BY HANK REICHMAN
Last month I posted to this blog Christopher Newfield’s excellent response to the notorious New York Times op-ed by Mark Lilla on “identity politics.” If you haven’t read Chris’s piece, you should. At the time I mentioned that “I still may post more on this topic,” and since then I’ve been collecting various pieces discussing “identity politics” from multiple perspectives that I thought might help me better articulate my own views. Among the more useful pieces were those by Matthew Yglesias at vox.com, Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker, Michelle Goldberg in Slate, and Vann Newkirk on North Carolina’s new Rainbow Coalition as demonstrative of the practical utility of such politics in The Atlantic. [UPDATE 12/16: See also this interesting exchange published today between Lilla and Sean Illing at vox.] But then I encountered the terrific treatment posted yesterday by McGill University professor Jacob Levy at the website of the libertarian Niskanen Center, which has on its board such figures as Grover Norquist, George Schultz, and other prominent figures identified mainly with the Right. Levy’s piece, “The Defense of Liberty Can’t Do Without Identity Politics,” struck me as spot-on. If politics does indeed sometimes make for strange bedfellows, perhaps this is an example.
I highly recommend reading the entire piece, but here are some choice quotes:
I should be clear that I’ve got my own list of wacky, ridiculous, and sometimes quite wicked excesses of identity politics and political correctness. I suspect that most people who spend much time on university campuses, and aren’t themselves very far on the left, do. It turns out that 18-year-olds seized of the conviction of their own righteousness are prone to immoderation and simplistic views. (Who knew?) And the last several years have absolutely seen a new level of identity-politics policing of popular culture. This has certainly not come only from the left: witness GamerGate and the preemptive online fury against the new women-led Ghostbusters movie. But there have been cases on the left I would identify as excesses.
What I can’t see any excuse for doing is mapping my list of excesses onto the voting behavior of 80,000 very-low-information voters in three states, and then ignoring either Trump’s unpopularity at the moments of his own political incorrectness, or the absence of any general (or white) swing in Trump’s direction relative to the baseline of ordinary partisanship. A lot of butterflies flapped their wings to bring about the November 8 result, but we have particularly little reason to think that this was one of them.
There is something particularly absurd in the post-election morality plays that say “whites [or white Christians, or white Christian men] have now learned how to do identity politics and how to vote like an aggrieved ethnic group, because that’s what other groups have been doing all these years.” White identity politics is a constitutive fact of American politics, and if an election in which the Republican got the normal share of the white vote counts as white identity politics in action, well, that suggests a deep problem, but it doesn’t suggest a new problem.
The disproportionate impact of mass incarceration and aggressive policing on African-Americans isn’t some unfortunate side-effect of well-intentioned policies. The politics of drug prohibition, the war on drugs, and the subsequent expansions of police power and imprisonment were never racially innocent to begin with, and it is no accident that Nixon launched the War on Drugs when the ink was barely dry on the formal end of Jim Crow segregation and disenfranchisement.
As has so often happened in American history, state power expanded in order to persuade white voters that blacks were being kept under control. The appropriation of the language of freedom and anti-statism by those seeking to defend state-level racial tyrannies in the south fools more people than it should, but illiberal state power has far more often been caused by white racism than resisted by it. To think otherwise, one has to think that police and prisons don’t count as instances of state power at all.
Black Lives Matter has provided the first truly large-scale political mobilization against police violence and mass incarceration since the War on Drugs began. It’s perfectly true that many liberal (very much including libertarian) scholars and analysts have been calling for reform of police practices, an end to police militarization and civil forfeiture abuse, respect for civil liberties, and drug decriminalization or legalization for a long time. It’s true that it’s possible to offer those analyses in a race-neutral way. But given that the policies aren’t race-neutral, it shouldn’t surprise us that opposition to them isn’t either, and that the real political energy for mobilizing against them would be race-conscious energy.
If Black Lives Matter is “identity politics,” then identity politics has provided one of the most significant political mobilizations in defense of freedom in the United States in my lifetime. That doesn’t belong on the “to be sure” exception side of a rule that is driven by the politics of gender pronouns. It’s precisely the other way around.
Identity politics at its best, in other words, isn’t just a matter of being on some group’s side. It’s about fighting for political justice by drawing on the commitment that arises out of targeted injustice, and about having the intellectual resources to let us diagnose that targeted injustice. It lets us spot the majority group’s identity politics rather than treating it as the normal background state of affairs, and to recognize the oppression and injustice that it generates.
By all means, we should criticize identity politics when it goes wrong, as it often does in moments of symbolic, cultural, and campus politics. But there’s no source of political energy and ideas that doesn’t sometimes go wrong; goodness knows that a commitment to abstract philosophical principles often does.
Political fights aren’t won with universal principled arguments alone, and pretending that they are is often a mask for the identity politics of the staatsvolk. As citizens of a liberal state trying to preserve it, we need to be able to hear each other talking about particularized injustices, and to cheer each other on when we seek to overturn them. Members of disadvantaged minorities standing up for themselves aren’t to blame for the turn to populist authoritarianism; and their energy and commitment is a resource that free societies can’t do without in resisting it.
The entire piece is here: https://niskanencenter.org/blog/defense-liberty-cant-without-identity-politics/