Terrance Heath

Identity Pluralism, Pt. 1

Filed By Terrance Heath | January 26, 2008 11:43 AM | comments

Filed in: Media, Politics, The Movement
Tags: Barack Obama, Hillary Rodham Clinton, identity politics, politics

I suppose it was inevitable. The race for the White House is about to go full tilt boogie, and of the candidates vying for the Democratic party's nomination one is an African American man and the other is a white woman. It was only a matter of time before we were due for another discussion of "identity politics," and this time some of it has been interesting.

Now, normally I'm skeptical when I hear someone bemoaning identity politics, because usually it's a white (heterosexual, christian, etc.) male who will, by the end of his spiel, want me to set aside some "identity-based" concern of commitment of mine for the sake of the common good. David Broder's column about the gender v. race dust up between Clinton and Obama is a good example. So, for that matter, is Andrew Sullivan's brief post.

But the most interesting has been Chris Bowers' recent posts about identity politics in the wake of Hillary Clinton's New Hampshire victory, because he doesn't so much complain about identity politics as attempt to come to terms with it, and begins to approach something I'm starting to think of as "identity pluralism."

I can't remember the first time heard the term "identity politics," but I'm pretty sure that it's something I was accused of engaging in, probably around the time I was in college and cutting my teeth as an activist on gay issues, and probably refused to support some candidate or another because of some anti-gay position on some issue or another. Even then I had to look it up, and I looked it up again upon reading Chris' post.

Not limited to activity in the traditionally conceived political sphere, identity politics refers to activism, politics, theorizing, and other similar activities based on the shared experiences of members of a specific social group (often relying on shared experiences of oppression). Groups who engage in identity politics include not only those organized around sexual and gender identities, but also around such identities as race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, and disability.

...The most important and revolutionary element of identity politics is the demand that oppressed groups be recognized not in spite of their differences but specifically because of their differences. Identity politics was an important, and perhaps necessary, precursor to the current emphasis on multiculturalism and diversity in American society.

Proponents of identity politics argue that those who do not share the identity and the life experiences that it brings to members of an oppressed group cannot understand what it means to live life as a person with that identity. That is, people who do not share a particular group identity cannot understand the specific terms of oppression and thus cannot find adequate solutions to the problems that members of the group face.

That definition reminded me of when I heard a lesbian activist say that it was important to have gay elected officials, because when policy decisions that impact the lives particular minorities, it's vital to have someone at the table. It's not that a straight, white, heterosexual male can't represent my interests, but more that a "place at the table" means that the perspective and experience of a particular group stands a better chance of being heard directly and less of a chance at getting lost in translation.

And it's the election that seems to prompt Bowers' musing in on identity politics, particularly his candidate's loss in the New Hampshire primary. (Which, I assume, means he's an Obama man.)

Now, I have been writing about the intersection between identity politics and elections for three years. In fact, it is one of my most frequent topics of discussion, as a glance at the demographics archive of both Open Left and MyDD will demonstrate. However, I admit that most of this discussion has been triumphalist, in that I argue demographic trends point to a nearly inevitable Democratic dominance over Republicans, and to a nearly inevitable progressive dominance over centrists in the Democratic Party. What I wasn't prepared for was to face electoral defeat in the Democratic primaries as a result of the identity scales tipping against my favorite candidates.

The problem I face is that it now seems to me that Clinton is positioned for victory in the Democratic primary because, as it is presently constructed, the identity politics coalitions within the Democratic primary electorate favor her. She has women, older voters, and lower income voters who are not African-American. Even though I had assumed otherwise, right now, it seems like that coalition can win a national Democratic primary against a coalition of African-Americans, young voters, seculars, and high education voters. As someone who falls primarily within the latter coalition, I admit it doesn't feel good when the identity politics are stacked against you. To put it a different way, I actually write about identity politics all the time, I just don't like when I am on the losing end of elections based on identity politics (which is, actually, almost all elections).

I'd add that Hillary also has quite a few gay voters (and donors) which is slightly mystifying, since her positions make her at least somewhat less gay friendly in terms of policy than the two candidates near her in the polls and primaries thus far.

It's worth noting that some groups are left out the coalition Bowers defines (naturally there's some overlap) is part of the source of "identity politics." (Of course, I'm talking about gays & lesbians, and will continue to raise that point.) As some groups are left out of the core of that coalition, some of the issues that concern those groups will become less of a priority for that coalition. And thus, even though they may experience some benefit from the accomplishment of the coalitions goals, they do not experience the full benefit because of issues that left off the table, or placed on the back burner.

Chris is also more than right about identity politics being an unavoidable factor in American politics. but I'll get to that later.

He closes with something that I think is part of the challenge Democrats face today.

Whoever wins this nomination will ultimately do so because s/he put together a larger, identity-based coalition. I wish that weren't the case, but I don't think there is a way to avoid it. If you support a candidate, and want to help him or her win the nomination, you would be wise to start thinking of ways to effectively connect that candidate to the identities of those voters with whom you come into contact. As far as I can tell, on both a micro and macro level, that is the key to the nomination.

That may very well be the case, at least with the Democratic party. Maybe that's because of the diversity of the Democratic coalition, something that is less of a factor for Republicans. Where Democrats have identity, Republican have ideology. That's not to say the Democrats are without ideology. The party may be viewed as an unstable amalgam of identity-based, "single issue" groups lumped together under a party banner because that party supports their issues more than the other, but not held together by much else. Of course many people are Democrats because of larger ideological beliefs, like what the role of government should be, etc.

The difference is that , whatever the fractures in the GOP coalition are, when the dust settles they have generally ended up marching to the same beat, and those ideological factions who don't get what they want that day are assured that they will down the line. Maybe that's because of an overarching ideology, for which there is no substitute on the identity end of the spectrum.

The challenge that Democrats face is that they've got come up with an attractive ideology that encompasses all the issues and identities of the party's diverse constituencies, and that reassures those constituencies of the party's commitment to each of their concerns even when energy and resources are focused elsewhere at present.

In other words, they have to connect the party and its candidates to the identities of people like me and Donnie McClurkin, for example, and somehow keep both of us in the coalition. I'm guessing that's the kind of pluralism Chris has in mind, and kind of what I mean by "identity pluralism."

That in and of itself would be difficult enough. But identity politics isn't just about people like me or McClurkin, or just about minorities. It's about everybody, really. However much we pretend it's not.

Crossposted from The Republic of T.


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Wouldn't it make more sense to do our government more European style - plenty of "parties" that have to come together and make alliances, etc.?

Michael Bedwell | January 26, 2008 6:59 PM

"since her positions make her at least somewhat less gay friendly in terms of policy than the two candidates near her in the polls and primaries thus far"

Positions plural? And those would be? The only "position" difference I've seen asserted pit her honesty about "states's rights" versus Edwards' and Obama's functionally same position—despite the "hat trick" Obama keeps distracting supporters with. If you're referring to that phony issue, then they are all EQUALLY not "gay friendly" though I also disaggree with how you apparently determine "gay friendliness."

Thanks.

I think that a way to move beyond an identity coalition is to embrace the ideological coalition that we already have that's centered around equality, maintaining a safety net, and protecting civil liberties.

The right does have ideological factions, but they work together well in general because they don't really step on each others' toes and they're all centered around maintaining privilege.

Hi Bil give a good centerist party and I will stop being a Repulican in a min and join them, but so far I haven't found any that are serious about electing candidates to office.