When those “desirables” are imperiled, we turn to identity politics, drawing attention to plights, problems and issues unique to an ignored, marginalized, oppressed, disenfranchised or otherwise nonintegrated segment of society.
We’ve all been participants in identity politics, at one time or another and to varying extents. The Irish (my hand is raised) in many instances came to this country as indentured servants. Our history isn’t quite so noble as we might wish, but we are ever-changing and evolving.
Witness the all-LGBTQ city council of Palm Springs, Calif.
Though the council is a triumph of gender identity — featuring one bisexual woman, one transgender woman and three gay men — its members reportedly are not exactly singing in harmony. And after a Latino civil rights group threatened a lawsuit last year, the council has changed the city’s electoral system to ensure greater diversity of other orders. The civil rights group was unhappy with the all-whiteness of the council.
You can see their point, which is not the same as saying the council members aren’t capable of making good decisions independent of their sexuality or race. But so goes identity politics: Everybody wants a seat at the table, and then somebody doesn’t like the table.
By some measures, Palm Springs represents the zenith of identity politics. Hey, hey, we’ve transcended sexual identification as a barrier to full societal participation! “Coming out” was crucial to the gay movement and, perhaps, it still is. Far more noteworthy, however, would be not knowing personal details, suggesting a truer transcendence, as well as respect for privacy — and, not least, one’s right not to know.
We know too well the proclivities of one Donald Trump, who surely represents the nadir of identity politics. His 2016 victory was sealed by his early recognition of identity anxiety on the right and the perception that whites were losing their place in the hierarchy of American society. Trump came, saw and conquered against all odds because he understood what Southern politicians have always understood — the collective id. His evil genius was in plumbing the depths of that id and liberating the latent bias there through his bigot-baiting gibes at Mexicans, Muslims and others.
To those involved in recent identity movements, such posturing by whites may seem ludicrous. The beneficiaries of white privilege, after all, don’t get to whine about injustice. Yet, as Caucasians see their numbers dwindling amid projections of their near-future minority status, they might well feel diminished or threatened. How one deals with those feelings is a function of many factors, but a great leader inspires the angels of our better selves rather than the demons of our basest instincts.
Obviously, Trump chose the latter path.
Today, we have sunk to a level of tribalism that would seem to pre-date the modern era. Will we soon divide ourselves into fiefdoms led by warlords? Virtually speaking, we already have. By seeking like-ideological company around Internet news sites and political watering holes, we sate our need for identity affirmation, rarely questioning whether there might be another way.
And so, we look toward 2020, where the line of Democratic candidates is already long. One thing seems obvious: The next president of the United States will need to start a movement, not merely run a campaign. He or she will have to make a stand against our divisions and those who profit by them. And we citizens need to use our votes to conquer the dividers. It’s time to set aside our differences and reimagine our American identity — as one nation, indivisible. This is the way we earn those earlier mentioned desirables — our worth, our national sense of self, our dignity, self-respect and that of others. And, yes, too, perhaps even the admiration of a world that prays we return to our senses.