Since the election of Donald Trump, scholars and pundits have been debating the causes of his unexpected victory. While the obvious suspects – racism and sexism – get their due, some critics – even in progressive circles – have argued identity politics led to both the election of Trump and the rise of white nationalism. In a recent article, Anis Shivani, has gone so far as to argue, “Identity politics is in fact the father, or the Great Mother, of white nationalism, rather than white nationalism being an independent force that has arisen from quite different sources.”
Since identity politics is a concept mostly discussed in ivory towers, let me summarize its meaning. Identity politics is usually defined as the formation of political alliances around a particular gender, race, social or religious background. In other words, groups of people organize together based on common characteristics and challenges rather than broad philosophical and political positions. Instead of being for political ideals like economic opportunity, they become focused on economic opportunity for women, or people of color, or the LGBTQ.
In the present debate, Democrats have been criticized for building a party of such alliances – blacks, feminists, Muslims, Latinos, LGBTQ, transgender – and abandoning a broader commitment to justice, equality and economic opportunity FOR ALL. According to this critique, by abandoning these broader commitments, the Democrats betrayed struggling white people who had no option but to turn to Trump for relief. Or, to state this critique more bluntly, black people and their like are to blame for Trump and white nationalism. They had it coming.
If this seems absurd, remember this is a classic and highly successful trope. If unarmed black men weren’t so threatening, police wouldn’t shoot them. If women didn’t dress so provocatively, men wouldn’t rape them. If Muslims didn’t wear scarves and speak Arabic, people wouldn’t be frightened of them. If LGBTQ people would have remained in the closet, people wouldn’t harass them. In this formulation, the normative person – most often defined as white male – is actually the victim of some offense by the non-normative person and a response is justified. White people had no choice but to vote for Trump. He was the only one inviting them to the table.
Of course, to argue such nonsense requires a significant rewriting of American history. First, white nationalism did not begin in the 1970s when marginalized people began to create alliances. White nationalism was enshrined in our constitution when it upheld slavery and claimed black people were 3/5 of a human. Trump and his like are simply the most recent manifestation of a long history of white supremacy movements. While they certainly see identity politics as a threat to their power, it is hardly the cause of their existence.
Second, our nation has always been built on identity politics. To suggest identity politics is some kind of new and aberrant development is to completely misunderstand political history. The Republican Party is as committed to identity politics as the Democrats. They have simply aligned themselves most closely with the single identity that has ruled our nation for so long – white men. The problem is, that where other identity groups are fighting for rights, white identity politics has always been about reserving advantages for white people.
Finally, to argue that Trump was appealing to whites who felt excluded from the political and economic decision tables misunderstands the last fifty years. Until the Civil Rights Act of 1964, only one group of people was allowed at the decision tables – white men. All other groups either meet in dark closets or organized their own clandestine and informal tables. Women had auxiliary organizations. Blacks organized their churches and communities understanding their power ended as soon as they walked into white society.
In 1964, while the laws of the land changed, white men did not. White men continued to defend their seats at the head of decision tables. Women and people of color were grudgingly offered seats at the foot of the table, where they were last served and seldom heard. Other marginalized groups – gays, non-Christians, atheists – were allowed at the table as long as they hid their identity. Gradually, many women and minorities grew frustrated with this tokenism and left the table. Thus emerged the identity politics of today, where people other than white men organized to seek status, rights and benefits that had been exclusively white and male.
For this reason, it is the height of hypocrisy, for white men to suddenly criticize people sitting at other tables for a lack of unity and for the political tensions today. The problem in America is NOT that white men are being excluded from decision making and forced to align with someone like Trump. The threat to our democracy is from white men who would prefer a white male autocracy to real democracy. They loved a democracy that wasn’t, a democracy where only their votes counted.
Identity politics is not to blame for our present divisiveness. It is not an abandonment of our deepest shared values. Indeed, it is precisely the opposite. Identity politics is the recognition that our nation is only truly democratic when every type of American has an equal seat at a round table, that justice, equality and opportunity are not gifts to be bestowed by white men. They are rights to be demanded by all people. Identity politics deeply values one of our most basic beliefs, that all people – not solely white men – deserve equal access and opportunity.
The solution to our present crisis is not to demand identity groups disband and return to broader and more traditional tables. They know what those tables look like and will rightly reject them. Nor is the solution in placating angry and resentful white men. If anyone is to blame for our present divisions, it is them. They had this coming. If they truly want people to return to their tables, they must first acknowledge that the system has been rigged by them. As long as white men play the victim, the truly victimized will not want to sit with them.
If white men truly believe identity politics is counterproductive to our society, they can easily demonstrate this conviction. Instead of resisting every attempt by marginalized groups to level the playing field, they could make it their mission to eliminate unfair advantages for white people in our political and economic system. If they truly want justice and economic equality FOR ALL, demonstrate that commitment.
Unfortunately, the Trump administration and its supporters have made is exceedingly evident that this was and is not their desire. They yearn for a day before other identity groups were organized, when America systemically excluded those who were not white and male. For this reason, the marginalized must continue to identify their challenges and organize in opposition. Sadly, for the foreseeable future, identity politics is not a detriment to democracy, but its best hope.