Moving Past Identity Politics

Source: Margaux Van Allen ’20

We all know the story by now. Liberals scrambled to copies of Hillbilly Elegy, stayed up late, hunched by the bedside light, furrowed brow. “Deplorables”—a “basket” of them—we then remembered.

Trump was in contact with Russia, while Hillary seemed to miss Wisconsin—without much of a swing.

     We had forgotten the elusive, election-swinging, Rust Belt demographic—the percentage that won Trump the election, but, also, the percentage that won Obama the election.

Russian meddling, Comey fumbling and the electoral college were all blamed, and rightly so. But how did we miss this demographic—Obama voters, Bobby Kennedy voters, classic, union, for-the-past-50-years-liberal-until-Trump voters? Identity politics was a large part of the problem.

We are all obsessed with identity. Even those of us who are not fully in touch with our identity are fully aware of its impacts and implications. We know what it means to talk in a certain conversation, at a certain time, with our certain identities—regardless of what we say. Our particular obsession—as liberals, Washingtonians, students at independent private schools, in the bubble—is well-intentioned. We aim to lift voices, to hear about identities, to broaden our empathy and understanding, to respect each other, to value identity because it is our duty—and it is. But our obsession at times divides us more.

On the homepage of the Democratic Party’s website, there is a mission statement: “Anyone, from any walk of life, should get a fair shot at the American dream.” It is good—better, at least, than the midterm slogan, “a better deal.” But it is still a vague mission, failing to hint at any more direct line of pursuit.

Trying to find the line of pursuit, scrolling down, you find the “people” heading. Under the people heading are all different groups of people—African Americans, Americans with disabilities, the American Jewish community, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, the LGBTQ community, etc.

Clicking on one of the peoples, you find, finally, a mission statement—only, it is fine-tuned to that category, applies only to those people. This is identity politics: the politics not for all, but for many divided up.

Past the midterms, the Mueller report and the announcing of, so far, 16 Democratic presidential candidacies, we arrive in April 2019, a year and a half short of the next presidential election, with President Trump still in office, clearly running for a second term, and we can’t lose again.

I remember a quote of Obama’s: “There is not a conservative America or a liberal America—there is a United States of America.” There is not an African-American America, or a disabled America or an Asian Pacific Islander America, either. There is a United States of America. This is, of course, not true, but rhetoric is aspirational, and America (“The land that has never been yet— / And yet must be”) is an aspirational experiment. This particular rhetoric also didn’t lose.

All of our different Americas do, definitely, exist. They all have specific issues and hopes—each category, endless categories, endless issues, complexities and hopes. But to win back the White House, the Democrats must remember that the American hope, above the others, encompasses us all.

Increasingly, we all live in our own delicate, unique stratospheres that we never exit, or are afraid to exit. We try not to step on each other’s shoes, to offend, commit a microaggression or be insensitive. We admire the identities around us, and how many there are, but, in recognition of them, we often turn away—inwards—to ourselves.

The world—our classrooms—is full of sharp objects, and instead of covering ourselves in bubble wrap, afraid to get cut, we must again turn our attention outwards, knowing that, every now and then, we might have to grit our teeth and test our flesh.

“I’m not a black motorist,” says Mark Lilla, a political scientist and journalist, in a New Yorker interview. “I will never be a black motorist. I don’t know what it’s like to look in the rearview mirror and see the lights flashing and feel my stomach churn. But I am a citizen. And that person is a fellow citizen.” If he can make the case, Lilla says, that there is another citizen out there who can’t get in their car without worrying about a deadly police encounter, and who does not have equal protection under the law, he could convince someone else, who isn’t black, that something needs to be fixed. “I want to frame the issue in terms of basic values and principles that we share in order to establish sympathy and empathy and identification with someone else.”

The emphasis, not on identity politics, but, rather, on citizenship—all of us together, citizens, Americans—makes us stronger. It will also win us back our forgotten demographic.

You can still be a liberal Democrat, pushing a liberal agenda, without identity politics. And, without identity politics, it’s all the more likely that there will be a Democrat in the White House in 2020.

Nicholas Penniman ’22