Women’s issues aren’t just ‘identity politics’

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The post-election blame game is still in full swing: Who fucked up? Who can we hate? Who can we blame? Who let this happen? Its latest iteration is the charge that Hillary Clinton focused too much on “identity politics.” We’re told she alienated white working class voters by talking too much about race and sex, rather than in broad economic terms alone. Clinton’s very existence as a woman is framed as identity politics in and of itself, as this made her a “diversity candidate,” rather than, one presumes, simply a “normal” candidate (i.e. a man).

Characterized in this way, “identity politics” represent a form of political unsophistication — an easy way for people who are too dull or lazy to actually focus on the issues to make a decision by voting based on their identity. Susan Sarandon proudly declared she was above all this, stating, “I don’t vote with my vagina.”

A widely-shared article at Talking Points Memo, “Sanders Urges Supporters: Ditch Identity Politics and Embrace The Working Class,” quotes Bernie Sanders saying, “It is not good enough for somebody to say I’m a woman, vote for me.” In this controversial speech in Boston last Sunday, Sanders suggests that, while diversity in government is needed, it cannot replace focus on championing the working class as a whole.

In an op-ed at the New York Times, Mark Lilla claims Clinton made a “strategic mistake” in “calling out explicitly to African-American, Latino, LGBT, and women voters at every stop.” He argues this move caused white working class voters to feel “excluded,” which allowed Trump to win. Lilla warns, “If you are going to mention groups in America, you had better mention all of them.”

I’m not sure how a political candidate is supposed to mention all groups at all times, as they can only focus on so many issues per speech. Lilla’s argument relies on the idea that discussing these social groups appeals to “identity,” rather than political issues. Speaking purely in economic terms is thereby presented as serious and respectable politics, while speaking about social problems in terms of racism, sexism, xenophobia, etc. is framed as simply a shallow appeal to certain groups. “Identity politics,” used in this way, mostly serves to position issues not affecting white males as having less political importance. Unfortunately, within the Democratic Party’s post-election soul searching, the term has exploded in usage.

In an interview with men’s magazine GQ, Sanders made similar comments to his Boston speech, saying, “You can’t run a campaign — you can’t run a party — based on… racism, sexism, homophobia. You need to stand for something!” It’s funny how the interests of men always count as something, while the interests of women are just a bunch of hoo-ha, framed as self-obsession.

But being female is not simply “identity” —  it is a material and political reality. In fact, it is one of the most fundamental political realities informing the social organization of this world.

There are no headlines reading, “Sanders appeals to Walmart worker identity in speech denouncing the corporation’s corruption.” Yet Clinton is charged with baiting Latinos via “identity politics” by discussing her plan for immigration reform.

Rather than pointing out how reductive and belittling this is, many liberal publications have reacted to Lilla’s op-ed and Sanders’ comments by defending identity politics — claiming that all politics are identity politics or that Trump’s campaign was merely white identity politics.

However, Trump’s campaign strategy was not just an appeal to this demographic, but rather a leveraging of a culture war that has been steadily intensifying between the American conservatives and liberals. As Michelle Goldberg describes it in Slate, his supporters “opted for the politics of cultural revenge delivered by a billionaire in a gold-plated airplane.”

Lilla points to the contemporary gender identity movement as a prominent point of resentment of the liberal establishment. He writes:

“How to explain to the average voter the supposed moral urgency of giving college students the right to choose the designated gender pronouns to be used when addressing them? How not to laugh along with those voters at the story of a University of Michigan prankster who wrote in ‘His Majesty’?”

Lilla is not alone in this assessment. On Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update Colin Jost joked:

“The dating app Tinder announced a new feature this week which gives users 37 new gender identity options. It’s called ‘Why Democrats Lost The Election.’”

Goldberg writes that she “will not mourn the more illiberal aspects of social justice politics,” making a thinly veiled reference to the way gender identity dominates campus ideology, rejecting free speech in the process. She adds, “Maybe Everyday Feminism, the website that encompasses everything insufferable about social justice culture, will finally be revealed as an elaborate right-wing psy-ops campaign.”

The contemporary gender identity movement is perhaps the ideology most worthy of the “identity politics” label, as it’s entirely based on the valorization of the non-material self-identifications of individuals. Chillingly, Lilla suggests that the current focus on self-identity led, in part, to the surge in American white nationalism/white supremacism we are now witnessing. Lilla’s essay seems to have hit a nerve, and evoked a huge response, indicating there is truth in his arguments.

But ultimately, Lilla ends up adopting the liberal “obsession” he denounces by reducing politics focused on systemic issues like racism and sexism to little more than personal identities. He draws a direct line from feminist, anti-racist efforts to what he describes as the “narcissistically unaware” liberal youth and the “campus craziness” of gender identity politics mocked by Fox News and other conservative media outlets. This flattens out the contours of the conservative vs. liberal culture war, by lumping the old conservative opposition to women and minorities in with the very new regime of gender identity and its demands of political correctness.

This conflation blames women for “identity liberalism,” by suggesting that our focus on sexism turned out to be just a slippery slope toward the dizzying pantheon of “PC” identities (such as those officially recognized and protected by the City of New York: “androgyne,” “gender gifted,” and “gender blender”), which served to alienate many voters and aid Trump in winning. Like Sanders, Lilla characterizes women’s issues as “narrow” appeals to identity and “diversity,” and argues that a “post-identity liberalism” should instead appeal to “Americans as Americans.” The message to liberal women is basically: “Take one for the team and shut up.”

One would think being half of the damn population would make us more than some minor, divisive concern.

Women’s issues have been labelled “identity politics” for decades in order to belittle the feminist cause as politically unsubstantial/unimportant. In fact, the term first became prominent in American academia during its anti-Marxist ’80s in order to describe women as a fragmented group of individuals, rather than a class of persons with common class interests. Sadly, leftists have responded to Lilla’s critique by defending identity politics as if there is no other way to address issues like racism and sexism. But no matter how male politicians, leftists, and academics try to minimize our movement, writing women’s oppression off as frivolous, we know feminism is about much more than “identity” — this is a global political uprising.

Susan Cox
Susan Cox

Susan Cox is a feminist writer and academic living in the United States. She teaches in Philosophy.

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