What is Identity Politics?
I think Jordan Peterson was the first person who I heard use the term identity politics and he seemed convinced that it was a negative influence in society. As it goes with many things Peterson says, I found his use of that language confusing and unclear. Ever since, I’ve refrained from using it myself because I have, until only recently, found the term impossible to define.
I’ve heard both Ta-Nehisi Coates and Robin DiAngelo refer to identity politics as a non-issue. Coates said in a talk several years ago that “all politics are identity politics,” and he gave the example of senior citizens who vote based on a candidate’s stance on Medicare. DiAngelo opens her book, White Fragility, by referring to the women’s suffrage movement as an example of identity politics. What’s wrong with that? She wonders on the first page.
Their comments are in line with a very technical definition like the one given in the dictionay: a tendency for people of a particular religion, race, social background, etc., to form exclusive political alliances, moving away from traditional broad-based party politics. But that definition doesn’t show us why the term is often used so pejoratively.
Whereas Coates and DiAngelo are dismissive, I believe I can offer a definition that can make sense to people on either side of the culture war and to those who don’t feel they have chosen a side at all.
Identity politics is what is played out when non-political aspects of society are politicized in order to improve the status of a particular identity group, or when equality before the law is diminished in order to achieve that same goal.
It is the over politicization of society and the diminishing of the value of equality that concerns people who raise objections.
I think affirmative action would one of the most straightforward examples of identity politics. It takes a non-political aspect of life, namely college admissions, and imposes political considerations onto it. Why do I call those considerations political? Because they involve the transfer of power (or status) from one group to another, as mandated by the state. Whether that transfer actually happens as a result of the policy, or whether it’s right to transfer power in that way, are open questions for my purposes here. The point is, identity-based power transfer is the idea.
Another example might be criticizing fields of academic study, like the sciences, for not having an equal number of women as men. Now notice that this consideration is fundamentally different from DiAngelo’s female suffrage example. In that example, women were being excluded by the force of law from full participation in the democratic process. That struggle was inherently political, and involved giving women nothing more than equal access to government, i.e. equality before the law.
But in order to change the ratio of women to men in an academic field, there would have to be an actual power transfer that went far beyond simply giving women equal access to entry. That’s because currently there are no policies at the institutional level that prohibit women from having said access. Thus, rectifying this imbalance would require the politicization of a non-political area of life. That could have side affects such as reducing an institution’s freedom of association or forcibly excluding some qualified applicants because they happen to be male, i.e. a diminishing of equality before the law.
So we can see that identity politics is different from other forms of political action because in politicizing the non-political it introduces the coercive power of the state in matters where people would otherwise be free choose for themselves.
This is concerning to centrists, conservatives, and even left-of-center liberals because power struggles have a way of tearing at our social fabric. There is an additional philosophical problem with assuming that disparities are automatically the result of the discrimination, either systemic or overt. This way of thinking has been criticized by some as a “racism/sexism of the gaps” argument. This is particularly significant to identity politics opponents because if disparities are due to things other than discrimination, attempts to eliminate them can only succeed by shaving away freedom of choice and equality before the law, resulting perhaps in a slippery slope to tyranny.
Author Rod Dreher makes this claim. What he calls “soft totalitarianism” can be thought of as the politicization of every aspect of society. If disparities between groups or slights against groups, are reflexively assumed to be grave injustices that justify state intervention or power transfer, then there can be little room for freedom of choice anywhere in society. Such a reality would be similar to a theocracy, only the prevailing religion would not be Christianity or Islam, but the one true faith of Social Justice.
Freedom of speech, of thought, of association, of religion, along with equality before the law, even rational debate/inquiry would all bend the knee to the new supreme values of diversity, equity, and inclusion, just as they seem to be doing on university campuses where free speech is a a mere right wing buzzword and #shutdownSTEM is every bit as popular a slogan as #abolishthepolice.
That possibility is what identity politics opponents are genuinely afraid of.