clock menu more-arrow no yes
A collage-based illustration displaying elements of protest images and historical liberty symbols. Christina Animashaun/Vox

Identity politics isn’t hurting liberalism. It’s saving it.

Modern liberalism is weak and under siege. Its path to revival is clear — if liberals are willing to take it.

American liberalism is in desperate need of renewal. Its ideas too often feel stale, its nostrums unsuited to beating back the authoritarian populist tide.

Yet there is an opportunity for revival — if liberals are willing to more forthrightly embrace the politics of identity.

To many liberals, such a suggestion will sound like blasphemy. Since mere days after Donald Trump’s 2016 victory, an unending stream of op-eds and books have accused “identity politics” — defined loosely as a left-wing political style that centers the interests and concerns of oppressed groups — of driving the country off a moral and political cliff.

These critics accuse identity politics of being a cancer on the very idea of liberalism, pulling the mainstream American left away from a politics of equal citizenship and shared civic responsibility. It is, moreover, political suicide, a woke purism that makes it impossible to form winning political coalitions — evidenced, in critics’ minds, by the backlash to Sen. Bernie Sanders’s embrace of the popular podcast host Joe Rogan.

The idea that identity politics is at odds with liberalism has become conventional wisdom in parts of the American political and intellectual elite. Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker has condemned contemporary identity politics as “an enemy of reason and Enlightenment values.” New York Times columnist Bari Weiss argues that the “corrupt identity politics of the left” amounts to a dangerously intolerant worldview. And New York magazine’s Andrew Sullivan claims the “woke left” seems “not to genuinely believe in liberalism, liberal democracy, or persuasion.” This line of thinking is practically the founding credo of the school of internet thought known as the Intellectual Dark Web.

It is also deeply, profoundly wrong.

What these critics lambaste as an attack on liberalism is actually its best form: the logical extension of liberalism’s core commitment to social equality and democracy, adapted to address modern sources of inequality. A liberalism that rejects identity politics is a liberalism for the powerful, one that relegates the interests of marginalized groups to second-class status.

Manique Beckman wears a sash that reads “The Future is Feminine” as she walks to the Women’s March in Washington on January 21, 2017.
Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images

But identity politics is not only important as a matter of liberal principle. In the face of an existential threat from right-wing populists in Europe and the United States, liberals need to harness new sources of political energy to fight back. This is not a matter of short-term politics, of whether being “too woke” will help or hurt Democrats in 2020, but a deeper and more fundamental question: what types of organizations and activist movements are required to make liberalism sustainable in the 21st century. And there is good reason to believe the passions stirred by identity politics can renew a liberalism gone haggard.

To say that liberalism and identity politics are at odds is to misunderstand our political situation. Identity politics isn’t merely compatible with liberalism; it is, in fact, liberalism’s truest face. If liberalism wishes to succeed in 21st-century America, it shouldn’t reject identity politics — it should embrace it.

What is identity politics?

All politics is, in a certain sense, identity politics. Every kind of political approach appeals to particular aspects of voters’ identities; some are just more explicit than others.

But critics of identity politics have a very particular politics in mind — a mode of rhetoric and organizing that prioritizes the concerns and experiences of historically marginalized groups, emphasizing the group’s particularity.

To understand why this kind of identity politics is so controversial — and what its critics often get wrong about it — we need to turn to the work of the late University of Chicago philosopher Iris Marion Young.

In 1990, Young published a classic book titled Justice and the Politics of Difference. At the time, political philosophy was dominated by internal debates among liberals who focused heavily on the question of wealth distribution. Young, both a philosopher and a left activist, found this narrow discourse unsatisfying.

In her view, mainstream American liberalism had assumed a particular account of what social equality means: “that equal social status for all persons requires treating everyone according to the same principles, rules, and standards.” Securing “equality” on this view means things like desegregation and passing nondiscrimination laws, efforts to end overt discrimination against marginalized groups.

This is an important start, Young argues, but not nearly enough. The push for formally equal treatment can’t eliminate all sources of structural inequality; in fact, it can serve to mask and even deepen them. Judging a poor black kid and a rich white one by the same allegedly meritocratic college admissions standards, for example, will likely lead to the rich white one’s admission — perpetuating a punishing form of inequality that started at birth.

