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Identity politics: everybody does it (and it’s ok too)

If there is no way around talking about and invoking identities, we need to ask three questions: which identities? whose identities? and how do we think about identities?

MAGA: 'Make America Great Again'. Salem Rally. Alex Milan Tracy/SIPA USA/PA Images. Press Association Images. All rights reserved. In the wake of Donald Trump’s election victory, there is a critique of the liberal left that goes something like this: the left has been too preoccupied with identity politics and too little with egalitarian economic policies. Trump’s victory is a result of this because the left had divided the electorate into identity groups, and therefore they were unable to claim to represent the nation or the people as a whole.

The critique comes in different forms. There is a liberal-centrist critique, which seems more interested in settling old scores than anything else. There is a Marxist critique whereby all that talk about identity was always a distraction, because what really matters is class struggle. And there is a certain populist critique whereby the liberal left’s focus on identity politics has taken attention away from the economic concerns of ordinary citizens. Common to the different versions of the critique of identity politics are two things: first, that identity is a distraction; and, second, that it’s the economy, stupid! What they all overlook is that everybody does identity politics, and that’s it’s ok.

When people talk about identity politics, they usually mean minority identities. In this way, identity = difference.

When academics, commentators or ordinary people talk about identity politics, they usually mean minority identities. In this way, identity = difference. What’s more, this is a way for ‘us’ to talk about ‘them’: ‘we’ white majority population, and ‘they’ exotic others. It’s a way to talk about those others so that their difference is visible, and so that the norm remains invisible. There is no difference without a norm: different is always different from something else, above all from a norm. The others are different from that norm, but the norm is just taken as given, and it is not marked as different – even if it is just one more identity or difference. In this way, the norm is privileged, and it is privileged by the fact that its identity, and difference, is invisible.

There is more: when those who are marked as different speak, they speak as a woman, a Muslim, a gay, and so on. They are bound by, and to, their identity. When Hilary Clinton spoke about jobs, she was a woman speaking about jobs; when Donald Trump spoke about jobs, he was Donald Trump speaking about jobs. He was, of course, also a man speaking about jobs, but his identity as male was invisible because it was taken as a baseline norm. For Clinton, it was the opposite: her identity as female was visible because it was different from the norm.

When those who are marked as different speak, they speak as a woman, a Muslim, a gay, and so on.

Now, let’s return to the argument that it was identity politics that created Trump. The argument is that identity is a distraction. You have a liberal version of that where we should just focus on what makes us citizens – our legal status as citizens, and perhaps some universal values of reasonableness, democracy and freedom. According to this argument, we must abstract from our particular identities. The argument is not that those identities are unimportant, only that they should not matter for politics. Yet, this image of citizenship itself relies on a particular image – identity – of the good citizen: someone who is able to abstract from their particular identity, believes in certain values (liberal democracy, etc.), and so on. And if you were to ask someone to mentally visualize this citizen, in all likelihood they would imagine a white middle-class male. In other words, what happens is that citizens should abstract from certain identities, so that another identity is privileged.

When Donald Trump says he wants to make America great again, he is also engaged in identity politics. He appeals to a collective identity – America – and he articulates it in a particular way. He does so through implicit and not so implicit references to race, religion and gender. The America he wants to make great again is a white and Christian America. It is an America that was once great, but is now threatened by identity politics – that is, all those ‘others’ who are not fully American because they are not white. It is an America that is naturally white. But it is an America that is no less engaged in identity politics as it is based on particular images of its racial, religious and gender identity. Trump is all about identity, and the feeling that your identity is threatened. Like Brexit, Trump is about taking back control and regaining sovereignty, or at least a sense of sovereignty. It’s about regaining a sense of being at home and being the master in one’s own house – and, needless to say, the master is a white male.

Needless to say, the master is a white male.

If you are not a Marxist who believes that everything is about capitalism, and capitalism is about class antagonisms, then classes are also particular identities, and class is just one identity among others. Likewise, when populists claim to represent ordinary folks, the people or the nation, these too are particular identities. They are never the same as everybody or the whole population. Whenever the people or the nation is invoked, it is a particular image of the people or the nation, for instance a particular racialized image. The same goes for ordinary folks, which is a term that also invokes certain images (not too rich, etc.).

If there is no way around talking about and invoking identities, we need to ask three questions: which identities? whose identities? and how do we think about identities?

It matters which identities are invoked when someone appeals to the nation or the people or speaks of the citizen. Depending on what particular identity, or image, of the nation, the people or the citizen they rely on, it becomes possible to include more or fewer individuals. Likewise, it matters if we talk about someone as a woman or as gay as opposed to something else. It matters that we mark them as different by virtue of their identity, and it matters which particular identity they become bound by.

If it matters which identities are invoked, and which identities become dominant in a society, it also matters whose identities they are. For instance, it matters whose particular image or representation of Muslims becomes dominant. It matters for everything from the social relations between Muslims and non-Muslims to when you decide what school uniform a good, or proper, Muslim might wear.

And then it matters how we think about identities. Often we think about identity politics as reflecting some already existing identities. So, Muslims are so and so and believe this or that, and so we take that as the starting point for sorting out school uniforms and the food in the canteen. Or to be British is to be like this or that, and the citizenship test to become a naturalized British citizen must reflect that. I think that’s the wrong way around. What we have are different images or representations of, say, Muslims, or Brits (Americans, women, etc. etc.), and there are struggles over which and whose images or representations become dominant. Rather than identity politics, we should think of this as the politics of identity. In the end, that’s what we have: politics, political struggles over identities.

About the author

Lasse Thomassen is Senior Lecturer in the School of Politics & International Relations at Queen Mary, University of London. He is the co-editor of Radical Democracy: Politics Between Abundance and Lack (2005) and the author of articles on, among other things, representation, radical democracy and post-structuralism.


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