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All politics is identity politics

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Something that I thought I noticed soon after I graduated college and moved to DC was that a lot of my female friends were very interested in the subject of street harassment. Later, thanks to the magic of social media and web traffic (check out the Facebook shares on this item!) I learned that I'd misconstrued this entirely. It's not that women I was friends with were very interested in this subject. Women in general were interested. Their interest wasn't exactly invisible to me — I was hearing about it in person from friends — but ten or 12 years ago those friends' interest wasn't refracted back and validated by the larger media ecosystem the way it is today. It seemed like an idiosyncratic obsession rather than what it is: an alarmingly widespread social malady that a male-dominated media culture had kind of swept under the rug.

Another thing you see in the web traffic stats is that the American public's appetite for internecine warfare between diaspora Jewish intellectuals about what is and is not the appropriate attitude to have toward Israel is quite limited.

When you stop and think about it, this is perfectly obvious (indeed, if you're not Jewish it probably didn't even require thought). But in a world where the New York Times' columnist rotation features more Jews than women of any ethnic background, it's easy for a person (like me!) with demographic attributes very typical of the prestige media to be blind to the ways particularist identities were shaping coverage decisions.

This is, I think, the problem with idea of "identity politics" as a shorthand for talking about feminism or anti-racism. The world of navel-gazing journalism is currently enmeshed in a couple of partially overlapping conversations, about "PC culture," diversity, social justice, technological change, and shifting business models. One thread of this is the (accurate) observation that social media distribution creates new incentives for publications to be attuned to feminist and minority rights perspectives in a way that was not necessarily the case in the past. But where some see a cynical play for readership, I see an extraordinarily useful shock to a media ecosystem that's too long been myopic in its range of concerns.

The implication of this usage (which is widespread, and by no means limited to people who agree with Chait) is that somehow an identity is something only women or African-Americans or perhaps LGBT people have. White men just have ideas about politics that spring from a realm of pure reason, with concerns that are by definition universal.

You see something similar in Noam Scheiber's argument that New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio went astray by emphasizing an "identity group agenda" of police reform at the expense of a (presumably identity-free) agenda of populist economics. For starters, it is actually inevitable that a New York City mayor would end up spending more time on his police department management agenda (something that is actually under the mayor's control) than on tax policy, which is set by the State Legislature in Albany.

But beyond that, not addressing a racially discriminatory status quo in policing is itself a choice. Indeed, it's a kind of identity group appeal — to white people, whose preferred means of striking the balance between liberty and security, in many contexts, is that security should be achieved by depriving other people of their civil liberties.

This is where the at-times tiresome concept of privilege becomes very useful. The truth is that almost all politics is, on some level, about identity. But those with the right identities have the privilege of simply calling it politics while labeling other people's agendas "identity."

Denial of this reality, it seems to me, is actually a key failing of a certain brand of American liberalism. Conservatives may join some white male liberals in decrying "identity politics," but nobody knows better than conservatives the power and importance of identities like Christian, American, traditional family, etc., in shaping thinking and giving meaning to political engagement.

Indeed, we just saw a species of this failure of American liberalism in the Obama administration's swiftly abandoned plan to kill tax-subsidized 529 accounts. The entire politics of this ended up hinging not on economic models, but on the question of whether a certain class of professional couple earning a low-six figure income should be considered "middle class." Or look at how Obama's effort to raise middle-class incomes in a way that encourages work morphed into a "war on homemakers."

All politics is, on some level, identity politics. The idea that it's some special attribute of black politics or feminist politics is just blindness. And while identity politics can be practiced in bad ways or in pursuit of bad goals, that's simply to say that politics can be practiced both for good and for ill. The idea that gendered or ethnic claims are despoiling a liberalism of pure selves and neutral rationality is little more than an unselfconscious form of identity politics. Politics is about collective decisions. This necessarily implicates individuals' identities by defining who is inside and who is outside the community of concern and under what terms.

The trend by which modern digital media forces publications to be more aware of what resonates with audiences is not an unalloyed good. But given the centrality of identity to politics of all kinds and the badly skewed demographics at the commanding heights of the American media ecosystem, this particular aspect of the trend is pretty clearly change for the better.