December 01, 2016

Identity Politics and Why They Matter

I am an atheist in South Carolina. Not only that, but I am a female atheist. Thankfully, I'm white.

My status as a woman and an atheist give me a small window into identity politics--much smaller, albeit, than that of marginalized groups. I was considering this recently in a conversation about whether state citizenship should be primary to national citizenship. For me, as an atheist and a woman, this would be disastrous. As a woman, I'm already subject to a host of restrictions which my state has been allowed to enact. Just recently, they banned abortions after 19 weeks. They have laws on the books that state that if I am pregnant, and am declared brain dead, I cannot be removed from life support--even if that is expressly my wish, in writing, on file, or the wish of my spouse, the person who knows me best in the world.

As an atheist, I am constantly confronted with the fact that in my state constitution, I am expressly forbidden from holding public office. This clause is unconstitutional, and thus the only thing that protects my right to participate in politics in my state, should I choose to do so, is my nation's law, which the Supreme Court found to protect my rights under the requirement that no religious test can be used to determine eligibility for office.

For me, identity politics is a part of my daily life. I organize around issues as a woman. I organize around issues as an atheist. I organize around issues as a woman atheist.

I've seen bandied about the internet various analyses of our recent electoral loss that pin the blame solidly on identity politics. They caution us, as Democrats, to move away from identity politics, to bring white working class voters into the fold again, and truth be told, they aren't entirely wrong in the end outcome. What they are wrong about is in the idea of abandoning identity politics to do it.

My grandfather was a coal miner. He was a union man until the day that he died. Throughout his career, he worked hard, but also participated in multiple strikes and other union efforts aimed at a variety of goals. These efforts paid off. He was compensated relatively fairly for exhausting and dangerous work, he received benefits like health insurance and retirement, and he was able to send his children to college. He was a working class man through and through, born and raised in the hills of West Virginia, and he voted blue nearly his entire life, because he believed that it was the Democratic party that protected his way of life. His identity was, you may have guessed, that of a working class man, and it was that identity that strongly influenced the way that he voted.

What we have lost is not our rudder, but the ability to craft an identity for precisely those voters. Working class politics IS identity politics.

As we move to craft a new strategy going forward, we should focus not on doing away with identity politics altogether, but a focus on creating and strengthening coalitions of voters that have the same identity--we should focus on identifying those traits that we have in common, across the other identities we hold, the intersections where they connect us all, and forging bonds around those.

There seems to be this disconnect that has identity politics on one side and the economic questions that indubitably influence working and middle class voters (primarily white) on the other, and it's simply not accurate.

Building coalitions around economic issues shouldn't be difficult; we just failed to leverage it in this election cycle in a meaningful way. Hillary Clinton's tepid back-pedaling on trade deals and inability to speak to the worries of those who believe their industries to be unduly impacted by regulation simply wasn't enough to craft a working class identity.

Identifying these common threads that bind us is incredibly crucial, and abandoning identity politics simply isn't an option. For many of the groups that are tied up in the concept can't realistically separate themselves from it--their identities quite literally ARE political.

For instance, we saw a landmark leap in gay rights with the Oberfefell v Hodges, which guaranteed the right to marry. However, we still see rampant failures to protect the every day existence of gay people. In many states, there is no protection against housing and employment discrimination. Some cities have tried to enact such legislation on their own, only to find the state legislature actively working against them to ensure that it can't be done. In this instance, you can clearly see that a gay or lesbian identity (or rather, anyone who identifies as queer, non-binary, etc) is, in and of itself, political. The only thing motivating these legislative moves is a fear, distrust, or dislike of their identity.

We see this also in transgender bathroom laws. Those of us in the progressive community completely understand that trans people have been using the bathroom with us for..., well, forever, and that the instances of this being abused are few and far between. Yet we see an assault on this very basic right that threatens not just to bar transgender people from bathrooms, but to bar them from public life--full stop. If you can't comfortably use a restroom, you're not going out, you're not getting involved, you're not active in your community. Again, this political attack is motivated by one, and only one, aspect: the trans identity and the fear and mistrust of people. The identity is, in and of itself, political.

We see the same phenomenon over and over again. Undocumented immigrants are another group whose identity is inherently political. The identities of people of color, and especially Black identities, while they have always been political, are even more politically charged now as we see a push for criminal justice reform to stem the tide of death and destruction ripping through their communities at the hands of our police forces. That makes their identity inherently political.

When we talk about shifting away from identity politics, instead of expanding them, what we're really asking for is the impossible. It simply can't be done when so many people have identities that are so tied up in and threatened by politics.

And the crazy part is, crafting a working class identity, in addition to not being difficult, would reach across racial boundaries. It's not a white identity. It's an identity shared by a multitude of different people.

I'm not sure what such an identity would look like, but I harken back to my grandfather with some guesses. I'd say it's the ability to feed your family. It's safe working conditions for reasonable pay. It's putting more into our people than into our corporations. It's paid family leave so that parents can spend time with their children without having to worry about their livelihood. It's criminal justice reform to make working class neighborhoods more welcoming for the people who live there. It's providing a path for the children of working class parents to reasonably afford college educations--or technical schools--if they choose to. It's providing high quality public education that is appropriately funded. It's looking at the tax code to encourage the wealth inequality gap to begin to close. It's healthcare that's affordable and high quality and accessible for everyone. It's listening to people when they say that they are not better off after trade deals (plot twist: I'm actually pro-free trade to a large extent, but I feel like we have inadequately communicated the benefits to average citizens) and taking action to address those issues, whether that is educating people, providing job training, or renegotiating deals to whatever extent we can.

It's so many things that we're already doing. The real question is, how did we fail to get that message out there?

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