Time to give up on identity politics: It's dragging the progressive agenda down

Identity politics has only served to disempower the left and fuel the rise of white nationalism. Can we move on?

Published September 2, 2017 7:00AM (EDT)


Race is the foundation of identity. I would say that that’s kind of a more touchy-feely version of this, but it’s maybe the most important one. We understand ourselves as coming from some place. We understand ourselves as being part of a bigger story. We’re part of Europe. We’re part of this big European story . . . this big narrative of who we are. We aren’t just individuals. We aren’t just some raceless, genderless soul or brain existing in the world, interacting with others. No, we have roots.
Richard Spencer interview, “The Future of the Alt-Right Under Trump,” Feb. 1, 2017

I didn’t come around to disliking identity politics recently. Long before the 2016 election, 15 years ago in fact, I predicted the kind of white identitarian politics that eventually came to fruition in the last election. It had seemed to me inevitable, from the beginning, that white nationalism would arise as a necessary outgrowth if liberals kept up with their identity politics obsession, and that is precisely where we find ourselves.

Identity politics always felt like snake oil to me. I never bought into it when I was a student being exposed to its early manifestations, and as a writer I have rebelled against it from the very beginning. (More recently, I have summed up my views on identity politics in literature, which, unfortunately, has been a constant as long as I’ve been writing.)

Although identity politics had been in the air for a couple of decades already, it was when I was in college, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, that it really began to take off. The Cold War had just ended and capitalism, recharged as neoliberalism, needed a new ideological apparatus to keep things moving toward further concentration of power. What was at hand were the ashes of the 1960s liberation movements, all of which were at a loss as to where to go next. From this leftover hodgepodge, over time a sharply defined ideology emerged, which we can see today in the contemporary form of identity politics — complete with “intersectionality” and other terms of art.  

My generation was the last to have escaped the full brunt of this pernicious ideology. We grew up believing that human difference was not biological but primarily intellectual. We didn’t treat racial, sexual or other differences as inevitable, defined in stone, but fluid realities to be worked around. In fact, it was an insult, if you came of age in that time, to have to commit to a particular identity. Wasn’t that the antithesis of the American idea? How could reinvention take place if you took your spot along a particular identity and stuck with it all your life? Life would be so boring, so predictable, so deadly.

I remember well the debates and controversies of that time. We cheered the freedom movement in Eastern Europe, waiting to see what new economic realities would emerge and how they would affect the quality of life for people around the world. The first Iraq War, which had been preceded by the Panama invasion, made my generation of students all the more eager to see the back of the Reagan ascendancy, as we dreamed of utopian solutions to the kind of economic serfdom that had arisen in 1980s America. When the Soviet Union fell at last, we thought we were past the ideological blinders of the World War II generation, and we couldn’t wait to find out what the cultural thaw would bring. We looked forward to a world that would move along quickly, amid a resurgence of civil liberty, freed of the futile power struggle that had lasted half a century.

There wasn’t a racial, religious or biological dimension to the “peace dividend” we expected, a term that understates the extent of utopian thinking prevalent then. When Francis Fukuyama published his “End of History” thesis in 1989, around the time the Berlin Wall fell, we could see through his simplifications on behalf of a kind of capitalism we were weary of. No one among my cohort actually expected history to end, but it did fit into the tenor of the times, when thinkers reached for the universal. We were proud inheritors of the Enlightenment: That was the intellectual legacy we had to improve on, it was to be our perpetual lodestar, if we were not to be trapped in particularistic thought that could have no good results for anyone. True, Allan Bloom had rung the alarm bells not long ago over the new conformity, but we felt sure that intellectual prowess would reign supreme in the end.

When, a little later, the Bosnian slaughter occurred, we framed it not as Muslims versus the rest, but as a direct attack on the human rights principles we had tried to hold on to in the midst of late Cold War paranoia, which was often ridiculously transparent. Around the same time in the early 1990s, Samuel Huntington came out with his “Clash of Civilizations” thesis, a direct riposte to Fukuyama, a template for a re-energized worldwide conflict of irresoluble identities that has only grown in intensity with each passing year. Now, with the ascent of Trump, it takes us to the edge of a global cataclysm.

I go over this material because I realize that those who are in their 20s and 30s today have not known any other ideological order. Identity politics — the brand of communalism it flows from, i.e., multiculturalism, and the brand of expression it leads to, i.e., political correctness — is existentially unassailable for the young. They know no other means of self-understanding, artistic expression or personal solidarity. They can only be organized around this principle. They see the world strictly through this framework, not through some Enlightenment perspective of universal human rights irrespective of one’s biological identity. The trendy concept of “white privilege,” unmoored from class conditions, exemplifies this simplistic tendency.

