Growing Out Of Identity Politics

Transpartisan Note #98

by A. Lawrence Chickering and James S. Turner

We think Trump found and exploits a powerful contradiction in the current terms of American and even global political discourse. This contradiction spotlights a deep wound or tear in the American social fabric—one that profoundly distorts our political debate.

American political parties offer individuals key ways to express and address their wants and needs.  Americans today find political parties increasingly unable or unwilling to effectively deliver on their offer.  Wants and needs go unmet.  Thus the vast majority of Americans resist identifying with either major party.

The central problem arises out of post WWII forces of individuation—pushing self-expression—with both economic and social consequences tearing at the social and political fabric.

Economically, individuation in America and other countries is creating both material improvement for the ‘middle class’ (neither rich nor poor) and significant inequality between them and both the top and the bottom (1% at the top and 15% at the bottom).

Socially, individuation, pushing self-expression, is weakening tradition and undermining traditional communities of family and church that were the basis of traditional social order.

These trends, both economic and social, are pulling countries apart, creating the tricky task of bringing together people in conflict with each other to find new institutions and expressions of values to connect them.  Trump is salting a wound related to identity politics (which exists on both the left and the right).  The new information technologies, reflecting and encouraging self-expression, bring this real divide into view while also encouraging it.

On both left and right, identity politics represents ‘victims’—people oppressed by ‘oppressors’—who will be liberated only when oppressors stop their oppression either by their choice or political force.  The seething, righteous anger—if not rage—of the Sanders and Trump campaign crowds captures the pain and the fury.

Inflaming crowds leads to righteous anger and the intense desire to PUNISH oppressors. Sander’s left goes after the 1%.  Trump’s right shifts the conservatives’ flag from freedom and virtue (freedom and order). Instead, it pitches to a ‘base’ of new (non-left) ‘victims’—people feeling oppressed by progressive public policies aimed at helping progressives’ ‘victims’.

Each side actually sees the other’s identity politics base as oppressors.  Before Trump, his ‘victims’ of progressive government programs were invisible because conservatives (promoting freedom and virtue) ignored them and their pain (often arguing instead that they were to blame).  Traditional conservatives gave the Trump-base ‘victims’ no place around which to organize politically, so they went left.

Kathleen Parker highlights how Trump picked the scab that radically changed that conservative stance: ‘Listen to what people are worried about, then throw fire at it.’  Her word choice touches why people rage at Trump: because (fundamentally) they experience his behavior as focused on turning Americans against each other.  Meanwhile, Sander’s, disdaining traditional Democrats, throws his own fire.

Although his critics see Trump’s behavior as uniquely destructive and ugly, he is only imitating the progressive playbook.  Like progressives, Trump seizes the dark side of identity politics—the partisan politicizing of ‘victims’.  He is just doing it, for the first time, on behalf of a different set of ‘victims’.

Trump offends the declining number of people who are politically wedded to the left’s victims—‘offends’ is not nearly strong enough: ‘CRAZY ENRAGED’ is closer. On the right the ‘CRAZY ENRAGED’ of the declining traditional conservative right (poverty is the price of lost virtue) see the Trump/Bernie crowd as the mob going for civilization’s throat.

Both may be even more enraged to consider that Trump is a natural consequence of progressive identity politics indulged by conservative patronizing that accepts behavior it previously disdained.

Progressive government programs designed to help the poor, the weak, and the discarded focus on and spawn their own set of self-perceived victims—those that government helps by pushing them around—public housing tenants feeling bullied by arbitrary rules; Medicaid and Medicare consumers blocked from using ‘alternative’ medicine; recipients of student loans and disaster relief hammered by poor government performance and marketplace failure.

Progressives are Trump’s foster parents—conservatives his indulgent grandparents.

The search for, and revelation of, a transpartisan politics, we believe, depends on seeing that identity politics in either the progressive or conservative form inherently misses the point and tends to turn Americans against each other.

Identity politics disempowers both left and right politically-proclaimed victims from taking control of their own lives.  It also disempowers the ‘left’ and the ‘right’ as collective political forces, giving each a smaller and smaller share of formal political power. Rather than move to the center, the large mass of society moves out of the current game.  In the name of protecting, identity politics disempowers.

Both sides disempower their ‘victims’ conceptually by constantly telling them their lives are failed; other people (claims the traditional left) or their own character flaws (claims the traditional right) are to blame, and their only hope is that these other people (‘oppressors’) can be forced to change (the left) or they can change and overcome their character flaws (the right).  Then the two sides (‘they are to blame’, ‘you must change’) fight.

The hope for recognizing and organizing an emerging transpartisan politics depends on creating institutions that empower individual ‘victim’ groups—#metwo, blue and #blacklivesmatter, marching victims of mass school shootings, crime victim rights groups, and many, many more (indeed all individuals)—to take control of their own lives, while controlling forces that seek to control them.

We need concepts of equality and supporting institutions that personally engage people so they see each other as human rather than as abstractions (as in identity politics), leading people out of what, in the context of the sex work/trafficking debate, Laura Agustín calls the ‘rescue industry.’  Transpartisan suggests that empowerment trumps rescue in every arena.

Exploiting differences for political gain, a tendency of our current politics, retards our really great opportunity, which is to create institutions that promote the personal engagement that will empower people by encouraging those who are ‘different’ to see each other as human.

(Image from pexels.com.)

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