Politicized Identities

In a meditation on reactions to the Boston bombings and the apparent identification of the perpetrators, TAP’s Paul Waldman says something profound:

Let’s be honest and admit that everyone had a hope about who the Boston bomber would out to be. Conservatives hoped it would be some swarthy Middle Easterner, which would validate their belief that the existential threat from Islam is ongoing and that their preferred policies are the best way to deal with that threat. Liberals hoped it would be a Timothy McVeigh-like character, some radical right-winger or white supremacist, which would perhaps make us all think more broadly about terrorism and what the threats really are. The truth turned out to be … well, we don’t really know yet. Assuming these two brothers are indeed the bombers, they’re literally Caucasian, but they’re also Muslim. Most importantly, as of yet we know absolutely nothing about what motivated them. Nothing. Keep that in mind.

But for many people, their motivations are of no concern; all that matters is their identity.

He goes on to talk about the tendency of U.S. conservatives to reduce large proportions of the human race–including many Americans–to an identity-imputed barbarism that makes them perfect enemies and thus not worth understanding. But it’s sometimes a problem for liberals as well–certainly those who assume that being a white Christian male from the South is an identity that connotes an incorrigible cultural and political enemy (you can see why that might bother me).

But there are two other reasons liberals ought to be especially careful about identity politics: (1) it abolishes the restraining power, real if sometimes attenuated, of universalistic liberal values on those who would otherwise run amok with greed and other forms of tribal and individual self-interest, and (2) it sets up a power contest between identity groups in which those who already have power–typically wealthy white men–are probably going to win. Even if you buy a “fundamentals” analysis of politics as mainly about who we are and what we are statistically likely to believe or vote for, there is a zone, sometimes small but critical, of shared values and rational persuasion that matters on the margins all of the time and in the center of political discourse at least some of the time. That narrow zone is sometimes what separates democratic politics from the ethos of the Thirty Years War.

Look, we all make judgments about groups of people who are antagonistic to our point of view. I routinely say highly disparaging things about the conservative movement and the Republican Party, as they exist today. But I do try to pay attention to what they actually say and their justifications for saying it, which is why, to the anger of some of my political allies, I tend to take conservatives at their word that they believe zygotes are human beings or that the weight of history militates in changes in family structure or that capitalism is the only successful model for wealth creation. I could just dismiss them all as depraved crypto-fascists or as puppets for various puppet-masters, but if that’s the case, what’s the point of writing or contending over politics?

There are real and obvious meta-forces in political life that transcend reason or empirical data or any effort at persuasion, and they are often associated with “politicized identities.” But if we don’t constantly try to understand the motivations beneath these identities and pry them loose into that free air where sweet reason and cooperation can take hold, then we surrender to tribal instincts and a politics of pure power in which not one of us truly ever matters.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.