Monday, June 15, 2020

Do Identity Politics Work?

Imagine you live in a zip code lacking good jobs, with failing schools, sub-standard housing, gang violence, poor or no health care, limited access to healthy food and no clear path out. Imagine you are young and the best job available is joining a gang, occasionally killing other gang members and participating in various petty and not so petty crimes. Now imagine you are a policeman in that zip code.

Try to imagine being a young white non-college educated person living in an area where the industrial jobs are gone, small farms are gone, small businesses, and the community leaders that used to work in those small businesses are gone. Your schools are failing, you may live in a food desert and you can't afford prescription drugs, dental or medical care. A disproportionate number in your community suffer from drug addiction, poor health and or mental illness. If TV, radio, the web, Mom, Dad, your minister have taught you that your difficult situation is somehow the fault of some segment of your fellow citizens you will be angry at those "others" rather than the system of unfettered capitalism, political leaders and judges that failed the American people and allowed the hollowing out of America over the last 40 years.

Do you change that type of scenario from the top down by addressing each individual and individual problem (war on drugs, war on crime, war on poverty, urban renewal, public housing, gay rights, women's rights, black rights..etc.) or do you make relatively simple changes to the economic structure of society that will accomplish what you want - faster and cheaper than all those failed programs of the past?

If you are curious about some of the American history behind this intra-class warfare Nancy Isenberg's book White Trash - The 400-Year Untold History of Class in American is informative.


Political change requires political power. Political power comes from having a broad enough coalition of voters to form a majority.

In a society with endless divisions based on individual identities how do we form that broad coalition?

A Google search for ending identity politics results in an interesting array of hits from across the political spectrum  - from the Heritage Foundation and the Hoover Institution to The Guardian.

Who cares?

People who want to make changes through political means - citizens who want to win elections and control governments.


James Carville had a point when he said, "it's the economy stupid". It's not that the capitalist free market economy is "it". The truth in his statement is that the underlying economic structure controls society, culture and politics or to put it simply - the world we live in.

Assume you are part of a group that is oppressed in some way  - wage earner, person of color, woman, LGBQT, poor person, Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, Jew, Hindu, Wiccan, Atheist, elderly, young, homemaker, business woman, educated, uneducated, city dweller, country dweller, married, single, divorced, someone with children, childless, pro-life, pro-choice, pro-gun, pro-gun control...etc ad infinitum.

How do you form a broad coalition to use the political system to reduce your oppression?

By finding common interests.

People with these various identities have one thing in common - the economic structure of the society they live in.

Any group trying to instigate real and lasting political change has to focus on the economic structure. To accomplish this focus, a language is needed that hasn't been co-opted by the powerful to divide the powerless. That is a language that uses the good ideas from Marx, socialism, democratic socialism, capitalism, conservatism, liberalism, pragmatism and other isms that prove useful - but can't be easily turned into a scary cartoon for corporate media or a string of scary boogey-words for right wing hate radio to use to keep the wealthy wealthy, the powerful powerful and the poor* fighting each other.

*In this instance I've defined "poor" as being someone earning less than $500,000 a year since that seems to be the cut-off point for where the GOP starts to want to use the government to help you. If this sounds like an erroneous statement or confuses you - look at the charts for who benefits from the midnight Tax act of 2017 passed in secret by the GOP.

I'm not sure what could make this more clear than when the current leader of the GOP and occupant of the White House spilled the beans by saying the quiet part out loud and claimed during the debates that, "not paying taxes makes me smart." The fact that shortly after saying this he denied having said it only adds to the stink of a decayed party and it's leader.

The skeptical side of me thinks whatever Joe Biden and the corporate-captured democrats come up with will be almost as bad in pandering to the ultra-rich and corporations...but not as blatant. In 2003 Susan Sontag said during a C-Span interview, that when considering what happened to the Democratic party during the Bill Clinton/Newt Gingrich era, "Sometimes I think we only have one party, the Republican Party, and it has a branch called the Democratic Party." Contrary to what you may have heard on TV or radio, or read on the interwebs - there is no left or liberal party in the United States. Barack Obama is considered a conservative by U.K. political standards. I really hope young people start taking over by getting informed, voting and being involved in politics soon.

It's a simple deal, not scary and not new - fair progressive taxation, reduction of government waste, respect for the dignity and diversity of humans, support for organized labor, recognition of and planning for the climate crisis, labor involvement in corporate decision making, excellent - public education, health care and social safety nets. It can be called the "simple deal" or "fair deal" because it is simple, fair, and has been done in various countries.

Keeping it simple will allow people to build up an immunity to the rhetorical rock throwers who have all sorts of focus-tested words to frighten and alienate voters into supporting the status-quo which serves the ultra-wealthy and powerful while those voters live their lives of quiet desperation wondering if they can keep their job, pay their bills, provide for their children, afford to see a doctor (without going bankrupt) when they need to...etc etc etc.

When this simple fair deal is implemented we'll find that many of the injustices or dissatisfactions attributed to identity disappear, or are reduced in their significance as people's basic needs are addressed, or begin to be corrected because there will be sufficient resources to devote to addressing these injustices in an economy that serves the people.

Before any of that happens the first and hardest thing to do is to get people to recognize what they have in common while they are being bombarded with messages from those with power intended to keep them divided and weak.