Identity Politics: Adam Lee

So, for the last post in “Identity Politics Week”, I return to the Left and a a post by Adam Lee, entitled “Why America Needs Identity Politics”. Obviously, then, this will be an attempt to demonstrate why identity politics is necessary and appropriate and the way to go, despite the Democrats likely making the most focused use of it that we’ve ever seen and losing the election anyway.

He is responding to by Mark Lilla in the NY Times, arguing that the time has come to end identity liberalism. Lee starts his own post by quoting Lilla saying this:

In recent years American liberalism has slipped into a kind of moral panic about racial, gender and sexual identity that has distorted liberalism’s message and prevented it from becoming a unifying force capable of governing.

Lee responds thusly:

Notice how Lilla begins his argument: by framing activism on race and gender issues as a “distortion” from the true message of liberalism.

Notice how Lee immediately drops the focus on identity that Lilla was very clear about to instead focus on activism. As we say in Zvan’s post, this is a fairly standard liberal tactic: defend identity politics by focusing on specific issues that don’t necessarily require identity politics and seem reasonable, and then insist that the only right way to solve them is to use identity politics. The presumption seems to be that you can’t possibly appeal to anything other than identity to correct these grave injustices, as if, say, appealing to them as injustices couldn’t possibly work. This is at best a conflation of characteristics with identity, and at worst reflects the same sort of thinking that spawns racism and sexism in the first place.

He takes it for granted that he has the right to say what liberalism is “really” about and what’s a deviation from the right path.

But … why shouldn’t he take that for granted? Surely he has as much right to say what liberalism is really about as Lee does, or any other liberal does, or in fact as anyone else does. On what grounds does Lee suggest that he doesn’t? His race? His gender? That he disagrees with Lee?

Ironically, Lee then goes on to exercise the right to say what liberalism is really about:

In its best form, liberalism is about recognizing and guaranteeing the basic equality and dignity of all people. It strives to break down all artificial distinctions, whether of class, of race, of gender, or of any of the other excuses that are used to justify treating others as lesser-than.

And if Lee had remembered to consider identity above, he’d see the problem here: identity politics means appealing to these precise artificial distinctions that he feels liberalism, in its best form, tries to break down. It elevates specific different traits, circumstances or issues into an identity, and then both assumes and promotes the idea that if you have those traits, circumstances or issues that they critically define who you are and not only how you will vote, but how you ought to vote. No matter what other traits you have, what other “intersections”, it is assumed that your well-being is defined by that specific grouping, as if that completely defines who you are. But it is not unreasonable to think that, for example, a gay person might find themselves more concerned about their economic situation than about the legalization of same-sex marriage, even if the latter one can be seen as violating their rights.

Identity politics doesn’t break down artificial distinctions, it instead embraces them. That fact alone would seem to prove Lilla’s point.

Was the fight for women’s suffrage a distortion? Was the civil rights era a distortion? Was the fight for LGBT rights and marriage equality a distortion? Has liberalism been wrong all along, and only Mark Lilla can put it right? Or is this just another version of the march of progress where social causes that were wildly controversial and divisive in their day become obvious common sense as soon as they triumph?

What do these things have to do with identity politics? These are, indeed, all about breaking down artificial distinctions, by promoting the idea that being a woman doesn’t mean anything wrt the right to vote, that being black doesn’t mean anything wrt the ability to work and intelligence, and that being gay doesn’t mean anything wrt being married. In a sense, these all took away a trait that was considered to define that specific group’s identity and argued that it was instead a meaningless consideration. Identity politics, on the other hand, would say that, for example, at least wanting the right to get married is an important part of the identity of someone who is gay, and in fact that their sexuality is an important part of who they are, important enough that they should identify with the party that gave that to them and against the party that opposed giving that to them.

So far, Lee is trying to defend identity politics by appealing to injustices, not to identities. But we ought not need to have or recognize a specific “identity” in order to recognize and oppose actual injustices. Any time a liberal appeals to an identity instead of an injustice it’s pretty much a sign that they don’t have a good enough argument to establish the injustice.

