For at least the past two decades American politics has increasingly veered toward some variant of identity politics.
Even if the political issues that dominate both presidential and legislative campaigns have not come across as specifically “identitarian” in nature, there has been an almost unconscious habit among electoral analysts, whether academics or media pundits, to leverage the familiar classifications of social, sexual, religious, and cultural identity to map trends and explain outcomes. For example, we account for the victory, or loss, for such-and-such a candidate in terms of whether he or she captured, or failed to capture, the lion’s share of votes from women, African-American, Latinos, Jews, white evangelicals, Catholics, gays and lesbians, or even “tech professionals” or “soccer moms”.
Nonetheless, that fixation seems to have been called into question during this election cycle by the unanticipated outpouring of support on both the left and right for “anti-establishment candidates,” particularly Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. Both candidates in their own way have benefited from shift toward economic and class issues.
As recent articles following the Michigan primary in left-leaning online publications such as NPR, Salon, and The New York Times highlight, not only are traditional identity politics constituencies rejecting the way in which “experts” tend to pigeon-hole them, they are confounding in a shocking way how the would-be cognoscenti is apt to predict their voting patterns.
Bill Clinton’s famous remark that “it’s the economy, stupid” has turned out to be much more a factor in the abrupt realignment of electoral politics with blue-collar Democrats leaning toward Trump, young liberal females flocking to a white male septuagenarian rather than the candidate who trumpets becoming the “first woman president”, or some bona fide Republican ideological conservatives threatening to vote for Clinton if the former gets the nomination for their party. The new formulary seems to be “it’s only the economy, stupid” with identity politics fraying fast at the center as well as the edges.
Even the strange case of evangelical “values voters” warmly embracing a Republic presidential candidate whose language and personal life-styles make a mockery of everything they previously championed as the marks of a Christian leader follows this trend, according to religious studies professor Stephen Prothero writing in Politico. What demographers term “positional” concerns, whether in the economic or social hierarchies, “trump” – pun intended – religious identity. Prothero argues that evangelicals simply are not that “evangelical” any more, especially when it comes to economic complaints.
Identity politics, which first leaped to prominence during the historical upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s in engendering such shibboleths such as “black power”, “Chicano activism,” or “women’s liberation”, suddenly replaced what hitherto had been a discourse concerning policy derived from perceived class as well as national interest (e.g., labor vs. management, the haves versus the have-not, isolationism versus interventionism).
For the most part the shift was precipitated by a broader recognition that ongoing battles surrounding the politics of what came to be called the “American dream”, or the “American way of life”, had been founded on certain premises of Enlightenment universalism, which the experiences of historically marginalized groups seemed to render both hollow and hypocritical.
The sense of contradiction, or disconnection, between ideal and real in the familiar narrative of American exceptionalism, first became evident after the assassination of Martin Luther King in the spring of 1968. King, leader of the Civil Rights Movement, spoke powerfully the language of both exceptionalism and universalism, as his now famous “I have a dream” speech in August 1963 demonstrates.
But the assassination convinced many black civil rights activists that even with the landmark civil rights legislation pushed through during the early years of the Johnson administration, African Americans would always be brutalized and excluded by the racially biased de facto system. Thus the “black power” movement with its logo of the raised fist transformed the landscape of racial politics, and other identity movements were born within a short time span thereafter.
In a word, identity politics with its privileging of racial, gender, sexual, cultural, or ethnic identity over class or economic interests was an immediate response to the crisis of American identity, which not only the King assassination but also the trauma of the Vietnam war, precipitated. Old political alliances came apart at the seams, and new party realignments, still very much in evidence today, gradually emerged.
Significantly, identity politics seemed to flourish during economic good times and blurred back into traditional “interest politics” during the relatively bad times. But after the economic crash of 2008 and the prolongation of the Great Recession, which some pundits maintain never really ended, the growing collective mood that America was in decline and that material opportunity was vanishing for all but the “1 percent”, as the Occupy movement baptized the increasingly entitled financial elites of this country, darkened.
Identity politics at its very core has a multiplier effect. The very philosophical notion of identity stems from a critical methodology which locates “difference” where previously only “sameness” was presumed to subsist. It is no accident that the ascent of identity politics in intellectual discourse coincided with the academic fashion of post-structuralism going all the way back to the work of Ferdinand de Saussure, strongly emphasizing the differential factor in cultural and political as well as linguistic theory.
As Cressida Heyes observes in her entry on identity politics in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “the dangers of identity politics, then, are that it casts as authentic to the self or group an identity that in fact is defined by its opposition to an Other.”
As identity politics morphed from an academic to an electoral preoccupation near the close of the past millennium, it increasingly functioned to contextualize more and more “marginalized” identities in immediate comparison with what was considered a pseudo-monolithic norm, that is, the logic of the same. The avatar of this supposed norm, in turn, was initially defined as “”white”, then itself was differentiated as “white male,” then “white heterosexual male,” and so forth.
However, in the thought paradigm that identity politics presses forward normativity seems, at least rhetorically, to imply the moral exclusion of those who do not conform to the norm. At the same time, it also harbors the subtle expectation that a new normativity of inclusion will exclude from the logic of the same those who previously defined themselves, or were defined, as “normal”. That is what multiculturalism as the official policy of identity politics often embodies.
Paradoxically, however, as the old norm was differentiated at length and over time in such a manner, it became a marker of identity in itself, and that is what in many respects stokes, even without any kind of legitimate moral argument to warrant it, the racial resentment and xenophobia that is so evident in the Trump phenomenon.
Economically hard-pressed constituents from the historic white working class more and more refuse to regard themselves as bearers of “white privilege” so much as victims of a global capitalism that exploits the poverty of the “other” from the global south to force down wages and exclude them from the American dream.
It is no secret among historians that racism and populism have always gone together in some respect. Radical Marxist activism of the last generation, including the more recent writings of Slavoj Zizek, has always been critical of identity politics for this reason, hammering on the argument that the “man” is not really the “white man,” but the capitalist “boss” who manipulates and profiteers from racial antagonism to distract workers from their true, universal class interests.
Of course, identity politics itself initially was spawned from an internal awareness of the “contradictions” embedded within these universalistic fictions. So-called “second wave” feminism, which adopted the tag “women’s liberation” from the rhetoric of Marxism, arose among female activists of the Civil Rights movement who felt excluded by the male leadership because of their gender. “Third wave feminism”, starting in the 1980s, re-inserted racial differentiation into the concept of women’s identity (e.g., by adding such qualifiers as “women of color” and a new distinction between “womanism” and “feminism”).
The current Presidential election is not only shattering long-held assumptions and strategies within both parties, it is also revealing an underlying crisis of identity theory and the politics that accompanies it, which has been the stock-in-trade for political and religious theorists as well as political theologians. We probably cannot go back to the old Enlightenment universalism, to which the grammar of liberal democracy is joined at the hip. But we do at least need to reconsider the possibility of a thinking the power of a new kind of ethical universalism that can guide our politics.
Some way of updating, rethinking, and re-theorizing the moral marrow of our sundry religious universalisms might be the place to start, and the marching orders for our political theologians.