Identity Politics: The Left-wing Perspective

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. marches from Central Park to the United Nations Plaza in a demonstration against the Vietnam War with thousands of protesters, including Dr. Benjamin Spock (left) and Monsignor Charles Owen Rice (right), New York City, April 15, 1967. (National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, © Benedict J. Fernandez)

Two years since Trump has been elected an interminable debate remains: was it identity politics or class issues that got Trump elected? This article is not an answer to that question. It’s simply to assess identity politics as understood by the political left and the issues surrounding it.

In a previous post, I attacked the right-wing criticism of identity politics as lacking perspective, hypocritical, and without foundation. If you don’t already know, there are two conceptions of identity politics: the right-wing criticism which denies the marginalization that makes identity political and the left-wing criticism which argues for more solidarity between movements and issues.

I address the latter criticism in this essay. There is this criticism that Democrats’ — Hillary Clinton’s — embrace of identity politics alienated white working-class people in the Rust Belt and those people embraced Trump as a populist who would protect their interests. The Rust Belt is a pejorative term for the Midwestern and Northeastern regions of the US characterized by blue-collar workers who have been alienated by trade deals, deindustrialization, and economic disenfranchisement. From 1969, the manufacturing sector of the aforementioned region was deindustrialized by a whopping 33 percent in less than three decades! To understand this criticism one must understand how the Democrats spearheaded civil rights, starting in the 1960s. It is well-known that the Southern Strategy was used to bring racist Democrats — Gov. George Wallace Jr. (AL), Sen. Strom Thurmond (SC), etc. — to the Republican party after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The onset of the information age made for a vehicle to disseminate information and has accelerated the the ability for various civil rights movements to spread their messages. As Heather Brooke explains in her book The Revolution Will be Digitized: Dispatches from the information war:

Technology is breaking down traditional social barriers of status, class, power, wealth and geography, replacing them with an ethos of collaboration and transparency.

It had an unprecedented role in changing people’s attitudes, what Alfred Toffler calls “The Third Wave.”

It is certainly possible that certain movements for the social advancement of marginalized people took advantage of the hypermodernization of the last few decades. It is not unreasonable to understand how this could have alienated white workers in the Rust Belt. I must first get this out of the way. There are some conservatives who pretend to care about the working class and use this argument in bad faith. It’s a pathetic attempt to besmirch the left as entirely elitist in their support for social justice. As Angela Nagle notes in her book Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars From 4Chan And Tumblr To Trump And The Alt-Right:

Although the idea that ordinary people felt alienated by political correctness was not uncommon in right-wing rhetoric, there was also quite a remarkable shift from a subcultural elitism to a sudden proletarian righteousness, or even a bit of noblesse oblige, as though the right had been making Thomas Frank’s argument all along. In reality they had been making pro-inequality, misanthropic, economically elitist arguments for natural hierarchy all along.

It’s important to beware of those who speak out of both sides of their mouth when they criticize identity politics. With that in mind, how is identity politics understood by the political left? Well, let’s take modern democrats for example. In a previous post two years ago, I was very critical of Hillary Clinton. I actually started writing the piece a month before Trump won the 2016 Presidential Election. I assumed that Hillary would win after the Access Hollywood tapes came out, but I was proven gravely wrong.

Hillary Clinton represented the paragon of our corrupt political system. She endorsed duplicity on policy positions, took money from massively wealthy donors, and was even tempted to start a war with Iran. Hillary did not represent a departure from the status quō. She and her husband have been under the influence of wealthy donors for decades. It is true that many people wanted more change than even Obama guaranteed in 2008 and Hillary certainly did not represent such a change, not when it came to policy anyway. How do I defend such a claim? Read the following 2015 exchange between Hillary and John Dickerson on Face the Nation:

John Dickerson: In politics this year it seems that everybody wants an outsider. Now that puts you in a fix.

Hillary Clinton: It does not put me in a fix. I cannot imagine anyone being more of an outsider than the first woman president. I mean really, let’s think about that.

I don’t believe anything captures the left-wing criticism of and frustration with identity politics than the above quote. Hillary Clinton used her identity as a woman to mask the fact that she catered to establishment politics and not to the American people. This is the left-wing criticism of identity politics: representation without a deep commitment structural and political change. “One of the struggles that you’re going to be seeing in the Democratic Party is whether we go beyond identity politics,” Sanders said in Boston shortly after the 2016 election.

It is not good enough for someone to say, ‘I’m a woman! Vote for me!’ No, that’s not good enough. What we need is a woman who has the guts to stand up to Wall Street, to the insurance companies, to the drug companies.

— Senator Bernie Sanders (VT)

Bernie Sanders is right, but I will criticize him later in this essay. Representation does matter but a change to the status quō will not come from representation. As I wrote in my post critiquing Hillary Clinton:

Hillary’s foreign policy is truly a spectacle. It’s a clear display of how support for the Invasion of Iraq, support of the Libyan intervention, and support for arming rebels to oust Bashar al-Assad can be occluded by being the first female President and wearing the hat of “Democrat.” At this point, continued militarism is just as guaranteed as death and taxes.

The left-wing critique of identity politics is a critique of the cynical use of identity as a mask for bad policy in other areas. Electing Hillary would be a step in the right direction for women’s rights given the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supremem Court, but the Clinton Foundation also took money from Saudi Arabia, a Salafist Kingdom that heavily represses women’s rights and is currently involved in a U.S.-assisted genocide in Yemen. One could very well say that the left-wing criticism is a criticism of tokenism and that is fair. It is, however, important to recognize that the actual left is not looking for Ben Carson, Sarah Palin, or Michele Bachmann to run the country.

