London, United Kingdom: “Us” versus “Them.”
This is turning out to be a common theme in politics nowadays, from the United Kingdom’s Brexit to the rise of strongmen leaders in Asia, and the election of Donald Trump in the United States. The current buzzword used to explain this phenomenon? Identity politics.
But what is ‘Identity Politics’?
The Washington Examiner offers a definition: “Identity politics is the syndrome in which people’s beliefs and interests are assumed to be determined by their membership in groups, particularly their sex, race, sexual orientation, and disability status.”
This refers to women who are automatically tagged as feminists, black people who are seen to actively promote #BlackLivesMatter and so forth. Another definition emphasizes that identity politics is also about having a particular group actively opposing those belonging to a different identity. It is from this definition that the “white versus black,” “Muslims versus non-Muslims,” “straight versus gays” dichotomies emanate from.
The way that identity politics is being branded is also making it seem divisive. In fact, James Traub in his piece for The Atlantic argued that the downfall of the Democratic Party and the rise of U.S. President Donald Trump is because of the Democrats’ historical championing of racial justice. He writes: “Thanks to Humphrey [Former U.S. Vice President Hubert Humphrey] and the ADA [Americans for Democratic Action], the Democrats had done something even more dangerous than they understood: They had exchanged a politics of self-interest for a politics of moral commitment.”
Traub was referring to Humphrey’s endorsement of a platform of civil rights in 1948, amidst the objections of conservatives and the whites. This analysis of Traub is not unique to him, however. The Vox reports that there is now a political narrative in the United States which espouses the idea that “the party’s commitment to racial equality has alienated it from the white working and middle classes” resulting in a “party of minorities, the marginalized, and their young and elite liberal patrons.”
Related Post: Technically Correct: False Narratives of the Far Right
But divisiveness is the opposite of what identity politics hoped to achieve from the outset. In the U.S., the advocacy for racial justice in the 1930s and 40s came from the people themselves — from the farm workers, domestic workers, African Americans, labor unions, among others. The push was for addressing structural issues that led to disadvantageous and exploitative conditions. It was not a push for their own agenda but for equality for all. The Guardian’s report emphasizes: “Fifty years ago, the rhetoric of pro-civil rights, Great Society liberals was, in its dominant voices, expressly group transcending, framed in the language of national unity and equal opportunity.”
In fact, one of the great champions for civil rights, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered a landmark speech in which he said:
“When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men – yes, black men as well as white men – would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Decades after King’s speech, U.S. President Barack Obama, the first black American president, declared: “There’s not a black America and a white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America.”
So how did identity politics transform from a politics of inclusivity to that of division?
Here’s a rundown of the key drivers:
- There is currently a pushback from conservatives and the groups who feel that they have been marginalized by identity politics and who think that it undermines social unity and the collective. This can perhaps be explained by the rise in power of Trump and his supporters. Some argue that Trump’s victory is due to his appeal to white identity politics. This is supported by an ANES study of electoral voting in which 81 percent of those polled in January 2016 noted that “their identity as whites are extremely important.” This is also the reason why Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric; statements and tweets regarding the Mexico wall and the immigration issues are a hit among his followers. What is dangerous about all of this, is the perpetuation of the “us versus them” narrative which has been pushed by Trump even prior to his election.
- For those marginalized groups that have historically pushed identity politics, there is a disillusionment brought about by and has been identified as the “stubborn persistence of racial inequality.” This means that even post-Obama, there has been little progress in the status quo. This is what has led to movements such as #BlackLivesMatter. Individuals disillusioned by identity politics have further retreated to tribalism and invoked exclusivity.
- While social media inarguably fuels connectivity and a sense of digital community, it also brings with it the worrying aspects of human nature, foremost of which is online discrimination and what is referred to as a “call out culture” where alleged ‘perpetrators’ are shamed and denounced. In fact, debates and arguments on social media over identities can be so vicious that it oftentimes overpowers the good that the platform can bring. Social media has also become a tool for spreading divisiveness and hate, due to differences in political views. What’s more, it’s even being used by politicians and interest groups to fuel partisanship. Scientific American found that there are misinformation networks made up of social media accounts and bots whose aim is to spread falsehoods and spark disagreements.
Impacts of Identity Politics
The impacts of identity politics have spread the world over. Across the pond, in the United Kingdom, the Brexit referendum has revealed the deep political divides. In the Philippines, there is a perception that if you are not pro-administration, you are a “dilawan”, or yellow, a derogatory term used to refer to allies of the past administration. In the United States, it is Trump himself who is seen to be championing the us versus them divide.
Given the many layers now surrounding identity politics, it seems impossible to go back to what it was before. But it’s important to understand that ALL politics are linked to identities. Recognition, acknowledgement and acceptance of each other’s political opinions and positions are important in order to be able to move forward.
What do you think about identity politics? Does it help or hinder political progress? Have you ever been the target or in the crossfire? Feel free to share.