Critics from all sides take issue with identity politics. Niamh O’Regan argues that we need identity politics in these trying times.
IDENTITY politics is a form of politics that reflects and vocalises the concerns of a particular group of people, whose concerns reflect issues relating to a specific part of their identity. Certain identity politics shaped the original political cleavages; church-state, rural-urban, capitalist-socialist.
In 2017 however, identity politics is now widely associated with more personal or indeed innate identifying traits. This is very often found in terms of minority races and marginalised groups, those not represented by the dominant groups. No longer the working class, there is the working class divided by ethnic or racial groupings, women are grouped racially and by class and so on and so forth; every layer of identity adds a dimension.
It is not unreasonable to believe that without a surge in identity politics in the 1960s and 1970s, civil rights across the Western world would not be what they are today and the road to semblance of equality would be much further away.
Identity politics, as it is understood by many, is directed at helping bring everyone to as much the same level as possible. Not the fight of one identity over others for one to be the ultimate and to be the best. Its most crucial importance is raising particular issues of discrimination or inequality felt by particular groups in society, which would not ordinarily be addressed by a political party.
“Without a surge in identity politics in the 1960’s and 1970’s, civil rights across the Western world would not be what they are today.”
Therefore true enactment of identity politics is not just making noise and raising issues. Instead it involves actually improving and creating social and political structures. It can make society more homogenous, less divided and more equal.
While it is not a new concept, how we are exposed to it has become a lot broader than it was in the past. Yet, the idea of fighting for rights specifically associated with you as a person is not novel.
Societies are growing, as is globalisation. The various types of people diversify and are due representation and protection under law like any other residents. Often this protection, not being recognised as needed by the already protected, needs to be demanded and so it is. It is sometimes met with a backlash, leading to the rise of the ugly side of identity politics, with hyper nationalism and supremacism occurring. Even within a nation it can have a tendency to pigeonhole people, and it doesn’t always lend itself to intersectionality. It can also entrench divisions and create divisions within divisions.
In the case of the widely discussed US election, white working class America voted as a group, in favour of a way which they felt would protect them and their identity. Similar to other identity politics groups, a segment of society felt as though the system was forgetting about them and their needs, they campaigned and voted accordingly. Unfortunately it served to disadvantage several other groups.
“True enactment of identity politics is not just making noise and raising issues. Instead it involves actually improving and creating social and political structures.”
There are several issues with identity politics at the moment, primarily piggybacking and regression. Normally a political party is not based around politics of an exact identity, considering how that would limit a voter base substantially. However, other identity groups are directly targeted in order to expand a voter base, a party that will remember you as well as their traditional general economic and social supporters. This has been a prominent issue in the US especially when it comes to race groups; people speak of the black vote, the women’s vote, the Hispanic vote and so on.
The second main issue is the regressive backlash to it. Identity politics has been added to the group of things classed as “political correctness gone mad”, and that it doesn’t address “real issues”. However it also comes to the fore when those in the dominant group then feel they need to have their identity represented. They don’t see a programme for them, they want rights too, not always fully understanding they already have the rights or the rights don’t apply to them.
It’s very easy to dismiss a system you don’t see yourself as part of, and to criticise it when the benefits to you don’t seem obvious, or indeed aren’t there. More regressive than that, it can create an attitude amongst some that there are identities that are more important than others. Far right ultra-nationalism is very much identity politics. An “anti-immigrant, only us” stance is a rather brazen form of identity politics. It is only beneficial to a very select small group of people, and can be by deliberately inhibiting others.
The growth of this very divisive form of identity politics is highly regressive and does not truly benefit anyone in the long term. If this is the dominant trajectory for identity politics then it deserves all the criticism it can get. One can only hope that this is not the case, so that the real nature of identity politics can shine through.