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Identity politics is a game the left can’t win

Dividing up a coalition into an endless number of minority groups and putting them on a hierarchy of suffering is no way to create the solidarity required for real change.

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Though the term “identity politics” is typically hurled against progressives, in the 21st century the right plays identity politics just as much as the left. Indeed, today’s conservatism seems to have little else than identity politics, a politics of pure resentment, disdaining one imagined identity (the stereotypical “woke” liberal, overeducated, sanctimonious, hypocritical, and ignorant) and lionizing another (the all-American, proudly provincial, gun-toting, flag-waving defender of traditional values). Right-wing media has precious little to do with policy these days, as the right’s biggest stars achieve that status merely by goring the proper ox — defining the most over-the-top liberal stereotype and skewering it, again and again, creating a kind of anti-politics.

Meanwhile, Republican politicians use this form of identity politics to win elections and then, when in power, fight for deregulation and lower taxes on corporations, a policy agenda that’s not even popular among their own voters. As liberals have been pointing out for decades, “white rural patriotic Christian” is an identity, no less so than any of those that progressives champion, and the fact that those who hold that identity imagine themselves to simply function as the default is precisely what members of disadvantaged groups must organize against.

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The trouble is that while calling out the right for its identity politics is a clever rejoinder to conservative rhetoric, it doesn’t change the underlying political context, which is that the right is better able to utilize identity politics than the left. The first reason for this is a matter of bare math: Though the United States has been diversifying steadily over the past century, 70 percent of the electorate remains white, and the inherent undemocratic aspects of the Electoral College and Senate further this advantage. The country has been growing steadily more college educated over time, and the college-educated are heavily left-leaning, but it remains the case that less than 40 percent of American adults have a college degree.

Most worryingly at all, the assumption that a browner United States is necessarily a more liberal United States has recently come into question. Among others, Ruy Texeira, a political scientist who was one of the first to predict that growing racial diversity in the United States would lead to an enduring Democratic majority, sounded the alarm after the 2020 election and pointed out that Hispanic and Asian voters were not following the script. “Hispanic Voters Are Normie Voters,” read one of his headlines. (Even Black men broke toward Trump in greater numbers in 2020 than they had in 2016, though the overall number of Black Trump voters remained small.) What all of this means is that if liberals are playing identity politics with smaller and smaller niches, and conservatives are playing identity politics with white voters without college degrees, the basic electoral math doesn’t look great for Democrats.

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But the problem is deeper. A large element of the left’s intellectual and philosophical development in the past century has been to attack traditional grand narratives like “the American way” or the Enlightenment project or the superiority of a rights-based vision of human flourishing. And it’s not difficult to see why a movement focused on securing the rights of oppressed groups might adopt such cynicism about these traditional narratives: They have conspicuously failed to defend the rights of minorities even when they embrace such a defense in the abstract. The trouble is that you have to have something to rally people around, an idea, a symbol, a code, and the left has proven consistently incapable of coalescing around such a vision.

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This is especially problematic if you have already divided up your coalition into an endless number of identity groups and put them on a hierarchy of suffering. The contemporary left of center essentially tells potential converts that they are only the demographic groups they belong to and that these groups define their politics (despite, to pick a salient example, the rise of the Hispanic Republican), and that the larger ideals and institutions that we might sacrifice for are merely fictions told by power. Left-leaning people and groups don’t want to appeal to patriotism or capitalism or the American way, and I certainly share that distaste. But they also want to constantly fixate on difference rather than shared need, leaving them without a clear sense of what to appeal to when addressing the American people, perhaps except for the abstraction of social justice. What, in 2023, is the Democratic Party’s version of “God, King, and Country”?

