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Identity politics is ‘all we have'


The center right and far right continue to decry identity politics. Take Fox News’ Tucker Carlson, who recently declared, “Identity politics will destroy this country faster than a foreign invasion.” He apparently sees identity politics as a way of saying that “some groups are inherently inferior to other groups, and as a result, people will “start hating each other.”

Phew! That may be really over the top, but there are many Americans who agree with Carlson. They believe any political strategy focusing on different identity groups based on socioeconomic, class, race, gender identity, sexual orientation and others is a bad, bad, thing.

We’ve been arguing about identity politics for at least four decades now. And in the Trump era, the voices have become even louder. It’s been hard for us progressives to watch as the current administration systematically destroy so many of the gains of the past decade or so.

It has been especially hard to hear those on the right decry identity politics while they are busy engaging in white, heteronormative identity politics of their own. Of course, they don’t see it that way. They say they are advocating for the American people as they roll back the rights gained by the LGBTQ communities and anyone else isn’t like them. And they want to return to some sort of good old days when everybody was happy with the status quo. Yes, back when America was great. 

However, too many of our progressive allies believe the same thing. Remember all those Bernie Bros and college-educated white women who voted for Trump?

What should we do when those big sticking points for the left who advocate for identity politics is also about class? Writing in The Nation, social-justice journalist Carla Murphy said that getting a Democrat elected president just doesn’t motivate her. “What does is concern for what will happen to poor and working-class people of color should a major crisis occur under Trump.” Her column appeared in December 2016, so we now know just what has happened to that segment and so many others.

We do have a problem here. Any discussion of how identity politics can be successful has to face the fact that our American capitalist system needs to change if we are to live up to our country’s ideal of equality for all. And changing that is a tall order indeed.

In his book The Third Reconstruction, The Reverend Dr. William J. Barber II has modeled how such change can happen. In his book’s subtitle, How a Moral Movement is Overcoming the Politics of Division and Fear, he describes how he was able to bring together a broad coalition in 2013 that demonstrated on what came to be called Moral Mondays at the North Carolina capitol in Raleigh. Thousands of people and scores of organizations turned out and had a major impact on North Carolina’s restrictive voting rights

The demonstrations of civil disobedience in North Carolina then spread to Georgia, South Carolina and beyond. Although the media has moved on to other matters, the movement is still very much alive today. How this came about is the subject of his book.

Barber practices what he calls fusion politics. His movement came from his travels around North Carolina in 2007 where he found himself making as list of some 14 “justice tribes” in the state.  These consisted of people who cared about better schools and others who were calling for better health care. The list included those calling for an end to discrimination in hiring; people opposed to the death penalty; environmental justice advocates; people calling for immigrant justice; voting rights advocates and so on.

“We weren’t advocating for left or right, but for all that is good and right,” he continued. It took a while for things to come together. He reminds us of a quote attributed to Matahai Ghandi: “First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they fight you. Then you win.”

You might want to read The Third Reconstruction just for the way the author brings out the history of Reconstruction after the Civil War, and then describes the civil rights movement of the 1960s as The Second Reconstruction. In both cases he shows how broad coalitions brought true change to our country.

Identity politics is a complex and difficult matter. Talking about it and what it means in 2019 requires careful thought, not emotional knee-jerk reactions when you come across something so outrageous you just can’t abide it.

Serious discourse in 2019 is often hard to come by. We have been here before, as in the late 1960s, but this still feels different. We seem to have entered a truly Orwellian time, especially when it comes to the debasement of language and the rise of in-your-face propaganda.

I can hear old George Orwell now calling from his grave: “I knew this would happen. I told you so.”