Young sees an antidote in a political vision she developed out of experiences in social movements, which she calls “the politics of difference.” Sometimes, Young argues, achieving true equality demands treating groups differently rather than the same. “The specificity of each group requires a specific set of rights for each, and for some a more comprehensive system than for others,” Young writes. The goal is identity consciousness rather than identity blindness: “Black Lives Matter” over “All Lives Matter.”

She did not like using the term “identity politics” for this approach, arguing in her 2000 book Inclusion and Democracy that it was misleadingly narrow. But two decades later, what she sketched out is what we understand “identity politics” to mean.

People hold hands during a rally lead by faith leaders in front of City Hall in Baltimore, Maryland, in response to the death of Freddie Gray on May 3, 2015.
Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Young’s philosophical precision allows us to understand what’s distinctive about contemporary identity politics. It also helps us understand why critics see it as such a threat.

Identity politics’ dissatisfaction with formal equal treatment is, in their view, fundamentally illiberal. Its emphasis on correcting structural discrimination can morph into a kind of authoritarianism, an obsession with the policing of speech and behaviors (especially from white, straight, cisgender men) at odds with liberalism’s core commitments to individual rights, so the critics fret. They see college students disinviting conservative speakers for being “problematic,” or “canceling” celebrities who violate the rules of acceptable discourse on race or gender identity, as evidence that identity politics’ fundamental aim is overturning liberalism in the name of equality.

This approach is not only illiberal, the critics argue, but self-defeating. The more emphasis that is placed on the separateness of American social groups, the less space there is for a politically effective and wide-ranging liberalism.

“The only way to [win power] is to have a message that appeals to as many people as possible and pulls them together,” Columbia professor Mark Lilla writes in his recent book The Once and Future Liberal. “Identity liberalism does just the opposite.”

Many of these critics see themselves as coming from a relatively progressive and firmly liberal starting point. They tend to profess support for the ideals of racial or gender equality. What they can’t abide is a political approach that emphasizes difference, shaping its policy proposals around specific oppressions rather than universal ideals.

It is a philosophical argument with political implications: a claim that the essence of identity politics is illiberal, and for that reason its continued influence on the American left augurs both moral and electoral doom.

Why liberalism needs identity politics

It’s hardly absurd for someone like Lilla to see tension between liberalism and identity politics. Young herself described the politics of difference as not a species of liberalism but a challenge to it.

But her stance notwithstanding, political philosophers have come to see the politics of identity as part of a vibrant liberalism. In 1998, Canadian scholar Will Kymlicka identified an “emerging consensus” among political philosophers on what he calls “liberal multiculturalism,” the idea that “groups have a valid claim, not only to tolerance and non-discrimination, but also to explicit accommodation, recognition and representation within the institutions of the larger society.”

If we examine liberalism’s core moral commitments, Kymlicka’s consensus shouldn’t be a surprise.

The quintessential liberal value is freedom. Liberalism’s core political ambition is to create a society where citizens are free to participate as equals, cooperating on mutually agreeable terms in political life and pursuing whatever vision of private life they find meaningful and fulfilling. Freedom in this sense cannot be achieved in political systems defined by identity-based oppression. When members of some social groups face barriers to living the life they choose, purely as a result of their membership in that group, then the society they live in is failing on liberal terms.

Identity politics seeks to draw attention to and combat such sources of unfreedom. Consider the following facts about American life:

  • The median black family’s wealth is one-tenth that of the median white family.
  • The average American woman spends over 11 more hours per week doing unpaid home labor than the average man.
  • LGBTQ youth are about five times more likely to attempt suicide than (respectively) straight and cisgender peers.

There is no law saying black people can’t own houses, that women married to men must do the cooking and cleaning, or that LGBTQ teens must harm themselves. These problems have more subtle causes, including legacies of historical discrimination, deeply embedded social norms, and inadequate legislative attention to the particular circumstances of marginalized groups.

Identity politics’ focus on the need to go beyond anti-discrimination works to open new avenues for dealing with the insidious nature of modern group-based inequality. Once you understand that this is the actual aim of identity politics, it becomes clear that critiques of its alleged authoritarianism miss the forest for the trees.

Two women watch demonstrators marching during the fourth annual Women’s March on January 18, 2020, in Washington, DC.
Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images

It is of course true that one can point to illiberal behavior by activists in the name of identity politics: Think of the student group at the City University of New York that attempted to shout down a relatively mainstream conservative legal scholar’s lecture out of hostility to his views on immigration law. But instances of campus intolerance are actually quite uncommon, despite their omnipresence in the media, and the idea that a handful of student excesses represent the core of “identity politics” is a mistake.

