Five Theses on Identity Politics

By Parker, Richard D. | Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy, Fall 2005 | Go to article overview

Five Theses on Identity Politics


Parker, Richard D., Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy


The kind of freedom I want to address is the most vital kind: political freedom. By that I mean the summoning and exertion of energy to engage one another on matters of collective government. What I have in mind specifically is democratic political freedom. By that I mean political freedom in a context shaped by three simple norms: political equality, popular sovereignty and, therefore, majority rule.

What should we make of identity politics as an exercise of democratic political freedom? Let me respond with five connected theses.

Number One. All politics is identity politics. Political activity is--and, at its best, is--animated by efforts to define and defend who I am, or we are, or you are, or hope to be, or hope to be seen to be. (1) By extension, it is motivated by our imagination of what is or ought to be mine or ours or yours. It is not only about self-government. Nor does it always involve much in the way of public debate. What structures it, often beneath the surface, is the always unfinished enterprise of self-construction and self-presentation.

The reason, first of all, is that politics (2) involves making comparisons and choices among--and commitments to--values and interests and groups and individuals (including choices not to choose among available choices). The choices and the commitments we make in politics are ones with which we mean to--or by which we cannot help but--identify ourselves. (3)

What is more, politics involves comparison, choice, and commitment under conditions of conflict. There are winners and losers. Crucially, over time, it is an open-ended conflict: The first ones now may later be (and often are) last. And, over time, political conflict is open in another respect. It is without permanent bounds or rules. The most unexpected issues may one day become salient political issues; allegiances and alliances shift; and, at some point, any mode of struggle, even war, may turn out to be politically decisive. This contingency of politics tends, in turn, to open up the enterprise of self-identification that animates it--keeping it on edge and, so, alive.

In democratic politics, moreover, the conflict is among putative equals. The norm of political equality not only destabilizes temporary victories. It also unsettles taken-for-granted hierarchies and, so, identities--and thus renews the spring of political energy.

In this way, identity politics and democratic political freedom are, in principle and often in practice, mutually supportive, each of them enabling the vitality of the other.

Number Two. However, it can also work the other way around. Identity politics can dampen or smother democratic political freedom. And democratic politics itself sometimes seems to sponsor this tendency, undermining itself by fostering a perversion of identify politics. The question is: What accounts for that? What sorts of identity politics, what aspects of identity politics, are pathological to democratic political freedom and where do they come from?

Number Three. Certain familiar answers (4) to the question are deeply misguided. They are as follows: That the pathology of identity politics has to do with its promotion of a self-regarding (rather than a public-regarding) political culture. Or of "stereotypes." Or that identity politics tends to portray and purvey differences and grievances (rather than similarities and bonds) among groups and individuals. Such diagnoses are wrong not simply because they flush out the baby with the bathwater, but because they seem not to recognize the baby--to understand the value of identity politics--in the first place.

Of course, identity politics is self-regarding. It is, after all, about the construction and presentation of oneself. That matters to everyone. That is what accounts for the energy, the motivation, which identity politics can infuse into democratic politics. (5) It shouldn't take Adam Smith to remind us that self-concern is not necessarily antithetical to--that it can accompany and foster, even be indispensable to--promotion of the well-being of others. …

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