My first exposure to the term "identity politics" came from conservative commentators who used it to complain about civil rights. (It usually went hand-in-hand with derisive right-wing phrases like "playing the race card" and "professional poverty pimp.") Indeed, I assumed for years that it was a catch-all conservative insult for anyone who sought equality and advancement for marginalized constituencies. That's my bad. As it happens, the term has a serious academic pedigree and is hotly debated in intellectual circles so it's not just another right wing epithet.
Nonetheless, that is exactly the way the term used today, and there are certain left-leaning types who use it as such as well. Interestingly, both sides lodge a similar complaint in terms of practical politics: "Identity politics" is seen as a scam to dupe racial and ethnic minorities, gays and women into voting for Democrats who pander to their personal concerns, letting their economic interest and the nation's best interest as a whole be obscured in the process. The right sees this as a matter of ignorance, while the much smaller faction on the left that subscribes to a similar view sees it as a kind of selfish naivete. The left, to be fair, also thinks that right-wingers are being duped into voting against their economic interest by Republicans who pander to their personal concerns about religion and culture. (See: the "What's the Matter with Kansas" critique.) So, in these lefties minds, it's an equal opportunity duping. Still one cannot help but notice that most of the people on both sides who complain about their fellow citizens being duped by politicians pandering to their narrow concerns have rarely walked in the shoes of those to whom the pols are allegedly pandering. It undoubtedly looks a little different from that perspective.
But let's not kid ourselves about what the term most commonly means in our current political discourse. When a conservative derides "identity politics" he's saying that white people are getting the short end of the stick. It's not an academic critique or even more anodyne call for melting-pot solidarity. It's racist coding, plain and simple. Even if "identity politics" is open for interpretation, there is no mistaking the meaning of Dog-whistle politics:
Dog-whistle politics is political messaging employing coded language that appears to mean one thing to the general population but has an additional, different or more specific resonance for a targeted subgroup. The phrase is used only as a pejorative, because of the inherently deceptive nature of the practice and because the dog-whistle messages are frequently themselves distasteful, for example by empathising with racist or revolutionary attitudes. The analogy is to a dog whistle, whose high-frequency whistle is heard by dogs but inaudible to humans.
That conservatives use "identity politics" as a dogwhistle is not well understood by the mainstream media. Or, if they do understand it, they ignore it. Here is a perfect example from a story this past Friday in the New York Times about Marco Rubio:
“The identity politics people in the party want a champion who looks like him to mitigate accusations of racism,” said Ben Domenech, a conservative writer. “And the classical conservatives look at him and say, ‘This is somebody who can sell our ideas to the public.’ ”
Conservatives have long had a philosophical contempt for politics driven by gender, racial or class designations. But those sentiments are giving way as the party tries to compete with Democrats, who galvanized support among targeted demographics to decisively win consecutive presidential elections.
Actually, that's completely backwards. Conservatives have been driving their politics by race, gender and class designations for decades. What in the world do they think the Southern Strategy was about? (A notorious quote from strategist Lee Atwater certainly spells it out.) The dogwhistles became more obscure over time: "welfare queens" and "poverty pimps" and "law and order." But there is no doubting to which "identity" these politicians were and are pandering, and it isn't African Americans or latinos. But pandering to identity they certainly are.
What is the appeal to "family values" if not a dogwhistle to traditional gender roles? Consider conservative movement icon Phyllis Schlafly's successful campaign to derail the Equal Rights Amendment back in the 1970s. Historian Judith Glazer-Raymo put it this way:
As moderates, we thought we represented the forces of reason and goodwill but failed to take seriously the power of the family values argument and the single-mindedness of Schlafly and her followers. The ERA's defeat seriously damaged the women's movement, destroying its momentum and its potential to foment social change...
And yes, class too. Let's take just one example, shall we?
You rock me out, Sarah," yelled one man, wearing a red-checked hunting jacket as Palin, the Republican vice-presidential candidate, strode into an airplane hangar here on Thursday. He held a homemade "Dudes for Sarah" sign and wore a National Rifle Association hat.
"I feel like I'm at home," Palin said, looking out at a boisterous crowd of about 6,000. "I see the Carhartts and the steel-toed boots," she said, the first reference being to a clothing brand favored by construction workers and the burly types who make up much of the "Sarah Dude" population. "You guys are great," she said while signing autographs.
