Wednesday, July 18, 2018

On the Disutility of Identity Politics

The stakes are too high at this point to ignore the obvious: Identity politics--at least as it's currently practiced by many on the left--is just not effective for what the left needs to do above all: win. This argument is cogently made in a recent article in the UK Guardian by political scientist (and longtime student of left history) Sheri Berman. She notes:
"One common view is that Trump’s victory was a consequence of pervasive racism in American society.
Studies make clear, however, that racism has been decreasing over time, among Republicans and Democrats. (Views of immigration have also grown more favorable.) Moreover, since racism is deep-seated and longstanding, reference to it alone makes it difficult to understand the election of Barack Obama and Trump, the differences between Trump and the two previous Republican nominees on race and immigration, and the dramatic breakdown of social norms and civility following the elections. (Social scientists call this the “constant can’t explain a variable” problem.)
This does not mean racism is irrelevant; it matters, but social science suggests it does in more complicated ways than much commentary suggests."
After reviewing this research and the complexities it suggests, Berman underscores some critical points:
"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.
[Karen] 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.”
Berman concludes:
"As long...as politics is a fight between clearly bounded identity groups, appeals and threats to group identity will benefit Republicans more than Democrats, which is presumably why Steve Bannon infamously remarked that he couldn’t “get enough” of the left’s “race-identity politics”. “The longer they talk about identity politics, I got ’em ... I want them to talk about race and identity … every day.”
Don't believe Berman? How about the most successful left politician of the last 20 years, Barack Obama? Obama, though many left identitarians assiduously avoid the fact, was and is an opponent of identity politics. He was something that's currently unfashionable on the left but deserves revival: a transracial humanist. From Obama's speech for the 2018 Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture:
"Let me tell you what I believe. I believe in Nelson Mandela’s vision. I believe in a vision shared by Gandhi and King and Abraham Lincoln. I believe in a vision of equality and justice and freedom and multiracial democracy, built on the premise that all people are created equal, and they’re endowed by our creator with certain inalienable rights. And I believe that a world governed by such principles is possible and that it can achieve more peace and more cooperation in pursuit of a common good. That’s what I believe. And I believe we have no choice but to move forward; that those of us who believe in democracy and civil rights and a common humanity have a better story to tell. And I believe this not just based on sentiment, I believe it based on hard evidence.
The fact that the world’s most prosperous and successful societies, the ones with the highest living standards and the highest levels of satisfaction among their people, happen to be those which have most closely approximated the liberal, progressive ideal that we talk about and have nurtured the talents and contributions of all their citizens....
[Mandela said] “Political division based on color is entirely artificial and, when it disappears, so will the domination of one color group by another.” That’s Nelson Mandela speaking in 1964, when I was three years old.
What was true then remains true today. Basic truths do not change. It is a truth that can be embraced by the English, and by the Indian, and by the Mexican and by the Bantu and by the Luo and by the American. It is a truth that lies at the heart of every world religion — that we should do unto others as we would have them do unto us. That we see ourselves in other people. That we can recognize common hopes and common dreams. And it is a truth that is incompatible with any form of discrimination based on race or religion or gender or sexual orientation. And it is a truth that, by the way, when embraced, actually delivers practical benefits, since it ensures that a society can draw upon the talents and energy and skill of all its people. And if you doubt that, just ask the French football team that just won the World Cup. Because not all of those folks — not all of those folks look like Gauls to me. But they’re French. They’re French.
Embracing our common humanity does not mean that we have to abandon our unique ethnic and national and religious identities. Madiba [Mandela] never stopped being proud of his tribal heritage. He didn’t stop being proud of being a black man and being a South African. But he believed, as I believe, that you can be proud of your heritage without denigrating those of a different heritage. In fact, you dishonor your heritage. It would make me think that you’re a little insecure about your heritage if you’ve got to put somebody else’s heritage down. Yeah, that’s right. Don’t you get a sense sometimes — again, I’m ad-libbing here — that these people who are so intent on putting people down and puffing themselves up that they’re small-hearted, that there’s something they’re just afraid of.
Madiba knew that we cannot claim justice for ourselves when it’s only reserved for some. Madiba understood that we can’t say we’ve got a just society simply because we replaced the color of the person on top of an unjust system, so the person looks like us even though they’re doing the same stuff, and somehow now we’ve got justice. That doesn’t work.
It’s not justice if now you’re on top, so I’m going to do the same thing that those folks were doing to me and now I’m going to do it to you. That’s not justice. “I detest racialism,” he said, “whether it comes from a black man or a white man.”
And finally, Obama has this to say about one of the more intolerant aspects of today's identity politics:
"Most of us prefer to surround ourselves with opinions that validate what we already believe. You notice the people who you think are smart are the people who agree with you. Funny how that works. But democracy demands that we’re able also to get inside the reality of people who are different than us so we can understand their point of view. Maybe we can change their minds, but maybe they’ll change ours. And you can’t do this if you just out of hand disregard what your opponents have to say from the start. And you can’t do it if you insist that those who aren’t like you — because they’re white, or because they’re male — that somehow there’s no way they can understand what I’m feeling, that somehow they lack standing to speak on certain matters."
Obama is not only right in what he says, but as Berman says, it's the only way to win. Identity politics, on the other hand....well, as another Democratic ex-President might put it: "That dog won't hunt".
About this article
THEGUARDIAN.COM
The left needs to help citizens see what unites them, instead of focusing on their differences writes Sheri Berman, professor of political science at Barnard College

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