Identity Politics Revisited


Mary Bernstein wrote her piece “Identity Politics” in 2005. A time when the George W. Bush administration used its own form of identity politics to win reelection. They used wedge issues such as gay marriage and abortion to divide voters that may have had an economic self-interest to vote Democrat. Unlike today, the early Bush years saw relatively low unemployment (except for the brief 9.11 induced recession) and steady economic growth. This all came to a crashing halt with the coming Great Recession, a blow from which the economy has not yet recovered. Concurrent with the economic downturn was a rise in both a white right-wing populism (the Tea Party) and the predominately left-wing Occupy movement. The latter relied heavily on class-based rhetoric that focused on inequality and corporate power. This was identity politics of another form: using the common identity of being in the 99% (e.g., a have-not) instead of the social constructions around gender, race, sexual orientation, etc.

Bernstein predicted in her piece that if there were an economic downturn, there would be an increase such forms of class-based politics. Until then, other forms of identity-based politics would dominate the political and social discourse. The prophetic nature of her writing raises an interesting question: do race, gender, and sexual orientation-based politics grow during relatively better economic periods?

After some reflection, I believe that the answer is a qualified no. Simply put, identity politics did not disappear during the economic crisis. In fact, gay marriage, women’s reproductive rights, and the race (especially with the presidency of Barack Obama) are very much alive in today’s public discourse. Therefore, it is not so much that more stable economic times facilitate identity politics: bad economic times affect white people’s pocketbooks. African-Americans, Latinos, and other disadvantaged groups have suffered high unemployment rates for decades. What made the Great Recession different is that educated middle-class whites experience high jobless rates, too. In turn, some white citizens unite with the already economic oppressed to advocate against inequality. Occupy, of course, was not a monolithic block. In fact, it was a coalition of many different groups and tendencies both of the left, the apolitical, and even some libertarians.

The Occupy movement (really a coalition) faced some difficulties. In short, the Occupy movement encompassed people with much different levels of life experience and expectations about what a movement would be. Issues of how long discussions would take to what kind of goals the movement divided the nascent formation. There was a battle of the pragmatics akin to the researcher and the community organizer. Those who were on the ground constantly had a greater sense of what was possible and what was not. Nevertheless, the movement allowed each voice equal space – no matter their level of commitment.

In building a long-term movement for change, the radical and democratic left needs to accept that identity politics are here to stay. In fact, our class analysis is also a form of identity politics. Dismissing other forms of identity politics as a distraction misses a critical point: coalitions united around common interests are the path to institutional changes. We are doubtful there will be a working-class party to lead the poor and oppressed into social democracy and democratic socialism. Yet, we should be pretty certain we can unite workers, women, people of color, LGBTQ, and others at different times around social and political issues. We can dismantle discrimination and institutional prejudice through community and political organizing, but we can’t do that until we admit that intersectionality (the connections of different privileges and oppressions) plays a real role in our lives.

The Great Recession might have increased the clout of class-based organizing, but it did not attenuate the fights for gay marriage, racist attacks on President Obama, and efforts to curtail reproductive rights. In fact, the groups rallying against the president, gay marriage, and reproductive rights were overwhelming the same people supporting economic inequality. If our opponents can find unity around identity, so should we! And when we do, we win!

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