Stanley Fish makes the case for a particular brand of identity politics in the NYT
February 17, 2008, 9:43 pm
When ‘Identity Politics’ Is Rational
If there’s anything everyone is against in these election times, it’s “identity politics,” a phrase that covers a multitude of sins. Let me start with a definition. (It may not be yours, but it will at least allow the discussion to be framed.) You’re practicing identity politics when you vote for or against someone because of his or her skin color, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or any other marker that leads you to say yes or no independently of a candidate’s ideas or policies. In essence identity politics is an affirmation of the tribe against the claims of ideology, and by ideology I do not mean something bad (a mistake frequently made), but any agenda informed by a vision of what the world should be like.
An identity politics voter says, in effect, I don’t care what views he holds, or even what bad things he may have done, or what lack of ability he may display; he’s my brother, or he’s my kinsman, or he’s my landsman, or he comes from the neighborhood, or he’s a Southerner, or (and here the tribe is really big) my country right or wrong. “My country right or wrong” is particularly useful in making clear how identity politics differs from politics as many Americans would prefer to see it practiced. Rather than saying she’s right on immigration or he’s wrong on the war, the identity-politics voter says he looks like me or she and I belong to the same church.
Identity politics is illiberal. That is, it is particularist whereas liberalism is universalist. The history of liberalism is a history of extending the franchise to those who were once excluded from it by their race, gender or national origin. Although these marks of identification were retained (by the census and other forms of governmental classification) and could still be celebrated in private associations like the church and the social club, they were not supposed to be the basis of decisions one might make “as a citizen,” decisions about who might best lead the country or what laws should be enacted or voted down. Deciding as a citizen means deciding not as a man or a woman or a Jew or an African American or a Caucasian or a heterosexual, but as a human being.
Stanley Crouch believes that the project of liberal universalizing is now pretty much complete and that “elements of distinction” – his phrase for the thinking that was fashionable in “the era of ‘identity politics’ ” – “have become secondary to the power of human qualities with which anyone can identify or reject” (Daily News, Feb. 11). But his judgment is belied by almost everything that is going on in this campaign. As I write this I am watching the returns from the “Potomac Primary” and the news is being presented entirely in racial, ethnic, and gender terms. Every newspaper or magazine article I read does the same thing. The Obama and Clinton campaigns accuse each other of playing the race card or the gender card. An Hispanic superdelegate warns that by replacing her Latino campaign manager with a black one, Senator Clinton risks losing his vote and the vote of other Hispanic delegates he is in the process of contacting.
Christopher Hitchens looks at the scene and is disgusted by behavior that, in his view, “keeps us anchored in the past.” (Wall Street Journal, Jan. 18) He will not, he tells us, vote for Clinton just so that we can have the “ ‘first woman president’ ” (I don’t remember that one from the past); and he won’t vote for Obama who, he says, “wants us to transcend something at the same time he implicitly asks us to give that same something as a reason to vote for him.” It would seem that we are far from realizing Ken Connor’s dream that we might judge “all of the presidential hopefuls on the basis of the content of their character and their qualifications to serve” (Townhall.com, Jan. 20).
But is it as bad as all that? Is it so irrational and retrograde to base one’s vote on the gender or race of religion or ethnicity of a candidate? Not necessarily. If the vote is given (or withheld) only because the candidate looks like you or has the same religion, it does seem a shallow and meretricious act, for it is an act unsupported by reasons. “Because she is a woman as I am” is of course a reason, but it is not a reason of the relevant kind, a reason that cites goals and programs, and argues for them. But suppose what was said was something like this: “As a woman I find government sponsored research skewed in the direction of diseases that afflict men and inattentive to the medical problems faced by women, and it is my belief that a woman president will devote resources to the solution of those problems.” That’s an identity politics argument which is thick, not thin; the she’s-like-me point is not invoked as sufficient unto itself, but as it relates to a matter of policy. The calculation may or may not pan out (successful candidates both disappoint and surprise), but it is a calculation of the right kind.
One objection to identity politics (Crouch makes it in the same column) is that groups and populations are not monolithic, but display a diversity of attitudes and positions. Yes they do, but members of a group who might disagree with each other on any number of things could nevertheless come together on a matter of shared concern. American Jews, for example, have widely varying views on many important issues – tax cuts, tort reform, gay marriage, the Iraq war. Still, the vast majority believes that it is important to defend the security of Israel. This is a belief shared even by those American Jews who are strongly critical of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. They may deplore Israel’s actions and agree with Jimmy Carter when he likens them to apartheid, but if the choice is between a politician who pledges to support Israel and a politician who would withdraw support and leave the Jewish state to fend for itself, most of them would vote for the first candidate every time.
African Americans are no less heterogeneous in their views than Jewish Americans. Yet every African American – conservative or liberal, rich or poor, barely educated or highly educated – meets with obstacles to his or success and mobility that are all the more frustrating because they are structural (built into the culture’s ways of perceiving) rather than official. To the non- African American these obstacles will be more or less invisible, especially in a country where access to opportunity is guaranteed by law. It makes sense, therefore, that an African American voter could come to the conclusion that an African American candidate would be likely to fight for changes that could remove barriers a white candidate might not even see. A vote given for that reason would be a vote based on identity, but it would be more than a mere affirmation of fellowship (he’s one of mine and I have to support him); it would be a considered political judgment as to which candidate will move the country in a preferred direction. Identity might be the trigger of the vote, but it would not be the whole of its content.
We should distinguish, I think, between two forms of identity politics. The first I have already named “tribal”; it is the politics based on who a candidate is rather than on what he or she believes or argues for. And that, I agree, is usually a bad idea. (I say “usually” because it is possible to argue that the election of a black or female president, no matter what his or positions happen to be, will be more than a symbolic correction of the errors that have marred the country’s history, and an important international statement as well.) The second form of identity politics is what I call “interest” identity politics. It is based on the assumption (itself resting on history and observation) that because of his or her race or ethnicity or gender a candidate might pursue an agenda that would advance the interests a voter is committed to. Not only is there nothing wrong with such a calculation – it is both rational and considered – I don’t see that there is an alternative to voting on the basis of interest.
The alternative usually put forward is Crouch’s: Vote “for human qualities” rather than sectarian qualities. That is, vote on the basis of reasons everyone, no matter what his or her identity, will acknowledge as worthy. But there are no such reasons and no such human qualities. To be sure, there are words often attached to this chimera – integrity, dedication, honesty, intellect, to name a few. But these qualities, even when they are found, will always be in the service of some set of policies you either favor or reject. It is those policies, not the probity of their proposer, that you will be voting for. (If your candidate is also a good person, that’s a nice bonus, but it isn’t the essential thing.) You will be voting, in short, for interests, and those who do not have an investment in those interests will be voting for someone else.
What this means is that the ritual deprecation of “special interests” makes no sense. All interests are special interests – proceed from some contestable point of view – and none is “generally human.” And that is why identity interests, as long as they are ideological and not merely tribal, constitute a perfectly respectable reason for awarding your vote.