All Politics Is Identity Politics

Are there two political forces more vilified than interest groups and identity politics? No matter what your ideology or political party, if you want to prove that you are truly committed to the betterment of our nation, you are almost required to speak out against these pernicious influences. Organizing with other people who share your particular identity and interests? That's selfish. Practically anti-democratic. And, many have argued in this magazine and in other progressive venues over the past 20 years, it's harmful to liberalism.

Kathleen M. Sullivan, writing in the Prospect in 1998, summarized Nancy Rosenblum's book, Membership and Morals: "Rather than socializing members for democracy, groups are likely to be exclusionary, snobbish, and competitive vis-a-vis others. The internal cooperation they foster in no way guarantees that they will be ... civic, virtuous, or deliberative in relation to the larger polity." In 2004, Michael Lind argued in these pages that, in order to regain the majority, the Democratic Party should attempt to dissociate itself from "identity-politics groups -- blacks, Latinos, feminists, gays, and lesbians -- and economic-interest groups, like unions" -- and instead organize itself by geography. And perhaps most notably, in a 2006 Prospect cover story Michael Tomasky decried the "million-little-pieces, interest-group approach to politics" and stated that "citizens should be called upon to look beyond their own self-interest and work for a greater common interest."

Barack Obama's adoption of the "Yes we can!" slogan -- "we" being the operative word -- tested the greater-good thesis on the campaign trail. Although pundits like Andrew Sullivan praised what they saw as Obama's attempt to distance himself from identity politics, his appeal to the common good was also packaged within a historic narrative: the promise of the first black president. Exit-poll analysis shows that race was a significant factor in his victory -- Obama won 95 percent of black votes and 67 percent of Hispanic votes, compared to Kerry's 88 percent and 53 percent, respectively. But the increased support among minority voters for Obama was not due solely to his race. As John Halpin and Ruy Teixeira have been pointing out for years, African Americans, Hispanics, and Asians are the most reliable Democratic voters -- no matter what the candidate's ethnicity. Indeed, as we head into what looks to be a difficult midterm election for Democrats, the Democratic National Committee is again turning to its nonwhite base. In a DNC video released this spring and directed at minority voters, Obama says, "It will be up to each of you to make sure that the young people, African Americans, Latinos, and women who powered our victory in 2008 stand together once again."

While identity is not the sole predictor of ideology, at least today, for many groups it is a strong indication. In an 18,000-word research paper published in the Prospect in 2006, Halpin and Teixeira identified racial and ethnic minorities as "the single strongest element of the progressive coalition," followed by "single, working, and highly educated women." In other words, the people most likely to identify with the liberal worldview are those who have experienced some lack of freedom and opportunity themselves.

Progressives love identity in the voting booth -- it's how we knew our long-awaited majority was going to emerge. But when it comes time to govern, these constituencies quickly transform from the very lifeblood of progressivism into a perceived burden. You would think that, because minorities and women are the keys to progressives' demographic success at the polls, their particular concerns would be of utmost importance to leaders and lawmakers. Instead, "identity groups" agitating for equality and their place at the table have often been told to sit tight and trust movement leaders to do what's best for everyone. We might all agree that gay couples deserve marriage rights, and women must have access to reproductive health care, but when it comes to devising a political strategy and policy agenda, these are inevitably the issues that slide quietly to the back burner. It is painfully clear that in reality we do not all take on the same level of responsibility for securing the rights in which we claim to believe.

Calls to reject identity and adopt a "greater good" approach never make clear who defines that greater good. Who decides which issues have to wait and which are of utmost importance? Think back on some of the biggest steps this country has taken toward equality. Without the existence of groups specifically advocating for their rights, would women, African Americans, or LGBT people have made any progress? Would Lyndon Johnson actually have signed the Civil Rights Act absent pressure from the NAACP, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and other racial-justice oriented groups? Would the Family and Medical Leave Act have passed without the insistence of feminists? If it weren't for the gay-rights movement, would the federal government still be denying the existence of AIDS?

The problem is not the presence of identity groups within the progressive coalition. The problem is the party and movement structure that make them necessary. Despite their nominal commitment to equality and opportunity, the Democratic Party and progressive movement reflect the biases and hierarchies of the rest of the country. The president may be black and the speaker of the House a woman, but as I argued in these pages shortly after Hillary Clinton dropped out of the 2008 Democratic primary, a handful of leaders who break the mold are not enough to actually, well, break the mold. Until the progressive-movement leadership actually reflects the members that make up its core constituencies, pressure from identity groups will be necessary to ensure those constituencies are given a voice, that their concerns are addressed.

The common good is a laudable goal, but asking progressives to subsume their identities and interests is not the way to achieve it. Allowing people to organize based on their identities and deeply held beliefs is just smart politics. Those groups can -- and do -- work together to craft policies and organizing strategies that lift all members of the coalition, not just those who are white, heterosexual, economically advantaged, and male. Until we can trust the movement's standard-bearers to include the top-tier concerns of women, people of color, and gay Americans in that common good, identity-based groups will remain necessary.

The progressive movement will only ensure its survival by deepening its commitment to these people, not taking their votes for granted. If we continue to compromise on their concerns, or dismiss them as "special interests" working against a nebulous greater good, we will ultimately render our shared concept of liberalism totally meaningless. After all, if each group within the coalition is actually just in it alone, what's the point of subscribing to a common ideology at all?

Critiques of identity politics fail to acknowledge that people join social-justice and political groups because they actually do want to look beyond themselves and make our country a better place. Amy Gutmann writes in her 2003 book, Identity in Democracy, that members of the sorts of identity groups that make up the progressive coalition "don't usually join because they want some instrumental goods from the group that they could not otherwise obtain. ... Shared identity is connected to identification with a group and, as a large body of psychological literature demonstrates, is independent of the pursuit of self-interest." This holds true with what I know about people who came to progressive politics by way of identity -- including myself. I didn't become a feminist to ensure my own access to contraception or a salary equal to that of my male peers. In a view typical of women of my generation, I don't want to believe I personally need feminism for that. However, these are issues with which I have direct experience, and I can connect that experience to the broad, societal ways sexism and gender discrimination persist. I can safely say that if I hadn't initially seen politics through the lens of gender, I would not work at a progressive magazine today. I was a feminist before I was a liberal.

I'm certainly not alone. Most political acts -- even those done under the auspices of "special interests" like immigrant rights, abortion rights, or racial justice -- are done in service of a greater good. Most activists don't become clinic escorts or agitate to get racist shock jocks fired or cancel their vacations to Arizona for themselves. Identity groups are made up of people who want to be part of something bigger, people who recognize personal injustices and want to channel their indignation into a greater quest for a better country. That sentiment is the very fuel of progressivism.

After all, as Tomasky wrote in his cover story, we're all in it together. Labor rights are tied to gay rights are tied to women's rights are tied to immigrants' rights. If what binds us together as progressives is our vision for a more just society, it is our commitment to all of these issues that will define us. This doesn't mean everyone must be an advocate for every single issue. Each of us has a different metric for separating the political negotiables from the nonnegotiables. But I do expect the liberal coalition, particularly its leaders, to be sensitive to whose greater good our agenda is serving. Until the leaders of the progressive movement and Democratic Party reflect the core constituencies that support them, interest and identity groups will remain powerful and necessary. And I wouldn't have it any other way. After all, my identity is why I'm a liberal in the first place.

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