When Amy Coney Barrett was sworn in as a Supreme Court justice, then-president Donald Trump said: “Tonight, Justice Barrett becomes not only the fifth woman to serve on our nation’s highest court, but the very first mother of school-aged children to become a Supreme Court justice. Very important.”
Trump knew what he was doing. In the final weeks of his reelection campaign, he was trying to appeal to women voters because Americans knew that his appointment of a conservative justice to replace the court’s feminist icon, the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg, could very well spell doom for Roe v. Wade. It was Trump’s cynical take on identity politics — that Barrett ought not be criticized for her views on abortion or women’s rights more broadly because she herself is a woman. And how could a woman on the Supreme Court be bad for gender equality?
But Barrett’s nomination was not necessarily an example of identity politics, or at least not what “identity politics” originally meant. A better term for what Trump was doing would be “elite capture.” That’s when powerful members of a society hijack political causes in order to prop up the status quo. In Barrett’s case, Trump was using identity politics and appropriating the language of feminist activists by noting the significance of the representation of women in an institution that has historically been dominated by men — even though Barrett’s presence on the court was a threat to what feminist activists have long been fighting for.
Trump is hardly the only person to use identity politics in this way. Democrats often do so, too. New York City’s mayor, Eric Adams, for example, held up his experience as a Black man and as a Black police officer as evidence that he was committed to ending racist policing, all while supporting practices, like stop-and-frisk, that have seriously hurt Black and brown communities.
Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò, a philosophy professor at Georgetown University, has written extensively about this phenomenon, most recently in a book titled “Elite Capture: How the Powerful Took Over Identity Politics (And Everything Else).” According to Táíwò, elite capture is neither new nor unique to the United States.
Indeed, across the world, powerful politicians have masked backward-looking movements with specious signs of progress.
In France, the far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen asked voters to imagine “a woman in the Élysée” in the run-up to the last election. In Italy, Giorgia Meloni, the leader of a party with neofascist roots, used her gender as a campaign talking point and is now poised to become the nation’s first woman prime minister — and the most far-right person to hold that office since Benito Mussolini. And in the United Kingdom, after Conservative Liz Truss ascended to become the country’s third woman prime minister, her predecessor Theresa May celebrated the occasion with a joke aimed at her liberal colleagues in which she facetiously asked Truss why she thinks “that all three female prime ministers have been Conservative.”
Never mind that these women support unjust wars, regressive tax cuts, and dangerous racist policies. To people like May, the mere act of putting a woman in a position of power is, on its own, proof that Conservatives are on the side of the marginalized, not the elites.
But the reality is that representation as a sign of progress — let alone a vehicle for change — has its limits, even in more liberal circles.
Take the historic elections of Barack Obama as America’s first Black president and Kamala Harris as the first woman, Black, and Indian American vice president. While their rise was “taken to be indicative or even constitutive of political progress for the marginalized communities that both of those figures come from,” Táíwò says, “the question is whether or not the machine that the Obamas and Harrises of the world end up sitting at some of the levers of serves the interests of people like them — and here I mean political elites, not Black people — or the broad interests of people in the United States and people in the United States’ sphere of influence, which is of course the entire planet.
“I think it would be a tall order to say in a significant way how things have improved for the people of the planet, and perhaps for Black people in particular, just thinking about those two specific examples as a result of their tenure as president and vice president,” he adds.
This is not to say that better representation at the highest levels of government never leads to progress or that it’s not meaningful. I think a victory like Obama’s or Harris’s is an important symbol — one that inherently empowers marginalized people by showing them that they, too, have a say in their country’s fate. It also reinforces the ideals of a multiethnic democracy.
I also believe, for example, that it was an undoubtedly good step for President Biden to appoint Deb Haaland as the first indigenous person to lead the Department of the Interior, which has a long history of undermining and breaking treaties with Native Americans. Surely there is some value in having an indigenous woman make decisions that affect tribal nations instead of, say, a white man who is probably far less attuned to the damage that agency has caused to indigenous communities.
Still, Táíwò argues that even an appointment like Haaland’s is unlikely to bring about the progress you might expect. “If we were placing bets, I would bet that, all other things being equal, representation is going to point in the direction of good things. But all other things are rarely equal,” he says. “It is also plausible that people who resemble the most oppressed occupying positions of power can be used by the broader system as a legitimating force.”
Regardless of whether there are some examples of representation having a net-positive impact, identity politics as a whole has fallen prey to elite capture. Because it’s not just a matter of bad-faith actors intentionally co-opting the language of social-justice movements in order to undermine them — as Trump did when he nominated Barrett. It’s also the well-intentioned people who get so wound up in identity-based politics that they end up stymieing coalitions rather than building them.
black lives matter, we’re glad you’re our neighbor, families belong together, SAY NO to an apartment building on my street pic.twitter.com/8HptGQv8n4— dan reed 🦀🏳️🌈👋🏾 (@justupthepike) June 8, 2019
“There’s a broader thing that happens in organizing spaces where people seem to think that in general, the right way to show up in support of a movement — in particular, a movement that is organized around an identity that one doesn’t themselves have — is to find somebody from that identity group and just in a very broad way kind of defer to their political judgment,” Táíwò says. But as well-intentioned as that may be, it still often leads to shutting out the most marginalized from the conversation.
That’s especially true in more academic circles because aristocracies tend to self-select: Powerful institutions are inclined to recruit people from financially privileged backgrounds because the pipelines to get to those institutions are generally very costly. There’s a reason, for example, that even though elite universities have improved racial diversity on their campuses, their students are still disproportionately wealthy, regardless of race. (Even when students of color do come from poorer backgrounds, they are still more likely to have come through some of America’s most exclusive prep schools.)
That’s why as more and more elite liberal institutions say that they want to diversify, it’s important to understand what they mean. Do they actually intend to break down barriers to entry for the poorest and most disadvantaged among us, or do they just want people to see more melanin in their brochures? The former requires meaningful change — a commitment to, among other things, empowering workers and recognizing unions, overhauling the education system, and actively partaking in wealth redistribution — while the latter means bringing aboard a few of the most privileged members of various marginalized groups and calling it a day.
It is clear that most institutions mean the latter. The outdoor gear retailer REI, for example, was “starting off their union-busting events with land acknowledgments,” Táíwò says, referring to the practice of recognizing the indigenous people who, before European colonization, lived on the land where a particular space now exists or an event is taking place. “But that is just the most egregious example of something that companies are getting more savvy at doing, which is portraying their opposition to unions and to workers as part of a broader commitment to justice on identity issues.”
That’s one of the latest manifestations of elite capture — and an ugly one at that. But throughout history and around the world, elites have always been primed to win. That’s in part because they, by definition, have many more resources to preserve their place in society than the people resisting them do. And it’s also because they’re nimble at hijacking political movements, whether it’s riding an anticolonial wave only to prop up a corrupt government or polluting a class struggle with the politics of racial resentment.
But while they may have all the advantages in the world, the rich and powerful can sometimes push their luck and draw meaningful resistance. And so the next time you hear a powerful person or institution talk about, say, the importance of diversity and representation, don’t take them at their word. Check their record and see what they’ve actually done.
Abdallah Fayyad is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @abdallah_fayyad.