House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) does not like identity politics. He said as much Thursday at an event in the Capitol and has made similar comments before.
At a Q&A with Jeff Mayers of Wisconsin political news site WisPolitics, Ryan said:
Twenty-first-century technology has proven that tribalism and identity politics is effective. More to the point, which is even worse, people make money off of it.
Internet, money has proven identity politics and tribalism works. It’s politically effective. It’s morally wrong, but it’s politically effective. What bothers me is it’s being practiced on both sides: the right and the left.
It’s not that surprising that Ryan criticized identity politics. For years — particularly those tea party years when Ryan began to climb the leadership ranks, Republicans criticized the concept of identity politics as a weapon that liberals use to stoke division. To them, highlighting what makes various groups of Americans different is a negative use of time in direct opposition to focusing on the things that unify Americans. Many of these groups seemed to do this without being aware of their own tribalism — or, at worst, being fully cognizant of it and, therefore, disingenuous in their assessment of identity politics.
As someone who writes and speaks about identity politics, I think Ryan’s take — that identity politics is “morally wrong” — is an overreaction to a reality from which he himself has benefited and, arguably, stoked.
I think identity politics is neutral. It is not good or bad. It just is.
According to Dictionary.com, identity politics is “political activity or movements based on or catering to the cultural, ethnic, gender, racial, religious, or social interests that characterize a group identity.”
Obviously, we can see how something like identity politics can be abused, and perhaps that is what Ryan is referring to, but just because something can be abused and manipulated does not make it inherently wrong.
The reality is that throughout American history, groups have had interests and even priorities based on their race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, age, class or another identifier that, at best, was not a significant concern for people outside of their group. At worst, groups became so concerned about what was in the best interest of their group that they seemed to have little concern for how their preferred policies affected those outside their group. But it doesn’t have to be that way. And, arguably, it is the role of leaders to help navigate these tribes away from their worst impulses and to appeal to their better angels.
Some would say that the tea party, a movement within conservatism that critics say Ryan encouraged, did just that, using tribalism and sometimes racism to advocate for ideas that groups outside of the movement found problematic. And many of those who joined the tea party went on to become some of Trump’s staunchest supporters, including at the leadership level (see: former Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) and many Fox News commentators).
And it is Trump who has so made a name tapping into the cultural anxieties of his base — a shrinking minority of the country, it has been suggested that his whole candidacy was built on playing into the identity politics of race. While it is not clear whether Ryan would go that far, he seems to be aware of the prevalence of racial identity politics within his own political party, which is perhaps why he has called out Trump in the past when the president has made racially insensitive remarks and also why Ryan’s takedowns of identity politics tend to include the GOP, something that is rare among Republican politicians.
But as Ryan winds down his final days in Congress, perhaps the best use of his time is not completely bemoaning identity politics but to challenge voters, including those who kept sending him to Washington, to consider others while considering themselves. Because given our current political climate, identity politics isn’t going anywhere.