One can say the same thing for social media outrages. It’s certainly true that many practitioners of identity politics send over-the-top tweets or pen Facebook posts calling for people to be fired without good cause. It’s also true that some practitioners of every kind of politics do these things. Holding up an outrageous-sounding tweet as representative of the allegedly authoritarian heart of identity politics is a basic analytical error: confusing a platform problem, the way social media highlights the most extreme versions of all ideologies, with a doctrinal defect in identity politics.

Merely because a liberal movement contains some illiberal components doesn’t make it fundamentally illiberal; if it did, then slave-owning American founders and bigoted Enlightenment philosophers would have to be booted out of the liberal canon.

The key question is whether the agenda and aims of identity politics’ adherents advance liberal freedom compared to the status quo. On this point, it’s clear that the practitioners of “identity politics” are on the liberal side.

In recent years, we have seen champions of identity politics rack up impressive accomplishments — victories like defeating prosecutors with troubling records on race at the ballot box, getting sexual assault allegations taken seriously in the workplace, and securing health care coverage for transition-related medical care.

These are hardly examples of woke Stalinism. They are instead victories of liberal reform and democratic activism, incremental changes aimed at addressing deep-rooted sources of unfreedom.

Time and again throughout American history, from abolitionism to the movement for same-sex marriage, members of marginalized groups have refused to abandon liberalism’s promises. They put their lives on the line, risking death on Civil War battlefields and in the streets of Birmingham, in defense of liberal ideals. When they demanded change, they won it through the push-and-pull of democratic politics and political activism that constitute the heart of liberal praxis. In essayist Adam Serwer’s evocative phrasing: “The American creed has no more devoted adherents than those who have been historically denied its promises.”

A collage-based illustration displaying elements of protest images and the Statue of Liberty. Christina Animashaun/Vox

Today’s practitioners of identity politics are the proper heirs to this tradition. Former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, one of the most prominent defenders of “identity politics” in American public life, has devoted her post-election career to an unimpeachably liberal cause — fighting restrictions on the franchise, particularly those that disproportionately affect black voters.

In a recent Foreign Affairs essay, Abrams made the case that one of the central aims of identity politics is bolstering liberalism — that it is “activism that will strengthen democratic rule, not threaten it.” In Abrams’s view, the persistence of structural oppression, and in particular the Trump-era backlash to social progress, requires careful attention to identity, and in particular what marginalized groups want from their political elites.

“By embracing identity and its prickly, uncomfortable contours,” Abrams wrote, “Americans will become more likely to grow as one.”

Why identity politics is good politics

The critics of identity politics have another complaint: that its hold on the Democratic Party can only lead to electoral perdition. Abrams, as inspirational as many find her, did lose the 2018 Georgia gubernatorial race. Maybe identity politics can be defended theoretically but in practice alienates too many people to be put in practice.

It’s possible to challenge the specifics of these arguments. Abrams didn’t win, but it was a very tight loss in a historically red state (in fact, 2018 was the closest Georgia gubernatorial election in the state in more than 50 years). And you can point to many examples that go in the other direction — at the local, state, and national levels.

But it would be myopic to tie ourselves up in these near-term (and frankly inconclusive) tactical arguments. We have a broader crisis to worry about.

Debating the interests of the Democratic Party confines the imagination; rising illiberalism in the United States is a deeper problem than the Trump presidency. To reckon with it, we need to take a longer view, looking at the beliefs and sources of activist energy that define the contours of what’s possible in American electoral politics.

Since World War II, liberalism and its core beliefs about rights and freedom have served as something like the operating system for democratic politics. But in recent years, this consensus has come under severe stress. Elite failures and global catastrophes — particularly the one-two punch of the financial and refugee crises — have caused Western publics to lose faith in the liberal order’s guardians. Illiberal right-wing populism has emerged as a potent alternative model. The West’s fundamental commitment to liberalism is coming into question.

Liberals are in the midst of war — and in it, giving up identity politics amounts to a kind of unilateral disarmament. Today’s political contests, in both the United States and Europe, are increasingly defined by conflict surrounding demographic change and the erosion of traditional social hierarchies. These are the central issues in our politics, the ones that most powerfully motivate people to vote and join political organizations.

