In the fierce post-election debate about how Democrats should respond to the party’s astonishing electoral collapse at all levels of government, some have argued that identity politics is the problem, while many others (especially younger activists) have claimed it’s the solution.
Those inclined toward the latter position would be well advised to read a recent New York Times story very closely. An account of growing rancor surrounding the planned Women’s March on Washington (scheduled for the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration), the piece demonstrates with admirable clarity how doubling down on identity politics — and especially the left’s embrace of the trendy postmodern ideology of “intersectionality” — is likely to shatter the Democratic Party into squabbling factions even more vulnerable to a resurgent right.
It would be one thing if Democrats had reason to hope or expect that they would be saved by demographics. Ever since the “emerging Democratic majority” thesis was first floated more than a decade ago, leading liberals have been convinced that their side is bound to prevail as the country becomes less white over time and minority groups eventually combine to form a left-leaning electoral majority. In such a situation, a politics based on racial, ethnic, gender, and other forms of identity might make sense as a mobilization strategy.
But recent events and analysis have cast doubt on these hopes and expectations, raising the possibility that the electoral power of white Americans may well persist for a long time to come. In that case, the need for “normal” politics, which involves forming coalitions across racial, ethnic, and gender divides in the name of the common good, will continue indefinitely.
That’s where the danger of identity politics — especially in the radical form highlighted in the Times — becomes obvious.
From the start, the Women’s March was an expression of identity politics — the coming together in protest of those appalled by the president-elect’s attitude and proposed policies toward the female half of the electorate. But some organizers and participants have something else — something far narrower — in mind. For them, solidarity on the basis of gender alone isn’t possible because black women have sometimes been oppressed by white women. For that reason, white women must begin “listening more and talking less,” and above all learn to “check their privilege.”
Here we enter into the kaleidoscopically balkanizing world of intersectionality, which highlights multiple identities in an effort to single-out the nexus of ascriptive attributes that produces maximal oppression. The idea is that once these attributes have been identified, the “privilege” of those who undertake the oppression can be subverted. Yet in practice, the hierarchy of privilege isn’t so much subverted as reproduced and inverted.
Consider the world as viewed through the lens of intersectionality. At the very top of the pyramid of privilege stands a straight, able-bodied, white man — whether he was born rich, attended Harvard, and works on Wall Street, or is a laid off coal miner who struggles with opioid addiction in eastern Kentucky. Below him are straight, able-bodied white women, with straight “people of color” of either gender even less privileged, followed by gay, lesbian, transgendered, and disabled variations on each identity category — with a hypothetical disabled black lesbian perhaps least privileged of all. But of course, this is a matter of controversy, since a transgendered Latina who comes from a poorer neighborhood or a more broken family than her black lesbian rival might contest and take offense at this ranking, insisting that she’s actually the one who deserves to be recognized as the least privileged.
It should be obvious that this brand of politics is profoundly poisonous. Instead of seeking to level an unjust hierarchy, mitigate its worst abuses, and foster cross-group solidarity, intersectionality merely flips the hierarchy on its head, placing the least privileged in the most powerful position and requiring everyone else to clamor for relative advantage in the new upside-down ranking. Those who come out on top in the struggle win their own counter-status, earning the special privilege of getting to demand that those lower in the pecking order “check their privilege.”
This is a sure-fire spur to division, dissension, and resentment.
Successful politics, especially in a nation with a winner-take-all electoral system, requires building bridges with as many people as possible to win as many votes as possible. But intersectionality moves in the diametrically opposite direction, breaking the electorate apart into ever-smaller groups and pitting them against each other in a competition to determine which of them suffers most pervasively from systemic discrimination, and so also which has the right to demand deference and expressions of repentance from everyone else.
Can you imagine a style of politics more certain to end in bitter recriminations?