Identity politics: why have yours when you could have “ours”?

by Joshua Piercey

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It’s time for the left to abandon identity politics.

That’s what the right say, at least. They also use some cool, 1984-inspired buzzwords like “thought police” and “liberal elites”. Identity politics is the domain of the illiberal, the controlling, the feminazi. Many on the left are starting to adopt similar discourse: identity politics are counter-productive, divisive.


In a New York Times article that generated much debate, Mark Lilla intoned:

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.

Identity politics supposedly cost Clinton the election. By focusing on LGBTQ people, black people and women, Clinton lost the votes of rural white people. In the UK, Brexit was apparently not a rejection of diversity and immigration but rather a push for sovereignty and national control. Now Theresa May describes a national unity that does not exist, repeating her mantra of “strength and stability” to present a picture of united government that a fragmented Labour cannot match.

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All right. Let’s assume that successful politics is a play for the middle ground, and that identity politics are counter-productive. What should we do instead? According to Lilla:


We need a post-identity liberalism, and it should draw from the past successes of pre-identity liberalism. Such a liberalism would concentrate on widening its base … by emphasizing the issues that affect (the) vast majority.

As for narrower issues that are highly charged symbolically and can drive potential allies away, especially those touching on sexuality and religion, such a liberalism would work quietly, sensitively and with a proper sense of scale.

Riiiight. Unfortunately, “scale” is rarely dictated by those pushing against the status quo. If every social change went through without a hitch there’d be nothing to complain about. If you don’t really care about transgender bathrooms, their adoption is a non-story. If you’re hugely against them you shout it from the rooftops.

“Quietly, sensitively and with a proper sense of scale”? When I look at the great civil rights successes of the 20th and 21st century I cannot find many that succeeded using this strategy.


Leaves women in a tricky spot, doesn’t it? If you ARE a woman, and you care about issues that face you personally AS a woman (and it’s undeniable that there are many), what exactly are you supposed to do?

(That fact that “female” is included in discussion of identity politics at all is important to note. More than half of us are female. That’s not the politics of the minority, it literally can’t be. But to try and speak to women about the things that specifically concern them is pushed as political suicide. To bring up issues that affect the majority of people in the entire world is seen as somehow shutting out another majority that doesn’t exist.)


What if you are a woman of colour? Or gay? Or all three? What if the issues that affect the many make less difference to the quality of your life than the issues that affect the very few? What if the issues that affect the many are, for you, inextricably linked to your identity?

The answer is, as perhaps is to be expected, “shut up about it and concentrate on something more important”.

In the UK that “more important thing” has been and is Brexit. The media and political establishment are setting up the snap election to be one-issue affair, leaving other identities behind, even as the terms “leaver” and “remainer” become firmly entrenched in the discourse.

But identity politics are at work in the UK, even within a so-called “single issue” debate. If you identify more as English than British, you are more likely to have voted for Brexit. The more English you see yourself to be, the more likely you are to vote Conservative or UKIP. Outside of England, Welsh and Scottish identities become more and more important. Part of Labour’s apparent collapse is its changing (and challenging) relationship with the working class.

Image source: Illinois Family Institute


So the backlash against identity politics masquerades as one of moderation and centralism to obscure a key fact: some identities are worth more than others. You don’t want to make white men feel left out, because they dominate the voting and the discourse. The working class are important not because of what you can do for them, but because they might vote for you. No one is asking “English” people to leave their English-ness aside.

This is pragmatic, of course. But to pretend it’s anything other than pragmatic is disingenuous. ALL politics is identity politics. And while it won’t change the economic status quo, it is what wins (or loses) elections. When we elevate single issues to the forefront we are deliberately ignoring the patchwork of identities that create and care about those issues.

When it comes to how you vote, your identity is as important as anyone else’s. Beware those who would supply another for you and tell you it’s all that matters. If you vote only as a Leaver or a Remainer, what will the consequences be for you when those labels become worthless? In short: anyone asking you to abandon your identity because it’s inconvenient is not your ally.


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