Lee quotes Lilla again:

Hillary Clinton was at her best and most uplifting when she spoke about American interests in world affairs and how they relate to our understanding of democracy. But when it came to life at home, she tended on the campaign trail to lose that large vision and slip into the rhetoric of diversity, calling out explicitly to African-American, Latino, L.G.B.T. and women voters at every stop.

Lee replies thusly:

This implies, astonishingly, that it’s wrong to recognize the diverse groups that make up an electoral coalition and speak to their specific wants and needs. In Lilla’s mind, the only right way to campaign is to treat all your supporters as a blended, amorphous mass with no distinct interests.

The problem is that he reaches for an “implication” without bothering to address why Lilla thought it an error:

This was a strategic mistake. If you are going to mention groups in America, you had better mention all of them. If you don’t, those left out will notice and feel excluded. Which, as the data show, was exactly what happened with the white working class and those with strong religious convictions. Fully two-thirds of white voters without college degrees voted for Donald Trump, as did over 80 percent of white evangelicals.

And this is not only absolutely true, but an issue with identity politics. Once you start dividing people up into identifiable groups and encouraging them to identify with that group, they will, of course, feel a bond with that group. If you then fail to mention that group, it will feel like you don’t care about that group, which means that then it will feel like you don’t care about them. Which is, in fact, exactly what happened: white people — and white men in particular — didn’t feel that the Democrats cared about them and their interests. No surprise, then, that they refused to vote for them.

It may have escaped him that the reason Republicans can do this is because they don’t have a diverse base to appeal to. They’ve tied their fortunes to a specific demographic group and a specific set of interests. Their one-voice, one-interest strategy simply wouldn’t work for the Democrats’ rainbow coalition, which draws together people from very different backgrounds and circumstances.

As I talked about wrt Zvan’s post, this is an issue for the Democrats if they insist on using identity politics. Sure, groups will react badly if they aren’t mentioned, but just mentioning them isn’t going to be enough. If the Democrats try to wrangle this multi-interest strategy on the basis of identity, since the interests of these groups clash there will be times when they have to choose one group over another. If you do that too often, at a minimum the outside groups will feel unappreciated and feel that while you talk like you have their interests at heart, you really don’t. And then they won’t be very enthusiastic about you winning the election.

And this seems to have happened in this election. There was a lot of grumbling in liberal circles about the Democrats choosing Clinton over Sanders and ignoring the wishes and desires of specific groups of traditional liberal or Democratic voters. The response from the liberals was always that Trump was so bad that they needed to vote for Clinton anyway, even if they didn’t like her and even if they liked someone else better. But you can only play the “boogeyman” card for so long before the groups whose interests you’re ignoring decide that, at best, they aren’t getting anything out of the deal and see no need to support you. And lots of liberal voters decided that the Democrats weren’t really interested in them after all, so felt no need to be interested in the Democrats.

Lee then goes on to repeat one of the most ridiculous things that he continually talks about:

And it needs to be emphasized – because Lilla entirely overlooks it – that despite the undemocratic outcome made possible by the electoral college, Clinton won the popular vote by a hefty margin – 2 million votes and climbing. This is hardly proof that “identity politics” is an electoral dead end.

There were almost 130 million votes cast just for Trump and Clinton. Two million out of that is somewhere between 1 – 2%. That is not “hefty”. That is, in fact, rather pathetic. For comparison, Lee often calls Trump’s electoral college win “slim”, even though the difference in college votes is 15%.

Clinton lost the electoral college, and had a lower percentage of the popular vote than Obama had for his first term (oddly, it looks now like she has about the same number of votes that Obama had for his second term). This all came in an election where identity politics played a huge role, and likely a larger role than it has in any other election previously. Clinton went all-in on identity politics and her advantage over her Republican opponent dropped two million votes over what Obama had over Romney … who was known to be milquetoast but not as the anti-Christ, and who was mostly supported by his own party. In what strange world is this not seen as evidence, and strong evidence, that identity politics didn’t work? They went all-in on identity politics, against an opponent who seemed to be even more vulnerable than usual to identity politics and had a number of clear flaws to appeal to, and they still lost ground in pretty much every measurable metric. In what way did playing identity politics help here?