A similar discussion can be found when it comes to the issue of race in Ameria. In December last year, Cornel West launched a criticism of Ta-Nehisi Coates in The Guardian, calling him “the neoliberal face of the Black freedom struggle.” West makes a similar criticism that Obama’s presidency was not holistic enough as a matter of principle. As I pointed out in my post on Hillary Clinton, Obama’s presidency did normalize the use of drone strikes. Obama did not amend the racial wealth gap during his presidency. For this reason, West endorsed Sanders over Clinton in the spirit of a more holistic change to American politics. West said:

The battle now raging in Black America over the Clinton-Sanders election is principally a battle between a declining neoliberal black political and chattering class still on the decaying Clinton bandwagon (and gravy train!) and an emerging populism among black poor, working and middle class people fed up with the Clinton establishment in the Democratic Party. It is easy to use one’s gender identity, as Clinton has, or racial identity, as the Congressional Black Caucus recently did in endorsing her, to hide one’s allegiance to the multi-cultural and multi-gendered Establishment. But a vote for Clinton forecloses the new day for all of us and keeps us captive to the trap of wealth inequality, greed (“everybody else is doing it”), corporate media propaganda and militarism abroad — all of which are detrimental to black America.

Obama fell victim to neoliberalism, what could be aptly called “symbolism without structure.” During his presidency, Obama renamed Mt. McKinley to its original Koyukon Athabaskan name Denali, however Obama did not call for the initiation of programs to restore Athabascan food culture to combat the prevalence of diabetes in the community. Obama did not call for reparations for Native Americans for the history of legalized kidnapping, forced assimilation, land theft, and genocide instituted by the United States. Obama did not immediately respond to the calls to end the Dakota Access Pipeline that would cut through Standing Rock. Wthout making changes to the system as a whole, reactionaries can always be enabled because the corporate media and the political establishment already gives them the upper hand.

So what is the problem with Boinee Sandahs? Bernie Sanders is a great candidate and for all intents and purposes I am probably voting for him in 2020 if all goes well. However, Bernie Sanders isn’t without his issues. On Late Night with Seth Meyers asked him if the indictments from Robert Mueller in connection with the Russian collusion be a distraction for voters. Sanders responded:

Yes. I mean, I think we’ve got to work in two ways. №1, we have got to take on Trump’s attacks against the environment, against women, against Latinos and blacks and people in the gay community, we’ve got to fight back every day on those issues. But equally important, or more important: We have got to focus on bread-and-butter issues that mean so much to ordinary Americans.

Did you catch it? Read it one more time if you didn’t. This is identity politics, the same type Sanders says the Democratic Party should jettison. Contrasting women, Latinos, Blacks, and LGBT people with the “ordinary Americans” is identity politics. White identity politics. This is not calling Bernie Sanders a KKK member or a white nationalist, rather it’s identifying a blindspot, namely the assumption that white is “ordinary.” One might say that this is a mere slip-up (we all make them) but it reveals a way in which Sanders thinks about class.

I have no doubt that Sanders understands that African-American descendants of slaves are given the short end of the stick when it comes to class but he assumes that the working template for economic anxiety and the working class is white. Economic anxiety is real but it is experienced by African-Americans too. Malaika Jabali has an excellent article on this phenomenon in Current Affairs. She writes:

The 53206,” as the area is commonly called, and the predominantly black neighborhoods surrounding it currently have the highest rate of incarcerated black men in the country. Deindustrialization, wealth inequality, unemployment, and historical patterns of discrimination and police terrorism have created a toxic mix for Wisconsin’s 359,000 black residents.

— Malaika Jabali, “The Color of Economic Anxiety”

Bernie Sanders’ view of economic anxiety was not holistic enough. This is an identity politics by omission rather than one by commission. For working class African-Americans economic anxiety caused by outsourcing is coupled with a legacy of housing discrimination, racially motivated urban planning, and redlining. Addressing these issues while addressing the plight of white working class voters isn’t divisive; on the contrary, it’s inclusive. Contrary to Sanders’s tweet below, the two are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

What is needed is a left-wing politics that integrates that issues that disproportionately affect certain people into the context of a broader and more inclusive humanist project. Remember what I said from my previous post on identity politics:

acknowledging that people have used — and continue to use — race, gender identity, and other characteristics to marginalize people is just a fact.

It will no more radicalize the white majority, than a white-centered approach to economic injustice will radicalize the black minority. The solution to poverty must match the problem as it exists in a particular context. What is necessary is to understand and address the social emergencies on their own merits. This is true systemic equality, not putting one group over another.

It is important to remember, however, that it is quite possible to use class-reductionism cynically, just as it is possible to use identity cynically. The irony of many of the alt-left/brocialist/berniebro side who ridicule intersectionality is that they don’t realize that people like West are calling for intersectionality. Not the intersectionality that you see on Tumblr or Everyday Feminism, but a political intersectionality. An intersectionality that talks about the military industrial complex, Wall Street, environmental justice, the surveillance state, etc.

The following tweet is how not to do identity politics:

To put identity over policy is to give up hope; it’s nothing but a surrender to those who already control the Court and the Senate. To categorically reject the possibility of change through wide-spread solidarity. It’s not a good strategy for a victory in 2020, especially given the current state of the Democrats now.

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About Emeka Ikpeazu 4 Articles
Cornellian, Wahoo, electrical engineer, philosopher, composer, runner, friend, and brother.