On the verge of a major party nominating a woman for president for the first time, “identity politics” are dominating the national dialogue. Regardless of your feelings about the candidates or your political leaning, we’re in the midst of an historic moment for women in politics. But in this country, we seem to waver between celebrating historic firsts and eschewing—or even condemning —identity politics.
In the Maryland Senate race, Donna Edwards was accused of playing the race card. Hillary Clinton was accused of playing the woman card. So was Carly Fiorina. Playing any “cards,” we’re supposed to understand, is somehow dishonest and an unfair advantage over “normal” candidates: white men.
But the idea that women and candidates of color somehow have it easier in our system doesn’t add up—our institutions are dominated by the white, the male and the rich, whom no one ever accuses of playing cards of any kind. We don’t live in a post-racial, post-feminist post-much-of-anything world, and candidates outside of the status quo face much higher hurdles, from finding money for their campaigns to securing party support. Furthermore, what’s wrong with talking about our identities?
While it might make an older, less diverse generation of politicians uncomfortable, in case there was any doubt, politics are indeed always personal. Our lived and embodied experiences shape who we are and what we need. It’s fundamentally important for people who have had a diversity of experiences, who represent different races, genders, sexual orientations, geographies — you name it—to represent those experiences and interests in elected office. No one can understand the needs of low-income communities better than someone who has experienced poverty. No one can speak to the needs of working mothers better than someone who has done that daily juggling act. Representation is a matter of rights, of social justice, of being able to speak for yourself and have your voice heard.
What’s more, there’s substantive value to a more diverse and representative democracy. Studies have shown that women as a whole are more likely to support policies that serve working families, among others – and are more effective legislators to boot. Whether it’s the board room or executive office, women leaders are associated with economic growth. Meanwhile, data shows that racial diversity leads to better decision-making. And we know that young people are also more likely to be productive and pragmatic in office. While obviously identity alone doesn’t always mean an elected representative is aligned with our interests, and identity is a complex and intersectional concept itself, it is evident that having more experiences and perspectives at the table creates richer results — and candidates who can bring those attributes to the table shouldn’t be shamed for mentioning it.
The landscape is slowly shifting. In recent years we’ve seen the first openly gay person serve in the Senate and could soon see the first Latina. We’ve seen the first Hindu in Congress, the first openly transgender elected official in the country, the first pansexual and on—we hear these stories in red states and blue. We know that our youngest generations are the most progressive and the most diverse in history. Our country is changing, fast. Our democracy has some catching up to do.
Breaking barriers like these are tremendous victories. But what’s been lost in the conversation this election cycle is that identity politics isn’t about playing with a stacked deck, and it’s not anything to disparage. Clearly, the electorate is hungry to shake up our political system. Perhaps celebrating our differences and coming together through the democratic process in the interest of self-government is a revolutionary act, but it’s also deeply American. It’s a sign of serious progress and an indication that our political future could be more productive, more representative and more prosperous.