That group of blue collar white males may be the most fought-over constituency in American politics over the last 50 years. Formerly dependable Democrats, many of these working class types defected to the Republicans to vote for Ronald Reagan and never came back. That hasn't stopped the Democrats from trying to entice them with campaigns featuring "NASCAR Dads" and endless photo ops of uncomfortable candidates running around in fields shooting at animals and birds with foolish grins on their faces. The Republicans, on the other hand, talk about how affirmative action is ruining this country and in certain regions like to play a little "Dixie" at their political rallies. Their appeal has obviously been much more effective since that particular constituency still votes with the Republicans more often than not.
Finally, if identity politics is defined as "a wide range of political activity and theorizing founded in the shared experiences of injustice of members of certain social groups" there is no social group more convinced it has been treated unjustly than the American right wing. From "criminalizing Christianity" to the federal government coming to put them all in FEMA camps to "illegals" stealing all the good jobs from deserving Americans, the modern conservative movement is entirely organized around the idea that they are not just marginalized in American culture but perpetually under siege.
Here's one of this worldview's better rhetors, Pat Buchanan, making the case:
Friends, this election is about more than who gets what. It is about who we are. It is about what we believe and what we stand for as Americans. There is a religious war going on in this country. It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we shall be as the Cold War itself. For this war is for the soul of America. And in that struggle for the soul of America, Clinton & Clinton are on the other side, and George Bush is on our side. And so to the Buchanan Brigades out there, we have to come home and stand beside George Bush.
In these six months of campaigning from Concord, New Hampshire to California, I came to know our country better than I have known it ever before in my life, and I gathered up memories that are going to be with me the rest of my days.
There was that day-long ride through the great state of Georgia in a bus Vice President Bush himself had used in 1988 called Asphalt One. The ride ended in a 9:00 PM speech in a tiny town in southern Georgia called Fitzgerald.
There were those workers at the James River Paper Mill, in Northern New Hampshire in a town called Groveton -- tough, hearty men. None of them would say a word to me as I came down the line, shaking their hands one by one. They were under a threat of losing their jobs at Christmas. And as I moved down the line, one tough fellow about my age just looked up and said to me, "Save our jobs."
Then there was the legal secretary that I met at the Manchester airport on Christmas Day who came running up to me and said, "Mr. Buchanan, I'm going to vote for you." And then she broke down weeping, and she said, "I've lost my job; I don't have any money, and they're going to take away my little girl. What am I going to do?"
My friends, these people are our people. They don't read Adam Smith or Edmund Burke, but they come from the same schoolyards and the same playgrounds and towns as we came from. They share our beliefs and our convictions, our hopes and our dreams. These are the conservatives of the heart. They are our people. And we need to reconnect with them. We need to let them know we know how bad they're hurting. They don't expect miracles of us, but they need to know we care.
There were the people -- There were the people that, my friends -- There were the people of Hayfork, a tiny town up in California's Trinity Alps, a town that is now under a sentence of death because a federal judge has set aside nine million acres for the habitat of the spotted owl -- forgetting about the habitat of the men and women who live and work in Hayfork.
And there were the brave people -- And there were the brave people of Koreatown who took the worst of those L.A. riots, but still live the family values we treasure, and who still deeply believe in the American dream.
Friends, in these wonderful -- In these wonderful 25 weeks of our campaign, the saddest days were the days of that riot in L.A., the worst riot in American history. But out of that awful tragedy can come a message of hope. Hours after that riot ended, I went down to the Army compound in South Los Angeles, where I met the troopers of the 18th Cavalry who had come to save the city of Los Angeles. An officer of the 18th Cav said, "Mr. Buchanan, I want you to talk to a couple of our troopers. And I went over and I met these young fellows. They couldn't have been 20 years old. They could not have been 20 years old. And they recounted their story.
They had come into Los Angeles late in the evening of the second day, and the rioting was still going on. And two of them walked up a dark street, where the mob had burned and looted every single building on the block but one, a convalescent home for the aged. And the mob was headed in, to ransack and loot the apartments of the terrified old men and women inside. The troopers came up the street, M-16s at the ready. And the mob threatened and cursed, but the mob retreated because it had met the one thing that could stop it: force, rooted in justice, and backed by moral courage.
Conservatives don't see this as identity politics, of course, because a white, male dominated culture has been the default. To them, it's just the natural order of things. But the fact is that they too are an "identity" and on some level they know that before too long they will no longer be dominant. In a few years no particular race or ethnic identity will hold a majority in America.
For many years Republican strategists and politicians have been ruthlessly exploiting the fear and anxiety of these white voters by playing their very special brand of "identity politics". In fact, the Democrats are amateurs by comparison.