights.  That is a political message framed by identity, black identity most prominently, and it was ultimately successful. Some even refer to the Civil Rights Movement as the “Second Reconstruction”, a time when the American Constitutional order was radically altered.  Identity politics is not doomed to fail, even if it specifically appeals to people of color, women, LGBTQ+ people, or any other marginalized group.

Far from being an impediment to the success of a progressive governing coalition, I would argue that identity politics is the only way that the US can become a more just society.  While categories like race, gender, and sexuality may be social constructs, they have real, tangible effects on people’s quality of life. Members of marginalized identity groups face a stream of hardships and disadvantages that members of advantaged identity groups do not.  On average, women in the workforce are paid less than men in the workforce.  

On average, black, Latinx, and Native American families have much lower incomes and much less wealth than white families.  In a majority of US states, it is not illegal for employers to fire someone because of their sexual orientation. These are just a few identity-based inequalities and injustices that characterize the American social landscape.  Identity politics is the only way to fix them. It is impossible to talk about the gender pay gap without mentioning gender. It’s impossible to talk about the racial wealth gap without mentioning race. It’s impossible to talk about discriminatory employment practices without talking about sexual orientation.  Making policies to protect people who face injustice because of their gender, race, and sexuality is identity politics.  And it’s essential.

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