A mural featuring former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams seen in Atlanta, Georgia, on April 25, 2019.
Elijah Nouvelage for The Washington Post via Getty Images

The anti-liberal side has pegged its vision almost entirely to backlash politics, to rolling back the gains made by ethnic and racial minorities, women, and the LGBTQ community. The challenge for liberals is not primarily winning over voters who find that regressive vision appealing; no modern liberal party can be as authentically bigoted as a far-right one. At the same time, liberals should not write off entire heterogeneous demographic blocs like “the white working class” as unpersuadable. Instead, the main task of liberal politics should be mobilizing those from all backgrounds who oppose the far-right’s vision — knitting together in common cause a staggeringly diverse array of people with very different experiences.

The 2017 Women’s March is a concrete example of how identity politics can help in this struggle.

The march was billed, at the time, as both an expression of feminist rage and the major anti-Trump action the weekend of the inauguration. Some liberal identity skeptics fretted that these goals were antithetical; that the particularism of the event’s feminist rhetoric would end up dividing the anti-Trump coalition.

“I think many men assume the ‘Women’s March’ is supposed to be women-only, which is why it was a bad name for the main anti-Trump march,” New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait wrote. “There are many grounds on which to object to Trump. Feminism is one. I think [the] goal should be to get all of them together.”

Chait’s concerns were clearly unfounded. The 2017 Women’s March was by some estimates the largest single day of protest in US history, with somewhere in the range of 3 million to 5 million people attending the various marches nationwide. Feminism, far from being a divisive theme, served to mobilize large numbers of people to get out and demonstrate against America’s illiberal turn.

But what happened next is particularly interesting: The experience of attending Women’s Marches seems to have galvanized a significant number of people — overwhelmingly women — to engage in sustained activism for both gender equality and the defense of liberalism more broadly.

In the years following the 2017 demonstrations, Harvard researchers Leah Gose and Theda Skocpol conducted extensive fieldwork among anti-Trump activists. They found that the march helped mobilize many new activists — the bulk of whom were middle-class, educated white women in their 50s or older. “Following the marches,” they found, “clusters of women in thousands of communities across America carried on with forming local groups to sustain anti-Trump activism.”

The Women’s March seems to have played a crucial role in turning these women into activists who not only opposed Trump but aimed to defend liberalism’s promise of equal freedom. Activists interviewed by Gose and Skocpol frequently cited a concern for the health of American democracy as a reason for their engagement. Despite being heavily white, they also worked on issues that are of particular concern to racial minorities — organizing against (for example) the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, and child separation.

“As before throughout American history,” Gose and Skocpol write, “women’s civic activism may revitalize democratic engagement and promote a new birth of responsive government in communities across the land.”

In a recent working paper, political scientist Jonathan Pinckney took a close look at the impact of the Women’s March on three metrics: increase of size in Democratic-aligned activist groups, ideology of Democratic members of Congress, and the share of the Democratic vote in 2018. He found that areas with larger attendance at the 2017 marches later saw “significantly increased movement activity, left-ward shifts in congressional voting scores, and a greater swing to the Democrats in the 2018 midterm elections.”

The Women’s March itself seems to have largely petered out, succumbing to fatigue and leadership infighting. But its true legacy will be the activist networks it helped create, ones that contributed to sustained and impactful challenges to an illiberal presidency.

This kind of thing is what, in the long run, liberalism needs: a way to make its defense fresh and exciting, mobilizing specific groups toward the collective task of defeating the far right. Doing so will require meeting people where they are, engaging them on the identity issues that matter deeply and profoundly. Knitting this latent energy into a durable and electorally viable coalition will be the work of a generation, but it’s hard to see how American liberalism can get off its heels without trying.

Indigenous women participants walk walk during the 2019 Women’s March in Santa Fe, New Mexico, on January 19, 2019.
Robert Alexander/Getty Images

It’s true, of course, that the interests of members of marginalized groups are not always aligned, and that such groups also contain a lot of internal disagreements and diversity. There are always hard questions regarding building coalitions. Should Sanders have denounced Joe Rogan’s endorsement? Is former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s dubious record on race and policing disqualifying? These are important questions, and there will be more like them. They will lead to more fights among liberals and the broader left.

But political factions of all ideologies have to make tough judgment calls when it comes time to engage in electoral politics, and there’s nothing about identity politics that makes it uniquely poorly suited to the task.