Everyone worries about money

I sometimes think about Hillary Clinton’s official campaign slogan from 2016, “Stronger Together.” This is good politics — it emphasizes the group over the individual, de-emphasizing the candidate relative to her party and supporters, which is especially savvy when that candidate has always been divisive. But of course few people remember this official slogan, as far more prevalent was another — “I’m With Her.” This turns the official slogan on its head and emphasizes the specific candidate over the masses, raises gender issues above common cause, and sounds narcissistic. In the end, the 2016 campaign became a referendum on the establishment, with Clinton serving as its perfect avatar, a consummate insider running on celebrity glitz and glamour in a period when the country was wracked with economic anxiety. Absent any compelling vision of something greater to fight for, the Hillary Clinton campaign was left with only Hillary, who fairly or not was one of the most unpopular politicians in the history of public polling. And this dynamic dogs the left today: Defined by our lists of oppressive -isms, given to endless complaints about everything that’s wrong with the world, we are far less able to define a positive vision of what exactly we’re fighting for and why the world we want is better than the alternative. Surely the right’s anti-politics is worse, but as we busily undermine faith, national identity, and all other ways human beings create meaning, we risk standing for nothing and thus losing everything.

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A rally for Clinton at Wellesley College in 2016.Barry Chin

If conservatives can continue to base their fundamental message on God, country, and traditional ways of life, even as their worship of Trump functions as a repudiation of such traditionalism, how can the left rally its many distinct parts together to win power and achieve social change? Through class politics, of course — through the universalizing power of class politics and the plain truth that the interests of the moneyed few are antagonistic toward those of the rest of us.

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In Jacobin, frequently referred to as America’s premier socialist journal, Paul Heidemann wrote in 2019 that “the socialist theory of class says a lot. What it doesn’t say, however, is that other forms of oppression don’t matter.” This commonsense notion of “both/and” arguments about class oppression and other forms, as opposed to a facile desire to rank human miseries and the injustices that cause them, seems so obvious that it’s remarkable that progressive spaces are so often wracked with infighting over whose oppression is the worst. If we ever are to take power, we will have to do so as a coherent and cohesive movement, and I believe the only way to achieve that internal consistency is through appeals to socioeconomic class, based on the simple logic that all people worry about money.

We should of course want to cultivate the moral imagination, by which I mean the capacity to think about the suffering of groups we do not belong to, recognize the injustice they face, and resolve to work to end that injustice. But as I said above, politics is the art of self-interest. The foundation of left politics lies in the belief that the politics of personal interest develops into class politics, when people are free of self-delusion. And they develop that way because a self-interested person, if free from the myopia that Karl Marx called false consciousness — the delusion that one controls their own fate and will one day become one of the wealthy masters of the universe — will inevitably come to understand that the only way to win the battle against exploitation is for all of the exploited to band together and fight it en masse.

The question thus becomes, What form of exploitation do the most possible people face? And the obvious answer there is socioeconomic hardship. We can’t rally people around the needs of racial groups when there are several such groups in our society, particularly given that a majority of the largest among them seems firmly ensconced in the Republican Party. We can’t rally people based on gender when society is split about halfway down the middle between cisgender men and women, with the various other gender identities numerically tiny. We can’t rally people around sexual orientation when we don’t all share the same sexual orientation, especially given the way that gay identity has ceased to be a politically live issue in and of itself since the legalization of gay marriage. I’m not talking about our priorities and policies as a winning coalition, which will necessarily concern itself with the injustices heaped on minorities, but rather about our fundamental appeal to all people. You can’t build unity by fixating on difference; it’s nonsensical. Instead, you say, “I am not like you, in some important ways, but you and I recognize that we have common cause, and if we can work together we can make the world freer and fairer for both us.” This is the fundamental appeal of all true left politics.

Though the United States is the most economically powerful country on earth, public polling reveals a country full of people who feel economically insecure, who can’t cover the cost of minor emergencies, who think the economy and the country are headed in the wrong direction. Even when majorities respond to such polls positively, the existence of large minorities who are underpaid, unsatisfied, or afraid can be used to stoke the basic human desire for fairness. We don’t need to exaggerate the number of people living in poverty to convince the electorate that any number is too high, nor do we need to pretend that everyone is unhappy at work to make the argument that the workplace is a site of exploitation and dissatisfaction.

