The nature of ‘identity politics’

Thank you, Jacob T. Levy, for explaining why “identity politics,” that execrable term, didn’t cost Hilary Clinton the election:

Identity politics at its best, in other words, isn’t just a matter of being on some group’s side. It’s about fighting for political justice by drawing on the commitment that arises out of targeted injustice, and about having the intellectual resources to let us diagnose that targeted injustice. It lets us spot the majority group’s identity politics rather than treating it as the normal background state of affairs, and to recognize the oppression and injustice that it generates.

By all means, we should criticize identity politics when it goes wrong, as it often does in moments of symbolic, cultural, and campus politics. But there’s no source of political energy and ideas that doesn’t sometimes go wrong; goodness knows that a commitment to abstract philosophical principles often does. But a revitalized liberalism must be a vital liberalism, one with energy and enthusiasm. The defense of liberal principles—freedom of speech and religion, the rule of law and due process, commerce and markets, and so on—has to happen at least in part in the political arena.

Far from being discrete zones of occasionally intersecting enthusiasms, my politics and my identity are a praxis, defining my voting patterns, choice of profession, and hair style. No one asks white men to separate their biases and privileges from their voting habits, for not only would it be impossible but it’s who they are. Even when voting to strike down miscegenation laws or, say, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, always I get a sense that an elected official who is an ostensible ally is tapping his – usually his – foot and glancing at his watch, quashing an instinct to blurt, “OK, you got this done, let’s move on to more important things.”

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