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OnWords: Identity Politics



“Identity politics” is one of those terms that everyone seems to want to distance themselves from but that everyone seems to practice.

In short, identity politics describes approaching political issues from the standpoint of the group with which you most closely identify.

Its detractors point out that identity politics are by nature divisive and narrow, banking on separation instead of national unity and lumping together the diverse viewpoints a group might have into a single notion of what “people like us” ought to think.

But we’ve been practicing identity politics from the get-go.

Identity politics was baked right into the Constitution in 1787 when it declared that a slave would be counted as 3/5ths of a person, reinforcing both the identity of southern Whites and the census value of those enslaved.

And some of its strongest detractors on the political right practice it most avidly.

Writing recently in the New York Times, Thomas Edsall cited a study correlating White identity with support for Donald Trump.

Arguably, the nature of politics in the US, with its winner-take all electoral system and two-party dominance, makes identity politics all but inevitable: people like us only win when we band together.

In the US, identity is not a matter of an established caste system; it’s something we build for ourselves, often against the odds of origin and class.

So perhaps identity politics are really about how we’ve failed or succeeded to assert who we want others to perceive ourselves to be.