Identity Politics: Stephanie Zvan

Welcome to Identity Politics week! This week, I plan to have posts every day about identity politics, featuring both sides of the divide. At the end of it all, hopefully everyone will be clear why I think identity politics is a really, really bad idea, for both sides, and why we really, really, have to get past it.

I’ll start with a post by Stephanie Zvan arguing against the left abandoning identity politics. She starts by trying to set up to argue against the “strawman” definition of identity politics:

So, strawman identity politics. This is the Bernie Sanders et al version, in which representation is happening for its own sake regardless of positions on issues. Since no one in the Democratic Party is saying Sarah Palin or Carly Fiorina should be in office, and since many people stop being impressed with Tulsi Gabbard when they know her positions, we know this is a strawman, but let’s pretend it’s not.

Which really is indeed a strawman … of her opponents’ position. No one is arguing that identity politics means that any candidate will be chosen regardless of their views. There certainly will be positions and views that they could hold that would disqualify them from consideration. But the idea is that in general their “identity” will at a minimum be considered more important than the opponents feel is proper in determining who gets what positions. If we look at the specific Sanders case, the idea would be that the Democrats found Clinton’s gender and the possibility of electing the first woman president and appealing to diversity more important that their actual positions, as Clinton was far too conservative and had far too many skeletons in her closet to be the best candidate, and Sanders might have been promoting better ideas and getting castigated for it. For example, Sanders’ view that we should address poverty itself and by doing that improve the lot of black people is the anti-thesis of identity politics … but seems like something that might work, and certainly sounds like a better argument. There is no reason to white people to oppose trying to alleviate poverty in general, but trying to alleviate poverty specifically for black people might raise some eyebrows. The counter is that racism itself is a major factor, and Sanders’ identity-neutral approach might end up ignoring that and so not really work. But there’s certainly a debate to be had here over whether one should appeal to specific identities — ie blacks and women specifically should be appealed to — or to generalities when one plays politics.

Zvan, after completely ignoring her opponents’ case, now tries to say what it would really mean:

That leaves us with a choice to apply more rigid standards to candidates from marginalized groups than we do to white men. Really, it does. The standard test for a white male Democratic candidate is “the guy who can get elected in that district”. You don’t have to believe me on that. Ask Collin Peterson. Ask the progressives in his district. There’s a reason we have the term “Blue Dog Democrat”.

As long as we continue to have white male Blue Dog Democrats, the only thing we accomplish by insisting that candidates from marginalized groups meet different tests for ideological purity is to keep diversity artificially low. This is discrimination in action, which makes it unacceptable for its own sake.

Well, first, the standard test ought to be — even if it isn’t right now — “Out of the available candidates, which of them has the best chance of getting elected in that district?”. The only reason to merely ask if they can get elected is if there are no other candidates. Which means, then, that for marginalized groups the question should be if they are the candidate that is most likely to win. If people vote in terms of identity, then in a number of cases it might indeed be the case that they aren’t the best candidate because most people won’t vote for that candidate based on the fact that they don’t match their identity and so they worry that they won’t be able to represent them. But it seems to me that people who are concerned with not discriminating would then want to argue against that sort of identification, not pander and advance it. Yet liberals stand very much on identity, arguing that marginalized groups are marginalized because white, male, cis people can’t very well represent groups that don’t share that identity. But if you argue that, then you have to expect that people who don’t share the identity of your candidate will feel that that candidate is incapable of representing them. If in a district or a country those who do not share that identity are in the majority, and if you’re voting democratically, that is a recipe for a loss.

This also demonstrates that the liberal “rainbow coalition” becomes self-defeating when joined with identity politics. If the liberals try to argue that people ought not feel represented by someone who isn’t part of their identity group, it is in fact impossible for them to put forward a candidate that everyone feels represents them … or, at least, not without making their competence suspect. It is possible but not likely that a female, black, trans, lesbian would just happen to be the best qualified candidate; that really looks like selection on the basis of diversity. But without that, some key members of the groups the liberals are trying to appeal to will feel unrepresented. You’d have to hope that the other side comes across worse, and while the conservatives have often been doing just that, it’s not a strategy you can rely on. So, again, liberals should want to appeal to justice for all groups and equality in general, not for groups to vote on the basis of their identity.

