CHELLMAN: Don’t abandon identity politics

Democrats are throwing the baby out with the bathwater by knee-jerking and unequivocally denouncing identity politics outright

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Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., says “It is not good enough for somebody to say, ‘I’m a woman, vote for me,’” so we must abandon womanhood and identity altogether. 

Courtesy Association V.A.A. via Youtube | Cavalier Daily

Criticizing identity politics is in vogue. Conservatives might concede that identity politics is well-intentioned, but they argue that it’s also critically misguided –– ignoring class and isolating Americans who feel forgotten by a nation careening toward a cosmopolitan future. Identity politics brought us President Donald Trump, they’d argue. Identity politics brought us Brexit, too, and brought white supremacists fuming to the University’s doorstep.

I don’t disagree that more and more of the country feels isolated by identity politics. Too often, however, I hear one of two uncomfortably similar solutions. The left suggests that the we remedy what Franklin Foer calls “the tensions between the cultural left and the economic left” by abandoning the cultural left altogether. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., says “It is not good enough for somebody to say, ‘I’m a woman, vote for me,’” so we must abandon womanhood and identity altogether. Focus on class, we’re told. Focus on reclaiming the voters who supported Barack Obama but rejected Hillary Clinton.

The right’s proposal is simpler. There is no “road less traveled” for Democrats to discover in order to return to prominence. The effort to advocate on behalf of America’s marginalized and disenfranchised was an exercise in self-immolation — lighting the party with a naive fervor for justice which has incinerated its opportunities for political victory.

I dismiss the latter argument as the over-eager effort of the conservative “pot” looking for a “kettle” to call black. The Republican party has every incentive to ignore its own festering wounds. The former argument simply demands more nuance. The choice between the cultural and economic left is a false dilemma which threatens to undermine all that is noble about American liberalism. It also misunderstands the “cultural left” as a movement for social change. The Democratic solution is not to focus on class as a new and solitary object of political interest. Rather, the solution is to incorporate class and other influences on the self into the sphere of identity-based advocacy. We must expand identity politics rather than abandon it. 

In “Identity and Violence,” Amartya Sen addresses the dangers of the “single-affiliation approach” to identity to which we so often default. We understand people as “gay” or “black” or “Muslim” and only as “gay” or “black” or “Muslim,” quarantining each group into an illusory isolation which encourages identity-based violence or discord. In reality, Sen argues, we live with a plurality of identities which make us more similar than different to our neighbors and fellow citizens. Sen understands the importance of social identity but rejects the vision of our nation as “a collection of sequestered segments.” In doing so, he reminds us of all the other ways in which we meaningfully identify.

Identity politics typically acknowledges identities like race, gender and sexuality as meaningful categories of experience which help us locate social problems. By addressing all those who identify similarly, we bring people of a common experience together and recognize that experience as meaningful for political action. But this strategy of collecting common experiences and addressing them through politics doesn’t need to be so limited. Why not address people’s geographic location through such a strategy? How about socioeconomic status or access to education or occupation? In some respects, the University is already leaning toward this broadening of group-based advocacy work. In the Minority Rights Coalition, typical identity-based advocacy according to race or religion is paired with that of United for Undergraduate Socioeconomic Diversity –– a contracted independent organization which brings students together according to socioeconomic status. 

The identities with which we live remain important influences on our social and political lives. Current controversies about identity politics threaten to abandon a salvageable strategy for social justice. Rather than ignoring identity in an effort to heal America’s political divisions, we should extend the strategy of identity politics to unify the cultural and economic left and acknowledge the full spectrum of experiences that influence our lives.

Jack Chellman is a Viewpoint writer. He can be reached at

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