Identity politics used to be for Democrats – now it’s for Republicans and they’re using it perniciously.
Identity politics have long been central to the message of the Democratic party, viewed as a constituency of African American people, Hispanic people, educated white progressives, LGBTQ people, single women and more.
Conservatives, meanwhile, had previously defined themselves ideologically.
Ronald Reagan’s so-called “three-legged stool” united a coalition of ideologically distinct groups – national security conservatives, social conservatives and fiscal conservatives – to pursue a single set of policies.
But from protests around the removal of Confederate statues to the backlash over NFL players kneeling in protest at police brutality, Donald Trump’s first year in the White House has shown Republicans to be the real drivers of identity politics. It’s just one development that typically goes unremarked upon.
Sarah Schulman has written that: “Gentrification is a process that hides the apparatus of domination from the dominant themselves.” Just so, Trump’s prioritization of America’s traditionally powerful class (white, male and wealthy) has been gifted a cloak of invisibility.
The right is quick to accuse Democrats of identity politicking when they do things such as prioritize voter turnout efforts and equal access to services for same-sex couples, say, or when they promote legalizing undocumented immigrants and healthcare for the half the population that isn’t male. And even prominent Democrats such as Bernie Sanders say the party focuses too much on identity, to the detriment of more important things.
But it’s Republicans who have been working overtime to protect the narrow interests of a chosen demographic group. Because we take the privileges of the powerful for granted, however, only the interests of minority groups get described in these terms.
Minority groups are criticized for “playing the woman card”, or benefiting from affirmative action, when in fact it’s the powerful in society who’ve benefited from an invisible form of affirmative action all along. Not having to acknowledge that privilege allows the powerful to engage in a game of make-believe, perpetuating the myth that their success is a matter of strict meritocracy.
In his piece for the Atlantic, Reflections of an affirmative action baby, Peter Beinart demonstrates uncommon insight and honesty when he explains how he benefited from such unwritten rules as a young editor at the storied liberal magazine the New Republic. The owner and editor-in-chief at the time felt a particular hostility to affirmative action, Beinart explains, but the irony was the magazine was itself was already “a hothouse of racial and sexual preference”, just one that skewed away from women and certain minorities.
Ta-Nehisi Coates describes the benefits of race, gender and class provided to so many of us as a “tailwind”. And Beinart, to his credit, saw his own experience in that metaphor. He writes: “I was running hard. But without that tailwind, it’s unlikely I would have become the magazine’s editor at age 28.”
Trump and his party haven’t been so honest.
When I was in Maine visiting my husband’s family this summer, a prominent former lefty leader bemoaned his party’s “emphasis on identity politics”, adding what Democrats really need is a more “masculine” candidate and a focus on the white working class.
This is the most pernicious form of identity politics of all: identity politics for me but not for thee. Trump and others on the right and sometimes the left have sought to dress it up as a form of populism, but it’s just old-fashioned nativism with a new 21st-century twist.
There were glints of it with the rise of the Tea Party but never have white identity politics – the costumed politics of bigotry – reached such great heights, all while still passing for invisible. If there’s a three-legged stool to the GOP now its legs are all of a piece: whiteness, wealth and masculinity.
Trump hasn’t accomplished much policy-wise but his tax bill is designed to drastically lower taxes for the wealthiest Americans at the expense of its weakest. Coupled with his recent campaigning for an alleged child molester and refusal to condemn white nationalist forces in Charlottesville earlier this year, it’s clear Trump is carrying off the most shameless form of identity politics of all: protecting entrenched power and its abuse.
The good news, if there is any, is that Trump’s grasping signals the dominant power is no longer so dominant. Where before it went unquestioned, it has to defend itself now.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010