The Evolution of Identity Politics and the Devolution of the Democratic Party

3.07.2018

By Logan Gossett

Pride, absent delusion, is a consequence of achievement. I did not abolish slavery, nor was I a pilgrim that successfully cultivated North American soil. As David French noted for the National Review, advances of the past command gratitude, not pride. I am grateful for the abolition of slavery; I am proud, and relieved, that I learned potty-training. There is an important difference between the two.

Delineating what necessitates pride and what necessitates gratitude exposes a microcosm of identity politics’s myriad flaws: it creates fractious, delusional pride in identity rather than unifying gratitude that’s granted potentiality by self-determinism; it replaces gratitude for what our predecessors did (e.g., devise a government that respects self determinism, abolish slavery, and scaffold indiscriminate suffrage) with pride in what we didn’t do (e.g., the aforementioned). By attempting to represent the interests of the marginalized, it suppresses the voices of the individual.

In the Federalist Papers’ lauded tenth entry, James Madison, writing as Publius, attempted to reconcile the rift “factions” create between liberty for all individuals and security for asset-possessing individuals. The essay’s undulating principles extol self-determinism and employ representative government to uphold it. In the Federalist Papers’ tenth entry, Madison says “[But] it could not be less folly to abolish liberty, which is essential to political life, because it nourishes faction, than it would be to wish the annihilation of air, which is essential to animal life, because it imparts to fire its destructive agency.”

Factions as Madison describes them will naturally form between those with commonalities, but the individuals therein included are not defined by their faction. The social advocacy of the Federalist Papers No. 10 is that the republic should 1) safeguard factions from dictating a nation’s legislation and 2) prevent factions from overriding an individual’s inherent self-determinism.

Identity politics creates factions that prescribe allegiances to individuals — whether by skin color, income, sexual orientation, or any another appraisal method. This conflates the best interests of an individual with the best interests of factions.

The waxing of identity politics in American political rhetoric has diluted discoucourse. News and op-eds are replete with self-parodying presuppositions about opposing factions.

For example, Chauncey Devega wrote for Salon in January, saying “Trump and the Republicans’ attempts to connect Democratic support for the ‘Dreamers’ […] with murder and gang violence, is one more example of how the American right has sought to incite violence against any groups or individuals it perceives as political enemies.”

A simplification of Devega’s rhetorical use of identity politics here is “the right hates hispanics.” The purported objective of the right to incite violence against hispanics in this example is a gross presupposition that ends discourse between democrat and republican factions before it can begin.

Joshua Mitchell, a professor teaching political science at Georgetown University, explained identity politics attribution of factions in City Journal’s publication.

Identity pertains not simply to the kind of person that we are. People have been sorted (and self-sorted) into kinds throughout history. Identity is different. First, it carries a determination about guilt or innocence that nothing can appreciably alter. Its guilt is guilt without atonement; its innocence is innocence without fault. No redemption is possible, but only a schema of never-ending debts and payments.

The issue of identity politics begins with devaluing self-determinism and it ends with what Mitchell described as debts. He continued to expound on the varying degrees of indebtedness, describing a christian hetersexual white male as the “epicenter of guilt.” The closer an individual is to the epicenter guilt, the more guilty and, thus, “indebted.” The further an individual is from the epicenter of guilt – heterosexual white male – the more innocent they are.

Mitchell posited that the panacea for the wounds of past transgressions, like slavery, is to unify around a gratitude for the potential America helps scaffold for all individuals, regardless of race and its arbitrarily prescribed modern debts. This is the dream Dr. Martin Luther King worked toward and, as Mitchell concluded, “If the party cannot find a cure for its confusion, it will expire in the paroxysm that identity politics produces.” Some traditional liberals share Mitchell’s sentiment toward identity politics.

In an op-ed published in the New York Times, Columbia University professor Mark Lilla denounced identity politics. “Finally, the whitelash thesis is convenient because it absolves liberals of not recognizing how their own obsession with diversity has encouraged white, rural, religious Americans to think of themselves as a disadvantaged group whose identity is being threatened or ignored.” Lilla continued, “Such people are not actually reacting against the reality of our diverse America […] they are reacting against the omnipresent rhetoric of identity.”

Identity politics have a checkered history in the United States, starting with the Ku Klux Klan. Fivethirtyeight observed the synergy between left and right – or even black and white – identity politics without acknowledging it.

In his New York Times op-ed, Lilla observed that “Those who play the identity game should be prepared to lose it.” Democrats are playing the identity game. In doing so, they renounce the hope and human commonalities inspired by traditional liberalism and opt for a convulsive emphasis of differences between American factions.

Of course, democrats with a rooting interest in identity politics decried Mark Lilla’s denouncement of it. Lilla’s coworker at Columbia, professor Katherine Frank, objected to Lilla’s counterpoint to identity politics, saying “Lilla’s op-ed does the more nefarious background work of making white supremacy respectable. Again.” This, despite Lilla’s explicit objections to identity politics largely because of white supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan.

The democratic backlash caused by Lilla’s objections to identity politics is illustrative of the corrosive in-fighting identity politics creates, fracturing the democratic party internally, and widening the cataclysmic chasm between the democrats and republicans.

Identity politics appears to subvert the autonomy of individuals in favor of projecting the needs of the individual’s factions. Author Shane Phelan attempted to reconcile this conflict in Identity Politics: Lesbian Feminism and the Limits of Community. “[she need not] agree that my understanding of a good life is the true, the best, the purest. What she need do is believe that I mean what I say; that is, she must agree to treat me as a being competent to speak of my own desires and motives directly, even if she suspects that I am not.”

Phelan’s mechanism for identity politics depends on the individual’s voice being heard. In democratic identity politics, as professor Joshua Mitchell stated, the most important characteristic of individuals “is that we are white, black, male, female, straight, gay, and so on.” Rather than respecting the individual’s ability to express their desires and motives, this information is presupposed by our characteristics (i.e., identity) through identity politics.

Unifying gratitude for the liberty James Madison advocated for in the Federalist Papers has been replaced by a fractious pride in identity through democratic identity politics. Although democratic identity politics seeks to rectify the concerns of the marginalized, it mutes them.

 

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