In Defense of Identity Politics

Many women (and men) spent the post-election weeks in an altered state, where the world seemed torn asunder and all that was solid melted into air. But as the various postmortems poured in, one dominant frame emerged: Democratic electoral failure was the result of a myopic focus on “identity politics” by a liberal elite woefully beholden to the politically correct trifecta of race, gender and sexuality, ignoring the supposed centrality of class and the failing fortunes of the poor white working man. This is wrong-headed and dangerous.

Finding traction among a curious mix of Democratic party leaders, left-wing pundits, and right-wing ideologues, the story goes something like this: Hillary Clinton lost because the party didn’t pay significant attention to the pain and dislocation of the white working class and focused too much on identity politics, ceding the economic revitalization argument to the populist rhetoric of Donald Trump. In the conservative or neoliberal version of this view, offered by folks such as Mark Lilla, Democrats had a “fixation on diversity” and instead of focusing on the anger of rural white men, spent the campaign “calling out explicitly to African-American, Latino, L.G.B.T. and women voters at every stop.”

The left-wing version isn’t much different, treating racism and misogyny as symptoms of a “larger” problem, not as problems in and of themselves. Echoing the 1990s mantra “It’s the economy, stupid,” they argue that racism and sexism were unfortunate side effects of the real illness of economic vulnerability and insecurity. Writing in The Nation, D.D. Guttenplan acknowledges that Clinton’s campaign might have been “genuinely inspiring to millions of women” but dismisses arguments about gender or racial hatred as just so much elitist “petulance” that ignores the (economic) populist surge at the heart of Trump’s victory. Harold Meyerson claims, in The American Prospect, that Trump voters legitimately “felt left behind and displaced” by the “establishment economic policy.” Over at Politico, Rob Hoffman excoriates the “smugness” of the Left, claiming that the “PC” liberal elite waged “a war against right-wing ethics,” pushing Trump to certain victory. And socialist standard-bearer and presidential wannabe Bernie Sanders repudiates Trump’s racism and sexism yet somehow imagines this can be forgiven or perhaps forgotten, for as long as “Trump has the guts to stand up to those corporations he will,” claims Bernie, “have an ally with me.”

In a Boston speech following the election, Sanders argued that we need to “go beyond identity politics” and then doubled down and schooled a Latina activist by insisting that “it is not good enough for somebody to say, ‘hey, I’m a Latina, vote for me.’” Which, it turns out, no one has ever done.

So presumably Trump’s positions on race and gender are, well, trumped, by his rhetoric of populism and anti-corporatism? One is reminded of that old and scary adage, “Say what you want about Mussolini, at least the trains ran on time.” These arguments put their authors in a confusing position. Trump’s misogyny, xenophobia, and racism were on vivid display throughout the campaign, and he has surrounded himself with white supremacists and others committed to making lives more difficult for women, gays, people of color, Muslims, and immigrants. This was not hidden from public view: from his tape-recorded comments bragging about sexual assault, to his derogation of Mexicans as rapists and criminals. How, then, does one make the claim—as Bernie Sanders recently did—that Trump voters are not themselves racist or sexist? Surely, most of those voters would deny that designation, as would their right- and left-wing defenders. And it is undoubtedly the case that many if not most of those voters might live in ways that don’t appear to be virulently racist or sexist. Yet if you knowingly vote for an unrepentant racist and sexist, what does that say about you? If you lie down with dogs, you do indeed get fleas.

If violence against women and KKK endorsement are not electoral deal breakers, then how does one evaluate the political values and ethics of those voters? And are we to believe that Hillary’s “unlikability” and media-driven “scandals” somehow pushed voters to endorse a spectacularly uninformed and dishonest huckster without sexism playing a part, when “trump that bitch” and “lock her up” (and much worse) were the everyday refrains of the candidate and his supporters alike?

In this scenario, Trump voters can only be understood—paternalistically—as dupes, victims of false consciousness, and therefore not responsible for their actions. We need now, apparently, to win them back because their votes weren’t an actual endorsement of misogyny or mass deportations. Here, the white middle and working class (and the working class is somehow always all white) are the real victims of Trump’s perfidy and false promises, not the Muslims who will be denied entry, the immigrants who will be deported, the gays who will be bashed, the women who will lose reproductive autonomy, the people of color who will lose health care, jobs, and a place at the table.

And how to explain the fact that over 80 percent of black voters (men and women) supported Clinton? Are they mysteriously less susceptible to the siren call of populism, even as their socioeconomic status is likely more vulnerable than that of their white counterparts? Perhaps black voters are simply smarter, refusing to fall for false promises of economic uplift from a billionaire businessman who has filled his cabinet with the very purveyors of trickle-down globalization on steroids? Why were Trump’s racism and sexism deal breakers for some (say, people of color, Jews, gays and lesbians) and not others

And what of the statistic concerning the white women’s vote (53 percent for Trump) that is trotted out to bolster the claim that Trump’s gender animus wasn’t animating here? To be sure, it’s not that women aren’t culpable. The 53 percent of white women who voted for Trump need to be reckoned with, and the power of racial alliances to undercut both self-interest (congratulations white women: you’ve elected a man who denigrates you!) and female solidarity is potent and real. The 62 percent of white working-class women who voted for Trump (or the long history of women in the Klan) illustrates just this: how class plays a key and amplifying role in gender and race dynamics. But this is not news to feminist theorists studying the intersections of race, class and gender. Clinton’s overwhelming support among African American and Latina women (and there was very little difference here along class lines) tells us a great deal about the power of both race and gender as determining and meaningful, as does the gender disparity in the popular vote and the astounding numbers of women who organized and turned out for post-inaugural demonstrations around the country.

The idea that Hillary Clinton lost because she paid too much attention to “identity” (by which we mean blacks, gays, women) is, as Rebecca Traister notes, “unconscionable…directed at the very people who just put the most work and energy into defeating Trumpism, coming from those who will be made least vulnerable by Trump’s ascension.” The attack on identity politics implies that Clinton should have been paying attention to others who matter more, whose needs are somehow more generalizable, more “in common.” I’m reminded of the ads many years ago for Brokeback Mountain, which insisted that it was not a gay love story but rather a universal one, or the reviews for The Kids Are All Right, which gushed over the “not really gay” marital storyline. As Linda Alcoff pointed out many years ago, “many still pine for the lost discourse of generic universality, for the days when differences could be disregarded.”

After all these years, universality and the common good are still the (unmarked) province of straight white men.

This piece is excerpted from an essay in Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, a premier academic journal of women’s and gender studies. “In Defense of Identity Politics” is an essay for the series Currents: Feminist Key Concepts and Controversies, part of the Feminist Public Intellectuals Project. The essay is also accompanied by a multimedia digital archive. You can read the full piece here.



Suzanna Danuta Walters is a professor of sociology and director of the Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies Program at Northeastern University. She is the editor-in-chief of Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society.