Lee then tries to dismiss the economic interests argument:

If economic disadvantage was the force driving Trump voters, you have to explain why they supported a candidate who promised to take away the hard-won safety-net gains they’ve achieved under Democrats. In particular, as I wrote last week, many white people who are desperately dependent on Obamacare backed a party that’s made destroying Obamacare its overriding goal, with no plan for a replacement.

Paul Krugman’s back-of-the-envelope math suggests an astonishing 5.5 million people voted to cut off their own access to health care. Coal miners in particular have benefited from a provision of Obamacare that helps them win compensation for work-related lung disease, and many of them are now dismayed and worried because they didn’t think they might actually get what they voted for.

If economic insecurity was the force animating Trump voters, this is an unsolvable paradox. However, the “whitelash” hypothesis explains it neatly: racist rage blinded them to the ways they were voting against their own tangible interests.

Lee links to a few posts that talk about these issues — you can find them there — and it turns out that the conclusions are … less than accurate:

1) For Obamacare, one of them notes that Trump after the election walked back his rhetoric about completely doing away with it. The problem? During the campaign I heard one of his speeches, in full, on CBC, and he was already talking about replacing it with something better. So for people who actually heard that, there would be less fear that they were going to completely lose their health care coverage.

2) For the coal miners, that was one specific clause buried in the text. It is not likely that many of them made the association, and even if they did many of them might well have believed that he did indeed care about them and so would keep that or at least do something to help them … unlike Clinton’s infamous comment about putting a lot of them out of work.

So, Lee here seems to be accusing them of deliberately voting against their own well-being and interests based on information and beliefs that he has, but that they didn’t necessarily have. You can’t justify assigning deliberate motives on that sort of basis.

But let’s assume that it wasn’t really this that convinced them, that they were instead voting on identity. It makes more sense to assume that the reason they voted for Trump wasn’t because they were just racist, but instead because Trump promised to care about them and their interests, and the Democrats promised to ignore them. Why in the world would anyone vote for a party that explicitly said and acted like they didn’t care, and not only that, thought that they were inherently evil for caring about their own interests? Identity politics, then, caused the issue, by dividing the people up into groups and then ignoring one group to the point of calling the whole group evil.

And this is the natural result of identity politics. In order to identify as X, you need a ~X, a group that is outside of your identity that you can compare yourself to to say that you are not them. This is probably natural and so there isn’t much you can do about that. But identity politics means encouraging people to associate themselves with that group and to align their own interests with that group, and to consider the other groups as not sharing those interests. This, then, creates Us vs Them thinking, and the idea that your interests and their interests cannot both be promoted at the same time; one side has to give. And while the Democrats have been pushing the narrative that the Us vs Them is everyone else vs whites, identities don’t always follow the political will of the Democratic party. And so people may see that the Us vs Them are, for example, trans people vs feminists, or any number of other breakdowns.

And as this continues, coalitions become harder to form, as each individual grouping feels that promoting the interests of that group will, in the long run, hurt their own interests … even if, in the short-term, their interests are aligned. We saw this clearly in the atheist movement, with many atheists refusing to align with Catholics to oppose creationism in public schools, and then atheists refusing to align with conservative atheists, and then atheists that weren’t feminist enough, and then atheists that weren’t trans-aware enough, and so on and so forth. When you see anyone with differing interests as an enemy, it’s hard to build any kind of stable alliance.

Lee quotes Lilla again:

Finally, the whitelash thesis is convenient because it absolves liberals of not recognizing how their own obsession with diversity has encouraged white, rural, religious Americans to think of themselves as a disadvantaged group whose identity is being threatened or ignored. Such people are not actually reacting against the reality of our diverse America (they tend, after all, to live in homogeneous areas of the country). But they are reacting against the omnipresent rhetoric of identity, which is what they mean by “political correctness.” Liberals should bear in mind that the first identity movement in American politics was the Ku Klux Klan, which still exists.