It’s worth pointing out that the basic American partisan political situation has been, for decades now, that Democrats have more popular economic policies but less popular social views, while Republicans prefer unpopular economic policies that favor the wealthy but effectively leverage the divisiveness of Democratic cultural issues to win. George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” was at its heart a Republican appeal to economic justice, and while he did not govern compassionately he was able to lead the GOP out of the hard-right economic politics of Reaganism and back into the White House (albeit while losing the popular vote). Donald Trump’s economic populism proved to be almost entirely empty, and his signature legislation as president was (of course) a tax cut for the rich. But by promising not to touch Medicare and Social Security, which failed vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan had constantly threatened to do, Trump helped make himself viable in purple states like Wisconsin and Michigan, which won him the presidency. Meanwhile his opponent appeared to hurt her chances by failing to emphasize the economic populism of her agenda in favor of broad waves to the identity politics endorsed by our chattering classes. Republicans know better than to emphasize their unpopular obsession with cutting taxes on the wealthy, and yet Democrats seem determined to campaign in ways better suited to inspiring positive op-eds in The New York Times than to earning votes. The popular economically populist agenda of the Democrats can inspire, as seen in the Bernie Sanders campaigns, but Democratic fealty to “the groups” — the nonprofits and foundations that hire overeducated young staffers who write position papers and lobby — seems to chain them to unpopular identity rhetoric.

Self-imposed segregation

There is no contradiction between a strategy of emphasizing shared economic need and protecting minority rights. And the idea is not at all to abandon social issues entirely but to pay careful attention to how they are framed and discussed. Immigration, for example, is a polarizing issue in American life, and polling on broad amnesties or large increases in total immigration typically shows steep resistance, even among traditional liberal constituencies. But more nuanced questions about topics like legal paths to citizenship for those already here tend to poll better, suggesting that the public is at least somewhat receptive on this issue.

On abortion, the questions of framing and narrative are hugely important. Most Americans believe in a legal right to abortion, but the question is susceptible to framing and often turns on in which week of pregnancy abortions might take place. With the 2022 overturning of the Roe v. Wade decision in the Supreme Court and the subsequent criminalization of abortion in several states, our need to advocate strategically as well as angrily has only grown. The famous dictum that abortion should be safe, legal, and rare has attracted a good deal of ire from feminist activists, and in a vacuum I agree; my preference for abortion is that it be safe, legal, and accessed as often as women need to access it. But I recognize that my position is not shared by most of my fellow voters, and an insistence on abortion without apology, rather than a strategic focus on unfettered abortion access, is unlikely to be a political winner. We should want to be moderate and careful in our appeals about the issue while staunchly defending abortion access in practice. After all, if Democrats appearing to be extremists about abortion results in a Republican taking office, then abortion rights will be threatened far beyond any restrictions liberals might agree to on the campaign trail. And the most effective way to defuse such radioactive social issues is by returning the conversation to basic pocketbook issues of economic policy, where the left of center has an advantage.

Finally, I must simply assert something, a point of view I won’t try to justify with empirical evidence but that I believe both I and most of you reading this believe: Most people want to come together across difference for the good of all, rather than to be divided into smaller and smaller slices based on identity categories they don’t control. Over the past several years, American progressives have begun to reinstitute a pernicious form of segregation. Sometimes this segregation is literal, as when they form those “affinity groups” at school or work, where people are separated out into groups of Black or Hispanic or Asian or gay or trans or disabled or other. This segregation (which is the only honest term for it) is meant to make the members of these groups comfortable. But the very concept is inimical to solidarity, the most basic means and end of left politics. Solidarity requires that we see common humanity, that we recognize shared struggle, that we look at the suffering of another and imagine ourselves in their position and are thus moved to work for better for them. However noble the intent of intersectional politics may be, by fixating relentlessly on the need to stress difference, those who practice this are undermining the capacity for the only tool that might relieve those very oppressions they decry: people power, the formation of a mass movement.

As the American sociologist and left activist Todd Gitlin once wrote, “if there is no people, only peoples, there is no left.”

Fredrik deBoer is an author in New York. This essay was excerpted with permission from his forthcoming book “How Elites Ate the Social Justice Movement,” to be published by Simon & Schuster. Copyright © 2023 by Fredrik deBoer.