Getting Identity Politics Right

By E. J. Dionne, Jr. | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, December 29, 2018 | Go to article overview

Getting Identity Politics Right


E. J. Dionne, Jr., Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review


WASHINGTON -- Progressives have some intellectual and moral work to do. What are cast as political challenges to liberals and the left are also philosophical problems. Resolving them is essential to sorting out the tensions among the movement's goals and establishing its priorities.

It comes down to this: Whom do progressives think they're fighting for?

It's a question joined most pointedly in arguments over "identity politics." The debate itself is flawed because it's not clear what it means to be "for" or "against" identity politics. All politics is about identity in some way, since all of us think of ourselves as, well, something.

To use an example I am especially familiar with: I'm a reasonably well-off white male liberal who grew up in a middle-class family in a working-class city in Massachusetts where Catholicism and trade unions were important parts of life. I was born in the United States of French-Canadian heritage. I'm a husband, a father and a baby boomer.

I was also inspired by teachers, friends and books. I'd love to claim these various intellectual and moral influences as the primary shapers of my worldview. But, social scientists and psychologists would be quick to point out that I'd be lying if I pretended that my demographic background has had no effect on how I think.

This limited tour of my political psyche is the sort of exercise all of us can engage in. Such a reckoning is a commentary both on the limits of identity politics (we are all multiples of some kind) and on the limits of any argument for abandoning identity politics (we can never entirely divorce ourselves from who we are).

Disputes over the merits of identity politics are vexed because they are often seen as code for unstated claims or points of view. For example, calls for an end to identity politics are frequently (and reasonably) interpreted by African-Americans, Latinos, women and LGBTQ people as not-so-veiled attempts to make politics about straight white men again.

This alone makes the war on identity a non-starter among progressives and Democrats. One of liberalism's most noble commitments is to advancing the rights of minorities and those who have suffered discrimination. Contemporary progressives would lose their moral compass, not to mention a lot of votes, if they cast this mission aside. …

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