Lee replies:

Lilla doesn’t notice how his argument contradicts itself within the same paragraph. Which is it? Are angry white voters reacting to the intrusion of identity politics into their lives? Or did they invent identity politics when they founded the KKK as a movement dedicated to upholding white supremacy in America? You can’t have it both ways.

Lee again ignores the point: whites in today’s society have come to see themselves as an identity group that is under threat because liberals have defined them as a unified identity group and then claimed that their interests are not only not of interest, but are harmful. Lee’s argument that this is a contradiction relies precisely on the presumption that whites have always seen themselves as a unique and specific identity group, an argument that will see ludicrous to the Polish, Irish and Catholic groups that were predominantly or entirely white and yet were actively discriminated against in the United States for a long, long time. The KKK appealed to identity politics … and so do liberals and the Democrats. The problem Lilla is talking about is how the focus on identity politics created the very group that the KKK wanted to appeal to, and that they ultimately failed to create or at least maintain.

Until the liberals did it for them.

Especially in our society, being a white man is considered the neutral, default identity, while everyone else is implicitly treated as a special case. Like the confused and angry fellow who insisted that atheism needs to be kept pure of “ideology”, many people – even allegedly liberal columnists – believe that white men banding together to advance their own causes is just the natural state of affairs, unremarkable, unobjectionable. But when women, people of color, and other minority groups do the same, it merits scolding from concern trolls who warn of disaster if we don’t stop reminding the world that we have our own concerns.

The problem is that white people, in general, don’t band together to promote their specific interests as white people. White people only act in solidarity with each other when they feel that they are being attacked as white people. Guess what the liberal identity politics has succeeded in doing?

This is the crux of the argument. Even a brief glance over American history would show you that women, blacks, Latinos, and, yes, atheists have been subjected to discrimination in targeted and specific ways throughout the span of our country’s existence: Jim Crow, redlining, mass incarceration, coverture laws, workplace harassment, English-only laws, immigration restrictions, religious tests, and on and on. In many cases, the harm done by those prejudicial laws and norms lingers into the present day. We can debate the best way to fix these injustices, but first we have to recognize that they exist.

What does this have to do with identity politics, though? Let’s take, for example, religious tests. These applied to many more groups than just atheists, and arguably were applied to any purportedly minority religion. Remember when people worried about JFK being Catholic and running for President? What identity are you going to assign all the people impacted by that? What Us vs Them are you going to create to oppose that? Instead of running things on the basis of identity, run on the basis of shared specific interests. Appeal to injustice, not that it hurts a specific group. After all, how can you expect people not in the affected group to care about the issues if you present it as an issue that impacts that affected group but not them? You’re either falling back on injustice or you’re failing.

As I said in one of my earliest posts, you can’t fix a problem that you can’t see. Lilla wants us to defeat racism without acknowledging its existence – an impossible feat. It’s like trying to treat a sick person without diagnosing what’s causing their illness. As long as you refuse to admit what’s causing the injustices that plague America, your solutions will always be aimed at the wrong targets.

But there’s nothing in Lilla’s post that says that you should refuse to acknowledge that racism exists. Instead, he’s arguing that you shouldn’t divide things up into identity groups that you then divide into the good and the bad, the ones you care about and the ones you don’t. Why does Lee think it impossible to define racism and then point out the specific cases without having to make it all be one big identity group?

And this response can be put to him: You can’t defeat racism, the idea that there are significant inherent differences that make the races different from each other, by accepting that there are significant enough inherent differences between the races that you can build identities based only on them. If there are no significant differences, then there is nothing to hang identity on … and if there are significant enough differences to hang identity on, then maybe those differences and treatment are, in fact, right.

The question of how to reach people who’ll vote away their own well-being to reinforce racial hierarchy is a hard problem indeed. I don’t have any simple answers to offer.

You start by removing the conflation between position in the racial hierarchy and one’s own personal well-being. Guess what identity politics explicitly doesn’t do, and in fact promotes?



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