When I recently mentioned, to a friend at the local Pacifica radio station in Houston, the “melting pot” as a concept that had worked well for us throughout most of our history, I was met with utter befuddlement, and the firm rejoinder, “But we should all hold onto our cultures!” I’m not sure what culture an Irish-American whose ancestors came to this country 150 years ago can hold onto, but to her ears, the idea of the melting pot sounded absurd.

To my argument of the current hegemony one can pose the counterexample of the success Bernie Sanders — that identity politics renegade! — recently had with the millennial generation. But in the end, white identity politics was victorious, wasn’t it? And Bernie went as far as he did because his millennial constituency didn’t think that he was posing a threat to their intersectional Weltanschauung: It was identity politics plus the $15 minimum wage, free college and Medicaid for all. With regular Democrats, you get identity politics plus — well, almost nothing.

Today the issues I mentioned from my early adulthood would be framed totally differently. The second Iraq War was situated by our warrior class as an attack on the aspect of Islamic ideology that is supposed to be a mortal threat to the West, as opposed to the territorial sovereignty justification for the first Iraq War. There would be no liberal claim to arm the Bosnian Muslims against the Serbs, because their being Muslim would itself be a problem there was no getting around. Today we would look at the liberation of a zone like Eastern Europe through a civilizational compass rooted in identity, not through the enlightenment lens of peace, democracy and universal rights — the latter notion having come under sustained attack by identitarians on the left for more than two generations for being too abstract, for being removed from the realities of the actual prejudice, racism and misogyny that defined the lives of the Enlightenment thinkers.

My old professor Jeffrey Sachs had us all incensed at the time with his imposition of “shock therapy” on Eastern Europe to convert them to instant capitalists (an effort that led to vast inequality under the reign of oligarchs). We were infuriated by Larry Summers’ suggestion that toxic waste be dumped off the coast of Africa because the lives of Africans were worth less than American lives. Today identity politics has taken up so much intellectual space that such economic calculations do not even register the way they used to. It is all identity, all the time, and while we may easily buy into a cultural narrative about a laudable personality like Malala Yousafzai, who appeals to us as a character we can identify with, we have no patience for any structural exploration of the kinds of economic devastation our policies are causing in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran and other countries in the region.

It’s not surprising that both Sachs and Summers went on to rebrand themselves as progressives of a sort, with help from the compliant media, because if neoliberals can say the correct things about race and gender, then their economic positions do not matter. Actually, Summers did get in trouble for his gender-insensitive remarks when he was president of Harvard following his stint as Treasury secretary, but he was rehabilitated, and the point is that it was those politically incorrect remarks that earned him criticism, not his neoliberal policies — essentially, he was Greenspan-lite — for which he was lauded.  

I realize that everything I’m saying here has a sense of futility about it, because when an entire generation is indoctrinated in a certain way of thinking, only a catastrophe of the first order can compel people to reconsider; we are certainly not at that point yet, and we may never get there. But for what it’s worth, let me mention some key points about why I think identity politics, wherever it has manifested, has been absolutely devastating to the cause of liberty.

  1. It privileges culture, instead of politics. My first point is that when you fight for identity, you’re giving up politics in favor of culture. And that’s exactly where neoliberalism wants you, fighting for your culture (or what you imagine is your culture), rather than the arena of policies, where the real consequences occur. You may gain some recognition of your identity, but you may also have to pay the price of losing everything else that makes life worth living.

In many American cities, as in mine, the fight is on for transgender bathrooms, even as local government leaders, who often fit the bill where identity politics is concerned, have worked closely with supercapitalists to gentrify the urban centers, leading to the mass eviction of working people who created the interesting cultural realities in the first place. You can have your bathrooms, but gay people can’t live where they want to. During the Obama years, a crisis of affordable housing arose all over the country, which has gotten little attention because that is a policy discussion not suited to identity politics.

The 2016 election was the ultimate crash of identity politics, of course, played out to the maximum on both sides. The irrational "alt-right," based on white identity politics, had it out with the irrational alt-left, by which I mean not what neoliberal Democrats and Trump mean by it, but exactly the opposite: The identity politics-driven official Democratic Party messaging, which relies on magic and charisma and delusional thinking to bring about racial harmony, just as the "alt-right" does on the other side.

