Identity Politics

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Contextual Citation


"It is not, then, that all politics is identity politics. It is that it has come to seem as if all politics can only be identity politics because the alternative, which formed the heart of the great, progressive social transformations over the past 200 years, has so badly eroded. As the universalist viewpoint has faded, largely as many of the social movements that embodied that viewpoint have disintegrated, so the social space vacated by that disintegration became filled by identity politics."

- Kenan Malik [1]


"Any form of progressive politics requires us to overcome, rather than embrace, the barriers of identity. That it requires us to work towards a more universalist vision of society. And that only free speech makes this possible. Free speech – proper, full-blooded free speech – is the lifeblood of any progressive politics and of any progressive transformation of society. If we treasure the one, we must treasure the other."

- Kenan Malik [2]


Kenan Malik:

"To understand the characteristics of contemporary identity politics, we need first to go back to the origins of modern politics, at the end of the eighteenth-century. This was when the distinction was first established between the left and right as we understand them. It was also when the distinction between identity politics and its critics first emerged. Of course, identity politics was not then called identity politics. Nor was it associated with the left or with struggles against oppression.

In fact, the very opposite. The origins of identity politics in the late eighteenth century lie with the reactionary right. The original politics of identity was racism and nationalism, and it developed out of the counter-Enlightenment. These early critics of the Enlightenment opposed the idea of universal human values by stressing particularist values embodied in group identities. ‘There is no such thing as Man’, wrote the French arch-reactionary Joseph de Maistre in his polemic against the concept of the Rights of Man. ‘I have seen Frenchmen, Italians and Russians… As for Man, I have never come across him anywhere.’

Where reactionaries adopted a particularist outlook, radicals challenging inequality and oppression did so in the name of universal rights. They insisted that equal rights belonged to all and that there existed a set of values and institutions, under which all humans best flourished. It was a universalism that fuelled the great radical movements that have shaped the modern world – from the almost-forgotten but hugely important Haitian Revolution of 1791, to the anti-colonial and anti-imperialist struggles of the twentieth century to the movement for women’s suffrage to the battles for gay rights.

The relationship between left, right and identity changed in the decades after the Second World War. In the wake of Nazism and the Holocaust, overt racism became far less acceptable. The old politics of identity faded, but a new form emerged – identity politics as a weapon wielded not in the name of racism and nationalism, but to confront racism and oppression, and as a means of challenging inequality.

The struggle for black rights in America, in particular, was highly influential in developing ideas both of black identity and self-organization. Squeezed between an intensely racist society, on the one hand, and, on the other, a left largely indifferent to their plight, many black activists ceded from integrated civil rights organisations and set up separate black groups. It provided a template for many other groups, from women to Native Americans, from Muslims to gays, to look upon social change through the lens of their own cultures, goals and ideals.

In the 1960s, identity politics provided a means of challenging oppression, and the blindness of much of the left to such oppression, and was linked to the wider project of social transformation. But as the old social movements and radical struggles lost influence, so the recognition of identity became an end in itself. ‘The demand is not for inclusion within the fold of “universal humankind” on the basis of shared human attributes’, as the feminist and sociologist Sonia Kruks put it; ‘nor is it for respect “in spite of one’s differences”. Rather, what is demanded is respect for oneself as different.’

The meaning of solidarity has transformed. Politically, the sense of belonging to a group or collective has historically been expressed in two broad forms: through the politics of identity and through the politics of solidarity. The former stresses attachment to common identities based on such categories as race, nation, gender or culture. The latter draws people into a collective not because of a given identity but to further a political or social goal. Where the politics of identity divides, the politics of solidarity finds collective purpose across the fissures of race or gender, sexuality or religion, culture or nation. But it is the politics of solidarity that has crumbled over the past two decades as radical movements have declined. For many today, the only form of collective politics that seem possible is that rooted in identity.

‘Solidarity’, therefore, has become increasingly defined not in political terms – as collective action in pursuit of certain political ideals – but in terms of ethnicity or culture. The answer to the question ‘In what kind of society do I want to live?’ has become shaped less by the kinds of values or institutions we want to establish, than by the group or tribe to which we imagine we belong." (


Why Identity Politics are counter-productive

Sheri Berman:

"Rather than being directly translated into behavior, psychologists tell us beliefs can remain latent until “triggered”. In a fascinating study, Karen Stenner shows in The Authoritarian Dynamic that while some individuals have “predispositions” towards intolerance, these predispositions require an external stimulus to be transformed into actions. Or, as another scholar puts it: “It’s as though some people have a button on their foreheads, and when the button is pushed, they suddenly become intensely focused on defending their in-group … But when they perceive no such threat, their behavior is not unusually intolerant. So the key is to understand what pushes that button.”

What pushes that button, Stenner and others find, is group-based threats. In experiments researchers easily shift individuals from indifference, even modest tolerance, to aggressive defenses of their own group by exposing them to such threats. Maureen Craig and Jennifer Richeson, for example, found that simply making white Americans aware that they would soon be a minority increased their propensity to favor their own group and become wary of those outside it. (Similar effects were found among Canadians. Indeed, although this tendency is most dangerous among whites since they are the most powerful group in western societies, researchers have consistently found such propensities in all groups.)