While the politics of difference is attuned to the specific experiences of social groups, it also contains a universalizing impulse: a sense that all structural injustices — stemming from racism, sexism, class structure, or whatever — are to be opposed. There’s a core commitment to solidarity, to not only listening to the members of other groups but seeing their struggle as linked to your own.

“Having to be accountable to people from diverse social positions with different needs, interests, and experience helps transform discourse from self-regard to appeals to justice,” Young writes in Inclusion and Democracy.

An anti-oppression framework gives people a moral language for articulating their disagreements and perspectives, for constructing a sense of unity and shared purpose out of difference. That we’re having these conversations at all, and are agonizing over what exactly our liberalism should look like, is all to the good — because rebuilding liberalism around anti-oppression values, no matter how difficult it might seem in the moment, is its best hope for an enduring revival.

Toward a liberal radicalism

If all of this is right, and liberalism needs identity politics not just to survive but to succeed, then an obvious question looms: How can it be adapted to take issues of identity more seriously? What might the ideals and aspirations of an identity-focused liberalism be, and how might it imagine making them possible?

One good place to start is the work of CUNY philosopher Charles Mills. Mills’s most famous book, The Racial Contract (1997), is a fundamental critique of the Enlightenment political tradition, arguing that racist attitudes expressed by philosophical giants like Immanuel Kant are not some alien parasite on their theories, but vital to their intellectual enterprises.

It’s the kind of thoroughgoing dissection you might expect from a socialist or black nationalist, someone willing to scrap liberalism altogether. Yet at the end of his most recent book, Black Rights/White Wrongs, Mills explains that his project is not aimed at supplanting liberalism but rather rescuing it — by developing what he calls “black radical liberalism.”

Central to black radical liberalism is the idea of “corrective justice”: the notion that liberalism as it has been practiced historically has fallen badly short of its highest ideals of guaranteeing equal freedom, and that the task of modern liberalism ought to be rectifying the racial inequalities of its past incarnations.

Mills’s approach is refreshing because it moves beyond the strange conservatism in so much liberal writing today. His work is not an uncritical valorization of the Enlightenment nor a paean to dead white thinkers; it does not aim to Make Liberalism Great Again. It is instead a harshly critical account of liberalism’s history that nonetheless aims to advance liberalism’s core values and secure its greatest accomplishments.

The animating force of identity politics, what gives it such extraordinary power to mobilize, is deep wells of outrage at structural injustice. Millions of people see the cruelties of the Trump administration — its detention of migrant children in camps, the Muslim ban, the plan to define transgender people out of existence by executive fiat, the president’s description of Charlottesville neo-Nazis as “very fine people”— and want to do something.

Today’s liberals often focus their arguments on bloodless abstractions like “democratic norms” and the “liberal international order.” I don’t deny that these things are important; I’ve written in their defense myself.

But people aren’t angry about norm erosion in the way they are about, say, state-sanctioned mistreatment of migrant kids. By making identity politics something not outside of liberalism but at the center of it, liberals can enlist the energies of identity to the defense of liberalism itself.

Doing that successfully requires a level of Millsian radicalism. While this sort of identity liberalism would not reject the accomplishments of the past, it requires admitting their insufficiency. It means accepting that liberalism is a doctrine that has failed in key ways, and that repairing its errors requires centering the interests of the groups that have been most wronged. It means appealing to the specificity of group experiences, while also emphasizing their shared interests in the twinned fights against oppression and for liberal democracy.

This approach will require compromises from some mainstream liberals, who will need to start welcoming in people and ideas they might not like. They’ll need to get over squeamishness about student activists and their pain regarding political correctness, to recognize that their vision of balancing competing political interests won’t always win out. That’s not to say they can’t argue for their ideas; this type of liberal can and should be entitled to make the case for more cautious political approaches. But liberals need to stop trying to play gatekeeper, to banish ideas like intersectionality to the illiberal wilds.

Because the practitioners of identity politics are not illiberal. They are, in fact, some of the best friends liberalism has today. The sooner liberals acknowledge that, the closer we will be to a liberal revival.

A protester holds up a sign that reads “I Have Only Begun to Fight” during the Women’s March in New York City on January 20, 2018.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Politics

Not much happened at the “Justice for J6” rally. But the far right’s focus is elsewhere.

Politics

Nuclear subs and a diplomatic blowup: The US-France clash, explained

Politics & Policy

The Texas GOP sees Haitian migrants in crisis as a political opportunity

View all stories in Politics & Policy