What could be a greater indictment of identity politics than the utter hollowing-out of the Democratic Party, its rank electoral defeat at every level of government, which began in earnest with Bill Clinton’s commitment to neoliberalism in 1991-1992, going hand in hand with identity politics of a kind that had little patience with actual poor people? That period is especially revealing, because Clinton went out of his way, as he would during his entire administration, to celebrate identity politics for the right people, namely, those who are good capitalists, doing everything he could to suggest, by way of policies, that the unreformable poor were no longer welcome in the party.

The result is the evisceration of the Democrats as a party with even a rhetorical claim to the working class, as it has become a club for egotistical, self-branding urbanites who pay lip service to identity politics while having no sympathy for real wealth redistribution. This loss of even the semblance of a liberal policy framework in the domestic and international arenas continued apace during the Obama administration. Obama was immune to liberal criticism, because he fit the identity politics matrix so perfectly. He may have ruthlessly deported millions of people, kept in place and strengthened the entire extra-constitutional surveillance apparatus, and escalated illegal drone attacks and assassinations, but the color of his skin provided immunity from real criticism.

  1. Not only politics, but economics is taken out of the equation. It’s astonishing, even after living under the principles of neoliberalism for around 40 years, how few liberals, even activists, are able to define our economic system with any sense of accuracy. They keep acting as if the fight is still on between the old New Deal liberalism (laissez-faire economics slightly moderated by some half-hearted welfare programs) and a right that wants to shred those welfare mechanisms. In fact, both parties are committed to slightly different versions of neoliberalism, and their transformation proceeded apace with the rise of identity politics. Politics was freed to take its course, because culture became the site of contestation, and this meant an unobstructed opportunity to redefine economics to the benefit of the elites.

Consider that in the last election, the contest became mostly about Hillary Clinton’s personality — she’s a woman, therefore I must be with her — versus Donald Trump’s personality — he’s a misogynist, therefore I must oppose him. Hillary Clinton’s neoliberalism, reflected in over 30 years of policy commitments, got little attention from the media, just as the economic dimensions of Trump’s proposals got barely any attention.

In the popular imagination, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and their successors continue to be judged according to personality — that is to say, by how they fit into the scale of values we know as identity politics. Bush and Trump’s personal idiocy is treated as a mental illness, because they are supposedly not capable of grasping the rules of polite (i.e., identity politics-driven) discourse. Although Bush, with his regained linguistic facility, is well on his way to rehabilitation by the identity politics crowd. The economic dimension of their policies is vastly under-analyzed and indeed of little interest to the younger generations. (Or really to anyone else.)

Liberals seem to be trying to cure racism at the metaphysical level — in people’s hearts and souls — instead of limiting politics to where it should be limited, i.e., the arena of democratic policymaking. But this can only come about when politics becomes again the explicit target of attention, so that obstacles to democracy — from gerrymandering to money in politics, from voting machine unreliability to widespread disenfranchisement — can be overcome.

What identity politics has done is to take the shine off the political process itself. This is more than a consequence of identity politics. It is because identity politics has garnered so much attention that political reform, which needs to be ongoing and consistent, has stalled for nearly 30 years. Instead of campaign finance reform of the McCain-Feingold brand, which sought to make a little advance toward taking money out of politics, we went, during the period of identity politics' ascendancy, to the total capitulation of politics to money. The same process has held true in every arena of policymaking. Even issues like climate change are framed in cultural terms — i.e., as identity politics, because today culture cannot be spoken of without being defined by identity politics — and therefore overwhelmed by paralysis.

A common objection to my line of argument is that “we can do both.” Why can’t we do both identity politics and economics? Why can’t we do both identity politics and legislative politics? My answer is that this is not possible, based on the evidence I have seen over my lifetime. As a general rule, I find the “we can do both” argument a cop-out. I have never known anyone whom I consider typical of the identity politics strain of activism — i.e., engaging in call-out culture for various racial, sexual and cultural offenses — also be engaged with such fights as the preservation of privacy and anonymity, the end to the surveillance state and the dominance of the intelligence agencies, or economic redistribution on a meaningful scale, not just limited to the populist idea of the living wage.

The identitarians, if pressed to the wall on this, will say that these emphases are not exclusive, but in reality they never do it, because there is no mental space left to pursue classical economic issues. If they think of inequality, they think in terms of racial inequality as the fount of all inequality, not the concrete economic terms in which equality can be achieved. Partly this is because of the institutional context in which modern identity-politics warriors operate; for them to ask for economic equality aside from identity would be to challenge the core of the institutions that patronize and legitimize them. Identity politics, it should be noted, is not an outsider’s movement; it is the ultimate insider’s game. More than mental space, however, it is a question of outlook; identity politics simply comes from a different part of the brain than the economic interpretation of society.  

