What is Identity Politics?
I think Jordan Peterson was the first person who I heard use the term identity politics and he seemed convinced that it was a negative influence in society. As it goes with many things Peterson says, I found his use of that language confusing and unclear. Ever since, I’ve refrained from using it myself because I have, until only recently, found the term impossible to define.
I’ve heard both Ta-Nehisi Coates and Robin DiAngelo refer to identity politics as a non-issue. Coates said in a talk several years ago that “all politics are identity politics,” and he gave the example of senior citizens who vote based on a candidate’s stance on Medicare. DiAngelo opens her book, White Fragility, by referring to the women’s suffrage movement as an example of identity politics. What’s wrong with that? She wonders on the first page.
Their comments are in line with a very technical definition like the one given in the dictionay: a tendency for people of a particular religion, race, social background, etc., to form exclusive political alliances, moving away from traditional broad-based party politics. But that definition doesn’t show us why the term is often used so pejoratively.
Whereas Coates and DiAngelo are dismissive, I believe I can offer a definition that can make sense to people on either side of the culture war and to those who don’t feel they have chosen a side at all.
Identity politics is what is played out when non-political aspects of society are politicized in order to improve the status of a particular identity group, or when equality before the law is diminished in order to achieve that same goal.
It is the over politicization of society and the diminishing of the value of equality that concerns people who raise objections.
I think affirmative action would one of the most straightforward examples of identity politics. It takes a non-political aspect of life, namely college admissions, and imposes political considerations onto it. Why do I call those considerations political? Because they involve the transfer of power (or status) from one group to…