The term has been around since the 1960s, when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s broad humanitarian themes were elbowed aside by the feisty, militant “black power” movement.
Although the black power movement struck me as a slogan in search of a program, it inspired a new wave of “identity politics” for women, racial groups, gender groups, ethnic communities and other often-marginalized groups.
The headlines bristle with the term in the wake of Hillary Clinton’s loss. “The Politics of Identity — Blessing or Curse?” asked a Huffington Post headline. ” ‘Identity Politics’ and Its Defenders,” was in The New York Times.
From the right: “Identity Politics: Liberals, Do the Math,” suggested National Review. Meanwhile, on the left, “Stop Calling It ‘Identity Politics’ — It’s Civil Rights,” Alternet reminded.
Or it’s “identity liberalism,” as liberal Columbia University historian Mark Lilla proclaimed in a widely discussed post-election New York Times op-ed that declared “the end of identity liberalism.”
Hillary Clinton was at her best, Lilla wrote, when she spoke about American interests in world affairs and our understanding of democracy. But back at home, he continued, she tended to lose that large vision and slip into the rhetoric of diversity, “calling out explicitly to African-American, Latino, LGBT and women voters at every stop.”
Once you mention some groups, those you don’t mention will feel shortchanged, Lilla wrote, as did the two-thirds of white voters without college degrees and the 80 percent of white evangelicals who voted for Trump.
Indeed, Obama’s experience in my view offers a valuable model of both liberal success and conservative backlash. His debut national speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention was notable for stressing our commonality as Americans amid our diversity.
Obama was often criticized by the farther left for preferring universalist programs like the Affordable Care Act over programs targeted to African-Americans. But his approach to campaigning and governing carried him to more victories than Clinton’s did.
We will hear endless reasons for Clinton’s loss. But I agree with Lilla that taking of too many groups for granted added to her well-known failures to “connect” with many voters who had voted for Obama.
Trump’s ability to win more of the black, Hispanic and women’s vote than many expected shows how neither party can rely on changing demographics to bring victories. Voters still want to be asked for their votes.
Instead of getting hung up on identity politics, which suggests competition between identity groups, both parties need to move back toward coalition politics. Areas of disagreement need not block the way to common ground.
Identity politics is not dead. But both parties need to find healthier ways to practice it.