  1. Identity politics always breeds its equal and opposite reaction. Identity politics is in fact the father, or the Great Mother, of white nationalism, rather than white nationalism being an independent force that has arisen from quite different sources. At root, both share the same particularistic, extralegal, extra-constitutional, anti-democratic, metaphysical, folkish impulse. Whenever a misguided movement tries to alter people’s thoughts and intentions, rather than limiting itself to people’s performance and action in the transparent democratic arena, then totalitarianism is the necessary result. Even when we dream of an anarchist utopia, we do not try to alter people’s souls, we aim to alter economic arrangements in such a way as to allow people the maximum possible room for freedom. We cannot be readers and interpreters of people’s hearts and minds; such a venture has no business in politics.

Liberals have been on a relentless mission to transform people’s souls — to rid them of impure ideas about race and sexuality — for exactly the period of time that neoliberalism has deprived them of actual power to do anything about class inequality. The neo-Nazis are latecomers to this game; they have only recently adopted the cultural techniques that have already been mastered by the liberals.

When Richard Spencer, an originator of the term "alt-right," discusses race as destiny, he is no different than liberals who have been articulating every aspect of identity, split into narrower and narrower niches, in precisely the same terms. Jared Taylor of American Renaissance, who has been trying to lend a respectable veneer to racism for more than 30 years, suddenly finds his thought in sync with the "alt-right," his ideas gaining traction because he can now ask his audiences, "Isn’t what we white nationalists seek exactly what every other race wants in America?" And he’s right, on that score, because separatism, or the privileging of biological destiny, is a notion popularized by liberal identity politics.  

Long before Milo Yiannopoulos and his fellow "alt-lite" agitators took up arms against the kind of speech infringements and outright censorship that liberal identity politics has engendered, that should have been our cause. Unfortunately, the continued acceleration in that direction is inexorable.

What identity politics has ultimately led to is an uncontainable right. Through most of our modern history, the far right has been containable, because on the liberal side there was not a corresponding movement of mysticism and soul-cleansing grandeur, which is what identity politics is. The right, too, was forced to speak in the language of rationality, as was true of Establishment conservatives of every stripe following the successes of the New Deal. This went on well into the 1980s. But for the past 30 years, the right has not faced true opposition for its growing dream of nationalist mysticism, because liberals have been doing the same within their own communitarian splintering among various groups.

  1. Identity politics is not winnable. The idea of the nation, in a post-Cold War world, as my generation imagined for a moment, should have led to a redefinition of the concept in rational, empirical, scientific, utopian and ultimately anarchist terms. The founding principles of the Enlightenment were available all over again, in that brief moment, to be recharged with potent liberal energy, extending across the globe. Instead we got neoliberal globalization, dedicated entirely to consumerism and shallow identity politics, working in sync to enervate democracy to the point of nonexistence.

This is because liberals are rhetorically dedicated to pursuing a goal which can never be realized in practice, i.e., the complete self-realization of each identity. This should be evident across many different dimensions. The more a particular group becomes validated in the broader culture’s eyes, the less it feels satisfied with the recognition, and the more it feels it needs more of that rush of acknowledgment and credit based on identity alone. There is no end to it. It becomes a substitute for reward in the capitalist sphere, which is disconnected to identity, as though the economic self were private and identity were public — an odd division, since historically the norm has been the opposite.

Furthermore, the rise of each group in terms of recognition encourages countervailing reactions amongst other groups, so that recognition becomes simultaneously self-inflating (breeding reactionism and irrationality) and an impossible ideal to attain. Again, the rise of white nationalism recently is a testament to this tendency, a natural corollary to the very logic of identity politics. Now we are truly in a zero-sum game, with the various liberal identity politics groups, constituting half the country, pitted against the white Trumpian half of the country, as matters of economic privilege are redefined in terms of identity.

Since the self-esteem of liberals has flourished on the basis of the constant calling out of offenses among liberal stalwarts who had strayed from the politically correct parameters of discourse, the right has decided — and this really explains so much about the alt-right and its allies — to keep liberals occupied full-time. They did that first with right-wing talk radio, with its barrage of offenses, starting at the same time as identity politics among liberals took hold, i.e., around 1990. Then came Fox News and the many internet venues that flourished in the 2000s, and finally there was Donald Trump as constant outrage machine.