So, on to “real” identity politics:

Now, real identity politics. This is the banding together of a group of people based on one or more shared characteristics that bring shared political challenges. Class solidarity is identity politics. Atheist activism is identity politics. White Christian nationalism is identity politics. Gamergate is identity politics. So are feminism, BLM, LGBTQ activism, etc. So is a bunch of white men in power, even if they never call it anything other than “What? This is how it’s always been.”

Except that real identity politics has to include “identity” in there somewhere, and there is no reason to assume that any of those things are or have to be something that people associate importantly with their identity. People can get together to discuss issues that relate to a specific characteristic they have without consider that specific characteristic important to their identity. In fact, this is just what white and cis people have been doing; they happen to be white or cis, but they are generally dismissive of it unless they are challenged on that specific trait. White people generally don’t get together and think about or vote based on the interests of white people … until this election, when they felt they had to because the other side was, in fact, arguing that people should vote on the basis of their racial identity and were crowing about how the shifting demographics — including people coming in through immigration — would make it so that the white people were a minority and so the interests of the current minority groups would always win. Given that they were facing a threat specifically based on identity, white people rallied around their identity, but that’s not really a general consideration. Recall that in the U.K. a lot of the rumbling was about Polish people, who are, in fact, white. Thus, identity politics rallies around the artificial divisions that the issue and those talking about it create, not about any real or inherent identity that we can appeal to.

Liberals have been creating these artificial divisions for a long time now, and so left themselves vulnerable to the other side(s) of that division rallying against them, and also leave themselves vulnerable to shifting artificial divisions that might follow from other or new issues.

As an aside, many liberals place a lot of weight on Clinton winning the popular vote, and they might argue that my analysis ignores that. It doesn’t. While Trump won the majority of white voters, he didn’t win them in anywhere near the overwhelming percentage that Clinton won the other racial groups. If he had, Clinton would have definitively lost the popular vote. Liberals, then, want to ensure that white voters don’t vote on the basis of their purportedly shared interests as white people. You can’t do that by arguing that there are different interests for minority racial groups vs white racial groups, and that minorities should vote for their own interests, and that means voting Democrat because they will work for their interests and not for the interests of — and even at the expense of the interests of — white voters. Eventually, white voters will decide that voting Democrat is not in their best interests.

One of the lessons of this election may well be that white men will not vote for anyone who doesn’t put them front and center. (Not our first opportunity to learn this, but it’s harder to avoid the conclusion this time around.)

But “not putting them front and centre” does not mean playing identity politics. There is pretty much no voting group that, over time, will vote en mass for a group that insists that they aren’t considering or going to work for their own best interests. If the Democrats keep losing the white male vote, it pretty much means that white men think that the Democratic Party is not going to work for their interests. While Zvan talks about how their “Rainbow Coalition” (which she doesn’t actually name) wins them elections, it is essentially doing so because they are trying to swamp that vote by rallying all of the other groups and appealing to them. Essentially, in response to white men — and now, perhaps, white voters — not seeing them as a party they can support, they are doubling down and trying to rally all of the other groups so that they have no need of that group. But this can only work as long as they can keep all of those groups together, and the strategy of insisting that people can’t vote for the other guy because those white men can’t represent people not of their identity works to create rifts in these groups. See, for example, the rifts in the atheist movement over feminism, between those who identify with feminism and those who don’t. Or the rifts in the feminist movement over trans issues. It is relatively easy for the Republicans to find issues that they can rally whites around, even though they have diverse interests … and especially so if the Democrats keep giving them the issue of “We, as Democrats, don’t care about the interests of white people”. It’s a lot harder to find one critically important issue that can appeal to all of the other groups, whom quite often have conflicting interests. As an example, Latinos, as far as I can tell, tend to be more religious than whites, so appealing to secular or atheistic interests might alienate them. The only way to make this work is to find a big enough issue or threat that you can use to rally all of those diverse groups and cause them to ignore the conflicts. Over time, though, those issues will fester, and groups will start to feel that the party doesn’t really care about them, and are in fact just using them.

Kinda like a lot of groups grumbled about in this election, actually.

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