The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion In defense of identity politics

Demonstrators rally near Trump Tower after marching through downtown protesting President-Elect Donald Trump on Nov. 19 in Chicago.  (Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Placeholder while article actions load

We’re nearly a month past Election Day, yet many on the left are still trying to figure out how Hillary Clinton could have possibly lost the presidency to Donald Trump. The cycle of grief has moved from denial to anger — self-flagellation, in many cases — as liberals scrutinize beliefs previously held dear in order to single out whichever one proved so damnably traitorous.

The most common suspect? “Identity politics.” Clinton lost, and liberals are failing more broadly, because they relied too heavily on narrow appeals. Rather than reaching out to broader segments of the electorate, this argument goes, Democrats spent far too much time currying favor with interest groups: women, minorities and LGBT voters, to name a few. This line of thinking has also been extended to explain the growth of the white nationalist alt-right — in this interpretation, these are simply people fed up with being sidelined by this flowering of “identity politics” who have decided in turn to assert an identity of their own, however repugnant.

The proposed solution, at least from some camps: Quit with this “fixation” on diversity. Abandon appeals to identity and focus on some larger vision, values that all Americans can agree on. Difference is fine, but let’s hold off on the marginal issues for now. Rather than thinking about things that might divide us, let’s join hands and proclaim that All Identities Matter — or maybe that none do.

It’s understandable why the identity-politics explanation for failure — and its attendant solution — is so attractive. So many of us are still flummoxed by Trump’s win, an abrupt bend in the path toward a delightfully progressive future. It would be comforting to blame this unpleasant surprise on a single political miscalculation. Not just coincidentally, the fact that this particular miscalculation could be dispensed with minimal cost to the majority makes it all the more attractive as a scapegoat.

Follow Christine Emba's opinionsFollow

Identity politics are for people who are defined by their identities, this dismissal goes. America should be bigger than that. Perhaps, but those defined by their identities are Americans too.

It’s not so shocking that questions of identity are important to those whose identity shapes — often negatively — the way they are allowed to move through the world and pursue the values that identity’s detractors would urge us to focus on instead. If African Americans find it disproportionately difficult to take advantage of liberal promises of life, freedom and economic opportunity because of their identity, it stands to reason that identity remains a concern. And while not all Americans can relate, this doesn’t make black people’s concerns false, or less worthy of urgent conversation. The same can be said for women, immigrants and LGBT Americans.

In fact, those arguing for a diminishing of questions of identity in political discussion are asking those who don’t share their privileged position to wait their turn, as though justice delayed isn’t still justice denied. Citizens for whom race, gender, sexuality or even religion are important are encouraged to work within and thereby prop up a system that doesn’t serve their needs, assuming that solutions will eventually arrive quietly and trickle down despite decades of evidence to the contrary.

It’s a familiar pitting of practicality against idealism, in a system where pathways and outcomes remain skewed. What is the best approach to making sure the promises of liberalism are available to all: staying within the established system, one that still tends to benefit white American males, in hopes that appealing to their broader interests will eventually produce results for others? Or focusing first on those whose identities don’t quite fit the mainstream, with the risk of alienating a still powerful establishment? (Doing so may well lead to backlash and a stalling of progress overall — shown most clearly by the surprising rise of Trump.)

In the end, the current back-and-forth over whether concerns of identity are overrepresented or are more essential than ever brings into sharp relief liberalism’s necessary balancing act among varying groups’ concerns. It’s one that will need to be renegotiated constantly and carefully as the United States grows more diverse and its citizens grow more vocal, and as those who were previously unaffected by the concerns facing those in minority groups find those concerns occasionally taking precedence over their own.

In a better world, these shifts wouldn’t be controversial or even necessary. And it’s tempting to idealize America as a sort of happy melting pot, where difference is easily subsumed under citizenship and we all support each other’s goals. But politics has never functioned this way, and certainly not in the United States. In fact, what should we call the renewed focus on the white working-class male but an example of identity politics in action, and one seen as legitimate? To pretend today that the pathway to a better republic is simply to ignore the concerns of certain identity groups is naive, and churlish in its attempt to place the blame for a particular failure on the shoulders of a few.

From our country’s founding, groups have competed for influence and championed their own concerns, often to our great benefit. While we may hope to get to a place where the arguments against identity politics outweigh the arguments for them, we’re not there yet.