Liberals can’t have a moment of peace, because they all but desired this interminable reality of having to put out discursive fires, and now they can do so to their heart’s content for the duration of the Trump presidency. Has anyone noticed how the calling-out of liberals by liberals has suddenly ceased? Wayward liberals have not ceased offending, but Trump fits the bill just as well; after all, he too used to be a “liberal” of sorts, he is a renegade to his class, to New York elite norms, to the way wealth and privilege are supposed to behave themselves.

  1. It leads to spectacle, rather than legislative accomplishment. I can think of no better example to illustrate the madness of identity politics than the absurd separation that has occurred between the so-called “Dreamers” and the rest of the undocumented population. The Dreamers, brought to this country as minors, are the good immigrants, whereas the rest, who might have come as adults, are the bad immigrants. The Dreamers — in a way that would have been inconceivable in the time I was growing up — have played every aspect of identity politics to their benefit, even if it means that their own family members might suffer, or even be deported, in inverse relation to the degree to which their own pleas for acceptance find favor with the general public.

The entire discourse of the Dreamers is based on identity — love us for who we are, for being American to the core, for being indistinguishable, really, from (white) American norms — rather than constitutional equity or human rights derived from Enlightenment conceptions. They are a sharply demarcated population within a broader at-risk population, and seek legitimation of their narrow identity. They proudly come out on the streets — well, not under Trump anymore, not after the initial arrests — reveling in their undocumented status, almost making a fetish of it, instead of appealing for justice based on constitutional principles. I do not hear them partake in a legal discourse. I hear them indulge in an identity politics discourse.

José Antonio Vargas, the undocumented journalist who because of his age got left out of the temporary DACA reprieve, illustrates the conundrum well. Even if he is personally savaged by the unfairness of DACA, with its arbitrary age limit, he will not go against the principle of DACA. There is no notion of universal rationality available to the younger generations anymore.

Again, this entire process of "spectacularization" — the Dreamers themselves, their supporters and opponents in Congress, the various organizations lined up for and against them, the media apparatus that refuses to ask larger questions about immigration policy — would have been inconceivable a generation or two ago. I suggest that the Dreamers are engaging in an ultimately nihilistic, pessimistic and cynical discourse, which is what neoliberalism desires, because it leaves politics and economics alone. As I said before, to those playing the Dreamers game — or any other aspect of identity politics — it seems like a hopeful, enchanting, magical discourse, where merely the act of declaring one’s identity seems to hold its own fulfillment. Whether or not laws change in consequence seems almost secondary. Trump recently signaled he was going to rescind DACA; the Dreamers played a deadly game with identity politics, and they lost.

Identity politics was conceived and executed from the beginning as a movement of depoliticization. Feminism has become severed from class considerations, so that for the most part it has become a reflection of what liberal identitarians themselves like to call “white privilege.” Feminism, like the other identity politics of the moment, is cut off from solidarity with the rest of the world, or if it deals with the rest of the world can only do so on terms that must not invalidate the American version of identity politics.

For example, because all identities are equally sacrosanct, we must not critique other cultures from an Enlightenment perspective; to each his own, and race is destiny, etc. (Which certainly validates the "alt-right," doesn’t it?) This failure was noted by neoconservatives some decades ago, a breach into which they stepped with a vigorous assertion of nationalism that should have had no place in our polity after the reconsiderations brought about by Vietnam and Watergate. But it happened, just as a perverted form of white patriotism arose to fulfill the vacuum left by liberal rationality because of the constraints of identity politics.

To conclude, identity politics — in all the forms it has shown up, from various localized nationalisms to more ambitious fascism — desires its adherents to present themselves in the most regressive, atavistic, primitive form possible. The kind of political communication identity politics thrives on is based on maximizing emotionalism and minimizing rationality. Therefore, the idea of law that arises when identity politics engenders a reaction is one that severs the natural bonds of community across differences (which is the most ironic yet predictable result of identity politics) and makes of the law an inhuman abstraction.

This depoliticization has gone on so long now, about 30 years, that breaking out of it is inconceivable, since the discourse to do so is no longer accessible. For anyone trained to think outside the confines of identity politics, those who operate within its principles — which manifests, for example, in call-out culture (or at least it did before Trump) — seem incomprehensible, and vice versa. We are different generations divided by unfathomable gaps, and there is no way to bridge them. The situation is like the indoctrination in Soviet Russia in the 1930s, so that only an economic catastrophe that lays waste to everything, resulting from imperial misadventures, can possibly break the logjam. Short of that, we are committed to the dire nihilism of identity politics for the duration of the imperial game.

By Anis Shivani