One of the most overused and least illuminating phrases in this election cycle is “identity politics.” It is not useful because it can ultimately refer to any kind of politics, since every act of association and every exercise of the franchise is to some significant degree a statement about the people and the kind of nation with which a person identifies. Voters are routinely asked, and routinely express themselves, in terms of which candidates they most identify with, but only some of these identifications do we deem worthy of being called “identity politics,” as if it were less tribal or irrational or reflexive to support a fellow partisan or a fellow ideologue because “he is like me.”
It also reveals little that cannot be explained in another way. Viewed one way, all democratic politics is always at least partly identity politics. It was for this reason that Kuehnelt-Leddihn saw democracy as a cousin of other “identitarian” ideologies of the left. Whether you accept K-L’s taxonomy and his location of democracy on the political spectrum or not, he hit upon an essential facet of democracy that it is a regime type that encourages and even valorises collective self-expression and self-identification.
Furthermore, the deployment of the phrase is frequently aimed at discrediting or undermining a campaign: Huckabee’s campaign was somehow tainted because it had engaged in evangelical identity politics, or now a number of pundits have started arguing that Obama has suffered from being too closely identified with support from black voters. A standard charge from Republicans against Democrats is that they practice “identity politics,” as if the nationalists in the GOP do not engage in the same when they rhetorically align their political foes with the French or other foreigners. When a message appears “divisive,” it is “identity politics,” but when it seems “unifying” it is described in entirely different terms.
Obama’s South Carolina victory speech was a ringing endorsement of a certain idea of American identity. Because it was an American identity, and some might argue an Americanist ideology, that Obama was endorsing on Saturday night, it not only receives praise, but rapturous approval, partly because of its emphasis on unity and inclusion. The thing that needs to be kept in mind in all of this is that every affirmation of identity is an attempt include as many as possible within some coherent definition, and every affirmation of identity is an implicit exclusion of those unlike ourselves.
This can be put to pernicious ends or to just ends, but a good way to begin discerning between them more clearly is to recognise that everyone is engaged in identity politics of one kind or another, and that it is the content of the policies being advanced with this identitarian appeal and the goals of the person making this appeal that should matter the most. More often that not, the charge of engaging in “identity politics” is a way of changing the subject in a debate where your side seems to be losing, and indeed to complain about an “identity politics” that pits Americans against one another is to make another, different appeal to national identity without addressing the possibility of competing interests.
Perhaps all of this is perfectly obvious, but if the coverage of the election to date is any indication I think it could stand to be repeated.