Getting identity politics right

By E.J. Dionne Jr.

Progressives have some intellectual and moral work to do. What are cast as political challenges to liberals and the left are also philosophical problems. Resolving them is essential to sorting out the tensions among the movement's goals and establishing its priorities.

It comes down to this: Whom do progressives think they're fighting for?

It's a question joined most pointedly in arguments over "identity politics." The debate itself is flawed because it's not clear what it means to be "for" or "against" identity politics. All politics is about identity in some way, since all of us think of ourselves as, well, something.

To use an example I am especially familiar with: I'm a reasonably well-off white male liberal who grew up in a middle-class family in a working-class city in Massachusetts where Catholicism and trade unions were important parts of life. I was born in the United States of French Canadian heritage. I'm a husband, a father and a baby boomer.

I was also inspired by teachers, friends and books. I'd love to claim these various intellectual and moral influences as the primary shapers of my worldview. But social scientists and psychologists would be quick to point out that I'd be lying if I pretended that my demographic background has had no effect on how I think.

This limited tour of my political psyche is the sort of exercise all of us can engage in. Such a reckoning is a commentary both on the limits of identity politics (we are all multiples of some kind) and on the limits of any argument for abandoning identity politics (we can never entirely divorce ourselves from who we are).

Disputes over the merits of identity politics are vexed because they are often seen as code for unstated claims or points of view. For example, calls for an end to identity politics are frequently (and reasonably) interpreted by African-Americans, Latinos, women and LGBTQ people as not-so-veiled attempts to make politics about straight white men again.

This alone makes the war on identity a non-starter among progressives and Democrats. One of liberalism's most noble commitments is to advancing the rights of minorities and those who have suffered discrimination. Contemporary progressives would lose their moral compass, not to mention a lot of votes, if they cast this mission aside.

But there is another strong, if fluid, identity at play in politics and social life: class. What many critics of identity politics are implying is that progressives have downplayed class politics to their own detriment and the country's. Moving away from a robust focus on the interests of working-class men and women of all races, this view holds, was a mistake on two levels. Liberals lost a rhetoric that can appeal across the divides of race, ethnicity and gender. And they moved away from an approach to politics and policy that would deal with one of the premier problems of our time: the rise of extraordinary inequalities of wealth and income.

On the left, the word "intersectionality" has gained popularity as it deals with the crosscutting effects of race, gender and class, and there is no doubt that progressive politics will, of necessity, be intersectional. But beyond buzz words, progressives must find a politics that links worker rights with civil rights, racial and gender justice with social justice more broadly. In the 2018 elections, Democrats found that an emphasis on health care, access to education and higher wages worked across many constituencies. A war on corruption targeting the power of monied elites holds similar promise. It was a start.

What all sides need to acknowledge is that identity politics is, of its nature, highly combustible. In his book "Modernity and Its Discontents," Yale political scientist Steven B. Smith offered this in an essay on the philosopher Isaiah Berlin: "Identities are not just things we have, they define who we are. We can compromise and balance interests. We cannot so easily adjudicate our identities."

This is important to bear in mind, because political coalitions and democratic nations alike require a degree of solidarity rooted in our willingness to uphold each other's rights - partly to protect our own rights but also to fashion a more just social order.

In grappling with the tensions entailed in identity politics, we can do worse than to remember Rabbi Hillel's celebrated observation: "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I?" Hillel was not a political consultant, but his balanced approach remains sound, electorally as well as morally.

E.J. Dionne is on Twitter: @EJDionne.

© 2018, Washington Post Writers Group

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