Building on such research, Diana Mutz recently argued that Trump’s stress on themes like growing immigration, the power of minorities and the rise of China highlighted status threats and fears particularly among whites without a college education, prompting a “defensive reaction” that was the most important factor in his election. This “defensive reaction” also explains why Trump’s post-election racist, xenophobic and sexist statements and reversal of traditional Republican positions on trade and other issues have helped him – they keep threats to whites front and center, provoking anger, fear and a strong desire to protect their own group.

Understanding why Trump found it easy to trigger these reactions requires examining broader changes in American society. In an excellent new book, Uncivil Agreement, Lilliana Mason analyzes perhaps the most important of these: a decades-long process of “social sorting”. Mason notes that although racial and religious animosity has been present throughout American history, only recently has it lined up neatly along partisan lines. In the past, the Republican and Democratic parties attracted supporters with different racial, religious, ideological and regional identities, but gradually Republicans became the party of white, evangelical, conservative and rural voters, while the Democrats became associated with non-whites, non-evangelical, liberal and metropolitan voters.

This lining up of identities dramatically changes electoral stakes: previously if your party lost, other parts of your identity were not threatened, but today losing is also a blow to your racial, religious, regional and ideological identity. (Mason cites a study showing that in the week following Obama’s 2012 election, Republicans felt sadder than American parents after the Newtown school shooting or Bostonians after the Boston Marathon bombing.) This social sorting has led partisans of both parties to engage in negative stereotyping and even demonization. (One study found less support for “out-group” marriage among partisan Republicans and Democrats than for interracial marriage among Americans overall.)

Once the other party becomes an enemy rather than an opponent, winning becomes more important than the common good and compromise becomes an anathema. Such situations also promote emotional rather than rational evaluations of policies and evidence. Making matters worse, social scientists consistently find that the most committed partisans, those who are the angriest and have the most negative feelings towards out-groups, are the most politically engaged.

What does all this mean for those who oppose Trump and want to fight the dangerous trends his presidency has unleashed?

The short-term goal must be winning elections, and this means not helping Trump rile up his base by activating their sense of “threat” and inflaming the grievances and anger that lead them to rally around him. This will require avoiding the type of “identity politics” that stresses differences and creates a sense of “zero-sum” competition between groups and instead emphasizing common values and interests.

Stenner, for example, notes that “all the available evidence indicates that exposure to difference, talking about difference, and applauding difference … are the surest ways to aggravate [the] intolerant, and to guarantee the increased expression of their predispositions in manifestly intolerant attitudes and behaviors. Paradoxically, then, it would seem that we can best limit intolerance of difference by parading, talking about, and applauding our sameness … Nothing inspires greater tolerance from the intolerant than an abundance of common and unifying beliefs, practices, rituals, institutions and processes.”

Relatedly, research suggests that calling people racist when they do not see themselves that way is counterproductive. As noted above, while there surely are true bigots, studies show that not all those who exhibit intolerant behavior harbor extreme racial animus. Moreover, as Stanford psychologist Alana Conner notes, if the goal is to diminish intolerance “telling people they’re racist, sexist and xenophobic is going to get you exactly nowhere. It’s such a threatening message. One of the things we know from social psychology is when people feel threatened, they can’t change, they can’t listen.” (

Class Theory Insights


"Leftist identity politics arose out of a quasi Marxist oppressed/oppressor dynamic, but crucially divorces the concept of class struggle from class itself, defined by Marx in terms of relations of production. Privilege and marginalization in identity politics become intrinsic characteristics of certain racial and gender identities, and so no means of resolving the contradiction via politics - through the creation of a democratic system of universal suffrage and individual rights or via economics - via the social ownership of capital, becomes possible. What we are left with, then, is a darwinian struggle between the races, defined by relationships of zero-sum adversity. While it won't be phrased specifically in this way, implied is the notion that noble races must strive against naturally exploitative races for mastery of the world. .... What drives them is no core philosophical or moral convictions at all, but rather raw machiavellian collectivist egocentrism and opportunism." (

2. Kenan Malik:

"In practice, contemporary identity politics does little to challenge the roots of oppression. What it does do is empower certain people within those putative identities to police the borders of ‘their’ communities or peoples by establishing themselves as gatekeepers. It has allowed self-nominated authentic voices or community leaders to consolidate and protect their power. As solidarity has become redefined in terms of ethnicity or culture, so those who demand to be the voices of those ethnicities or cultures are afforded new privileges. From the perspective of identity politics, the African American academic and activist Adolph Reed observes, ‘a society in which 1% of the population controlled 90% of the resources could be just, provided that roughly 12% of the 1% were black, 12% were Latino, 50% were women, and whatever the appropriate proportions were LGBT people.’ That is why, he adds, the more aggressively ‘working people of all races, genders, and sexual orientations’ have their protections dismantled and their lives broken, ‘the louder and more insistent are the demands from the identitarian left’ that ‘the crucial injustices in the society should be understood in the language of ascriptive identity.’ " (

More information

  • critiques of identity politics from the alt-left: