Worker Politics and Identity Politics: A Joint Winning Strategy

Guest Blog by Andrew Irvine –

I’m bothered by the “we need to get over identity politics and focus on economics” arguments I’m seeing. Partly because I am just a bit of a sucker for both-and, but also because I worry that it surrenders one set of hard-won and genuine political achievements in the name of another set of genuine achievements that will be hard to win and for which we all need all the help we can give one another.

For starters, it’s not as though the liberal left alone has pursued so-called identity politics. The right bashes liberals for it–but their dismissive and derogatory usage of the term is also a dog-whistle for alt-right identity politics–the identity politics of implicit white nationalism. Maybe (maybe) Steve Bannon really doesn’t see his nationalist project as the pursuit of a white supremacist utopia. But his constant rhetorical appeals to “Judeo-Christian culture,” directed to and amplified via the Breitbart constituencies, makes that hard to believe. He seems to be the kind of true believer–above all in his own apocalyptic revolution–who considers the use of all means, including the inflammation and discharge of racist, sexist, and other baser impulses, to be justified by his envisioned end. He calls out to people whose cultural capital investment in actual “Judeo-Christian culture” is so low that about all it means to them (I surmise) is whiteness.

But that cultural poverty is not their fault alone. And middle- and upper-class liberals would do well in the next four years to engage in full-throttled self-education about “those people,” through direct engagement with them, through education and other forms of social action. (Freire and concienticization and all that.)

We also need to be stone cold sober in face of Brannon’s success in predicting the election outcome. More importantly, his prediction that people of color and women would go for Trump in surprising numbers, must be faced with steely self-analysis. We cannot afford to let the (for us) unimaginability of people Trump has delighted in demeaning nevertheless voting for him leave us prey to confirmation bias regarding analysis of what happened in 2016.

I think this is crucial looking to 2020. If an ambitious infrastructure project goes ahead, and if it produces tangible benefits for poor working people of all races, sexes and genders before its incompatibility with Trump’s other public and personal goals becomes manifest, then 2020 might go his way too.

This does NOT, I think, mean Democrats should be looking to cooperate with Trump on those matters if it means overlooking (i.e. normalizing) his reprehensible overall political strategy.

It means building upon what coalitional identity politics has made possible, not abandoning it, let alone throwing those vulnerable as marked “others” to the baying hounds of postmodern Jim Crow. It means seeing that the interests of different groups don’t only overlap. Overlap is good, and so is diversity. But identity politics in its best sense is predicated on the assertion of common humanity shared among people just as they are: “Although–perhaps even because–we are different from one another, we are like one another.”

History / United States of America: African Americans. “I am a man”. Striking black workers in Memphis 1968. Photo.
Identity politics in action

As Martin Luther King, Jr. recognized, there is deep common interest that can be inspiringly articulated in economic terms, and in cultural terms. We have a common interest in people being free to be and go their various ways. For that to be possible requires looking out for one another, however different we may be; looking out for one another in basic terms of economic justice as well as personal and cultural respect. Government is not the only and not even always the best instrument to secure these ends. But we can’t achieve them without good government, either. We don’t need to make America great again. We just have to keep trying to make it better.

Andrew Irvine lives by the Great Smokey Mountains in Maryville, Tennessee. He teaches philosophy and religion at Maryville College, and worships with a local Presbyterian congregation.

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