April 04, 2008
Tom raises an important point in this brief post. As I have said countless times before, all democratic politics is identity politics, and identity politics should not be a phrase reserved for minority grievances. To some degree, all mass politics is identitarian. This can be a curse, but it is also unavoidable. I suspect what troubles critics of “identity politics” is not so much that it is group-based, but that it actually seeks to root politics in the concrete interests of different groups. It assumes solidarity among people from similar backgrounds, and these concepts of solidarity and loyalty can be unnerving for some people. There is also resistance against the idea of this or that group mobilizing politically—resistance that derives, of course, from the critic’s own group interests! The first step in understanding “identity politics” is to recognize that there is nothing illegitimate about this kind of politics, unless the entire modern democratic process is illegitimate (possible), in which case we have more pressing concerns than “identity politics.” “Identity politics” refers to the fact that similar people tend to have similar interests, or at least they will perceive their interests to be same as those people from their community. Election analysts and demographers accept this as common sense; the rest of us are supposed to shudder in horror at the thought of it. There is, of course, nothing inherently wrong in “identity politics for white people,” to cite Ponnuru’s well-known phrase, unless you subscribe to universalist fantasies that particular loyalties do not take precedence over generic abstract commitments, just as there is nothing inherently wrong in “identity politics for black people” or for Latinos, desis, Chinese and so on. The crucial factors are the expression that this sort of politics takes and the means being proposed to advance group interests. These are the important subjects of debate, and not whether we should or should not engage in “identity politics.” Every time we vote, we engage in this kind of politics. To refer to “identity politics for white people” or for any kind of people is to say that these people are involved in the political process and are pursuing their interests.